Don Slawson started the Slawson Companies in 1957 with not much more than a college degree, a fascination with maps and willingness to take well-calculated risks. Today that enterprise is one of the country’s busiest oil and gas exploration companies, as well as a major developer of real estate in Slawson’s hometown of Wichita, KS.
Slawson graduated from East High in Wichita. He followed his father to the University of Kansas, joining the same fraternity (Delta Upsilon) and playing basketball his freshman year. He majored in political science, thinking he’d also follow his father into the insurance business. However, he took several geology classes along the way and that became his passion, in the form of the oil and gas business.
Of course, Don would have said geology was his second biggest discovery at KU. The school is where he met his wife, Judy. They were married for 59 years. The couple had three sons – Steve, Craig and Todd, all of whom followed their father into the oil business, and five grandchildren.
Slawson started his oil company at the age of 24. Although a wildcatter by profession – the very definition of a risk-laden occupation – Slawson wasn’t flashy. Tall and erect, he impressed people more with his work ethic. Don was an old-school oilman, using maps, records and contacts to figure out where oil should be, then putting together the financing and business plan needed to extract it.
Slawson’s approach wasn’t based on some fancy business school philosophy or phrases but rather on traits he believed were the key to success — things like “trustworthiness,” “attention to detail,” “cooperative attitude” and the need to “take responsibility for your actions.” Fourteen examples of his common-sense advice were collected and printed on commemorative yellow legal pads for distribution at his funeral.
Slawson eventually became the biggest driller in Kansas, with operations in a total of 10 states. By the 1980s, Slawson had found another way to use maps: real estate development. He would buy land that he thought might be valuable some day. And he’d wait. And wait, until he thought the time was right to turn it into housing or a commercial development.
Usually he was right. Unlike some developers, Slawson rarely talked about deals until they were actually done, and sometimes not even then, if there was anybody else around to take the credit. Slawson Companies has gone on to build 28 residential neighborhoods in Wichita.
On the commercial side, Slawson was a partner in Tallgrass Centre and Shops at Tallgrass on Wichita’s east side, and developed Oak Creek at 21st and Greenwich. But it was on the city’s west side (whose residents sometimes felt deprived of such amenities) that he made his biggest impact, developing NewMarket Square into the region’s biggest outdoor market – an enterprise that continues to grow today.
Slawson always wanted to know more. A banker recalled that Slawson peppered him with questions, wanting to know everything he could about a deal before signing off. On ski trips, friends would find him back at the lodge, jotting ideas on a yellow legal pad rather than enjoying the slopes.
Two of Don and Judy’s sons received their education at the University of Kansas and the third at Duke University. As they joined the family business, Slawson gave them space to operate in North Dakota and Montana while he paid attention to real estate and the oil business closer to home. He checked in, and offered advice, but trusted their judgment. It paid off. A key dividend: the company helped pioneer the vast Bakken oil field.
Slawson rose early, reading three newspapers and clipping out stories he thought his friends would enjoy. He lunched with other business leaders at Larkspur restaurant in Old Town – preferring a glass of milk over a martini – and greeting everyone with a smile and bit of courteous conversation as he made his way out. A great listener, one friend called him.
He and Judy went to KU basketball games for 50 years, taking their boys along when they were young. Don rarely missed a conference tournament and made it to almost 20 Final Fours. Support for KU athletics extends to baseball as well. To honor Don’s father, the family created the Charles J. Slawson KU baseball scholarship in 1992.
On another trip, this one overseas, Don and Judy were captivated by seeing tigers in the wild. Their enthusiasm for these endangered animals led to them giving $2 million to the Sedgwick County Zoo to create the Slawson Family Tiger Trek, which allows visitors to view the big cats in a natural habitat.
Slawson got tasked to participate in civic affairs – a lot. Two U.S. presidents appointed him to the National Petroleum Council. Two governors appointed him to the Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s institutions of higher learning. He was elected its chair during his second term. He also chaired the Kansas Health Foundation investment committee, Wichita/Sedgwick County Partnership for Growth and Wichita Development Committee, was president of the KU Alumni Association, and a board member of Cessna Aircraft Corporation, Kansas Gas & Electric Company, Security Benefit Life Insurance Company and Intrust Financial Corporation.
Family members said Don felt it was he who owed the community, not the other way around. Admirers said he had as big an impact on the city as anybody in 40 years. Friends said it was especially cruel that a man so interested in the world spent his last years suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.
Slawson is survived his wife and sons. In his honor, his family donated $16 million to his beloved KU for a hall that will be part of the school’s planned Earth, Energy and Environment Center.
Slawson credited his own parents for some of the traits he exhibited throughout his life. His father had been a voracious reader, often pouring through a book a night in his quest for knowledge, and serving in various capacities with community organizations. His mother was a big supporter of music and the arts. Modestly summing up his own work, Slawson said his biggest achievement was providing a good education for his sons.
Slawson’s beliefs can be summed up in a speech he gave at the Wichita State University Honors Convocation in 1988, while a member of the Kansas Board of Regents:
Don Slawson Junior Achievement Wichita 2005 Business Hall of Fame
“Tomorrow requires leaders who care deeply about our shared future. You must commit now to a personal goal of leadership. Making a difference is your birthright. Tomorrow requires hope and responsibility. Be the people who make that commitment. No one else can offer so much.”
Wise words from a wise man.