Sam Mellinger

The purpose of Cliff Illig: former Cerner, Sporting KC visionary enjoys ‘retired’ life

Cliff Illig parked his black Escalade and walked into a steakhouse he comes to so often he knows the name of his waitress’ spouse and the puppy she just brought home. The hostess assigned two servers to this party of two. They want to keep him happy.

Illig is, technically, a retired and self-made billionaire, though that phrase deserves clarification. The billionaire part is true, but self-made is blurry and retired is a flat-out lie. We’ll explain soon.

This dinner began as an idea a few years ago. At first it sounded like one of those things people just say — yeah, yeah, let’s get together sometime. But on this night, his wife Bonne is out with friends. There’s no rush to get home. A tumbler of Woodford Reserve is offered for a toast.

“The thing that’s probably the hardest to get used to is not being around the people every day,” Illig said of retirement. “And then, just, time. What do you wake up in the morning thinking about?”

The answer is complicated, and varied. This dinner would stretch to nearly four hours and still not be long enough. Some of the ideas he shared will reshape Kansas City. The ones that don’t tick off too many people, anyway.

He no longer runs Cerner. He has retired from the board. But he’s still the largest shareholder of the health care technology company he and the late Neal Patterson started more than 30 years ago with a guess and guts. Cerner now has assets over $6 billion and is the largest public employer in Kansas City — 13,000 employees, with a payroll of $1.2 billion.

Cerner’s success trampolined Illig’s life — it’s how he and Patterson bought what is now Sporting Kansas City from Lamar Hunt, and how he leveraged his way into success in everything from sports to foam manufacturing to video boards to stadium concessions to natural grass. He almost bought into England’s Premier League, and recently the ownership of an NHL team called about moving to Kansas City (he didn’t take it seriously).

Every singular success brought about another, a wild snowball that now has positioned Illig among the country’s richest people and as perhaps the single most influential man in Kansas City. Illig is a self-taught computer programmer and quite possibly the world’s only software billionaire to have artificially inseminated a cow.

George Brett, the baseball Hall of Famer, called him “the man.” Neeli Bendapudi, president of the University of Louisville, called him “one of the most thoughtful people I know.” Bob Marcusse, a longtime business leader in town, said “I can’t imagine Kansas City without Cerner.”

Illig appears hellbent on using his juice to remake not only what Kansas City sees as possible, but what we see as acceptable. The son of a successful area entrepreneur is annoyed at how little the region does to cultivate entrepreneurs. He is likely the city’s most prolific venture capitalist, with some $250 million invested.

Illig sometimes refers to Bonne as “my first wife.” They will celebrate their 39th anniversary this summer, and even without her at dinner he only ordered what he knew she’d approve. He calls her Bonzo, and she calls him pudgy. That nickname is decades old, but one Illig said he’s “grown into.” The key to a good marriage, he said, is to keep it fun.

Few are better positioned to keep life fun than Illig. He’ll be 68 this summer and has recently been cleared to play golf again after back surgery. He owns a 164-foot yacht, a house in Arizona, another in Vail and a Gulfstream G450 to go anywhere he wants. He lives a good life, but it’s also packed.

He became a leading advocate for the new airport in Kansas City, wants to completely redefine the American Royal, and wait until you hear his take on higher education. He is among the most influential board members at the Stowers Institute, America’s No. 2 medical research facility.

So, no. He no longer works for Cerner. But this man is not retired, not in any sensible usage of the word. His motivation for keeping it that way is intimately related to why he’s not exactly self-made, too, because at no point in the dinner will Illig talk more than 15 minutes without mentioning Patterson.

He means this literally: Every morning he wakes up and wonders what Patterson, who died in 2017 from complications of cancer, would be doing that day.

“That put an exclamation point behind my sense of urgency,” Illig said of Patterson’s death two years ago. “To get things moving. Get things done. Neal was always the instigator. So almost out of respect, every time I start something now I’m constantly wondering, ‘Am I pushing enough? If Neal was here would he be pushing more?’”

‘Just figure it out’

The meteor crater is three-fourths of a mile in diameter and more than 500 feet deep. Scientists say it’s more than 50,000 years old. David Chao had never seen it before a recent flight, so he looked it up on Wikipedia. That’s when the guy next to him started in with the questions.

“How much did the meteor weigh?” Illig asked.

“How fast was it going?”

“What was it made of?”

