To get a grasp of the real man behind the complex, multi-dimensional persona of Tom Kivisto, perhaps we should simplify his career as a single-minded pursuit of potential energy, of undiscovered greatness, or the hidden "Wow", as he puts it.
Kivisto, 56, is the CEO, president and co-founder of the multi-faceted, multibillion-dollar, international crude oil service company SemGroup, which sponsored last week's LPGA Championship.
The company started in 2000 with seven employees working out of its Tulsa office.
Eight years later, SemGroup has more than 1,800 employees in 13 countries and 39 states. It weighed in last year at No. 12 on Forbes magazine's list of largest privately-held companies in the nation, boasting more than $14 billion in yearly revenue.
On his way to becoming one of the most successful of business people in the state of Oklahoma, the former University of Kansas basketball star has lived a life full of twists and turns of fortune from an aspiring psychologist to philanthropist, from tennis coach to a patron of the arts, to name a few.
Yet, for all of these interests, Kivisto is best described as the essential entrepreneur whose drive to thrive has been motivated by the energy, the chemistry he sees in "things that have the potential to become a 'Wow,' but aren't there now."
He further described those people or projects with heretofore-untapped "Wow" as "things that just need a little bit of unlocking."
As so it was fitting that the morning this reporter interviewed Kivisto in his office at SemGroup corporate headquarters, Two Warren Place, 6120 S. Yale Ave., the talk naturally turned to his quest of unlocking and developing the most vast of natural resources--the undiscovered greatness children and youth.
After requisite small talk about his beloved Jayhawks' recent national championship, our conversation began with the past as a prologue for one of his most treasured of charities he started about a decade ago: Project Single Parent.
"If you don't have an education or a special skill in this country, it's like living in a third world nation--you're really captive to all the negative parts of our society," he said.
He explained that many young women who find themselves single and raising a child "can't go back and put their life together, from an educational standpoint," because of a lack of resources and a lack of time, because they have to work a low-paying job to support their child, or children.
But, Kivisto emphasized that the program does not raise their standard of living while they participate, and it isn't a handout.
"It's a tough love program," Kivisto said. The program assists single parents in pursuing a college degree.
"Most of these people can't go back to school because they can't afford the tuition and the books and the babysitting and the time away from their job--when you're unskilled and don't have a higher education, you're working for $8 an hour, so you just can't make it happen," he said.
"All we're doing is offsetting those costs while they put in the time and the effort," he added, noting that those willing to invest that time and effort are rare, especially with PSP's accountability standards.
"They're working for it," Kivisto said. "They give us the grade card as a scorecard, and we give them that monthly support, and there are not many people who can really come and do that," he said.
And with the strict accountability of the program, Kivisto said the recipients don't feel like they're getting a handout, so there's no guilt, and no sense of dependence that they might feel from another charity.
He said there is "a lot of upfront screening" for the program, and six women have graduated from it so far, with only one dropout.
There are currently 18 single mothers in the program, with 31 children among them.
"And look what it does for those kids. Those kids see their mom getting a second chance," Kivisto added. "Parents are the most influential persons in anyone's life and to help put a person on a road where he or she can get one more shot at getting an education is bound to influence their children as well," he said.
In fact, Kivisto said his own father's example provided the motivation for Project Single Parent.
"My dad did the same thing, just in a different way," he said. "That's what my dad was all about--to communicate to kids the potential they have," Kivisto added.
Ernie Kivisto was a high school basketball coach in various cities throughout Illinois, and in east Aurora, a suburb of Chicago, when Tom reached high school.
But he wasn't just any basketball coach. He was probably the kind they make movies about. Most importantly, however, Ernie was Tom's and his two older brothers' coach, also, both informally as they grew up and when they reached high school.
Ernie's on-court credentials were as impressive as his leadership skills. He is one of the five or six high school coaches in the history of the game to win more than 1,000 games in his career.
Kivisto's father and mother were also both English teachers, and so impressed upon him the transformative power of education.
And, as a basketball coach and as a mentor to countless boys and young men, Ernie Kivisto also impressed upon his son the importance of investing himself in others, and of providing discipline, accountability and tough love.
"He's the meanest coach I've ever been around, and I've spent some time with Hank Iba and Bobby Knight in tryout camps, and there's nobody who could communicate a message quicker and faster and to the core of what he was trying to tell you than my dad," Kivisto said.
He said his father, as a former Marine, "had a very military approach of not flowering it up."
And that's exactly what many of the young men who looked to him for guidance needed, Kivisto said.
"He loved working with disadvantaged kids. He himself grew up very poor--his dad was a worker in an iron mine. So, he had a very tough upbringing, so he related to kids who came from broken families," he said, recounting that his father always picked up a carload of kids on the way to practice, most of whom lived in single-parent homes and didn't have anyone else to provide guidance.
