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Cover Story - Posted October 27, 2017 10:33 a.m.
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Photos by Shannon Richardson

Paying Dividends

“Amarillo is special,” Richard Ware says from his office at Amarillo National Bank. Representing the fourth among five generations of family leadership at the bank, he’s given some thought to why family businesses do so well in the Texas Panhandle. “We call it the ‘circle the wagons’ mentality. People just feel like we have to take care of our own businesses.”

The city is geographically isolated. The weather can be fickle and harsh. The economy has seen its share of booms and busts. Surviving those challenges requires grit, determination, and an unrelenting work ethic. “It makes you tougher. That leads businesses to be successful,” Ware says. “They are able to expand and take the business model and those qualities and be successful in other markets. The people here just do the right things.”

That combination of durability, support and hard work has fostered a vibrant local business community, especially for family-owned businesses. Some of the most prominent ones are multi-generational, having started small before expanding as the company reigns are passed on to children and grandchildren – and sometimes even further.

In this issue, we look at some of Amarillo’s most successful multi-generational businesses. While they represent a broad range of industries – a legendary steakhouse, an amusement park, truck and car dealerships – many of their challenges and driving principles remain the same. Amarillo is special, and so are these families.

Amarillo National Bank

Among family businesses, Amarillo National Bank is a true statistical outlier. More than two-thirds of family businesses don’t make the transition in ownership from the first generation to the second. Among those that do, half of them don’t survive into the third generation.

ANB has reached its fifth generation. Guided by the Ware family, it’s the largest, 100-percent family-owned bank in the nation – and celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Chairman and President Richard Ware represents the fourth generation of the family, and worked for decades alongside his brother, Bill, who passed away in 2012. Their sons are now the fifth generation of Wares at the historic bank’s helm.

The bank started on Polk Street in 1892, under a different name, with local cattleman Benjamin Taliaferro (B.T.) Ware as its vice president. Amarillo was only five years old at the time, and B.T. was one of the town’s earliest business leaders. Though ranching operations took him to Fort Worth in 1899, B.T. returned to the Panhandle a year later. He started a bank in Channing, then repurchased his former bank and merged the two institutions into the newly designated Amarillo National Bank. He headed the bank as president for the next three decades.

During that time, ANB helped Panhandle families capitalize on oil and gas discoveries and survive the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. B.T.’s sons, including Charles Ware, led the bank through World War II and a period of prosperity as Route 66 and the Air Force base put Amarillo on the map.

B.T.’s grandson, B.T. “Tol” Ware II, was an only child. That kept the family small as the bank entered its third generation. Under his leadership, ANB build the first drive-up banking facility in Texas, the bank’s 16-story downtown headquarters, and introduced the state’s first ATM. Tol’s sons, Richard and Bill, joined ANB in the 1980s. Together they built the gleaming Plaza Two and the bank’s drive-up branches, leading Amarillo National Bank into the modern banking era. Tol passed away in 2014, at 95 years old.

Today, Richard’s sons, William and Pat, are now executive vice presidents at ANB. Their brother, Benj, is a bank officer. Bill’s son, Tol, is assistant vice president.

“I had a feeling I would be a banker,” William deadpans. “Growing up, that’s all we talked about. I really didn’t think there were any other jobs out there. I thought everybody just did family business.” Despite that upbringing, he says his father “downplayed” the uniqueness of the family-owned bank. “We didn’t really know what Dad did the majority of our lives. We knew he was a banker and it had run in our family. We knew [the bank] was old, but we just thought it was normal.”

Richard grew up the same way, and says the “constant bank talk” at the family’s Sunday lunch gave him a better financial education than a college degree. In fact, the young Ware ran an underground bank at Wolflin Elementary School for kids who forgot their lunch money. “I loaned a quarter and they had to pay back 30 cents,” he remembers, laughing. “The principal made me stop. I got punished for usury.”

Despite that youthful exuberance, he still had to pay his dues at the real bank. “I worked in every department. Our family has always done it [that way],” Richard says. From the maintenance shed to loan review, “it’s a real advantage to know what the day-to-day job of each person is. Employees will respect you more and you’re a better manager.”

William, Pat, and Benj are triplets. Like their father, the three boys began working in the bank the summer after they turned 15. “We started in the maintenance department cleaning handrails and striping parking lots,” William says. “We got promoted to the coin vault at age 16, wrapping pennies.” Until college, the boys worked every job that didn’t require a college degree.

