Akron/Canton (3279)

Tuesday, 15 April 2014 21:28

John Myers: A letter to startups

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Dear entrepreneur,

 

Entrepreneurial support in Northeast Ohio has come a long way since I first got involved with the Akron Regional CHange Angel in 2005. Back then, the term entrepreneur, and all its variations, was just beginning to be used to describe startup companies and their drivers, long before reaching the nauseating overuse of the word we experience today. Since then, we have seen the support and funding networks for startups grow exponentially, which is mostly for the good.

The $2.1 billion Ohio Third Frontier program, with all its subsets, has actually provided the platform for much of what you might take for granted today. There are so many support organizations out there spawned from this program, such as JumpStart Inc., BioEnterprise, the Small Business Association, Small Business Development Center, Urban League of Greater Cleveland, Edison Technology Incubators, Council of Smaller Enterprises, Akron SCORE, and local and regional chambers of commerce. And while they’re all here to help, the chorus of advice coming from them can be overwhelming.

It's hard for you, as the risk taker, to not become overwhelmed by all these options. I’ve heard it thousands of times from startup entrepreneurs: There’s so much advice coming at them, much of it conflicting, some of it good, some of it way off base. As someone involved in startups, I’m here to tell you we all mean well. We sincerely want you to be successful, and to create jobs and wealth in Northeast Ohio.

But sometimes, as advisers, counselors and mentors, we don’t recognize the confusion and information overload we’re causing you. How can you possibly sort thru all of it, find and apply the best and most relevant information to help you find funding, get traction and grow your business?

After doing this for nine years and talking to thousands of businesses in many industries, from high-tech to low-tech to no tech, by advice boils down to this: Use your gut.

Yep, it's hard. But then it's been hard since you started. It was hard when you told your parents or significant other that you were forgoing a traditional job to start your own business. It was hard when you fired your best friend. It was hard when you pulled three all-nighters in a row. It was hard to take that leap of faith and start your own business, and harder still to stick with it until it became successful.

Deciding who to listen to is hard, especially when someone tells you that following their advice is the only way to get their support or money.

But you know that's not the right way to go. You have tested the beta, gone out and talked to potential customers, gotten feedback from the market and pivoted. Your team is behind you, they believe in you, and are dependent on you making the right decision. This is when you have to suffer through the anxiety, when you have to reach down inside and make that potentially game-ending decision and go with your only true best friend, your gut.

It really does come down to the old axioms: If it doesn't feel right don't do it. But if it does feel right, just do it. Hey, that last one worked for Phil Knight. It will work for you.

Sincerely,

John Myers

 

John Myers works with the University of Akron Research Foundation as executive-in-residence and president of the Akron Innovation Campus, and is a founding member of the Akron ARCHAngels Investment Network. John serves on the review committee for the LCCC Innovation Fund, co-chairs the Supplier Diversity Committee at UA, and founded and mentors the Northeast Ohio Student Venture Fund. He provides entrepreneur support for the Greater Akron Chamber and serves on the Board of Advisors for Athena/Powerlink - Akron. Reach him at (330) 972-2144 or jmyers2@uakron.edu.

Laura Bennett took on an uphill battle and co-founded Embrace Pet Insurance

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Laura Bennett was trying to get her fledgling pet insurance business off the ground in 2005 when she had to confront the reality that the insurance industry was a male-dominated one.

Bennett and co-founder Alex Krooglik were searching for an insurance partner who would back Embrace Pet Insurance, her company, and left for London to seal a deal with Lloyd’s of London, the global specialist insurance king.

“Well, that was the problem — trying to find a partner that would work with two people who were not from around here,” she says. “I’m British and Canadian and Alex is Australian so we didn’t have loads of connections in the U.S.” 

Watch for traditions

Not only was the mere fact that she was a woman challenging, she was pregnant. And Lloyd’s wanted to do the deal over drinks, dinner and cigars.

“Only one of which I could do! I could eat, but I couldn’t drink, and I certainly couldn’t smoke cigars,” Bennett says. “So I actually took someone from JumpStart with me, Mark Smith, and he was my designated drinker and cigar smoker.

“Otherwise it would’ve been awkward for them with me not being able to do the wine part, and meanwhile they’re busy doing that. And it just worked out very well.

“So I think you take your angles, and you work out exactly how it goes, and you do your best.”

While an angel investor had provided cash for Bennett’s startup, if it was going to grow, it had to attract venture capital. At this point, Bennett got another wake up call —the world of funding was also male-dominated.