Chao is the president and CEO at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, so he’s known Illig for a decade, and for the record he read his friend the answers: scientists aren’t sure, some 29,000 mph, and nickel and iron. But that’s not the point.

“I have a 10-year-old son at home,” Chao said. “And even my 10 year old doesn’t ask this many questions.”

That curiosity is an indelible part of both who Illig is and how he built an empire. He met Patterson through their jobs at Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm now known as Accenture. They were entrepreneurs, not accountants after their bosses’ jobs. They would form their own path, together.

One day, they met at Loose Park with a legal pad to make lists — all the industries they knew something about, and all the industries they knew nothing about. They wanted a place to start. A business to get into. They knew accounting, and a little about manufacturing. They knew nothing about health care.

Naturally, they made their way into health care.

“The answer to complexity?” Illig said. “Just figure it out.”

The path was an accident, but telling. An office of doctors couldn’t get its bills right. Illig and Patterson fixed the problem in a day, which impressed the doctors enough to ask if they could look at their computers.

Their instinct was to reject the idea immediately, so they did. But Patterson’s diligence drew them back in. He looked into others doing this work and went back to Illig.

“You wouldn’t believe how (crappy) the stuff is they’re selling and what they’re charging for it,” Patterson said in Illig’s memory. “What if we pitched the hospital to build a lab system by scratch?”

Patterson and Illig then sold a lab system they had never built before, and that did not exist. The contract paid full market value and gave Patterson and Illig rights to the software. This is how one of the country’s most innovative companies began.

“It’s this confluence that put us in position to learn things that someone else didn’t know,” Illig said. “It wasn’t genius design, or a genius plan, or seeing the world totally different. It’s just slogging away at it.”

This is Illig’s worldview and success plan in one tidy soundbite:

Slog away at it. Figure it out.

He makes fun of himself (“We couldn’t spell soccer when we bought the team”) and downplays his intelligence (“I’m not smarter than anybody”), but it’s hard to be sure whether he expects anyone to believe that. The secret he won’t let on is that he is genius-level smart but approaches most things like he has to get by on work and guts.

That’s the explanation that makes the most sense, anyway, and it’s one that’s backed by some who know him best.

“He’s never changed,” said Brett, the Royals legend and a friend for decades. “He might make a mistake, but he’ll never make it twice.”

“I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of CEOs,” Bendapudi said. “The distinguishing feature for Cliff is the ease with which he zooms in and zooms out. He also sticks with a problem, and I love that. He won’t let you get away with half an answer.”

This is the path, then. To see the problem from every angle, and every level. This is how Illig and Patterson pushed Cerner to the front of healthcare technology and it’s how they leveraged that success and experience to elbow into so many other industries.

Next to building one of the world’s top healthcare technology companies with no healthcare experience, turning a forgotten soccer franchise into a real power was simple.

“It’s amazing how many things we’ve figured out over the years that ended up applying to soccer,” Illig said.

‘I don’t think we have any choice’

The soccer origin story is Illig simplified. He did not know and did not care about soccer. He found those facts irrelevant.

The critical part: Kansas City.

They met at The Capital Grille. Lamar Hunt loved soccer and believed in its future in America, but his MLS team was not finding its way. The Wizards — or the Wiz, depending on the season — routinely played in front of 70,000 or so empty seats at Arrowhead Stadium.

The crowds, basically: soccer zealots, a few youth teams, and then some stragglers who had free tickets and no better plans.

“My dad knew a couple things about them,” Clark Hunt, Lamar Hunt’s son and current chairman and CEO of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, said of Illig and Patterson. “They had the financial resources to make it work over the long haul, and they were very engaged in Kansas City and doing things that were good for Kansas City. In my dad’s mind, that probably made them perfect.”

Lamar Hunt’s pitch focused much less on soccer than civic pride. As founder-owner of the Chiefs and the old AFL, Hunt didn’t need the money. They hardly talked about price. Hunt talked about Kansas City being “major league.” He used that term a lot, stressing that Kansas City is “major league” to the rest of the country because of its sports teams.

So if the Wizards disappeared, Kansas City would become less major league.

“Are we going to do this?” Patterson asked Illig.

“I don’t think we have any choice,” Illig said.

The team they bought had no hold on Kansas City, no real plan, no tangible future. Their idea: build the best and most innovative soccer specific stadium in the country.

