Rich Johnson was preparing to wrap things up for the week at his company, ViaQuest Inc., at about 4 p.m. on a Friday. It was 2008, and while he knew the credit crunch was starting to affect the economy, the last thing he expected was to have bank representatives walk into his office and inform him they were not going to renew ViaQuest’s line of credit.

“That basically sucked the cash out of our account, and I needed to come up with a large sum of money to meet payroll on Monday morning,” says Johnson, president and CEO. 

Johnson was in a state of shock. Lenders were waist-deep in the red ink flood, and many businesses were hurting.

“I was sitting at my desk on a Friday night, trying not to panic,” he says. “My strong faith had a lot to do with helping me not to panic, but the first thing I did was to calm down, and just try to clear my head. I started making phone calls to people who had the same experience; I had never had this experience. I knew that I’m a fighter — and I was preparing myself for a fight.”

While he understood the reasons behind the credit crisis, he was surprised that it knocked on his door.

“We had never missed a covenant payment,” Johnson says. “We weren’t overleveraged. It really had nothing to do with us as a company. It was what was happening with the banking industry. It just took us by surprise.”

ViaQuest at the time was a $15 million company. Its longest standing division serves people with developmental disabilities in the home and community-based settings, and it is one of the largest providers of those services in Ohio.

“We had 1,100 employees who were dependent on us, and we needed to act quickly,” Johnson says. “We are passionate about serving a very special population of people with disabilities, older adults. Our staff is the most remarkable employee base that you can imagine. The first reaction was not, ‘How is this going to affect me?’ It was, ‘How is it going to affect the people that we serve? Let’s fight to make this work.’”

As you can imagine, ViaQuest had a difficult time for the next 12 to 18 months. 

“We were late paying vendors. We were late making a lot of payments,” he says. “We had to decide what we could pay and what we couldn’t pay. It was just a very dark time in our history and we came very, very close to not surviving.”

But not only did ViaQuest survive, the company grew. It now has 1,400 employees and is on track for revenues of $60 million this year.

Here is how Johnson put together multiple approaches to keep ViaQuest’s head above water — including an astonishing bailout for the immediate problem at hand.

 

Leave no stone unturned

Many business leaders may admit that one of the biggest fears is having your lender pull the rug out from under you. What Johnson found to help his situation, however, was akin to an angel investor stepping up to the plate and hitting a home run.

“When the bank came in and shut down my line of credit, they said they would not extend any credit to me without collateral to back that credit,” he says. “They already had my house that I lived in as collateral, and all my assets were in the company. I had to act quickly.”

The first person he called for help was his ex-wife, Jill, with whom he was still good friends. 

“This was Saturday and I asked her if she would be willing to put up the house [she had received it as part of the divorce settlement] as collateral to fund my next payroll. She started crying and said, ‘You know, this is the house that our kids live in, and I know that you would never let anything happen to me or the kids. You have always taken care of us, and I know how passionate you are, and I know that this, too, will pass.’

“That’s how we survived,” Johnson says. “She put up her house as collateral; it got us to the next payroll.”

While such a bailout may often provide a little breathing space, it also is a cry for a major review of company operations.

Once Johnson started to review his options, he and his team worked on collections and vendors.

“Some vendors didn’t get paid for months, but they didn’t stop service,” Johnson says. “They hung with us. We are just very fortunate that we had a long history with them.

“It is at times like that when you find out what relationships are all about.”

 

Involve the rank and file

Before you spend all your time with financial matters, you need to let your people know during a crisis what is going on.

“Over the weekend I drafted a correspondence to all our employees and told them exactly what was happening,” Johnson says. “We are a very transparent organization. I am the sole owner. And good, bad or ugly, I always let people know where we are at all times with everything — I let them know what was happening.”

Johnson told his employees that they were fighting for the future and asked them to stand with him. 

“I said I understood if they wouldn’t, or if they felt that their family was in jeopardy and they needed to take care of their family. I understood that, but I asked them to bond together and fight with me. And every person did.”

One of the greatest things you can learn during a time of crisis is about the perseverance of the company and its culture. 

“A lot of people were very afraid, but we did not lose any employees during that time,” Johnson says. “Most employees elsewhere would have been running for the door. I’m fortunate to have the greatest employees in the world who said we are going to stand and fight with you, and we are going to see this through.

“Today we are fortunate enough to have another bank in place,” he says. “We actually are doing very, very well. The experience taught us to manage the business a lot more efficiently, and it really made us tougher.”