“That was a challenge,” she says. “If you are a woman running a business, especially if it offers a product that women buy, it can be dismissed as frivolous and not worthy.

“So I was lucky in that I am an actuary; I have a mathematics degree. I’ve got my professional credentials and reputation which precedes me, and that helped; no doubt about it.”

Don’t celebrate early

Fortunately, Embrace was able to secure venture capital funding — at the beginning of the recent recession. But even then the going was tough for an insurance in which only 1 to 3 percent of Americans enroll their pets.

“It took a few more years before I didn’t wake up in a cold sweat wondering how we were going to find the money to pay for things,” Bennett says. “Since then, we finally worked out what works — that’s one of your big lessons when you are an entrepreneur. Also, we finally got some real momentum and successes going.”

Bennett credits the company’s reputation for a large part of those successes.

“People feel like they have a really amazing relationship with us; that’s important because insurance is all about trust. You have to prove yourselves, and you can’t just say to people, ‘Trust us.’ You have to actually be trustworthy.

“We were able to make our product sound a little more technical, and we focused on the Internet aspect of it. In the end, what’s valuable about our business is our relationship with the customer.”

How to reach: Embrace Pet Insurance,  (800) 511-9172 or www.embracepetinsurance.com 

 

To help Easter Seals connect, Sheila Dunn puts the focus on mentors and business relationships  

Sheila Dunn has found that one of the major keys to successful leadership — for men or women — is having a mentor who you can work with. The president and CEO of Easter Seals of Northern Ohio, Dunn highly recommends finding someone you can shadow and learn from. 

“There are a lot of folks out there who would be very, very pleased and excited to take you under their wing and show you the ropes, and I was very lucky to have a couple of them,” she says. 

“A very good friend of mine owned his own company. We would often talk about the challenges of hiring folks and training them and what your expectations were for employees and things, and it didn’t make a difference what his company manufactured; for what we did, working with people directly, you still go through the exact same scenarios and the same challenges.” 

 

Nonprofits are businesses 

Dunn insists there is no difference between running a not-for-profit organization such as Easter Seals and operating a business in the private sector. 

“We’ve learned that being a nonprofit organization doesn’t mean you shouldn’t operate like a business, because that is really what you are doing,” she says. “You are a business; you just don’t pay out any dividends or shares or anything like that.

 “I think perhaps there is a mistaken idea by the private sector that folks in nonprofits don’t operate that way. In the long run, we still operate very much on a shoestring budget so it is important to operate like a business.” 

 

Creating a network 

For a leader of a nonprofit organization, it’s as important to build a network of business contacts as it is for business leaders to develop their not-for-profit network.

“The more people get involved in the community, whether it’s a civic group or whatever, it’s a plus,” she says. “I’ve been a Rotarian for 26 years, from the time they let women in, and within Rotary, you find folks who do similar things. Being in Rotary has helped me a lot because there are a lot of representatives of business. 

“The whole purpose of doing events is to bring people to the organization and to see if we can get a higher level of commitment from them to eventually become board members, donors and things like that.” 

Dunn’s experience with volunteering goes back to when she was a young girl. 

“My family was that way — we got involved,” she says. “Statistics show that the younger you are, and the more involved you are from a volunteer standpoint, you will probably do it your whole life. It’s a great lesson to learn for children. I think a lot of the rewards come back far more than what you put out. It’s knowing that you made a difference in someone’s life with whatever you did to help.”

How to reach: Easter Seals of Northern Ohio, (440) 324-6600 or noh.easterseals.com 

 

Finding her identity helped Kristen Morris’ career more than any mentor could 

It took Kristen Morris a good 10 years, she says, to realize she could be effective just by being herself. 

“That doesn’t sound that impressive, but it was a huge sort of epiphany for me to realize that the key to being a successful individual — male, female, multicultural or whatever — is to just be yourself, and be honest, outwardly and inwardly,” says Morris, the chief government and community relations officer for The Cleveland Clinic. 

“Obviously you work very, very hard all the time, and you are ethical and right. But style is a very important component in terms of advancing one’s career. That was probably the biggest thing I struggled with for a long time.” 

 

Blazing the trail 

Morris changed her career path during college after an internship in Washington, D.C., opened her eyes to the operation of government. 

“I grew up working in the ’80s and ’90s, and it was sort of the impressionable era for me at a time when I was mentored by women who really blazed the trail in business, especially in a very male-dominated world like Washington,” Morris says. 