“You’re doing what?” Brett remembered telling Illig. “Who’s going to go?”

The answer: soccer zealots, youth teams, and, quickly, so many others that the team still has a waiting list for season tickets.

A book could be written on how it all happened, but here’s the shorthand: They hired Peter Vermes as coach and gave him full control, MLS economics are generally favorable, and the new stadium turned games into destination events.

Rebranded in 2010, the Wizards-turned-Sporting KC made soccer agnostics into believers and gave those who already loved the game a closer connection.

Illig and Patterson created dozens of what they called program notebooks. They wanted a literal book on how everyone would experience the stadium: hardcore “Cauldron” fans who want to tailgate, families who want close access to restrooms and merchandise, the officials who want to get in and out quickly, on and on it goes.

Illig had specific ideas about everything from the roof line to where the hallways should be. The club has sold out more than 93 percent of its 147 MLS matches at the venue in Kansas City, Kan. Sporting KC became a model throughout Major League Soccer, and beyond.

“The big public company software people showed those of us who’d been in multiple sports how it should be done,” said Jonathan Kraft, president of the NFL’s New England Patriots and owner of MLS’ New England Revolution.

The success in Kansas City helped tangibly remake the league. Some believed that soccer would only work in big markets with, in Kraft’s words, “coastal urban millennial and new American populations.” Now, seeing it work in Kansas City, many in league leadership positions believe it can quite literally work anywhere.

The success of what is now called Children’s Mercy Park helped convince MLS to double down on soccer-specific stadiums. Sporting is, technically, an original MLS club, but in practice it has been something like a wildly successful expansion franchise. Without Sporting, Kraft doubted the league would have have expanded as strongly as it has.

“They’re the model,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “There isn’t a new expansion owner who’s not spending time talking with Cliff and going to Kansas City and seeing the facility.”

Illig is actually not that involved with Sporting anymore. He said he works “real hard not to be involved in stuff I don’t need to be involved in,” instead letting his son, Mike, make day-to-day decisions (Illig’s other son, Brian, runs much of the family’s real estate interests).

Illig, meanwhile, took everything he learned in the process and leveraged it — he now owns a farm to make grass for his and other fields; he stopped outsourcing stadium concessions a few years ago; and he started a fan-data company considered to be among the best in the country.

All of this generated more ideas, including how MLS can grow (bundle all rights and charge a premium for that control) and what US Soccer’s role should be (better protection against top talent going overseas).

Sometime after the steaks arrive, he’s getting into this a little bit, and how Sporting’s pipeline might someday both supplement the senior team’s roster and help the franchise’s financials, but then we get sidetracked.

One thing with Illig. You’re bound to get sidetracked. All of a sudden he’s talking about how higher education needs to change and Kansas City needs to be more ambitious.

‘This isn’t arrogance talking’

They met at the Classic Cup for a breakup breakfast. Perhaps above all else, Illig despises comfort. He is leery of security and particularly skeptical of those who seek it. That’s what this meeting was about.

“We’re defunding our commitment,” Illig remembered telling Marcusse, then the head of the Kansas City Area Development Council.

Illig explained that he didn’t think KCADC created enough jobs or ignited enough growth. It wasn’t the money invested, but the lack of results, particularly in terms of promoting homegrown entrepreneurial businesses — the next Cerner, basically.

Kansas City Royals founder Ewing Kauffman used to call these “the gazelles,” the ideas with the greatest chance to pick up speed. Illig asked what KCADC did to help those types of businesses, and Marcusse named three or four things.

“That’s the difference between you and me,” Illig remembered saying. “I know that to get that many things to work, you need 50 ideas.”

Cerner pulled its annual investment of around $80,000, but Marcusse holds no grudge, calling it “a variation of opinion on a topic relative to the community we both love.”

Illig isn’t as diplomatic. Not just about KCADC, but the KC Chamber of Commerce and other forces he said are either working against or not doing enough to grow Kansas City.

“It’s ‘Don’t move my cheese’ stuff,” he said. “I just don’t have a lot of patience for it.”

Take higher education. Cerner hires around 1,600 software engineers every year, with about 500 coming from universities within 250 miles of Kansas City. Those graduates, Illig said, typically need about nine months of training to be job-ready. Graduates from schools on the coasts are ready in two months.

