JA Topeka Business Hall Of Fame
Brent Boles has held a lot of titles throughout his career—president, owner, entrepreneur, investor—just to name a few. However, the title that suits Brent the best and has been evident through every endeavor, is that of mentor.
Born and raised in Topeka, Brent Boles always considered it home. Even though he resided in California for several years right out of school, when it was time to raise a family, he didn’t have to think twice about moving back home.
“Sometimes leaving Topeka is the best thing for people to really appreciate how great this city is,” Brent said.
Taking a job in the sales department of Schendel Pest Services, Brent soon found himself on a trajectory to entrepreneurship. He bought out one of the owners and spent the next 12 years growing the business, opening 10 offices in five states.
GROWTH While growth is good, sometimes it becomes an issue of diminishing returns. Brent recognized that as a company with 150 employees, Schendel Pest Services was no longer a small business. This meant complex regulatory compliance and skyrocketing employee benefit costs. It also meant he spent more time dealing with legal issues than working with customers and mentoring employees.
“The whole reason I got into the business was to work with customers,” Brent said. “I lost my passion when I could no longer do that.”
So when ServiceMaster offered to buy the company, Brent accepted the offer. However, that wasn’t the end of his entrepreneurial spirit. Having become involved with Schendel Lawn and Landscape two years earlier, Brent once again found his passion for building a company and working with customers.
Under his mentorship, Schendel Lawn and Landscape has quadrupled in size and has expanded to Lawrence and Manhattan. While that growth is gratifying, Boles says his true reward lies in being able to provide an excellent customer experience for his clients.
MOTIVATION During this business transition, his level of mentorship has also changed. No longer focused on simply securing his own future, Brent now searches for ways to create opportunities for those around him. His business pursuits include investments in everything from wineries and restaurants to commercial real estate, all based on a desire to build a better community.
But that desire goes beyond his personal investment in Topeka. For the past four years, Brent has spent equal time in his businesses and in the community and has become a driving force for change, especially in Downtown Topeka.
“Being part of the downtown transformation is the right thing for businesses in Topeka,” Brent said. “It is at a critical stage right now, and we need to keep the momentum going.”
One of the things helping to drive that momentum is Top Tank, a competition designed to foster that entrepreneurial spirit, which recently offered one lucky winner $100,000 to establish a new business downtown. Brent is one of the six sponsors that put up the money to bring a new business to the area.
“Take a lesson from people participating in Top Tank,” Brent said. “They believe in this city and want to create growth. This fire. This passion. It is being driven by millennials. We just need to help them make it happen.”
COMMUNITY In addition to the various business endeavors and entrepreneurial projects Brent is involved with, he served as Chairman of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, where his focus was to support young professionals and give the small business community a voice.
“I had just sold my business and needed something to do,” Brent said. “I got involved in the Chamber and GO Topeka and began to see all of the work being done by so many in the community. It opened my eyes to the need for more of us to become involved.”
So rather than slowing down and reaping the rewards of his hard work, Brent plans to roll up his sleeves and keep pushing for progress.
“I have no excuse for not doing my part,” Brent said. “I owe it to my city.”
That doesn’t mean the recovering triathlete (he competed for 20 years) won’t take some time to cook and drink wine, two of his favorite hobbies.
When Susan Garlinghouse and her husband, Kent, moved to Topeka almost 50 years ago, the last thing on their minds was creating a private school in Topeka.
Eight months pregnant with their fourth child, Susan had enough on her plate just trying to get settled in a new city.
That all changed a few years later when their oldest child was in eighth grade. Her math class had finished its regular book in February, and because the teacher didn’t know what to do with them for the rest of the school year, they did pointless busy work.
“Kent came home and I was livid,” Susan said. “When he asked what was wrong, I told him ‘Kim’s in middle school. Do you know what happened in middle school today? Nothing!’”
PASSION That was a turning point for Susan. Her personal passion for learning drove her to seek something better for her kids. She began to look for alternatives. With a strong foundation in independent schools, she knew what she wanted from a school—an environment that would foster continual learning and push her kids to become problem solvers.
“There is always more learning,” Susan said. “Unless kids are continually pushed, their brains atrophy.”
Not finding what she was looking for, Susan and Kent decided to open their own school in Topeka. It took a few years of work and collaboration, but Topeka Collegiate opened in the fall of 1982 with 43 students in first through eighth grade—their son was in the fifth grade that year and their youngest attended all eight grades at Topeka Collegiate.
Even though enrollment was small, the school still had a teacher for every grade. Now, 35 years later, Topeka Collegiate serves between 150 and 200 students and includes a preschool.
LEARN Susan says the fundamental philosophy behind the school is simple. It seeks to challenge students at every level and foster a habit of lifelong learning. Even though it is a private school, Topeka Collegiate was never intended to be exclusively for the wealthy.