Even after earning degrees, a job in the family business wasn’t automatic. After college, William and Pat both spent a year working for Frost Bank, which is owned by a financial holding company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. “We realized real quick that we were ready to work for a business that didn’t have outside stockholders. We were ready to come home,” William says.

Back in Amarillo, they had to reapply at ANB – “That was an eye opener,” William says – then had to work their way into a lending position. “We did every position you needed to become a lender,” he says. “Every generation has had to earn their stripes. Nothing was handed to us.”

William’s father, Richard, says that kind of hard work and long-term thinking is crucial for a bank that doesn’t answer to outside shareholders – especially in the volatile financial industry. ANB has literally seen hundreds of its competitors change hands, sell out, or disappear during its 125 years of operation. “Owning all the stock changes your focus to the long-term and there’s nobody pushing to sell out,” he says. “The owner has to be in the store. Absentee management doesn’t work over the generations. We’ve been very fortunate in that our families believed, for five generations, that you’ve got to spend 50 hours a week on banking.”

That longevity has made ANB a stabilizing and influential force in Amarillo’s business community, financing much of its development and expansion – including the growth of the family businesses mentioned here. While publicly held institutions worry about earnings and shareholder returns, the Wares keep close tabs on Amarillo’s economy. “Community banking has to be truly connected to the community,” William says. “We learned that our community is as good as its businesses, and if you give back, it’ll make it a better community and support those businesses.”

That reach extends beyond the business world. When oil prices were rising in the 1970s and ’80s, major oil companies including T. Boone Pickens’s Mesa Petroleum headquartered in Amarillo, dominating its economy. Those behemoths provided an overwhelming percentage of support of the city’s charities and nonprofits – until they left. “They’re no longer here, and there was a vacuum that needed to be filled,” explains Richard. “We recognized how fortunate we were to inherit the bank. Our bank started doing very well and we all felt an obligation to give back. So much had already been given to us.”

Guided by the Ware family, ANB’s 550-plus employees donate more than ten thousand hours of community service to civic organizations every year. The bank itself gave $1.9 million to local charities and schools in 2016.

ANB may be unique among most family-owned businesses, but Richard and William both say they’ve experienced the usual generational challenges. “My biggest challenge is wanting to have more responsibility and do things on my own, with my dad still actively involved,” William says. “He still wants to be in charge and we butt heads a little.”

Richard says it was the same way with his own father. “My father and I were strong-willed and often had differing opinions. We’d get into heated discussions in meetings,” he says. Bill was usually in the same meetings, and would get up, leave the room, and come back wearing a referee shirt. Ever the peacemaker, he kept it in his office for such an occasion. “History repeats itself,” Richard says. “In every business.”

But making sure ANB remains strong so history can repeat itself for the next generation is a burden all the family members bear. “We’re in it for the long haul,” William says of the bank founded by his great-great-grandfather. “Taking care of other people’s money is a tremendous responsibility. It’s not just being a banker – it’s running a business that’s been around 125 years and making it last another 125 years. We were handed a wonderful bank in a wonderful community. It’s our job to make it better than we found it.”

AutoInc

A downtown driver would be forgiven for missing the AutoInc headquarters. Located in a small building on Fillmore, it’s tucked between seven-story office buildings and hulking parking garages. But it’s safe to say that many of the vehicles parked in those garages, and passing down Fillmore, were sold by AutoInc dealerships.

Whether they see the building or not, the drivers themselves may not even realize that AutoInc sold them their car.

Headed by Amarilloan Eddie Bradley and his son, Daniel, AutoInc oversees a growing empire of West Texas car dealerships. Locally, these include Texas Dodge, Autoplex BMW, Amarillo Hyundai, All Star Dodge Chrysler Jeep, and All Star Family Ford between here and Canyon.

But that’s not all. Further down the interstate, there’s a Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep franchise in Plainview, two dealerships in Lubbock, and two more in Slaton. AutoInc owns dealerships in Midland, Odessa, San Angelo, and Abilene, as well. These cover 10 automobile franchises across 14 different retail locations, with a workforce of 600 employees.