A lot of them succeeded, so to speak, being tougher and more aggressive. 

“I struggled with trying to follow that model because I am not like that at all,” Morris says. “I am not an aggressive, outspoken manager or individual. I am the mother of six; I am very nurturing; and I really struggled with how to be effective but yet comfortable with myself. 

“How could I follow the advice of my mentors when at the same time I wasn’t ultimately going to be like them and how they operated?” 

Morris learned that while her objectives changed and were modified over time, as long as she was building her resume in the same direction, progress was being made. 

“I found that it will serve your career well,” she says. “The hard work and strategic experience-building is just critical.”

 

Finding your style 

But overarching that advice are two fundamentals for success: finding a style that you are comfortable with and developing that style of management. 

“I guarantee that you as an individual will be far more successful if you follow those two basic principles. It is something that you can’t necessarily be mentored into. It’s your own journey,” Morris says. 

Be aware, however, of the outside influences that could derail your progress. 

“I would be lying if I didn’t say, like everything in life, you doubt yourself on occasion,” she says. “‘Am I being too nice? Am I being too feminine? Am I being too decisive? Am I being too indecisive?’ Those are questions that I will have all the time, and I’m sure my peers and counterparts do as well. 

“But as you grow and develop, that becomes less and less of an occurrence and you do find that you will have more confidence. 

“You have to prove it, time and time again, repetitively,” Morris says. “That’s the stride that you hit. It really takes time. And I think that’s why people call it a career — it just builds and eventually you may have an amazing opportunity to represent the world’s most pre-eminent health care institution! It’s all earned.”

How to reach: The Cleveland Clinic Community Relations Office, (216) 444-7506 or my.clevelandclinic.org/about-cleveland-clinic/overview/community/default.aspx

 

Lindsay Sims launched Renter’s Boom to fill property managers’ needs to post  

As she stepped into the technology business, Lindsay Sims knew it was a male-dominated field. 

“It’s technology, so it’s a heavily male-dominated industry — I mean a very heavily male-dominated industry,” she says. “I was fortunate to know that going in, and the good thing is that I haven’t had any of my clients behave any differently toward me because I’m a woman.” 

Sims founded Renter’s Boom, a social media consulting firm for property managers, in 2011, after seeing the communication problems property managers were experiencing. 

“I am a problem solver, and I kept seeing the challenges that they were having,” she says. “I mean everything in me was screaming, ‘Help them fix this!’” 

 

Go with your gut

So putting aside the fact that the tech industry was male-dominated, she went with her gut feeling that she could find ways to leverage technology and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to bring positive results for clients. 

Not only is the tech field dominated by men, Sims discovered that the majority of property management companies are owned by men too. There was, however, a saving grace — the majority of people who run the properties are women. 

“So they are used to it; they are totally used to women coming in and doing stuff,” she says. “That was not the problem.” 

The challenge for Sims, as it turns out, was her enthusiasm for social media. It was something most property managers were not excited about. They didn’t like change and wanted to stick with traditional tools. 

“This was an industry where people were still using the newspaper as the main form of communication,” she says. “So I understood that and realized, ‘Wait a second, Lindsay, you have to work with them.’” 

Sims stepped back, secured a few clients and did their social media for about two years. 

 

Switching gears 

“But there is only so far you can go,” she says. “There is not enough time in the day for you to have a whole lot of clients if you alone are doing services for them. 

“I realized it didn’t quite matter, even with all the automation I was offering; if they weren’t doing it for themselves, I was never going to actually make any money — I was just making revenue.” 

At this point, Renter’s Boom switched from being a service firm to a consulting firm. Sims built a platform that allows clients to log in and script out their campaign and social media activity in advance. 

“My goal is to get everybody to the point where they are social media experts … where they are doing it themselves; where they are learning all the latest techniques,” she says. 

In addition to her yen to solve problems, Sims gives credit for her success to her mantra: It is very important to not limit yourself. 

“Whenever I am thinking about a choice, I wait a second: ‘Am I choosing based on today, or am I choosing based on some future comfort?’ If it is fine now, let it be fine now, and when they get to that point where I will need to make a decision or change it, let’s change it. But I’m not going to limit myself based on what may or may not happen in the future.”

