Any proud Tulsan should be able to name a thing or two that makes this city noteworthy.
While the rest of the nation may still admire Tulsa for its early glories--the oil boom and a popular pit stop on Route 66--recent endeavors by our citizens show the rest of the world what we're made of today.
Having struck the right balance between suburban and city life, we're hailed as one of the most livable cities--fifth, in fact, if you ask Forbes. This past March, Forbes also listed Tulsa as 47th in a list of Best Places for Business and Careers, a rank higher than those for cities like Chicago, New York and Boston.
And last August, the University of Tulsa received recognition from the U.S. News and World Report for being the 83rd top doctoral university in the nation; it also ranked as the 47th private university. The state's public universities' sports teams always fare well and attract a great deal of attention.
And as long as oil, natural gas and the wind keeps sweeping down the plain, entrepreneurs like T. Boone Pickens will try to find a way to make money off it, though we lost a lot of business to Dallas and Houston, for lack of good transportation.
And so the rest of the globe may not recognize Tulsa as they do New York City or Las Vegas, but there may come a time when the mention of this city will elicit more than just a shoulder shrug. When traveling overseas, upon announcing that one is from Tulsa, Oklahoma, there will no longer need to be a follow up explanation, "Well, it's in the middle of the country. Do you know where Texas is? We're above Texas. North of Mexico?"
So, how will it reach that status? Well, hopefully, as the city grows, so will its scope of recognition. Some companies ship products bearing the label "Made in Tulsa" (either literally or figuratively) worldwide, which may eventually make "Tulsa, Oklahoma" a household name.
Swingin' Good Time
Tulsa has long been known for producing world class entertainment, from Tony Randall and Jennifer Jones, David Gates and Leon Russell, Mary Kay Place and Jeanne Tripplehorn to current stars like comedian Bill Hader, whose stardom continues to rise as he has moved into films like Adventureland, which hit theaters just a few weeks ago.
And, although not from Tulsa originally, the city dug its claws into American Idol heartthrob, David Cook, neglecting that he was raised in Missouri. However, his musical talent was first tapped in T-Town, and, if we do say so, Tulsa didn't even notice the guy until he won a UTW ABoT award for "Best Local, Indie Produced Album" in 2007.
Cook wasn't the first or even the most well-known act whose relocation to Tulsa served as the launching pad for an international musical career. Besides giving the former Oil Capitol of the World a theme song, "Take Me Back to Tulsa," T-Town put Bob Wills on the map when Cain's Ballroom housed the birth of Western swing. Cain's legacy lives on as the "Carnegie Hall of Western Swing," and as one of the world's most visible and bookable live music venues.
Built in 1924, the venerable dancehall received national attention in 1934 when Wills and his Texas Playboys made it their working home. Voice of the Southwest, 50,000-watt KVOO broadcasted performances from the stage, buoyed by a live audience of 2,000 20-something swingers desperately seeking entertainment and an escape from the Great Depression and Dust Bowl days.
Indeed, the gig produced not only a record contract, but a record company with the American Recording Corp. It was a label that later became part of Columbia Records.
Wills and his P'boys played regularly at Cain's until 1942, touring nationwide all the while, spreading the sounds of Western Swing and giving root to the '70s "Tulsa Sound," and the Red Dirt vibe.
Feet on the Ground
Tulsa's cultural outpouring extends past the entertainment industry. Situated in the Midwest, the city is nowhere near Paris and New York or even Milan, London, Los Angeles and Tokyo when it comes to fashion. Those cities' contributions to the clothing world are remarkable, but the average consumer couldn't tell you the difference between a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes and a pair of Christian Louboutin heels.
What they can easily spot, though, is a humble pair of rope sandals. One glance at a person's feet and there's no doubt that the person is wearing Jesus sandals. It's so fitting that a shoe with such a biblical was born in the Bible Belt.
Gurkee's® Rope Sandals, as they are formally called, have been part of Tulsa since they moved here from Washington state in the 1980s. Whether found on the feet of a high school student, a person standing on the dock at the lake or a dancing hippie, almost everyone can spot these shoes made from carpet fibers.
The basic sandals (four styles, from basic flip flop to the more Jesus-y "Neptune" pair) have become a popular commodity due to their accessibility and to an experience that the company describes as "Beyond Barefoot." While the shoes' construction is outsourced (they are handmade in Mexico), the company's headquarters has remained in Tulsa.
