Gene Bicknell claims he can't remember exactly how many years or how many students he taught as an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Pittsburg State University (PSU) in Pittsburg, Kan. When pressed, he'll admit his classes were "pretty popular."

The son of a miner raised in Pittsburg with five siblings, Bicknell graduated from PSU, served in the Army and returned to his Pittsburg in 1956 to make a living and raise a family. Nearly half a century later, in 2004, he was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in the Retail and Consumer Products category.

In between, he grew a single Pizza Hut restaurant into a chain of franchises that today includes more than 800 outlets and 18,000 employees in 27 states, making NPC International the largest Pizza Hut franchisee in the world and the 11th largest restaurant operator in the U.S.

Pizza was not the ubiquitous meal it is today when Bicknell ate it for the third time in his life in Topeka during a visit to train salespeople for New York Life Insurance Company, where he started his career as a salesperson after a brief stint with Goodyear Rubber Company at their Topeka plant. His friends told him he was crazy in 1962 to risk his savings and go into debt to buy into the Pizza Hut system for $8,000.

"Everything I've gone into I've been told not to," says Bicknell, who in addition to presiding over NPC, founded and heads several other companies, including Pitt Plastics, Inc., Zouire, and National Mills, Inc. "I didn't care if I was ever rich, but I didn't want to be poor."

Pittsburg Patriarch

One might think, working days for New York Life and nights at the restaurant alongside his staff of college students, Bicknell would hardly have time for much else. Think again. Not much has happened – then or since – in Pittsburg in which he hasn't played a leading role.

Politics? He served on the board of education and was elected the city's youngest mayor ever. Twice a delegate to the Republican National Convention, he was defeated in 1986 and 1994 in runs for nomination as the Republican candidate for governor of Kansas.

The arts? He’s done radio and TV sportscasting off and on for the past 30 years, acted professionally in 23 movies, TV shows and commercials, recorded a collection of his own songs and is currently performing in Branson, Mo., in a patriotic musical he produced. "We're planning to take it to Broadway in a couple of years," he says.

Writing? He recently published his first book, Never Fry Bacon in the Nude, on motivation, self-improvement and people skills and has finished writing a second book, The Land of Ores, on lead and zinc mining in northeast Oklahoma, southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas.

Philanthropy? He's chaired and contributed major gifts to just about every fund drive in Pittsburg. The Red Cross. The Salvation Army. The American Cancer Society. The YMCA. United Way. Mt. Carmel Medical Center. Untold churches and schools. Since 1991, his Gene Bicknell Celebrity Charity Golf Tournament has raised more than $1.5 million for Mt. Carmel Medical Center and PSU athletics.

Education? In Pittsburg, it's hard to talk about education without talking about Pittsburg State University. And it's hard to talk about the university without talking about Bicknell, whose allegiance to both is legendary. In addition to a B.S., he also holds an MBA and Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from the university. Years ago, he started the Alumni Foundation, which has merged into the PSU Foundation, and he has chaired every capital campaign in the school’s history, including the current drive to raise $100 million.

Bicknell Center for Entrepreneurship

You'd be hard pressed to traverse the PSU campus without encountering Bicknell’s name. However, in the Kelce School of Business, it would be impossible. Bicknell was an early sponsor of the school's Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) chapter, has judged SIFE competitions and served on the organization’s national board of directors.

Within the Kelce School, Bicknell founded the O. Gene Bicknell Center for Entrepreneurship to provide students access to training that prepares them to start and run successful businesses. In particular, he responded to what he saw as a need for a comprehensive course on business plan development that also addresses behavior patterns for success as an entrepreneur.

"The undergraduate and graduate courses he designed and has taught since I got here 15 years ago fill up every time we offer them, especially when the students know Gene is giving some of the lectures," says Thomas M. Box, professor of management.

"Gene came here, worked his way through, started a business and was extremely successful," says PSU President Tom Bryan. "Gene has a great story. Our students – many of whom are still the first generation in their families to access higher education – gravitate to those kinds of experiences."

Bicknell – who's cut back on teaching lately to make time for his show in Branson – has also been a frequent guest lecturer at Wichita State University, Kansas State University and other schools throughout the country and overseas.

Whatever income he earns from teaching, in addition to personal funds, he donates to scholarships for business students like Scot Schiefelbein, a junior at PSU majoring in accounting and business management. Schiefelbein says the financial assistance enables him to work fewer hours a week and worry less about loans and more about academics and volunteer activities. But most of all, Schiefelbein has been touched by Bicknell's people skills.

"I'm not important," he says, "but every time I talk to Mr. Bicknell, even after six months, he remembers our last conversation. It's a tribute to his respect for the individual."

President Bryan believes Bicknell's generosity arises from a commitment to his southeast Kansas roots and the people who live there. Bicknell, while happy to speak on a range of subjects, won't say much if you ask him why he gives back and what he receives in return. In fact, about the only thing he’ll say is, "It’s the right thing to do."

© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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