 How to reach: Renter’s Boom, (216) 245-1841 or www.rentersboom.com

 

 

The field of marketing is changing rapidly. Customers can engage with businesses anytime and have higher expectations than ever. Free next-day shipping, 24-hour support and social media have created the need to improve service without necessarily creating additional revenue opportunities. As a business owner, how do you allocate your resources?

Here are two startling statistics when listed together: It costs six to seven times more to acquire a new customer than retain a current one, according to the White House Office of Consumer Affairs. A study conducted by Bain & Co. cited that increasing customer retention rates by 5 percent increases profits by 25 to 95 percent.

So why invest such a large portion of your budget in customer acquisition when customer retention drives profitability?

Sales and marketing audit

Here’s a simple way to audit your current sales and marketing plan to ensure you maximize investment. Evaluate your total investment based on the intent of each message. For each activity, ask if the goal is to:

  • Acquire new customers.

  • Retain current customers.

  • Appreciate your customers for a recent action.

  • Convert current customers to a different or additional product or service.

  • Re-activate lapsed customers.

  • Educate customers on new enhancements or industry information that strengthens your relationship.


Acquisition efforts are being over-valued. Dedicating a fraction of those dollars to appreciation and retention would significantly increase your bottom line.

Making the shift

While the trend is to move online where there is less personal customer engagement, customers need a personal touch to reinforce their importance. Differentiate yourself by shifting dollars from low-performing acquisition expenses to personalized appreciation and retention investments.   

Once you have completed your audit, move the lowest-performing 5 percent of your current acquisition expenses to new retention and appreciation activities.

For example:

  • Send a handwritten thank-you card to every new customer within 24 hours of their purchase.

  • Send a gift to recognize the anniversary of when you started doing business with your top 20 customers.

  • Have your CEO personally call and thank the buyer of each new customer you gain this year.

  • Send a thank-you gift to customers who provide you with complaints, allowing you to improve your product.

  • Provide a bonus for internal employees who receive customer compliments.


The Gartner Group reports that 80 percent of your future revenue will come from 20 percent of your current customers. By investing directly in those relationships, you can ensure you are maximizing the lifetime value of each customer. Often you also receive great anecdotal feedback on how to improve your product/service offering to meet their needs.

Sam Falletta is president and CEO of Incept Corp. Sam has developed successful customer acquisition and retention strategies for some of the largest brands in the world, including Microsoft, Ford, Honda and the American Red Cross. Reach him at (330) 994-1322 or sam.falletta@inceptresults.com. More is available at www.inceptresults.com.

Learn more at:
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/samfalletta

No matter what your life’s background might be — professional, technical, service-oriented or otherwise — one thing we all share is the customer experience. We have all had the experience of buying something, whether it is an object, a service or something more subjective, like advice. One thing is for sure: With each experience, we know when we’ve been treated well, and we know when we’ve been treated badly.   

More and more people who have a need for something are taking into account their previous customer experience and relying on it to make purchase decisions. Years ago, the mantra in retail was “the customer is always right.” This has become the new normal in health care as people are now, more than ever before, using their retail shopping skills when making medical choices that, because of health care reform, have multiplied and become more complex.  

A retail-minded approach

For health care providers, a retail-minded approach means that patient access systems need to become more intuitive and customer friendly. Care providers have to meet potential patients on their terms, where they live and work.

The provision of care needs to exceed the patient’s expectations. This is especially important now as care providers are being financially reimbursed based on both their clinical outcomes data and patient experience survey scores.

Akron General is meeting the challenges posed by this dramatic transformation in the national health care landscape. To provide care when and where it is most convenient for the patient, Akron General has developed two major initiatives.

First, it is opening four urgent care centers throughout the region. Urgent care centers provide urgent, not emergent care for minor health concerns and are open evenings and weekends in response to the customer’s desire for convenience and lower costs. Akron General’s first urgent care center opened in Tallmadge in February.

In addition, Akron General has taken this concept of convenience and cost savings even further by acquiring a full-sized mobile unit, the Health & Wellness Express, to service patients’ medical needs in their own neighborhoods. It’s outfitted with clinical treatment bays and will allow clinicians to offer health screenings and other medical services at churches, schools, neighborhood centers and business throughout Northeast Ohio.

Health systems everywhere also are enhancing their patient access touch points by using Internet and mobile portals for physician appointments and medical record access. Akron General offers this service through its website and new features will be coming soon.  

Change is the only constant

Americans are experts in knowing what we want and expecting the best when it comes to the retail experience. People today are applying these shopping skills to their health care experiences. Those who deliver care must adapt.   
 