“We believe every child should have the opportunity to receive the best education,” Susan said. “More than 40 percent of the kids at Collegiate are on financial assistance to help them afford the cost.”
She also says parental involvement is higher because when tuition is coming directly from their pockets, parents expect more from the school and track their children’s progress more closely.
Susan believes that education is only as strong as the weakest link. When quality education is provided to all students, it betters the opportunity for everyone.
“If we don’t take care of the other children in our schools and our community,” Susan said, “then our own children won’t be as successful.”
She likens it to a New York Times article she read 25 years ago that detailed the drive-by shooting of a local high school student. When the reporter interviewed the father of the boy that was killed, he tearfully said, “I was so worried about my own son, I forgot to care about the other children.”
That statement had a profound effect on Susan. She has dedicated her life to caring about the “other” children.
DISCOVERY Susan's desire to make a positive impact through education once again came to the forefront with her involvement in making the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center a reality.
“Topeka was one of the few capital cities across the country that did not have some type of children’s museum,” Susan said.
Intrigued by the opportunity to bring that type of educational experience to our capital city, Susan found herself brainstorming ideas with other like-minded individuals. The 15-member founding board spent close to five years laying the groundwork for The Kansas Children’s Discovery Center. In 2008, even during one of the worst economic times for people and businesses, the Topeka community saw the value in offering this type of educational experience and opened their hearts and their wallets.
“People in Topeka are really forward thinking,” Susan said. “It was amazing to see the outpouring of support for this endeavor.”
Once again, Susan’s passion for education played an instrumental role in bettering the community.
“I find meaning in my life by doing something that has long-term benefits for everyone around me,” Susan said. “I simply used my creativity and vision to find opportunities to advance the most people in the best manner.”
DEBRA & RANDY CLAYTON
Remember the old adage that opposites attract? In the case of Randy and Debra Clayton, it seems to ring true. While they are both Certified Financial Planners, their personalities are vastly different.
Randy is a selfproclaimed optimist who finds the positive in everything. Debra is more pragmatic and fears things won’t work out unless she spends hours getting everything in place. Randy pushes Debra to move forward, and Debra keeps Randy from falling off the cliff.
Debra, who grew up in Eerie, Kansas, and earned an English degree from Pittsburgh State University, wanted to be a teacher. She taught seventh grade English and ninth grade journalism for seven years. However, in the late ‘70s, Debra decided she needed a career change. Having always been fascinated with finance and investing, she took business classes from Washburn University and attained her CFP designation.
Randy had no idea what he wanted to do.
“I took a really long time getting my degree,” he joked. “I ended up going into the insurance business when I was 21 and still didn’t have my degree.”
He wanted to find a career where people came to him for services rather than him having to knock on doors. He was also intrigued by financial planning and soon became one of the first 100 CFPs in the country.
Debra preferred using her CFP in investing, while Randy preferred using his CFP in financial planning. So, when they decided to open a financial planning firm together, they based their company on a white paper that modeled a business with two separate arms: investing and financial planning.
PARTNERSHIP Clayton Wealth Partners opened its doors in 1984 with three employees—Randy, Debra and an administrative assistant. That business partnership evolved into a life partnership as well, when Randy and Debra married soon after.
The company experienced significant growth, due in part to a wider demand for financial planning services, but also because of the quality employees they were able to attract. All of the firm’s professional level employees have advanced degrees and all of the planners have CFPs. In addition, the Claytons adopted a fee-only payment system, which helped them retain valuable personnel.
For Randy and Debra, their business is like their family. They even equate decision making to parenting. They know they have to maintain a unified front even when they might disagree. And they have learned not to push each other’s buttons.
“You learn to never argue in front of them [employees],” Randy said. “Children should never see their ‘parents’ fight.”
Both Debra and Randy recognize the individual roles they need to play within the organization. Because the company operates under two distinct arms, they each have their areas of expertise and authority, coming together for board meetings and executive decisions.
“I’m a much better bad cop,” Debra said. “Randy is a lousy bad cop.”
ADVOCATE Debra has always been an advocate for Downtown Topeka. Even though their firm has been located downtown for 20 years, when they bought and renovated their new offices at 716 S. Kansas Ave., people kept saying ‘welcome to downtown.’
The decision to purchase the building on Kansas Avenue came as a result of a lunchtime stroll down the avenue on a lovely sunny day. Debra, who had been involved with Downtown Topeka, Inc. for many years and saw the potential just waiting to be unleashed, took one look at the old building and fell in love.
“I told Randy, ‘it would be so cool to be right in the middle of downtown,’” Debra said. “I guess I talked him into it.” They didn't make the move, however, until they asked their customers where they preferred the firm to be located. The overwhelming response—downtown.