"Nobody I've met in my life has influenced as many young people in their life as my dad," he added.
When Ernie Kivisto passed away in 2005, there was an outpouring of cards, letters and telephone calls from the innumerable people he'd mentored over the years, Kivisto said.
"Some of them even said, 'He saved my life,'" he added.
Case Study of Serendipity
Among that multitude whose destinies were influenced by Ernie Kivisto, Tom Kivisto's life was naturally also shaped by his father's tough love, and the culture of competitive sports in which he grew up.
As a born-and-raised basketball zealot, his choice for higher education was the University of Kansas.
"If you're a sports nut, when you're a young kid, there's probably someone who really touched you, in terms of inspiration, and that would be JoJo White," Kivisto recounted.
Also, KU is the "Jerusalem" of basketball, of sorts, not only because of White and several other stars that have either played or coached there, but because the game's inventor, James Naismith, started their program.
"The history is really incredible, and I just wanted to be a part of that history," Kivisto said.
And, he did. Kivisto made a name for himself as captain and star player for the Kansas Jayhawks.
He was a three-year starter from 1971/72 to 73/74, and averaged 7.6 points a game in 1974.
Kivisto also set a record of 18 for most assists in one game, which still hasn't been broken.
His acumen on the court and in class earned him academic All-American, All-Big 8 and academic All-Big 8 honors at KU, as well as a spot in the Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame.
Next to his father, Kivisto said his sports career is "probably the most leading influence of my life."
"It was an unbelievable experience," he said.
He attributed his own success, and his interest in finding that untapped "wow" potential in people and organizations, and in himself, to the lessons he learned in basketball.
"One great lesson in sports is, no matter how bad you played yesterday, you've got to get to practice today. No matter how bad you got beat yesterday, no matter how disappointing the loss, practice starts at 3:30," he said.
"You learn to overcome great disappointments, and take it a day at a time," Kivisto added.
He didn't describe it as such, since his spectacular success in the intervening years has probably more than healed the wound, but one such "great disappointment" was likely his failure to get into medical school after getting his undergraduate degree in psychology.
Kivisto explained that the med school to which he'd applied was out of state, and they were only taking two or three out of state admissions that year.
"I got close--I was on the alternates list," he said.
But, his skills on the court won him a post-graduate scholarship from the NCAA, which he applied toward earning a masters' degree in urban planning though KU's architecture school.
Also, the university's tennis coaching position opened up, which he promptly filled.
"They had a tight budget, so they weren't looking for anyone too qualified--just someone who could keep them out of trouble and not get caught violating NCAA rules," Kivisto said.
It was around that time that he met his wife, Julie.
He'd been giving tennis lessons on the side, and had been teaching her younger sister, whom Julie would drop off, which occasioned Kivisto's admiration of her from afar.
"I'd never really had a conversation with her until I ran into her in a serendipitous way," he said.
"I was in downtown Lawrence with a friend, and we were headed to get something to eat, and we stumbled into her as she was walking out of a bar. We just struck up a conversation," said Kivisto.
Meanwhile, another bit of serendipity came his way a few years later through the course of his efforts to raise funds for scholarships.
As he was calling KU alumni to solicit their generosity, he met some people who worked for Koch Industries.
Apparently, something about Kivisto made an impression on them, and they asked him to go to visit their offices in Wichita to interview for a job.
"That's how I got into the energy business," he summed up.
He got a position as a crude oil buyer and rose through the ranks of the company for the next 15 years, when he decided to set out on his own.
"In '93, there were a lot of things going on at Koch. The brothers were suing each other and there was a lot of commotion, distractions going on," Kivisto recounted.
"You know when the timing is right, when it's time to turn a page in your life," he added.
For Kivisto and his wife and three kids, that next page was written in Tulsa, where he founded his own crude oil marketing outfit, Eaglwing.
Of course, the obvious reason for choosing Tulsa was that it's an oil city, but there were other factors that set it above Houston or Dallas or any other renowned oil center.
Kivisto said Tulsa's rolling hills played a part because of their resemblance to his wife's hometown of Lawrence, Kansas.
Also, though, he said he had visited Tulsa on business on several earlier occasions, and took a liking to it.
"I really liked the people, I liked the terrain," Kivisto said.
Since moving here, though, he's found that Tulsa is one of the best-kept secrets of the Midwest.
"If you're not from here, you don't get it, but if you've lived here, there's great loyalty and people want to come back and raise families," Kivisto said.
He said an acquisition by SemGroup in recent years required him to move about 60 employees and their families here from Wichita.
"The majority of those cases, the people came screaming, 'I don't want to live in Tulsa! Please don't make me move there!'" said Kivisto.