How organizations respond to change is the difference between whether they are successful or challenged. Today, that response requires speed in assessing and acting, forward thinking and close attention to the customer, because the customer is always right.

Dr. Thomas “Tim” L. Stover, MBA, is president and CEO of Akron General Health System, which is a health system trying to keep people out of the hospital. Reach him at tim.stover@akrongeneral.org. More is available at www.akrongeneral.org.

Learn more about Akron General at:
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Twitter: @MyAkronGeneral

“In Cleveland’s heyday … proximity to water or rail mattered a lot. Today, proximity to a university campus matters a lot.”

Tim Ferguson of Forbes said that, not at a recent high-tech conference, but 15 years ago and in the context of manufacturing. What was true at the close of the last century is even more important in the opening decades of the present one.

There’s no question that today’s economy is a global knowledge- and technology-intensive one, as the National Science Board’s 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators suggest. Research discoveries that beget new technologies and further innovations through human capital are as critical to manufacturing today as electricity and petroleum were last century.

And just as 20th century manufacturers in Northeast Ohio benefited from ready access to shipping, highways and rail, their 21st century counterparts will benefit from the region’s abundance of intellectual assets.

Northeast Ohio is home to more than 30 universities and colleges. Yet few businesses, particularly among small- to medium-size enterprises, value these institutions beyond their talent-supply-chain benefits. Most seemingly ignore the innovation and research capacities. That is akin to our region drawing upon Lake Erie only as a source for potable water, and ignoring its vast potential for shipping, fishing and recreation.

Forging partnerships

Fortunately for all, universities and colleges are actively seeking to provide regional SMEs greater access to university-generated research and innovation.

In 2012, The University of Akron, Cleveland State University, Case Western Reserve University and Lorain County Community College joined with the Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network to facilitate university support of SMEs.

That same year James Griffith, president and CEO of The Timken Co., and I promoted a greater linkage of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership program with universities as sources of innovation, the mission of which is spelled out in the National Research Council’s book, “21st Century Manufacturing: The Role of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program.”

In addition, a collaboration of seven research universities that includes Akron, Case Western and Youngstown State University led to the establishment of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, now known as America Makes, which has garnered about $70 million in federal and corporate funding.

The Youngstown-based institute is the nation’s leading partnership in additive manufacturing and 3-D printing technology research, discovery, development and commercialization. America Makes is accelerating the transformation of American manufacturers as they collectively seek to lead the world in advanced manufacturing productivity.

More to come

Last year, Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers, and I were appointed by President Barack Obama to the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Steering Committee “2.0.” With this, Northeast Ohio is again prominently involved in the ongoing development of new technological resources to support American manufacturing.

Earlier this month, The University of Akron and the United Steelworkers hosted an AMP 2.0 regional meeting in Akron that showcased our region’s advanced manufacturing activities, and added our region’s input into a national manufacturing policy initiative in development by the White House.

Today, more than ever, universities and colleges partner with manufacturers to identify areas where their assets and expertise can be accessed and utilized to develop and commercialize technology. Today, universities mean business!

Luis M. Proenza is president of The University of Akron. Luis serves on the Executive Committee of the Council on Competitiveness, the Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy at the National Academies, as well as its Council of the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable. More is available at www.uakron.edu.

Learn more about the University of Akron at:
Facebook: www.facebook.com/UniversityofAkron
Twitter: @uakron

Monday, 31 March 2014 12:08

Mission: Akron: Making your worldwide debut

Written by

You have invented the next big thing, a breakthrough in the medical device, polymer, energy or tech industries. Now what? How will you reach customers? How will you manufacture it? How will you recruit talent? To whom will you go to get the funding you need to develop the business in its pre-revenue stages?

The Akron Global Business Accelerator has been answering those questions for 30 years. The Accelerator provides entrepreneurial support to technology-based startups in diverse fields, including biomedical, energy, advanced materials, IT, instruments, controls and electronics.

The Accelerator is not just a place; it is a program with a value proposition second to none for entrepreneurs. Upon joining the program, entrepreneurs can attain an immediate professional presence. The Accelerator has high-quality lab, office and manufacturing suites at favorable pricing.

But more importantly, clients receive free guidance from staff entrepreneurs-in-residence on business challenges, strategic relationships and securing investments. Through the Accelerator’s Technology Company Acceleration program, all Accelerator clients have an entrepreneur-in-residence assigned to their company as an extension of its management team.