In 2001, Bryan Tease became president of Gurkee's and pushed to expand the brand further. Currently Gurkee's has distribution centers throughout the United States and in the United Kingdom, Italy and Taiwan.
Roughly 50,000 to 60,000 pairs are sold annually, at times selling as much as 70,000 to nearly 10 countries including China, South Africa, Croatia and, as of last year, Turkey. Those numbers are even more impressive as the company's operations are still quite small. The company is warehoused in the same building as Tease's other business, an automatic door company, and between the two, employs just 14 people.
Tease is hoping to take Gurkee further, with the ultimate goal of exporting the shoes to 25 countries. The delay has nothing to do with the marketplace. His research has shown that the shoes are popular with folks ages 18 to 54 and are embraced by both sexes. Furthermore, their simplicity isn't off-putting to any culture. Without a strong Western feel, Gurkee's are a brand that could be as popular in India (a likely business prospect) as they are in the United States.
As the company itself claims, the shoes can be "found in vacation destinations, tanning salons, specialty stores, marinas and dive shops"; the lack of a target demographic has left some fashion critics questioning how trendy these shoes really are.
Whether the shoes have been praised outright or dubbed so uncool that they are cool, there's a sense of civic pride upon discovering that something created in Tulsa has been featured in national publications like In Style magazine and worn by celebrities. And those major designers in New York and the world over are taking notice. In the spring of 2007, notable New York designer Michael Kors had his runway models wearing Gurkee sandals during his fashion week show. This June, the shoes will be featured in Teen Vogue.
Tulsa's contributions to the fashion world only begin there. Web sites like etsy.com provide an outlet for crafters to sell their merchandise online, and the next fashion-forward Tulsan may already be sending out their products throughout the world. With etsy.com reporting 41 vendors whose products are "Made in Tulsa," this international cyber platform could be the foundation for Tulsa's next big thing.
The past and present is rich with organizations from this city making their mark on the world. Take the Bama Companies, Inc., a business stronghold here since 1937.
Tulsans know this company for more than its tasty pies. Bama is one of the city's most impressive employers and developers in the community, one that supports environmental, human interest and education projects. Worldwide, the company boasts "long-term partnerships with customers such as the no. 1 hamburger chain, no. 1 pizza chain, no. 1 Mexican chain, no. 1 casual dining chain, and no. 1 retailer in the world." This is a remarkable feat for a company whose product line is founded on essentially three items: hand-held pies, biscuits and pizza crust.
Great-grandma would be proud.
That number one hamburger chain? It is none other than McDonald's, of course; and its menu features several Bama ingredients. In 1967, Bama owner Paul Marshall met with McDonald's founder Ray Kroc and introduced him to a hand-held, fried apple pie. Two years later the product was added to McDonald's menu. Bama's contributions to the fast food company expanded, with Bama now supplying McDonald's worldwide with biscuits, pies and other baked goods.
Bama's other major claim to fame is its business with Pizza Hut, but the company also supplies products to customers in more than 117 countries.
In 2004, when applying for the coveted Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award (which Bama won), the company declared that with its new product innovations, it was growing faster than the rates of its two major customers. The company plans to continue this growth by buying into other restaurant chains, with the ultimate goal of becoming a billion dollar company by 2010. With the opening of their second plant in Beijing, China this year, business seems to be moving in that direction.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Not every company based in Tulsa makes a tangible, brand-able product. Many of the contributions the city makes are in the energy, aviation, telecommunications and technology, manufacturing and finance industries. Once known as the "Oil Capital of the World", Tulsa has increased its global presence in these fields and others. The Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce notes that Tulsa businesses account for more than 60 percent of Oklahoma's exports.
Aerospace is booming in Tulsa; and there are hardly any companies more prominent than NORDAM Group. NORDAM (Northeastern Oklahoma Research Development and Manufacturing) is the locally headquartered company whose self-described claim to fame lies in its dynamic role in international industry. NORDAM offers an array of repair and replacement products and services for the major airline, commuter, general aviation, OEM [original equipment manufacturer] and military segments of the aerospace and aviation industries.
Since its inception in 1969, NORDAM Group has expanded to include facilities in Singapore and in the United Kingdom. But its headquarters and six of its facilities, as well as two-thirds of its employees are in Tulsa.
