JA Business Hall of Fame: Randy Austin

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By LISA LOEWEN
Photos by RACHEL LOCK PHOTOGRAPHY

WALK INTO RANDY AUSTIN’S OFFICE at Fairlawn Plaza and the first thing you notice is the artwork on the walls.  Vibrant paintings depict the lives of Native American Indians in vivid detail.

The second thing you notice is Randy’s friendly smile and warm handshake.  As owner of Fairlawn Plaza, LLC, Randy has exemplified excellence as an entrepreneur, negotiator, landlord, community leader and philanthropist.

EVOLUTION
With almost 40 stores calling Fairlawn Plaza home, Randy has played an instrumental role in the evolution of the shopping center that was constructed more than fifty years ago.  He chalks his success up to adaptability and a willingness to take risks.

“You have to be able to live and thrive in today’s world, but accept an uncertain future,” Randy says.

Accepting an uncertain future is nothing new to Randy.  He has been doing it his entire life.

A Russian History degree may seem an obscure path to law school, but for Randy it provided the foundation for the man he would later become.

IMPACT
During his freshman year at the University of Kansas, Randy attended a survey class about Slavic studies taught by Professor Oswald Backus.  Ninety percent of the 300-member class failed the first exam.  Professor Backus scheduled an individual appointment with every single student to help them better prepare for the next exam.  That level of dedication and caring had a profound impact on Randy.  He took every class Professor Backus taught, including those in law school.

“He became a father figure to me,” Randy says.  “He had a towering intellect and a profound sense of humility.”

Immediately after graduating from law school, Randy went to work for the Kansas Highway Commission.  Because he was young and single, he found himself handling eminent domain cases all over the state.  From there, he moved to Johnson County, where he practiced law until 1986.

TOPEKA
That year, his life took an unexpected detour.  His great aunt called and asked him to move to Topeka to help her sort out the trust left behind when Charles Bennett, the founder of Fairlawn Plaza, passed away.

“I agreed to take a six-week sabbatical from my law firm and have been in Topeka ever since,” Randy says with a laugh.

That was more than 30 years ago.

While Fairlawn Plaza didn’t own the mall on the corner, it did own the land underneath it.  The owner didn’t live in Topeka and hadn’t paid the bank for 18 months prior to Randy becoming involved in the business. 

“We had two choices,” Randy says.  “Let it go bankrupt.  Or try to buy it and do something with it.”

LANDLORD
He chose the second option.  But that required a huge investment in both money and labor.  Many of the spaces inside of the mall were vacant.  It had two empty theaters and they had to find a way to turn a two-story building into a one-story option that was attractive to small retail businesses.  In addition to structural changes, Randy also implemented some cultural ones.  In an era of landlord against the tenant mentality, Randy came in with a new idea:  tenants and landlords have a community of interests.Screenshot 2017-03-01 16.00.12

That mutually beneficial approach has resulted in some long-term lessees.  The Barber Shop is the same since 1963.  Hair Secrets called it home for 26 years, and Dickerson Antiques was there for 34 years before it closed in 2014.

 

Randy credits his view of landlord/tenant relationships to his time litigating in the courtroom and the valuable lessons he learned about how to treat people.

“I learned early on that I never wanted to be a plaintiff or a defendant in a legal case,” Randy says.

INVOLVEMENT
That underlying view shines through in every endeavor Randy undertakes.  Whether for business, community outreach or his personal life, Randy says he strives to always be honest and fair. 

The difference between a good businessman and a great one is often found in what he or she does outside of business.  Based on that measure, Randy easily falls into the “great” category.  He is actively involved in the Topeka Civic Theatre Endowment, the Topeka Zoo, the Kansas Humanities Council and CASA.  But you should see his face light up when you ask him about Audio Reader, a reading and information service for blind, visually impaired and print disabled individuals.

“I just received a certificate for 25 years of service,” Randy says.

Having served as the head of development for the past 10 years for Audio Reader, Randy currently reads the Topeka Capital Journal on Sundays.  His early work involved reading books on tape.

PRIDE
Another of Randy’s favorite projects was the “Lion’s Pride” exhibit at the Topeka Zoo, where he helped commission the large statue.

“That was one of the best things I’ve even been involved with,” Randy says.

When Randy looks back on his life, he sees a number of crossroads where he could have chosen a different path.  But the detours and side roads are what made him who he is today.  As for what the future holds?  Randy holds those cards close to the vest.

“I’d love to live in Japan for a year,” Randy says.  “There is a lot of secular spirituality there.  Plus, there are fewer lawyers in the entire country of Japan than members of the Kansas City Bar Association.”

Fellow Laureates:

Martha Bartlett Piland

Duane and Beth Fager

Randy Austin

Mike Worswick and DeWitt Harkness

Don Landoll