The Accelerator’s entrepreneurs-in-residence have more than 125 years of experience taking technology-based startups to successful outcomes. The Technology Company Acceleration program initiative, as directed by the entrepreneurs-in-residence, assists clients in mapping their path to success, setting up milestones and accessing the resources to reach those goals.

Global impacts

Among the Accelerator success stories are Echogen Power, which has developed a 10 megawatt waste heat to electricity engine. Vadxx Energy is building a commercial scale plant in Akron converting 20,000 tons per year of waste plastics into high-quality petroleum products.

Knotice is recognized by Forrester Research as having one of the best Data Management Platforms in the world. My1HR is developing one the most broadly accepted health care insurance exchange software tools. Garden Art Innovations is launching the first BodySafe™ line of cosmetics in the U.S. and Europe.

7Signal is introducing a revolutionary WiFi Performance Assurance and Optimization tool, and Summit Data has become the market leader in producing WiFi radios for demanding environments.

Global reach

The City of Akron has been working to build its “Technology Bridge” program in Israel, Finland, Lithuania, Slovenia, Germany and other countries. This brings some of the world’s most innovative technologies to the “soft landing spot” we have created in Akron, and opens the doors to export opportunities for our clients.

The Accelerator is nationally recognized for its innovation and has assisted client companies in securing $86 million in investments, generating 639 new high-paying jobs, $181 million in sales and $104.5 million in payroll since 2008. The Accelerator has won the National Business Incubation Association’s Innovation Award and has been the longest running and top-performing incubator in Ohio based upon investment, client revenues and job creation.

For all technology innovators who are asking, “Now what?,” I invite you to take advantage of Akron’s transformational Accelerator program.

Don Plusquellic is Mayor of Akron, Ohio. First sworn in as mayor in 1987, Don’s career in public service now spans five decades. The mayor’s most important mission, along with improving education, has been securing and fortifying Akron’s economic future. Learn more at www.akronohio.gov

Engage with the City of Akron at:
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Twitter @CityofAkronOhio

For many folks, there’s something about Northeast Ohio that can’t be replicated by any other place in the U.S. Northeast Ohio is home. That makes the area unique to so many who have left to explore opportunities elsewhere only to return, and for those who go to great lengths to make their hometown a wonderful place to work and live.

Para M. Jones, president of Stark State College and the subject of this month’s cover story, is a boomerang resident. She was born in Canton and spent 22 years at Stark State, working her way up to vice president before leaving to become president of Spartanburg Community College in South Carolina.

But something brought her back. As she told me in our interview, “I had a wonderful opportunity, wonderful college, wonderful students, wonderful team, but when this presidency (at Stark State) opened, I was very drawn to come back to Northeast Ohio, and of course the college where I had spent so much time and invested so much and where I really believed in the mission, understood the students and really wanted to be leading in workforce and economic development.”

Dave Michelson, president and CEO of the Richfield-based National Interstate Corp., is also looking to build up the region’s workforce. He was audibly excited about what Northeast Ohio has to offer job candidates when we talked in preparation for this month’s feature.

Michelson divulged how he actively promotes his company and the region, saying, “Northeast Ohio, in my view, is a great place to have a company. It’s a great place to raise a family. Between having access to wonderful public school systems, an abundance of private schools, lots of upper level education here in Northeast Ohio and throughout Ohio, the park system, the arts, the sports teams …

“If you can get by the cloudy weather that exists here, this is a great place to have home offices and raise a family.”

Building on the idea of growth in the region, one of this month’s columnists, Akron’s Mayor Don Plusquellic, highlights the achievements and proliferation of the Akron Global Business Accelerator, noting that it has been the longest running and top-performing incubator in Ohio based upon investment, client revenues and job creation.

Both Jones and another one of this month’s columnists, Luis M. Proenza, president of the University of Akron, talk about how institutions of higher learning are fostering growth in the region by partnering with local businesses to help them succeed in the market.

Outside of the realm of business, this month’s issue also highlights the Kent State University Museum and the Tuesday Musical Association. Both organizations hint at the diverse interest of our communities and how the region has much to offer its residents beyond economic opportunities.

The message is clear from those living and working in the region I’ve talked with this month — Northeast Ohio is a great place to stay, or even come back to.

Adam Burroughs is assistant managing editor & digital managing editor at Smart Business. He writes for Smart Business Akron/Canton and is interested in the people and businesses making a difference in the Akron/Canton area. Reach him at (440) 250-7062 or aburroughs@sbnonline.com.

