November 28, 2023

Leading from the Heart(land): Championing KC on the International Stage

For our twelfth episode, President & CCO Ethan Whitehill chats with Joe ReardonPresident & CEO , Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.  Get to the point with us on the last Tuesday of each month!

Episode Transcript

Ethan Whitehill: Welcome to our podcast. I’m Ethan Whitehill, president and Chief Creative Officer at Crux, the “un-agency” that fuels business growth. Here on “To the Point,” we get to the point with entrepreneurs, leaders, and marketers who have transformed organizations, and in some cases entire cities by elevating brands and amplifying missions.   My guest today is Joe Rearden. Joe serves as the President and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 2200 member businesses throughout the KC region as President and CEO Joe works to bring together businesses and government to improve quality of life in our city and ensures advancement of policies at the federal, state, and local levels that promote business creation and growth in our metro. Prior to the Chamber, Joe has held many distinguished titles since he got his start as an attorney with MVP Law, including two-time mayor in Kansas City, Kansas, former president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Transit Authority and instructor on regionalism at Rockhurst University. I love that list.  

Joe Reardon: It’s quite a list. Ethan, I’m almost eight years into being at the Chamber and that this will be the longest tenure of any job that I’ve had if I get a past eight years. So I’ve told my wife I’m gonna hold this job steady for a little bit. 

Ethan Whitehill: Well, and as you point out, you’ve had a very successful career that spans many different chapters with a common thread. What drew you to a career in public service? 

Joe Reardon: You know, it’s a difficult question in many ways. Because it’s one thing that one step after another led me to where I am today. And it really started when I was a young attorney and helped some nonprofits get up and running and saw the power of some of what was being done, particularly around affordable housing in Kansas City, Kansas, and decided to get more involved and ultimately ran for unified government commissioner. The seat was open. The previous commissioner decided not to run again, so I ran as an open seat, and I won. Two years later, Mayor Marinovich decided she wasn’t going to run for reelection. It’s not very often you have an open seat for mayor, and somehow or another I thought it might be a good idea to try that, and it was a heck of a campaign, and I was fortunate enough to win and served in that office for eight years. 

Ethan Whitehill: And you did wonderful things for that region. 

Joe Reardon: Extremely rewarding time and everything. Since then, I’ve always been able to sort of follow things that are, that I have passion for that I think are important, and that’s led me down a kind of a wild career path. 

Ethan Whitehill: And that career path has been largely concentrated in Kansas City. Yes. You went to Rockhurst and KU, you spent a whole career in this area. What is it about Kansas City that inspires you? 

Joe Reardon: You know, it’s we all know it that are Kansas Citians. It’s a big enough city to have really great amenities, really great cultural aspects to it. The art scene’s amazing. Sports are great, but it’s still not so big that you can’t get engaged. And I think that’s part of the magic of Kansas City. If you’re a young career professional and you’re from another part of the country, if you come here, you don’t have to know the secret handshake or the circle or whatever. If you start diving in, we’re gonna take you in. You can go as far as you want. And I think that’s something great about Kansas City. It’s very much part of our nature.  

Ethan Whitehill: I think that’s very true. It’s funny, my wife and I have been traveling lately and we were in New York and Chicago very recently, and we get home and we just can breathe, you know? There’s something about it that is just fantastic because we do have that wonderful size that is kind of just right. It’s kind of Goldilocks. 

Joe Reardon: It’s Goldilocks, I think, in many ways. 

Ethan Whitehill: Prior to the Chamber, you served two terms as mayor of Kansas City, Kansas. Your dad was also mayor of KCK when you were growing up. What did you learn in that mayoral role that has been foundational to your success? 

Joe Reardon: Well, it’s kind of wild. My dad was mayor for 12 years when I was young, and he died when he was 45. I was still an undergrad, and I was always the kid that, like, respected my dad. He was my hero and everything, but I’m like, “I’m never doing that,” you know? And lo and behold 20 some odd years later, I end up in a very similar trajectory. I’m sure he’d be laughing right now knowing that I ended up serving literally in the same physical office that he served in, and I remember it as his kid. But I learned from my dad that you need to be passionate, and you need to connect people together, and if you stay in that lane of being positive and trying to move forward, you can bring people along to amazing places. And I think that’s the power of local government in many ways, when it’s really functioning well, is it’s an opportunity to really make change that affects people in their day-to-day life. 

Ethan Whitehill: You mentioned collaboration and the KC Chamber is interesting because it geographically straddles both sides of the state line and serves businesses throughout the metro. What unique challenges and opportunities does this create for our city, and how has this inspired collaboration across the metro? 