The problem, as Illig sees it, is that local universities don’t teach what’s relevant. Not enough advanced computing, or advanced networking. Not enough about artificial intelligence or big data. He said there is no “really world-class university in the city,” and changing that would cost at least $3 billion, “even if we started with UMKC.”

The whole thing — lack of suitable supply for what Illig sees as required not just at Cerner but around the city — pisses him off.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “But why is that? Because the professors are teaching what they’re comfortable teaching.”

Illig would like to abolish the university tenure system (one of the the things he loves about the Stowers Institute is its lack of tenure for researchers). But in the meantime he’s actively working to change local higher education.

This is part of what spurred him to start Enterprise KC — essentially his answer to what he believes groups like KCADC and the local chamber should be doing. Enterprise KC is here to help those gazelles.

The Kansas Board of Regents asked Enterprise KC to issue what’s called an academic talent order for education in cyber security and other tech fields. Maybe it’s a start.

“We have an obligation,” Bendapudi said of public universities. “The whole idea is you’re going to keep the whole state competitive. So to not be in tune with the needs of the marketplace is very, very arrogant, very outdated and inappropriate.”

Bendapudi knows Illig well — she was his choice for the University of Kansas chancellor job that went to Douglas Girod. She said she believes universities have greatly improved in responding to business needs.

Again, Illig isn’t as diplomatic. He believes academics don’t think enough about enterprise, or disrupting the status quo. That’s essentially been the gist of Illig’s entire career, and he’s spending much of his non-retirement spreading the gospel to a region in desperate need of it.

“This isn’t arrogance talking, but there’s just not a lot of people who know what they’re doing,” he said. “A lot of people are very comfortable in their roles and get paid a lot of money to be in those roles and they’re turning the crank on what’s always been working.”

One more window into Illig, and this next one might take a long-beloved institution and give it a jet pack.

Back to Neal

Maybe part of the problem is that Kansas City focuses too much on what we don’t have. No mountains, no beach, no Silicon Valley. Don’t laugh. There are people who want to create Silicon Prairie here, and they’ve flown in consultants and paid big fees and the whole thing has basically gone nowhere.

But we could do so much more in technology. Not just Cerner, but with Garmin and other local tech companies. What about architectural engineering and construction? Kansas City is the global epicenter of sports architecture. We could take advantage of that.

Did you know that Kansas each year exports some $8 billion of agricultural products domestically and internationally? Human, life and animal sciences are a vastly untapped sector of growth here. That’s the way Illig sees it, anyway.

“I should be careful how I say this, but probably 40 years ago there were some civic leaders who thought Kansas City was too much of a cow town,” he said. “Thought we needed to be more like St. Louis or cities east of the Mississippi. So we started acting that way, and doing that disenfranchised the ag community.

“But we need to go back to that. There’s no place in the country better positioned than Kansas City to be the Silicon Valley of agriculture. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of that?”

Civic leaders didn’t believe enough in the American Royal, which means another idea: Illig is actively working to turn the American Royal into a national event and build a year-round culture near the Kansas Speedway, Sporting KC’s stadium and a key Cerner hub, that would add money and jobs and more identity to the region.

This is Illig at work. He leveraged an idea to secure public funding (STAR bonds), which he leveraged into private commitment (bringing in the American Royal will double the STAR bond money) and promises of growth (six agricultural companies have agreed to relocate if Illig pulls this off).

“It’s about creating this epicenter,” Illig said. “More trade shows, more business, more people wanting to visit Kansas City.”

Illig has plans to build a Western-themed hotel close to Children’s Mercy Park, and while he’s at it he might build a soccer-themed hotel nearby to support more national youth tournaments from the some 30 fields he controls in the area.

This is the future, as Illig sees it — more growth, more reasons for people to spend money in Kansas City and more extensions of what his various business empires already do.

But the thing that makes this all so fundamentally Illig is that it comes directly from the reason he is so obsessed with making the most of his non-retirement.

Remember? It’s about Patterson. Always has been.

Illig’s partner grew up on an Oklahoma farm and believed so completely in agriculture that he made a habit of buying the Royal’s champion steer every year. Once, he spent $275,000. This is not merely some glamor project for Illig, then. Not just a way to pile up more business and more profit.

This is, in a real way, Illig’s tribute to his beloved friend. It’s a way for Illig to provide a tangible and productive answer to the question he thinks about every morning when he wakes up.

What would Neal be doing? What would he be pushing for?

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.