Eddie Bradley originally wanted to go into engineering. “I’ve always liked machines, and cars certainly fall into that,” he says. “I enjoyed cars as much as most young guys.” While attending Southern Methodist University, Bradley met his future wife, Janie Garner. After marrying and finishing college, the couple moved to Amarillo, where Janie’s father, C.R. “Bob” Garner, owned Garner Motors, an Oldsmobile and Cadillac dealer. Eddie worked briefly as a stockbroker before Garner offered him a job selling cars.

“I worked there in several different positions for a few years,” Eddie says. Garner passed away in 1972 and Bradley worked for his father-in-law’s successor until given the opportunity to buy his own dealership in 1975. That became Bradley Lincoln-Mercury. Eventually, Eddie followed in Garner’s footsteps and become the area’s Oldsmobile dealer. He acquired Royal Imports a few years later, and in 1983 moved those franchises to the Autoplex on I-27.

The business kept growing.

“Then we bought our first Dodge store here, then we ended up buying a store in Lubbock in 1985,” Eddie says. “We’ve since acquired more stores and are still growing.” After high school, Eddie and Janie’s son, Daniel, began working as a car salesman for one of the organization’s Lubbock dealerships. Daniel was a natural. “He did so well selling cars,” Eddie says. “He’s great with people and moved into different spots and different responsibilities.” After stints as general manager of two of the local dealerships, Daniel moved into the corporate office on Fillmore as vice president. “At that point, I felt like he needed to come down here and see what it’s like from the perspective of managing several stores,” his father says.

Janie’s sister and Daniel’s aunt, Becky Dodson, is also a vice president at AutoInc.

According to Eddie, the ability to work so closely with his family is one of the most rewarding things about his industry. “The retail automobile business – franchised new car stores – is still one of the last family-owned, big retail businesses in the country. Most of the rest have been taken over by big-box stores,” he says. Lumber yards, appliance retailers, and grocery stores always were family-owned businesses until the last couple of decades. Now they’ve been replaced by huge corporations. “We’ve been very fortunate. All these other retail operations have been gobbled up but our business is still intact,” Eddie says.

The one exception is AutoNation, a growing public company. Otherwise the car business remains privately held – but it’s no longer the mom-and-pop Chevy dealerships of the past. “Most of the operators own multiple stores like we do,” he says. That’s because low profit margins require a high sales volume and product diversity. “The old days where your grandparents always bought Chevrolets or Fords, those days are over now,” he says. “People’s brand loyalties have pretty much disappeared.”

That’s why AutoInc’s franchises range from Chevrolet to Nissan to Kia. And there’s much more to the business than just selling cars. From parts and service to financing and insurance, “there are so many opportunities for vertical integration in the car business,” Eddie explains. New technologies like ride-sharing services or driverless cars may eventually impact car sales, but Bradley is still hopeful. “Even if the car drives itself, you’ve got to buy it somewhere, somebody has to service it, and somebody has to have the parts,” he says. “Individual transportation is still going to be important for a long time.”

Bradley says one of the key’s to AutoInc’s success is its commitment to this region. “We get opportunities to buy a place in Georgia or California, but we’re not interested in that. We like being in Texas,” he says. Finding single-point dealerships – for instance, becoming the one Dodge dealer in an isolated market – is especially helpful. “If you’re going to buy a Dodge in Amarillo, you’ll pretty much buy it from us. In big markets like Dallas/Fort Worth, all the Dodge or Chevrolet dealers are beating each other’s brains out competing against each other.”

Daniel Bradley now has 20-plus years in the business and works closely with AutoInc Chief Operations Officer Kevan Wilson, who has been with the company since his late teens. Eddie’s trust in their experience has given him the freedom to loosen the reigns. He realizes transfer of power may be hard for some family businesses, but it hasn’t been a struggle within his family. “I have totally enjoyed, in the summer, when my wife and I will leave and nothing misses a beat while I’m gone. The three of us have worked together long enough that if anything comes up, the three of us have the same solution to the problem. Our thinking is so much alike.”

Eddie also recognizes his own limitations. “These younger guys have done a better job than I would have done. How to run a store today is not the way it was when I did it,” he says. Thinking of his father-in-law, Bob Garner, Eddie says he’s grateful for how the family business gave him a career. “I’m certainly appreciative of the opportunities that have been made available to me because of the business he was in, and the opportunity he gave me to get involved.”