"I don't know of one today who, after a year, didn't say, 'I am so glad we made that move. We just love it here in Tulsa,'" he said.
While Tulsa made an impression on Kivisto early on, it would be a few years after his move before he really made his mark on Tulsa.
After seven years of running Eaglwing, he decided to grow his operation.
After a lot of pavement pounding, he and other investors launched Seminole Transportation and Gathering--eventually to be called "SemGroup."
"We started this company in 2000. That was right before the Enron/Dynegy energy merchant meltdown of 2001," he said.
Because of the uncertainty of the energy industry at the time, Kivisto said it was virtually impossible to get loans.
"We couldn't get any banks to talk to us. We had more 'no's' than 'yes's' that year," he said. But, that's where the lessons he learned in athletic competition came into play.
"In sports, it was just 'today's a day, and you've got to put your jersey on and go out there,'" he said.
Kivisto's tenacity eventually paid off, and the Bank of Oklahoma took a chance on his business endeavor, loaning him $65 million to launch SemGroup.
"I've always said this: I've got a great respect and appreciation for the Bank of Oklahoma. They were the only bank to support us and give us a loan," he said.
Kivisto now sits on the BOK Financial Corporation's board of directors, helping it grow and prosper. "With a little success and a track record, we'd get one bank at a time, and by 2003, we had four banks. A year later, we probably had 20 banks. And now, today, we have 50 banks," he said.
"One thing that the breakdown of the energy merchants did for us--it did allow us to make some acquisitions in some very attractive markets," Kivisto said.
The SemGroup empire has since grown to acquire 45 other companies, and counting, and the 13 flags flying on grounds of the SemGroup headquarters in south Tulsa testify to the speed with which they expanded.
"That's likened to the way it is in sports," Kivisto said.
"You make no progress at first. When you first pick up the tennis racket, you're not going to beat anybody, and nobody wants to play you, except the guy you're paying to give you lessons," he added.
"We've had some breaks. And that's what sports teach you: you hang in there, and take your breaks when you get them," he continued.
And he wants to give those same kinds of breaks to those with yet undiscovered talent, which his father made his life's work to provide to the countless young men to come under his care.
That and his mother's love for the arts, which she equally impressed upon him, are what's motivated him to support the Tulsa Ballet, as well as to establish two art galleries in Chicago, where he introduced heretofore undiscovered artists, thereby giving them the opportunity to "wow" the public.
But not before they "wow" his employees in Tulsa.
The oil paintings of an as-yet-unknown Russian painter named Roman Zaslonov temporarily adorn the walls at the SemGroup headquarters, until certain pieces are assembled for an upcoming show at Kivisto's KN Gallery in Chicago.
"We have a pretty incentivized culture here, and people spend long hours here. We really believe that if we spend a little bit more money on the environment here, it will go a long way with our employees," Kivisto explained as his reason for keeping a steady stream of high-quality art on display in his office.
So, why this guy? Why all the attention on Zaslonov?
Apart from being Kivisto's personal favorite, he answered, "Because nobody knows anything about him in the United States. When people see his work, they'll go 'Wow!'"
Which is what all of North America has done, Kivisto said, after taking notice of the ballet offerings of Marcello Angelini since he began directing the Tulsa Ballet in 1995. Kivisto has given great support to the Ballet over the years.
"We're trying to support what we believe to be the best head ballet coach in America," he said.
"What he was lacking was the program that had the right facilities to attract the best dancers; he needed a better schedule and more teams on it, and more dance dates. He needed to be able to have a bigger budget to afford to do the better, high-quality work," Kivisto explained as his attraction to Angelini's talents.
Along with supporting the arts, both locally and nationally, Kivisto's company also gives to about 35 different charities, but he was reluctant to let on which, and about how much they give, except to say that they have a program in which they match employees' giving up to $5,000 in charitable donations.
The reasons for his unwillingness to broadcast his charitable contributions, he said, is that, "We're not trying to open the doors to everybody who's got a charitable organization. Not everybody would qualify."
Kivisto said he only gives to those charities that have measurable and proven long-term benefits for their recipients.
"We don't want window dressing. We don't want politics in charities," he said.
"We like to support those charities that have good measurement and have longevity--it's very difficult to change someone's life in six months," said Kivisto.
But, he said, "If they're walking the walk out there, they're going to see us. But, we're not out there to shoot off our own horn."
Kivisto said it's that same transparency of results that attracts him to sports, and to the arts.
"As you know, I love the arts. It's one of the great places, like sports, where you can go and the bar of excellence continues to be raised and measured in a transparent way," he said.
And that's why Kivisto said he won't be seeking public office any time soon. Actually, his exact words were "never."
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