‘A profound loss’: Cerner CEO Neal Patterson dies from cancer at age 67

Neal Patterson, co-founder and CEO of Cerner Corp. and a principal owner of Sporting Kansas City, died Sunday at age 67, according to a statement from Cerner.

Cerner’s statement said that Patterson died of unexpected complications from a soft-tissue cancer for which he had been treated previously.

News of Patterson’s death prompted statements of grief and respect from various corners of the Kansas City area: from the city halls of Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., from the Kansas City Royals, the American Royal, and from Sporting Kansas City fans.

Patterson had made a difference to them all.

On Sunday, Cerner named the company’s vice chairman and co-founder Cliff Illig as chairman and interim CEO.

Patterson and Illig had worked closely together during the 38 years since they co-founded the company, which has grown to become the largest private employer in the Kansas City area and the biggest freestanding medical records company in the country.

“This is a profound loss,” Illig said in a statement provided by Cerner. “Neal loved waking up every morning at the intersection of health care and IT.”

The son of Oklahoma tenant farmers, Patterson grew a reputation as a believer in hard work while building Cerner into an electronic health records giant. He started the company with two partners after graduating with an MBA from Oklahoma State University and after a stint working for the accounting and consulting firm Arthur Andersen & Co.

Patterson and his partners positioned Cerner for explosive growth at time when the health care industry, which occupied a huge portion of the national economy, was moving its records into digital formats — Cerner’s core business.

The company became the largest of its kind in the U.S., headquartered in North Kansas City with seven locations in the Kansas City area. The company has about 12,800 workers in the Kansas City area and about 24,000 worldwide.

Earlier this year, the company opened a new campus in south Kansas City on a sprawling property stretching from 87th to 95th streets immediately east of Interstate 435.

Cerner has its world headquarters at 2800 Rockcreek Parkway in North Kansas City. The company also has its Continuous office campus near the Legends in Kansas City, Kan., as well as smaller facilities elsewhere in the metro area.

Patterson was especially important in Wyandotte County, according to Mark Holland, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.

“Neal Patterson was a pioneer, a visionary and a great civic-minded individual,” Holland wrote on Sunday in a statement to The Star.

“We will miss him tremendously in Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, where he left his mark not only through Cerner and Sporting KC, but through his generous giving. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”

In Kansas City, others took to Twitter to mourn Patterson’s loss, noting that it came right after the death on Friday of well-known Kansas City businessman James B. Nutter.

City Manager Troy Schulte posted on his official Twitter account: “It’s been a tough weekend for Kansas City. RIP to both Jim Nutter and Neal Patterson. Both titans in business who helped build this town.”

The Kansas City Royals echoed those thoughts in their own tweet: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of two iconic KC businessmen and #Royals friends, Neal Patterson and James B. Nutter.”

In 2012, Patterson joined the Forbes 400 list, named as a billionaire and one of the richest people in the U.S.

Over the years, he became known as a stern taskmaster with a bottomless appetite for work.

In 2001, he made national news when his strongly worded email to employees, complaining that they were not working long enough hours, was leaked and picked up by The New York Times.

Last year, after he was diagnosed with cancer and announced plans to take time off, he surprised the audience of the Cerner Health Conference in Kansas City by showing up on stage to give a speech.

Patterson was also one of the five owners of the Sporting Kansas City soccer team.

He and Illig were the two principal investors in OnGoal LLC, the group that purchased the franchise from Lamar Hunt in 2006. The five-man ownership group since rebranded to Sporting Club.

Sporting Club is credited with helping to prevent the soccer franchise from moving out of Kansas City. Before it purchased the then-Wizards, the ownership group met regularly with the Heart of America Soccer Foundation — a campaign to “Save the Wizards.”

The Sporting Kansas City brand was adopted in late in 2010, and the ownership group was instrumental in opening Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan., a soccer-specific stadium that helped turn around the franchise. The venue has seen 97 consecutive MLS sellouts.

“RIP Neal Patterson — part of our ownership group and a man who helped make our soccer dreams in this city come true,” Sporting Kansas City’s supporter group, The Cauldron, tweeted Sunday morning.

Joe Reardon was mayor of the Unified Government when Sporting Kansas City decided to build the stadium, along with two office buildings, in Wyandotte County.

Now president and chief executive of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, Reardon credits Patterson and his partners with keeping professional soccer in Kansas City. He said Patterson made a “profound impact” on the city.

“Cerner was the 1988 Small Business of the Year winner [in Kansas City]” Reardon said. “Now they’re the largest publicly-traded company in Kansas City. It’s a phenomenal Kansas City story.”

American Royal officials said Sunday that Patterson’s involvement changed the direction of the organization.

“When Neal joined the Board of Directors in 2001, his passion and vision had an immediate impact,” said Cerner executive and American Royal Association Board chairwoman Angie Stanland. “His leadership over the years has helped guide the organization to a firm foundation and a bright future.”

Patterson and UMB Financial Corp. chief executive Mariner Kemper in 2014 offered to pay $5 million toward costs to demolish Kemper Arena and replace with a new facility for the American Royal. But Kansas City officials ultimately did not agree to a subsidy request by the American Royal. Last year, the American Royal announced it would pursue a new complex in Kansas City, Kan., near Village West.

The American Royal also issued an official statement that read in part: “Neal and his wife, Jeanne, have been significant contributors to the American Royal. Neal will be sincerely missed by the entire American Royal family.”

Through Sporting Kansas City, and the American Royal and Cerner, Patterson left a permanent footprint in Kansas City.

When Cerner’s south Kansas City campus opened, a portion of the building was marked with inscriptions listing the patents held by the company. Some of the patents were in Patterson’s own name.

Patterson in recent months tried to stay involved in Cerner leadership even as he went through treatment for cancer. In his last public appearances, he frequently said: “What we do is hard. It isn’t easy.”

Staff writers Scott Canon and Diane Stafford contributed to this report.