Whether his own responsibilities in the family business stay the same or not, Eddie Bradley sees AutoInc continuing to expand – up to a point. “We will continue to want to grow. It will depend upon our comfort and ability to closely manage what we have,” he says. “The last thing we want to do is go on some crazy buying spree and end up with operations that are not successful. We want to keep what we have working well.”

The Big Texan Steak Ranch and Brewery

For travelers along Interstate 40, The Big Texan Steak Ranch and Brewery is a destination they anticipate across hours of open highway. Whether they actually stop here or not, they’ve been seeing the iconic “Free 72-ounce steak” signs for miles – from as far away as Winslow, Arizona, to the west and Russellville, Arkansas, to the east.

But for brothers Bobby and Danny Lee, The Big Texan was just the place they went after school. They would do their homework in the bookkeeper’s office or be put to work bussing tables or peeling calf fries. If they misbehaved, they’d be assigned the worst job in the restaurant. “We got put at the pot sink next to the homeless guy scrubbing pots and pans,” says Bobby, who is two years older and a couple inches taller than his brother. “Lesson learned.”

Though now co-owners of a world-famous business built by their father, R.J. “Bob” Lee, neither of the men thought it would become a career. “We always felt this was just a stepping stone, a way for getting money for gas and dates,” Danny says. “You ended up resenting it after awhile. Then you move away and start recognizing, like any kid does, how good it was back at home.”

In the mid-20th century, Bob and Mary Ann Lee made Amarillo the home for their large, Catholic family of 10. Bob fell in love with the area’s old-west history. Seeing an opportunity to serve the travelers streaming through town on Route 66, the entrepreneur opened the Big Texan Western Style Cafeteria in 1960. It later became The Big Texan Steak House, the enormous cowboy standing next to its sign a landmark on the Mother Road.

“He was a Yankee and wasn’t going to put together a real cowboy place that was true to nature,” Bobby says today, sitting in the balcony of the restaurant’s prominent location along I-40. “But he was smart enough to sit back and listen to what the people wanted. He put the biggest table we had right in front of the grill so all the customers could watch, and reserved it for the cowboys coming in from the stockyards. He’d sell nickel beer and just watch these guys trying to outdo each other.”

Eating competitions among those cowboys led to the Big Texan’s legendary 72-ounce steak challenge, and Bob Lee’s willingness to “give people what they want” defined what the Big Texan became.

Always looking for new opportunities, Lee bought property in east Amarillo with plans to open a beer store outside the city limits. Then, in 1968, Interstate 40 brought traffic to a standstill on Route 66 – right through that property. “We were so broke,” Bobby says. “Nobody would lend him money. We were in real bad financial shape.” Using salvaged building materials from the pre-fab barracks at Pantex Village, the family built a new version of The Big Texan on the interstate, moved the big sign, and reopened the restaurant.

Then Bob Lee died in 1990. “When my father passed away it was a shock. It was horrible, horrible news,” says Danny, whose eyes still get teary at the subject. At the time, he worked in Dallas in the electronics industry. Meanwhile, Bobby was marketing health clubs in the Metroplex. Upon Lee’s death, Bobby returned to Amarillo to help his mother with the family business. Danny came to Amarillo a few years later to join his brother.

The two bought the business from the family and now co-own The Big Texan Steak Ranch and Brewery outright. Bobby handles the marketing. Danny handles the operations. “He keeps us off the obituaries, and I keep us on the front page,” Bobby explains with a grin.

Is running a business as brothers ever challenging?

“Always,” answers Bobby.

“I was going to say ‘never,’” Danny says.

They make it work. Bobby’s wife, Tina, manages retail merchandise for the restaurant. Their two college-age sons help with graphic design from the Metroplex. Danny met his wife, Diane, when she was a waitress at The Big Texan and he was working in the kitchen. Today, their grown twin sons, 26-year-olds Jordan and Alex, are the kitchen manager and procurement manager, respectively. Their daughter, Madison, has done everything from waiting tables to working in the gift shop.

Today, the family-run steakhouse is more popular than it’s ever been, a fixture on cable network food and travel shows. Almost a third of its business comes from international tourists. The yellow building itself is bursting at the seams.

“We’re a 57-year-old restaurant and over the past five or six years we’ve seen our biggest increase in business,” says Bobby. Parking has become an issue. Wait times for its massive 500-person dining room have lengthened. “It’s a great problem, but we’ve got to take care of our Mother Ship.”