After a year of extensive renovations, the firm moved into its new offices. Since that time, the Claytons have also purchased the adjacent building at 718 S. Kansas Ave. and 720 S. Kansas Ave., which burned down in 2016. They are renovating the space into loft apartments and business space.
“People are passionate about downtown,” Debra said. “They want to work here and live here. We want to be part of that.”
They also want to be part of Washburn, and the symphony, and the arts, and numerous boards, and Angel Flights (Randy is a pilot). Suffice it say, the Claytons are involved in the community.
But they enjoy getting away as well— especially internationally. They have traveled to all of the continents and have a daughter-in-law from the Republic of Georgia and will soon have another one from China.
FUTURE A brush with death last year, for both of them, has them thinking a little more seriously about the future. Debra almost died from a bacterial infection on a trip to Iceland and Randy was involved in a serious bicycle accident shortly after. At that time, Debra decided to begin to transition the business to her investment team.
“I want to do it,” Debra said. “But it is really hard to let go.”
They have begun selling shares to three senior executives who will be second generation owners. The transition process will be slow, however.
“It is vital that this company remain in Topeka,” Debra said. “You feel like you built something and you want to leave it better than you found it.”
“It’s the right thing to do.” That phrase epitomizes Phil Morse’s philosophy on life. From his personal relationships to his business endeavors, Phil always strove to do the right thing.
Phil married his high school sweetheart, Lona, in 1961, received his master’s degree in international relations in 1964, and in the summer of 1965, joined the Peace Corps—because it was the right thing to do. They spent the next two years overseas.
After that brief international experience, Phil realized Kansas was home. He took a job as a field clerk in Leavenworth before eventually opening his own business, Phil Morse Homes, in 1975. Following in the steps of his father and his grandfather, Phil spent the next 10 years building both custom and spec houses in Topeka.
TRANSITION A decline in the economy, accompanied by high-interest rates, spurred Phil to transition from building homes into real estate. At the time, it just seemed like the right thing to do.
“While it was a bit of a learning curve for him, it was just a different kind of work,” Phil’s son, Mike, said.
“That was really no problem because Dad knew how to outwork everybody.” That work ethic served him well, and his company continued to grow. Phil worked in residential and commercial real estate in Topeka for decades, ultimately founding KS Commercial Real Estate Services Inc. in 1996 with Ken Schmanke.
RESPECT When Mike was a super senior in college and still didn’t have a plan for his career because he had switched his major more than once, Phil asked to meet him for a beer to discuss his future.
“I expected to be shoved out of the nest,” Mike said. “Instead he offered me a job.”
Mike said their relationship changed when he started working for his dad.
“I didn’t know my dad was funny,” Mike said. “For the first time, I got to see him fresh in the morning, rather than when he was tired after working all day.”
Sometimes a father and son working together can be a little dicey. But not for Phil and Mike. Their relationship was built on mutual respect and the understanding that each one of them had a job to do.
“We sat 10 feet from each other for 10 years with no wall between us,” Mike said. “It was a joy working with my dad.”
Phil had a number of hobbies over the years, but whatever the interest at the time, he gave it everything he had.
“When dad was into something,” Mike said, “he was all in, no matter what.”
The longest running hobby was sailing. From 1969 to 1984, every Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the family would go sailing.
“We did it with zest,” Lona said with a smile.
Ever the competitor, Phil would race the other boats on the lake, hoping to bring home those trophies. “On those days when the wind wouldn’t blow, this wife, who wasn’t a smoker, would light a cigarette so he could find the way the wind was blowing,” Lona said.
Other interests included snow skiing and gardening.
“You should have seen dad’s flowers,” Mike said. “His yard was phenomenal.”
Phil also loved to read. He would devour books like a starving man, filling up cases, shelves and boxes with books on everything from the economy to history. He took that love of knowledge and put it to use by serving on the city and county planning commission for more than 17 years.
INVOLVEMENT Being the father of a special needs child, Phil had a special place in his heart for TARC and committed time, money and love to that organization. He also strongly believed in downtown and served on the Downtown Topeka, Inc. board for years. Mike replaced him when he could no longer serve.
“There has been a Morse on that board for a very long time,” Mike said. “Dad always told me, you couldn’t sit on the sidelines and expect to make a living in a town and not give back. It’s the right thing to do.”
Phil retired in 2006 when he became symptomatic with corticobasal degeneration, a rare disease that eventually robbed him of the ability to walk and speak. In 2011, after a visit to the Mayo Clinic to see the one doctor in the U.S. who specialized in this disease, Phil made the decision to donate his brain to research. After all, it was the right thing to do.
Phil passed away in 2016 after fighting this debilitating disease for a decade, but his legacy lives on.