Joe Reardon: I think the first thing I would say is just an observation, because we talk about this a lot in Kansas City. Well, we’re this bi-state city, and we think we’re super unique. There are other bi-state cities, though, we’re not the only one. What makes us unique, unlike nearly any of these others, is that the economy and population is almost evenly spread across that state line. So there’s really not a dominance like there is with St. Louis and East St. Louis, for instance, or Cincinnati and Covington. There really is a requirement on all of us as Kansas Citians to figure out how to work across that state line to advance our common cause in growing this great region that we live in. And that can be tricky at times. I mean, it, you know, we’re dealing with two states that don’t necessarily always see the same vision we do for Kansas City.  So that’s an obstacle in and of itself sometimes. But we also are pretty parochial when it comes to sort of this battle across the state line. It must be in the water or something, but a really good story. This is when I was mayor you know, The Parking Spot has those buses that are up at the airport, and at the time, they had buses. They had like a Chief’s bus and a Sporting bus, and a KU bus, and a Mizzou bus, and K-State. And there was one day I got home and I got on the Sporting bus, and I got to know this bus driver a little bit. Well, he’s not a fan. I was like, wait a second. So, he tells me the story. 

Joe Reardon: Apparently his colleague was driving the Mizzou bus one day, and the guy was out there with his ticket, you know, to get in The Parking Spot van, and he pulled up and opened the doors, and the guy waves him on just go, go. And he’s like, well, you’re at The Parking Spot, right? He’s like, yeah, but I’m a K-State guy, I’ll never get on a Mizzou bus. I’ll wait for the next one.   You know, we have these sort of built in battles that sometimes bleed over into the way we think about the region. But what I can say is where we are—because we’re an amazing place in Kansas City—where we are and where we want to go will require us to be more regional in nature and more coordinated and focused on how we advance. Our competition now—it’s not a scarcity thing. It’s not a competition between one city and the other and the region. It really is our region versus other regions in the country, and in some cases, around the world. And we’ve gotta start thinking that way. When we start thinking that way, I think, pieces will fall into place in ways that they haven’t before. 

Ethan Whitehill: I love the idea of the border wars which, you know, in a way, even though it divides us, it brings us together. There’s something kind of fun about it. It’s like sibling rivalries. 

Joe Reardon: Yeah. 

Ethan Whitehill: I think as long as it’s done in a healthy way, it’s an interesting aspect of our city. And you talk about super regionalism. You talk about thinking nationally, globally. One of the less talked about roles of the Chamber is advocating for local business interests through public policy on both sides of the state line, in Jeff City, in Topeka, as well as nationally in Washington. So, share with our listeners why this work is so important to the future of Kansas City. 

Joe Reardon: First and foremost of the jurisdiction I represented as mayor: the Speedway, everything that’s out there—none of that would’ve happened unless you had a state government that was willing to work with a local government and coordinate in extraordinary ways to make something like that happen. And same, too, for many of the things that we deal with in Kansas City. While I believe that we’re a region that has the ability to do whatever we seek to, we do need to have the states come along with us, and a lot of times the federal government, in order for us to advance. So to give you an example, our lobbying in both states over the last several years has been around increased access to childcare and quality care. And we’ve seen really good breakthroughs.  We haven’t solved the problem, but we’ve had really good policy breakthroughs in both Kansas and Missouri just the last couple years. I think having that voice in Jefferson City, in Topeka is really important. We need to have that as an ongoing dialogue, not just there when we are gonna fight something or where we really need something, but to be a resource for those that are serving in office and to tell the story of Kansas City at all times. It’s really important to try to advance it. We’ll win sometimes and we’ll lose sometimes, but it’s really important for the business voice to be at the state level. The other thing I’ll mention, I guess, is that, you know, I think that if, if you look at the way we’re focusing on our advocacy, we become a voice not just for the business community, but for Kansas City at large. So we’re helping right now with the KC 2026 folks in getting state funding in Kansas. Our team’s working on that. We’ve worked in a Jeff City on that. So whatever the right cause is in Kansas City, we’ll marshal our resources and stand right along, whoever it is that needs the help, because we’ve got some of the resource to do it. 

Ethan Whitehill: Just to that comment, looking at sort of more macro issues and things that are changing our world: In your role for the last eight years with the Chamber, you’ve seen lots of change related to the impacts of COVID 19. What did you learn navigating this through a worldwide pandemic and understanding the impact of the city, not just, you know, at that time, but long term? 

