When it comes to creating jobs, few Iowans can match Gary Kirke.
Since his first hire 39 years ago, Kirke has created nearly 5,000 jobs in more than a half-dozen industries, including insurance, manufacturing, real estate development and gaming.
The key to job creation, Kirke told me last week, is not to think of it as a goal, which is what politicians do.
“My goal wasn’t to create jobs,” he said. “My goal was to be successful. The jobs just came with the work.”
The reverse is also true. Jobs disappear, he said, when businesses don’t have the right ideas, run out of money or “don’t hire the right people to protect their businesses.”
Kirke is the Iowa king of serial entrepreneurs. He’s created or acquired 18 businesses by my count since 1974. That’s an average of one new business every two years.
The largest number of jobs was at the Kirke-Van Orsdel Inc. (KVI) insurance brokerage, which he started from scratch in 1974.
His childhood friend Bill Van Orsdel was his first hire at $1,000 a month, Kirke said.
When the partners sold KVI and its associated businesses in 1999, there were more than 2,000 employees.
“At one time, we had more than 800 single mothers,” Kirke said.
The insurance brokerage grew because it had a smart, ambitious plan that was well-administered. Rather than sell insurance one policy at a time, Kirke learned the art of selling to associations with many members.
His first big score in 1976 was the U.S. military’s 128,000-member Reserve Officers Association.
Two years later, he signed up the million-member National Rifle Association, and in 1982, KVI took over administration of the Medicare supplement program for the 309,000-member Retired Officers Association.
KVI got so big that Kirke went into the real estate business, building a 275,000-square-foot headquarters in West Des Moines in 1993. About the same time, he had started building Glen Oaks, Iowa’s first golf course-centered gated community, also in West Des Moines.
More than 350 construction jobs were created for the KVI headquarters project, more than 200 more were needed to build Glen Oaks, and there were another 400 jobs when the West Glen shopping district was built in the mid-2000s.
When KVI was sold in 1999, Kirke began looking for new ventures. He got into restaurants as an owner (Coach’s Corner) and an investor (Maid-Rite).
He also got into high-tech manufacturing. With partner Dr. Michael Richards, Kirke bought an Orange City company called Med-Tec Inc., which made equipment used to target radiation therapy.
Kirke and Richards bought the company for $18 million in 1999 and sold it for $150 million in 2005. During those years, it grew from about 20 employees to 145.
When Med-Tec was sold, Kirke and Richards retained ownership of a spinoff that made the carbon fiber used by Med-Tec. They merged the spinoff with a business they bought in California called Quatro Composites, which also makes carbon fiber for the aerospace industry.
Quatro today has more than 100 employees in Orange City and is looking to expand to Des Moines or some other location.
About the time that Med-Tec was being sold, Kirke was asked to buy Lakeside Casino in Osceola. He didn’t, he said, because the owners wanted too much money. But he has since built a casino in Emmetsburg and purchased one in Clinton. Part- and full-time jobs at both casinos total about 740.
The Osceola proposal put Kirke on a path to build a second casino in Greater Des Moines, which he remains on today.
His current plan is for a 150-room hotel and casino that would create 600 jobs in Norwalk.