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Facebook: www.facebook.com/SmartBusinessNortheastOhio

The Tuesday Musical Association has been providing classical music concerts to the Akron community for more than 125 years. Its mantra, “Presenting the Finest,” is exactly what it does, according to Jarrod Hartzler, executive director of the association.

“Most of the world’s most successful and acclaimed musicians have appeared on our concert stage. Annually, musical legends such as Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Renée Fleming and ensembles such as The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and the Vienna Boys Choir comprise our concert season,” he says.

In addition to its six-concert main-stage series, the TMA offers a broad range of education programs and partners with community organizations.

Programs include a complimentary student ticket program that makes concerts free to students of all ages; master classes and student workshops for local elementary high school and college students presented by guest artists; and collaborations with other arts organizations including the Akron Symphony Orchestra and Akron Art Museum.

In addition there is a scholarship program for college-aged music students and the Brahms Allegro Junior Music Club that provides performance opportunities for students ages 5 to 18.  

“All of these programs combined help the TMA provide classical music and music education experiences to thousands of area residents annually,” Hartzler says.  

Smart Business spoke with Hartzler to learn more about the association and its activities in the community.

SB: How does the association measure its impact on the communities in which it operates?

JH: Quantitatively, the TMA looks at the number of people in the audience at concerts: paid, subscribers, students and others from the community. Qualitatively, we listen to audience feedback from our concerts, education programs and community partnerships. When something is observed to be meaningful by the majority of those who participate, we know our programming is hitting the mark.

SB: What are the most important events the association holds in a year that help create awareness and generate support?

JH: The TMA’s main-stage concerts at E. J. Thomas Hall generate the most awareness simply because they have the most public interaction. Through print, radio and electronic media, people hear of the guest artists and, in turn, of the TMA. After that, our education programs find support from students, parents and music educators, many of whom become subscribers, ticket buyers and members.  

SB: How is the association working with the business community and business leaders to better fulfill its mission?

JH: The TMA works with business leaders to help enrich the quality of life in the Akron region. The arts not only provide opportunities to relax, learn and be creatively stimulated, they also drive the economy.

The TMA brings thousands of people to downtown Akron for performances and activities. These patrons do much more while they are here; they eat in local restaurants, shop in local stores and make other purchases, all stimulating the local economy.

The TMA is recognized nationally as a premier concert series, lending national recognition to Akron.   

SB: What, besides funding, is the most significant challenge the association currently faces?

JH: As is the case with most presenters of classical music, one of our biggest challenges continues to be engaging younger, more diverse patrons. Of course, this problem is not new. Factors like ticket cost, the reduction and elimination of arts and music programs in public schools, and vast offerings of entertainment alternatives all compound to cause this challenge.

SB: What can businesses and business leaders do to help the association achieve its goals?

JH: The opportunities are endless. The TMA is always looking for the expertise of business leaders when recruiting people to serve on our board of directors. In addition, businesses supporting their employees, taking time for meaningful experiences in their lives, including participating in the arts, will help to nurture younger audience members.

Learn more about the Tuesday Musical Association at:
Facebook: www.facebook.com/tuesdaymusical

How to reach: Tuesday Musical Association, (330) 761-3460 or www.tuesdaymusical.org

Describing what has stayed the same during National Interstate’s first 25 years is easier than listing everything that’s changed, according to Dave Michelson, the company’s president and CEO.

Today, National Interstate Corp. remains an underwriter of passenger transportation operators across the country.

“But really almost everything else to some degree has changed,” Michelson says.

National Interstate has gone from a private company to a publicly traded one, has expanded beyond passenger transportation into half a dozen wheels-type niches and has gone from a target of acquisition to an acquirer. Back when Michelson was hired, he was the company’s 20th employee, now there are 580.

This year, the company celebrates a quarter century in business. As it has grown over the years, so has Michelson’s role. When he joined the company in 1992, three years after it was formed, he was the company’s second vice president of underwriting — the No. 2 role.

In 2008, he was appointed president and CEO following a progression of roles with gradually increasing responsibilities.

He’s also grown personally, finding a work/life balance that puts family first and his role at the company a close second.

“I still work a ridiculous number of hours, but that’s really self-imposed,” he says. “National Interstate and the National Interstate family are very big parts of my life, and I think they are a very big part of our employees’ lives.”

As head of that family, his effectiveness impacts the personal and professional opportunities of his employees.