Joe Reardon: We all learned a lot, didn’t we? We’re still learning, quite frankly. I don’t think we’ve figured it all the way out. Couple things that I guess resonate with me in thinking back on that time is number one, the resiliency of our city. Most of us all went home for a good chunk of time, and we realized, I think at that point as the Chamber, that we really needed to help business. No one else was gonna do it. So we worked in a really collaborative way with KCADC, and the Civic Council, and MidAmerica Regional Council, and we came up with a workplace guide for safe return to work. And we did that in many ways because no one else was gonna do it. And at the time, there was confusion about what the facts were and all the rest of that.  And the federal government really wasn’t, you know, up to speed. I think our local health departments across the region did extraordinarily great work with not a whole lot of support from the federal level at all. And we found ourselves in that place, too. We were able to come together and collaborate in extraordinary ways so that Kansas City’s spirit really was there right when you needed it. And then the second thing I think we learned is that as a city, you know, we need to think about these things not in jurisdictional ways. If you have to wear masks in one jurisdiction and not in the other, you can’t do this, it causes confusion to business. So we had to carry that voice out to say consistency across the region is super important and we expect, you know, our governments to work together to coordinate in that way. I think we made some good advances on all of that during that really challenging period of time. 

Ethan Whitehill: I also think about the upside on workforce coming out of this now with the world of remote work, I have to imagine there’s lots of opportunity with Kansas City. That we’re an option now for employers out of market, you know, to hire talent here. 

Joe Reardon: Absolutely. We have kind of mixed feelings about that. I think that’s great for individual workers, but it does put pressure on an already tight labor market in Kansas City. If you’re pulling people out of good jobs in Kansas City and they still get to be Kansas City and that’s great, but they’re working for someone remotely. 

Ethan Whitehill: Fair. Yeah. 

Joe Reardon: You know, it just causes more strain. And while I think we’re in a growth mode in Kansas City, in an extraordinary way that we’ve never—any of us in our lifetimes–have ever really seen, we still aren’t a fast growth city relative to population. I think that will change maybe after the World Cup, but we’re not having hundreds of folks come here, you know, every month. Until we can get to that place, we’ve gotta really be careful about how much pressure we put on the labor market because that’s gonna restrain our ability to grow. 

Ethan Whitehill: I would imagine some of the folks that feel that pressure the most might be small businesses. We at Crux, we’re proud to participate in the Small Business Awards program for the last several years, and fortunate enough to be on the list for the last three. As you think about serving businesses in Kansas City, why is it important to have an emphasis on small businesses and entrepreneurial startups along with legacy companies in corporations? 

Joe Reardon: In my lifetime, probably in the last, I don’t know, five to eight years, authenticity and small businesses and makers, there’s a vibe to that in Kansas City that’s very real. So I think people are connecting with small business in a way that when I was young, it wasn’t that way. And what’s extraordinary about that for Kansas City is that we know the playbook. We know how larger businesses come to be in Kansas City. Some of them come from other places, but many of them were the small businesses of yesterday. Cerner was a Top 10, and then a Mr. K Award winner, for instance. Then you have H&R Block, Hallmark, which we’re right near doing this podcast. Garmin—all Kansas City born and grown, right? And so, it’s really important for the business community to pay attention to and support the creation and then the growth of small business, and we’re committed to that at the Chamber.   In fact, one of the things we did coming out of COVID is we created a whole new program called Small Business Superstars. So you don’t have to be a Chamber member, you can be a two-person place and you can get nominated to be recognized as a Superstar in Kansas City. We’ve had thousands of nominations and recognitions in the couple years that we’ve done it. We’re gonna keep doing it. And it’s just that lifting up of small business that was so important during COVID and is equally important now. For the Chamber, it’s sort of in our blood. And what I would say is, is that if you look at this over the last year, our focus on small business, we had the largest small business celebration in the history of the Chamber just this year. And it’s not because everybody was dying to go to a banquet. I think it was really a recognition that we’ve got a program here that’s lifting up small businesses and trying to support them the best we can.  

Ethan Whitehill: I think those small businesses just make Kansas City that much more dynamic. You know, it’s just—from a diversity and variety perspective—incredible. It’s the fabric of our community.  

Joe Reardon: It totally is, and it’s an expression of us. And think about it, this is what part of the cool thing about the airport is. The airport becomes an expression of small business in many ways. 

Ethan Whitehill: 100% 

Joe Reardon: People notice that when you are in other airports. We don’t have very many chains in our airport. It’s all about Kansas City. Tried and true, and that’s really cool. 

Ethan Whitehill: And that feels great to come home too.  

Joe Reardon: Oh my gosh. Getting off the plane and seeing that again—no doubt. 

Ethan Whitehill: Everybody has been also talking about the Chiefs lately. No surprise. Not only do they have a great team, but there is one particular rumored relationship with the biggest pop star in the world that we’ll leave alone today. We will not touch that. But couple all that attention with the NFL Draft earlier this year, the first women’s soccer stadium in the world, and FIFA World Cup 2026. Right. It’s clear KC is on the rise. So what’s in store for the region in the coming years? 

