Cliff Illig and the late Junius George Groves are the 2021 Kansas Business Hall of Fame Contemporary and Historical inductees, respectively. A prerecorded ceremony including Dr. James Leiker, chairman of the board of the KBHF, and Dr. John Rich, KBHF board member, honored Illig and Groves.
A live ceremony was held July 29, 2021, at the Black Archives of Kansas City. Those attending included Nina Kimbrough, great-great-niece of Groves; Dr. Carmaletta Williams, Black Archives director, who accepted the historical award on behalf of Groves; Bill Murphy, deputy secretary of commerce for the state of Kansas; Rep. Michael Johnson from Missouri's 23rd district; David Frankland, principal of EnterpriseKC, who accepted on behalf of contemporary inductee Illig; Lizzie Place and Edward Mu, KBHF essay contest winners from Blue Valley North High School; and members from the Black Archives of Kansas City and KBHF.
This year marks the 33rd induction into the KBHF, located in the School of Business at Emporia State University. Business leaders selected for the KBHF are widely known for their contributions to Kansas and for being role models to future business leaders. KBHF recognizes historical contributors and present-day leaders who have made private enterprise work in Kansas and throughout the country. The KBHF Board is made up of individuals from across the state of Kansas and from Kansas universities who are passionate about recognizing these individuals.
About the inductees:
Cliff Illig, Entrepreneur/Innovator
“Figure it out.” “Slog away at it.” “What would Neal do?” Cliff Illig’s philosophies on processing complexity and getting things done are foundational in his many entrepreneurial ventures, most notably co-founding and leading the global healthcare information technology company, the Cerner Corporation, headquartered in the Kansas City metro area. As a teenager in the 1960s, Illig worked for his father’s company, loading punch cards, the forerunner of digital processing, into the business’s computers. At the same time, his school district began developing a computer programming curriculum, and at his Prairie Village high school, Illig took one of the first computer classes offered.
After graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in accounting and business administration, Illig hired on with the accounting and consulting firm, Arthur Andersen & Co. In 1979, according to Cerner history, Illig and two co-workers, Neal Patterson and Paul Gorup, met at a local park and developed and wrote a business plan for a healthcare software company which would become Cerner Corporation. The trio left Andersen & Co. that year, landed their first client in 1980, an Oklahoma hospital, and took their fledgling company public in 1986. Cerner software technology automates clinical information and digitizes medical records to support and to readily connect healthcare providers with patient information. Before retiring in 2019, Illig served as Cerner’s chief operating officer and as interim chief executive officer after his partner Neal Patterson died in 2017. In 2020, Cerner’s revenue was over $5 billion, and its employee associates numbered over 26,000.
Illig continues to own and manage, with his family, an array of business interests including real estate ventures and the Major League Soccer team, Sporting KC. He is founder and principal owner of FanThreeSixty, which helps organizations translate their fan data into creating new fan experiences and revenue growth. He serves on the board of Kansas City’s Stowers Institute for Medical Research. The Illig Family Enterprise Company supports and philanthropically funds “endeavors surrounding animal welfare, the well-being of children, building strong girls, and countering sexual assault.”
In 2019, Illig was inducted, along with Cerner co-founders Neal Patterson and Paul Gorup, into the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame and was named the Henry W. Bloch International Entrepreneur of the Year by the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Regnier Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
Vigorously supporting a regional system which cultivates entrepreneurs; influencing local universities to develop relevant curriculums in advanced computing, cyber security, and artificial intelligence; and engaging the regional agricultural industry and community are part of Illig’s current focus.
Junius George Groves, Farmer/Community Builder
Junius George Groves was born into slavery in Green County, Kentucky, on April 12, 1859. By age 48, Groves established himself as a millionaire farmer and landowner in Edwardsville, Kansas. In a 1900 Topeka newspaper article, Groves recounted his humble beginnings as a hired hand on a Kansas farm: “By keeping my eyes open, always attending to duty and doing more, rather than less, than was required of me, I soon succeeded in having my wages raised to 75 cents per day. This was considered a very fair price, and I felt that I was on the road to fortune.”
After the Civil War, thousands of emancipated slaves sought to leave the violence and oppression that faced African Americans in the Reconstruction South. An estimated 26,000 “Exodusters,” Groves among them, migrated to Kansas from 1879-1880 seeking freedom and economic independence through business and land ownership. Initially working for landowner farmer J.T. Williamson, Groves moved west to rural areas outside of Kansas City hoping to eventually own land and to farm. In 1880, when he was able to save money for the marriage license fees, he wed Matilda Stewart and together they sharecropped rented farmland growing white potatoes.
Over the next 28 years, Groves purchased property, eventually owning over 500 acres in the Kaw River valley, and successfully producing greater and greater potato crops, reputedly becoming the world’s largest grower of Irish potatoes. In 1900, Groves became a statewide celebrity when the Topeka State Journal newspaper declared him “the wealthiest Negro in Kansas, if not in the entire West.” By 1907, the “Negro Potato King” had an estimated wealth in the millions, in today’s dollars. He constructed a 22-room brick home for his family in Edwardsville, fitted with electric lights, telephones, and hot and cold running water. To accommodate his potato exports, which shipped around the United States and as far away as Mexico and Canada, the Union Pacific railroad built a spur line to his property. Some of Junius and Matilda’s 12 children attended Kansas Agricultural College and brought home and applied their science education to increase production on the family farm. Groves employed nearly 50 black and white hired hands on the farm. He also operated a general store in Edwardsville.
Groves invested in his community and state, establishing the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church Society in Edwardsville and co-founding the Kansas State Negro Business League, the Kaw Valley Potato Association, and the Sunflower State Agricultural Association. He created a golf course for African Americans who were shut out of segregated sporting venues. Groves divided and sold some of his property as small land tracts for purchase by African Americans.
The nationally known Groves was featured in educator and civil rights activist, Booker T. Washington’s 1904 journal article, “The Negro Potato King” and in his 1907 book, “The Negro in Business.” In 1925, Groves died in Edwardsville at age 66. He was later inducted into the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Missouri.
For more information on the Kansas Business Hall of Fame and to read about all the past inductees, please visit http://www.ksbhf.org.