“I’ve learned over my tenure as CEO in particular that if myself and the rest of the management team do our jobs well, that we actually become, in a related way, a part of everyone’s lives here. I’ve learned to appreciate and take that responsibility very seriously. And it actually makes my job more rewarding,” he says.

A disciplined approach

The market in which National Interstate operates has also grown. Michelson says the insurance marketplace moves, rather rhythmically, through hard and soft market cycles where the insurance supply either shrinks, causing prices to rise, or grows, causing prices to drop.

“As a part of one of these cycle, in 1994, we lost five of our 10 largest premium-paying customers. In 1995 we lost the other five. So in two underwriting years we walked away from our top 10 largest accounts,” he says.

The result of this turbulence was the recognition that it was vulnerable because of its narrow market focus. So the company looked to diversify.

“There were several things that we entertained back in the 1995 to 1996 time frame that allowed us to diversify,” Michelson says. For example, it moved into recreation vehicle insurance and captive insurance.

The company also happened upon an opportunity to move into a new market: Hawaii.

“There was another insurance carrier in that state that was doing a lot of business and it decided to pull back a little bit, and actually exit the state,” Michelson says. “And what ended up happening is it opened up an opportunity for us to establish a Honolulu, Hawaii, office back in the fall of 1995.”

National Interstate started by servicing and underwriting clients in Hawaii via its home office in Ohio and a two-person marketing office in California. Soon, it established a full office in Honolulu. The company also expanded its product offering there to include truck insurance, taxicab and small business owners.

An influx of what Michelson calls “naive capital,” investments made by investment bankers who may not fully understand the insurance business like insurance experts, means the competition is acting more unpredictably, making forecasting difficult.

“We just never know from one day to the next who is going to enter and who is going to exit,” Michelson says. “What we’ve done is we stay with underwriting discipline as a focal point in the marketplaces that we’re in.”

That approach encouraged the company to look for other market opportunities, which led it into other niches such as waste operations, energy, tow truck, excess liability and ambulance. It also led it to acquire Vanliner Insurance Co. in 2010.

“All of those different mechanisms we’ve used to maintain that growth trajectory while still staying focused on underwriting profitability. Without it, we really can’t be a long-term, viable, profitable organization generating the necessary return for shareholders,” Michelson says.

Growing the family

One of the things Michelson says he has come to appreciate during his time at National Interstate is that the company’s success is about everyone individually doing their job and working together.

“Our needs, our biggest resource going forward, is human capital,” Michelson says. “If I lose sleep over anything, it’s our ongoing ability to hire, train and retain the very best employees, wherever we have employees located . . . . It’s all about the people. And we’re focusing on it all the time.”

The company approaches the challenge by casting a wide net. It recruits on campuses, runs internship programs and hires seasoned insurance veterans. The company has also partnered with Kent State University to establish its first scholarship program.

“We’re just doing anything and everything we can to engage with the existing employees, as well as what can we do to hire, train and retain new talent brought into the organization. Because the 580 employees we have today are not going to be enough next year to do this business because we’re going to grow,” Michelson says.

But casting such a wide net — and drawing in a multigenerational workforce — presents its own challenge.

“One of the things I know we’re focusing on is how do you engage with employees who are across generations in your organization? We’ve got a wide range of ages and priorities here and that’s challenging,” he says.

Each generation has different career priorities, which the company has to balance with what it can provide while being mindful that it still has to provide an appropriate return to its shareholders.

“It’s a challenge. I think we do some things in that area well, but I’m not going to presume that we’re perfect because I know that we’re not. We’re always looking for ways to do and try new and different things,” Michelson says.

In the year 2039

When National Interstate celebrates its 50th anniversary, Michelson, if still at the helm, says he would hope to be able to say he was part of something special 25 years ago, and that it’s still special.

“I know that if I was given 10 tries at writing the story of National Interstate over its first 25 years I would have not written this story in any of those 10 tries,” Michelson says. “It has been a really fascinating, exciting, challenging first 25 years.”

He says he hopes the things the company is proud of now — its financial results, fostering an environment of collaboration, creating career opportunities for its employees — are the same things the company would be able to boast about again when the clock rolls forward from 2014 to 2039.

“It’s just that we’d be bigger and better at it.”

Learn more about National Interstate at:
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/national-interstate-insurance-company

How to reach National Interstate Corp.: (330) 659-8900 or www.nationalinterstate.com

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