Both men refer to the restaurant that way. It’s the hub that helps fund the rest of the empire, from the gift shop to the brewery to the 54-unit Big Texan Motel to new ventures like Starlight Ranch, an indoor/outdoor event venue opening this summer for family reunions, wedding receptions, and concerts. Bigger plans are on the table for a 200-acre development a little to the west – a year-round waterpark, hotel, and revamped restaurant.

All of it will retain what the brothers refer to as the “unique ugliness” that customers love about this tourist destination. They don’t deny its showiness. Bobby compares it to the Hawaiian stereotype of hula girls wearing grass skirts. Danny equates it with the Empire State Building in New York City, which tourists flock to but locals ignore. The Big Texan is the Times Square of Amarillo. “We only see Amarilloans when someone’s in from out of town, because that’s what they’ve heard about,” Danny says.

“Is it true Texas? Absolutely not,” Bobby admits. “But it’s as true Texas as the world believes it is. That’s what the spirit of the Big Texan is. People come in ready to have fun and see what Texas is all about.”

Danny pulls up a TripAdvisor review from that morning, something he does daily. “It’s been 35 years, but it did not disappoint,” he reads. That gratifies him. Both brothers feel a responsibility to serve patrons who first visited their dad’s place in the 1970s, people who first came with a grandparent and are now bringing their own grandkids to the steakhouse. “This whole place is based on people being excited about getting here,” Bobby says. “Our job is making sure that expectation isn’t just met, but exceeded. Our staff is ready to give them the best Texas experience we can.”

That’s definitely something they learned from their father.

Bruckner’s

Along I-40, on the eastern edge of Amarillo, the Bruckner’s corporate office hides an enormous repair shop. Inside it, huge cabover Mack trucks and smaller Hino and Isuzu trucks are being serviced. As Brian and Chris Bruckner walk through the facility, dressed in crisp shirts and ties, they greet employees by name: A receptionist. A parts salesman. A crew of young mechanics. The two brothers know the ins and outs of their company, but they also know the people who make it work.

That’s something they learned from their father, Ben Bruckner, Jr., who passed away in 2012, and their late grandfather, B.M. "Bennie" Bruckner, the founder of the family business. “He was one of those guys that would walk in a room and everyone saw him as larger than life,” Chris says about their grandfather. “He loved people and striking up a conversation and understanding their business to see if he could help.”

As a young man in the 1920s, the elder Bruckner gained a reputation as something of a mechanical genius. He worked at Amarillo’s old power plant on Third Avenue and repaired vehicles on the side. “It was whatever people brought in,” Brian says. “Cars or trucks or tractors. People always heard ‘Bennie Bruckner can fix that.’”

The Depression hit Amarillo, and Bruckner lost his job around the age of 30. Needing a way to support his family of four, he turned his hobby into a business. He opened Bruckner’s Garage in 1932. His wife, Willa Mae, kept the books. A young cousin, Jess Pearce, joined him in the shop. Ambitious and a born salesman, Bruckner soon supplemented the repair work by becoming a dealer for irrigation motors and small truck lines.

Then, after World War II, he had the opportunity to become the licensed Mack Trucks dealer for Amarillo. Pierce took over the shop while Bennie sold trucks. “He saw that the shop would always be a small repair shop, but as a dealer he thought he could build a bigger business than as an independent garage,” Brian says. “He was always looking at ways to market and grow.”

After getting a business degree, Bennie’s son joined the company. In the 1960s, the father and son opened a satellite location in Lubbock. They bought former Mack-owned stores in larger cities, like Fort Worth, and then began acquiring dealerships in neighboring states, like New Mexico and Oklahoma, from owners who were ready to retire and didn’t have a successor.

Today, Bruckner’s operates 19 dealerships, three parts-and-service locations, and four parts-only stores across six states. Their trucking customers put hundreds of thousands of miles on a vehicle every year, so repair and maintenance are central components of the business. Bruckner’s also sells parts and trailers, owns a full-service leasing company, and operates a Dallas subsidiary that sells snowplows, trash collection trucks, and other refuse vehicles to municipalities.

Bennie Bruckner died in 1999 at the age of 95. His son, Ben, Jr., passed away at 82 as Chairman of the Board. By that time, the two elder Bruckners had left day-to-day operations in the capable hands of the third generation.