NORDAM CEO Bill Peacher said being based in Tulsa has been largely beneficial for the company. Beyond its strong aerospace history, Tulsa is conveniently located to get to and from either coast rapidly, ideal for conducting business. Peacher also noted that recruiting, although initially challenging, is ultimately fruitful because Tulsa is a "community where people like to live."
Even with its headquarters in Tulsa, NORDAM Group relies heavily on the rest of the world for its commerce. Its strong international headlines have included repairing helicopters damaged in the Vietnam War for the Pentagon in the 1970s as well as South Africa Airways' jetliner fleet. Nationally, NORDAM manufactured parts for Air Force One in the 1980s and contributed this past year to helping California firefighters repair air tankers.
However, a strong global presence can at times be a hindrance. Peacher said that NORDAM is affected by the recession more than other Tulsa-based companies because, rather than having to rely on the local economy, they are affected by the global market. NORDAM Group's biggest impact stems from the business jet market. "If a person can't get financing for a business jet that eventually trickles down to NORDAM," Peacher said.
This trickle has affected the Wichita branch of NORDAM very recently, as the company has announced that in the next few weeks it will begin to lay off 140 people (66 percent of the Wichita branch) between now and July.
But the company's growth, though, seems unscathed by current doom and gloom. The next three to five years, Peacher said, have never looked brighter. Development of new products for a new generation has enhanced NORDAM's presence in the industry and has revitalized the industry itself. A new composite window aid engineered for the Boeing 787 removes 500 lbs of weight off planes, a grand improvement for the aviation industry and a huge milestone for the company. Peacher said this successful launch is just one of several innovations that will prove significant to the future of aviation and to NORDAM's.
Tulsa's role in the aerospace industry lies beyond manufacturing. In addition to training future pilots at Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology, one of the best programs nationwide, the locally operated Omni Air International offers a high-end passenger charter service. Omni Air International serves clients including "USA tour operators serving worldwide destinations, worldwide cruise lines, major college athletic teams, incentive charters for Fortune 500 companies and U.S. and foreign governments," an impressive list for a company founded in 1983.
As glamorous as air travel still is, getting from point A to point B is usually accomplished by hitting the road, not the runway. Once the jet tires hit the tarmac, it's automobile travel that gets you to your final destination.
Tulsa also contributes to America's car travel industry. Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group is a Tulsa-based corporation, consisting of Dollar Rent-A-Car and Thrifty Rental Car.
Chris Payne, senior manager of Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group's corporate communication, said the company's headquarters is no surprise to the people who live in Tulsa. Thrifty Rental Car was founded here in 1958, so its long history and good reputation is wildly known throughout the community. The company expanded in 1994 when Chrysler purchased both Thrifty Rental Car and Dollar Rent-A-Car (a company headquartered in Los Angeles); both operations were combined in Tulsa because the costs were lower and the potential for employment was greater.
Since combining 15 years ago, the two companies have maintained a substantial role in the industry. "Together, Dollar and Thrifty have operations in more than 70 countries throughout the world, including over 700 corporate and franchised locations in the United States and Canada." Separately, the companies rank at number sixth and seventh (Dollar Rent-A-Car and Thrifty Rental Car respectively) and as the parent company Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, they are the third or fourth in the rental car industry.
The company also received attention in the media as being ranked in Fortune 1000's companies for the last six years; and it is also a leader in providing jobs to Americans across the nation with 6,800 employees nationwide, roughly 700 of which are here in Tulsa.
Move into Production
These companies are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to furthering Tulsa as a major player in their respective industries. Holding solid positions in an assortment of areas as varied as entertainment, fashion, mobilization, and food, our future looks prosperous.
Whatever hits the economy may take, people need the things produced in Tulsa--food, clothes and transportation; and when times are harder than ever, entertainment.
There's a sense of safety in the variety of Tulsa businesses. Detroit held the auto industry firmly in its grip; and when it crumbled before the nation's eyes, the city deteriorated, too.
Products made in Tulsa instill pride in citizens and allow the city to blossom. As such, it should become a more popular travel destination, especially if high-speed rail enters the scene. Future developments such as this are hot topics for the city. The interconnectedness created will draw additional corporations and companies to Tulsa, which presents opportunities for the citizens.
Made in Oklahoma Celebration
Where: Promenade Mall, 41st and Yale
When: May 1-2, 10am-9pm; May 3, 12-6pm
What: Vendors from across Oklahoma are invited to share their crafts, food and other Oklahoma goods.
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