Joe Reardon: So, couple thoughts around that. I could talk about this for a long time, but one of the things I think is really important that’s been resonating with me is none of these things that you just mentioned happened by accident. They were really building blocks that that take took us to that place to get what we’ve got. The airport’s a really great example. There would be no NFL Draft and there would be no KC 2026 World Cup matches had we not built a new airport. And it’s important to note because at the time that was not a no-brainer thing. Many times the difficult things on the front end are the ones that make the biggest difference on the back end. That’s a textbook example of it that I think we really need to hold true to because there are going to be times where we need to make those strategic investments and advancements that we don’t know necessarily where it’s gonna lead, but it’s gonna open up doors of opportunity. And that definitely is what’s sitting in front of us right now.   Second thing I’ll mention, kind of fun with the Chiefs, ’cause it’s a different place than we’ve ever been. A colleague and I had a chance to go to World Cup matches in Doha last November, so almost a year ago. And after the fan fest—one night we were on a shuttle bus and the world was on the shuttle bus. There were people from everywhere. And the next day was the US-Iran match, which we were gonna go to, and I got to the front of the bus and David, my colleague’s in the back, and there’s this young woman with two boys trying to get on the bus, and he’s asking people politely to clear the way. And the woman and the two boys get on and the 12-year-old turns to David and said, “well, where are you from?”  I hear you’re speaking English. And David said, “well, I’m from the United States, where are you from? “And he said, well, I’m from Iran. It’s a 12-year-old Iranian kid, perfect English. And so the Iranian kid then asked, this is a true story. The Iranian kid asked David, “well, where in the United States are you from?” And, you know, we’re in Kansas City. We’re like, well, you won’t know it. And he’s like, “no, just tell me.” And so David said, “well, I’m from a place called Kansas City,” and this kid not missing a beat, said, “oh, Patrick Mahomes!” A 12-year-old Iranian in Doha.   We don’t quite realize how we’re emerging on the scene relative to being known by others and other places. It hasn’t been like this in our lifetime. So this best kept secret thing that we’ve always said is not gonna be the best kept secret once we get to 2026. It’s already happening now. Those of us that are older, we can’t hardly believe it when we think about it. But it’s really gonna explode in 2026 because of we’ll see over a billion viewers. We were watching the World Cup in last year in Doha, and the exposure that Kansas City is gonna get is gonna be incredible.   One of the things I’m sort of on the path about is…we’re the smallest city of the 11 in the United States. So when you think about the international media, people already know Miami, they know New York, they know San Francisco—they don’t know Kansas City. And I think there’s gonna be intrigue, and we’re gonna have people in media coming here trying to figure out how this place got matches and what’s going on. So if we don’t figure out how to tell our true story, I can guarantee you what will happen: Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, cowboys, barbecue, as we said earlier. 

Ethan Whitehill: But we do love our barbecue.  

Joe Reardon: We do love our barbecue, but we have such a rich history, such an amazing culture, such a diverse population in Kansas City that no one knows about. It’s our chance to tell that story that the city in the middle of the country is rich in all kinds of things that no one quite really knew. That’s very exciting for us. And it doesn’t happen very often for cities or regions like ours. 

Ethan Whitehill: Yeah, it’s our opportunity to surprise and delight and kind of bring our own version of Mahomes Magic, right?  

Joe Reardon: That’s right. That’s right.  

Ethan Whitehill: Well, I can tell your enthusiasm is just boundless here, and I absolutely appreciate it because I think that is the kind of leadership that our city needs and deserves. So, thank you for that.   And now I’m going to switch gears and ask you something completely different. We are now to my mystery questions. All right, so as a reminder, these are 20 random questions. I’m gonna roll a 20-sided die, and then ask whatever comes up. 

Joe Reardon: Alright. Pressure’s on. 

Ethan Whitehill: I don’t think I’ve rolled a 20 before. So, what was your first job, Joe? 

Joe Reardon: Well, that’s a really good question. I guess I would say two things. First, I had a little lawn mowing business, so that probably was my first job where I was getting paid for something. But I went to work at Worlds of Fun. I was a Worlds of Fun employee for three seasons. 

Ethan Whitehill: I love that.  

Joe Reardon: That was my first job. And part of the reason was, is that I wanted to work at 15 in the summer, and you couldn’t in Kansas, and it was 15 in Missouri. And so, they hired me at Worlds of Fun. And I worked in the little area where the games where you never can win. 

Ethan Whitehill: That’s where I was. Well, I am glad that you are now playing a game you can win, leading the Chamber and bringing Kansas City onto this world stage. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. 

Hosted by Ethan Whitehill

ethan-whitehill-cruxEthan has made a career out of building agencies and growing brands. He founded the firm Two West in 1997, running it as an independent shop for nearly 20 years before combining his firm with an AdAge Top 100 Agency, where he served as CMO. As an agency founder and entrepreneur, Ethan brings a business owner’s mindset to marketing, working on a host of diverse brands, from packaged goods and professional services to hospitality and healthcare.

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