Today, Brian is CEO and president of the family business and Chris is executive vice president. Both had several years managing other Bruckner’s dealerships, but a decade before his death, Ben asked Brian to return to Amarillo to take on responsibilities in the corporate office. Chris followed a few years later.

The brothers enjoyed the opportunity to work alongside their dad during his twilight years – despite his refusal to retire. “That’s not the Bruckner way,” Brian says with a laugh.

“He didn’t have hobbies,” Chris says. “We told him to retire and enjoy [life] but he didn’t want anything to do with that. He loved being around people and checking on things. He’d go to the stores and meet with customers.”

Though Ben’s death was an emotionally difficult time for the family, it was softened by the fact that much of the transition of authority had already taken place. “In family businesses, you lose your dad but you also lose the leader of your company,” Brian says. “Fortunately for us, my dad planned the transition really well.” Despite his constant presence in the office, Ben hadn’t attempted to hang on to the operational responsibilities. “He was available to give advice and was a part of decisions, but he had confidence in us that we’d run with the ball.”

Just like their father, the boys had grown up in the business and were already familiar with every aspect of it. “Even when Chris and I were young, that’s where we worked when we weren’t at school,” Brian says. “Our grandfather wanted us to work here. When we were 12, he’d pick us up and take us to the shop and put us to work.” They swept floors. They hoed weeds. They organized salvage parts. Neither of them ever really considered doing anything else.

With 870 employees spread from Colorado to Louisiana, the business Brian and Chris inherited has grown far beyond what their grandfather, Bennie, may have imagined. But his personality and passion still informs their work and permeates the Bruckner’s culture. Back in the 1960s, Bennie implemented a profit-sharing plan for his employees. At the time, it was a relatively uncommon compensation structure. “We focused on taking care of people and worked hard to build relationships. If you hire great people and take care of them, they’ll take good care of your customers,” Brian says. “We’ve tried to instill that with all of our folks.”

Admittedly, expansion has required some concessions. “Back in the early days, with two to four stores, Dad could go around and know everybody and call them by name. He could ask about their kids,” Chris says. The brothers may be on a first-name basis with the Amarillo workforce, but they’re not quite capable of remembering the names of the 800 additional employees. “But it’s important to keep that [family-oriented] culture. As Brian and I travel to a store, we go around and see everybody and make them feel a part of the family. People appreciate it.”

Both of the third-generation Bruckners have kids in college now, but say they’ve been careful not to put expectations on the potential fourth generation of Bruckner family members. “My kids are hard-working and passionate about a lot of stuff,” Brian says. “Chris’s are, too. But if they don’t get up everyday and think about trucks and truck customers, then they’re not going to be successful in this business.”

Chris chimes in. “If they want to go do something else, more power to them. But if they have a passion for it and want to join, we’d love to have them.” He and his brother are walking advertisements for that passion, which is evident as they discuss the still-growing family enterprise. “It’s what we love and what we talk about,” Chris says. “Trucks are fun.”

Wonderland Amusement Park

Almost any child who grew up in Amarillo carries with him or her memories related to Wonderland Park. The first loop of the Texas Tornado. The thrill of hurtling backward on the Himalaya. Even the constant bell-tinkling of the boat ride near the entrance.

This historic amusement park has been a fixture of local childhoods and summers for decades. It may seem humble compared to parks like those in the Six Flags family, but it still sees more than 200,000 visitors a year. It’s well-known within the American amusement park industry. And unlike the big parks elsewhere in Texas, Wonderland is family-owned.

The first incarnation of Wonderland started in 1951, when Paul and Alethea Roads erected rides in an undeveloped section of Thompson Park, which they’d purchased from the city. Called Kiddie Land, it had precisely three rides: a circular boat ride, a small roller coaster called the Lil’ Dipper, and a car ride that Roads built himself. A fabricator at Amarillo’s Air Force base, Roads worked full-time at the base while running the park on summer nights and weekends.

Eventually, Kiddie Land became profitable enough for Roads to make it his full-time job. He maintained the park and rides, and Alethea handled everything else, from bookkeeping to selling tickets to managing employees. Kiddie Land grew, adding rides until, in 1969, the Roads decided to upgrade the name. That’s when Wonderland Park was born, named after Lewis Carroll’s fantasy world.

Wonderland was a family affair from the beginning. Alethea’s parents, Robert and Ruth Mikesell, moved to Amarillo during those early years after they retired. Robert helped install and operate the boats. Ruth managed the Wonderland golf course into her late eighties. The Roads’ two children, Paula and Danny, grew up at the park. Danny passed away in 1963.

That left Paula, the couple’s only child, and in 1969, she convinced her new husband, Paul Borchardt, to move to Amarillo and join her parents in running the business. The couple had met at Oklahoma University and Borchardt, an officer in the Navy, had been headed toward a full-time Naval career.

“I came in as a manager,” he says today of his first years at Wonderland. But he quickly discovered that, as with many small family businesses, “managing” was a broad description. The Wonderland organizational chart was nothing like what he’d experienced in the military. “The organizational chart was me, all the way from making decisions to cleaning bathrooms and picking up trash,” he says.

Borchardt and his in-laws carefully navigated some of the more challenging aspects familiar to anyone in a family business. The Roads were entrepreneurs and as the founding generation, had grown used to making decisions. Borchardt was young and ambitious, seeking to establish his own authority. Eventually, the give-and-take relationship evolved as Borchardt proved himself – and his business sense – to the family. With good communication and a lot of mutual trust, they eventually named him president and general manager of the company. Paula became vice president, taking over the bookkeeping and other responsibilities.

Wonderland began to flourish. A staff that was once comprised of just a few family members grew into the dozens. Groundbreaking rides like the Fantastic Journey and Texas Tornado were added. And a new generation of the family – Paul and Paula Borchardt’s four daughters – began their careers at Wonderland.

“My wife made sure they had the exposure to playing games and sports [that other kids had], but they grew up out here,” Paul says of his girls. “They worked here even when they were in junior high.”

One of those daughters, Rebecca Parker, is still with the company. As a teenager, she worked in the food stands, administered games, and operated rides. Eventually, she began overseeing and training other young employees. “My parents needed me,” she says. “That’s how I felt in high school. Being out here was fun, but I felt like they needed someone trustworthy to run the games.”

Rebecca earned a Master of Business Administration degree, got married, became a CPA, and returned to Amarillo to raise her family in the mid-1990s. Now Wonderland’s controller, her job entails watching over the finances of a year-round company that only makes money during the three summer months when Wonderland is open.

Rebecca’s husband, Randy, works for a drug company. But their two daughters – 18-year-old Sabrina and 12-year-old Rachel – have already been introduced to the family business. “Sabrina helps me count money and make deposits. She works in the gate or games or whatever I ask,” Rebecca says. As for Rachel, “she told me she wants to be in charge of the park. I told her she’s going to have to start working to see what it takes,” her mom says.

According to the family patriarch, being in charge requires a 24-7 commitment and a willingness to carry a sizeable family burden. “Everyone is looking at you,” Paul Borchardt says. “Everyone depends on your decisions. It takes awhile to learn that you can’t ever really leave it behind. It’s all on your shoulders at all times.”

Wonderland has grown far beyond Kiddie Land, and that growth continues. This past summer, once it opened to the public, the park’s staff swelled to 150 people. Until then, a full-time staff of 20 had been working throughout the off-season, painting, refurbishing and maintaining rides.

The Borchardts and the rest of the family know it’s important that their park continues to “wow” their patrons from one year to the next. “We always want people to see something different along with their favorite rides,” he says. “There are always plans [for the future]. We’re out of space.”

A newly extended contract with the city of Amarillo leases the land to Wonderland through 2040. This March, the city council agreed to add nearly half an acre to the park’s western boundary – enough space for two new rides.

Until that expansion occurs, Paul and Paula Borchardt and Rebecca Parker continue to pour everything into the legacy the Roads created. The hard work and passion that fuels them are traits they learned from the park’s founders. Paul Roads died in 2003. Alethea remained involved in Wonderland’s operations well into her nineties, until she passed away this past summer at the age of 100. Both saw their dream turn into an iconic Amarillo destination, and the couple was honored with a Lifetime Service Award from the industry-leading International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. They left Wonderland in the capable hands of the two generations that followed them.

by Jason Boyett

Jason has written more than a dozen books and is the host and creator of “Hey Amarillo”, a local interview podcast. Visit heyamarillo.com and jasonboyett.com.
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