 

Find a silver lining

Going through a crisis offers a unique opportunity to focus on the company culture that you have been building.

“The No. 1 lesson that I learned is that we really work on our culture more than any other function in the company. We spend a lot of time building our culture and showing our employees how much we value them.”

Johnson points to quarterly Culture Crusader meetings, where employees talk about living out core values, and annual conferences where managers receive inspirational training.

“It has built a culture that even if we didn’t know if we were going to be around in the future, the culture that we built together really bonded us, and we made it through,” he says.

Making it through a crisis shows how strong your culture has become and offers a particular insight.

“I guess we have matured a little bit,” Johnson says. “I never would have imagined that would have happened because we didn’t do anything (out of order). It is not like we were doing something and the bank gave us a warning that said you had better stop. So now, we make sure that we have the proper systems in place. We make sure that we have the cash and not depend so much on credit.”

In ViaQuest’s case, executive team members realized that they needed a greater focus on the processes of collecting and billing. 

“We were 100 percent government-funded, so if you don’t have your ‘i’s’ dotted and your ‘t’s’ crossed, if you don’t have the systems and processes in place, your collections can get backed up, and you can make any bank nervous,” he says. “So we make sure that we have all of our core processes down to mitigate any billing or collecting issues. Then we develop different relationships and have alternative measures in place if this is ever to happen again so that we would not be taken by surprise.

“I think we have a great, great billing department now,” Johnson says. “Our finance department is outstanding. If there are any accounts that are just a little bit overdue, they start working it.”

It’s also a good idea to consider the role of the line of credit. If you rely on it, it becomes your safety net.

“We do not look at it that way,” Johnson says. “We view us as not having any safety net, and we still operate like we need to meet payroll every month. We still operate today like we did during that six-month period of time when we needed to fund every payroll. It’s kind of like we are Depression-era babies hiding money under the mattress and all those things. 

“We’ve been scarred a little bit so we don’t take that for granted, and it taught us a great lesson. We run better as a company because of it.” 


Takeaways

  • Leave no stone unturned when seeking help.
  • Involve all your employees in the recovery.
  • Find a silver lining.

 

NAME: Rich Johnson

TITLE: president and CEO

COMPANY: ViaQuest Inc.

Education: I was one of those kids that the judge said, ‘It’s either jail or the service.’ I went into the U.S. Air Force right out of high school. It provided me with the G.I. Bill, and I finished at Capital University with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. 

What was your very first job? I was 16 and I worked at a Rax Restaurant. I was the second employee hired by them in Marysville and got my baptism by fire in the restaurant industry. I did everything. They were famous for roast beef sandwiches. 

Who do you admire in business? Herb Kelleher and Southwest Airlines and the way they built culture. I have to admit I am not a huge fan of how you fly with Southwest, but you always know that you can get there on time, and you know it’s going to be a fun trip. I wanted to build a culture like that. I really studied Southwest Airlines. In 2001, we signed up Southwest Airlines to speak at our annual conference. Our conference was two weeks after 9/11. I said, ‘Look, we all know what is going on right now in the world. We respect that, and if you want out of the speaking engagement, I completely understand.’

The speaker said, ‘We made a commitment to you. We understand what is going on in the world but our commitment that we made to you — we are going to honor it.’ And she showed up at our conference, was our keynote speaker and did not accept payment. It was absolutely moving. It was incredible.

What is the best business advice you have ever received? A gentleman gave me the advice, ‘If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, you’re not going to have time to go back and fix it. So take the time to do it right the first time.’ That really stuck with me. But my personal mantra that I started early in business is if you do the right things, the dollars will follow. You always do the right thing first and not let financial pressures get in the way of that. I have stood by that and there are times when we were going through all the ups and downs that we had that it would have been easy to cut corners and do something differently. But I always believed if you do the right things, the dollars will follow and everything will be in place. That’s how we have operated this company. 

What is your definition of business success? Positively impacting as many lives as you can so you can make as many people in your organization successful. It is not monetary. It is changing people’s lives. It is changing the way things are done. It is changing the world. Innovators to me are a business success. When you say you have changed someone’s life or have helped them improve their life, that is business success.

How to reach: ViaQuest, (800) 645-3267 or www.viaquestinc.com
Published in Columbus

When Mark Mizer talks about partnership, he doesn’t have to think hard to find an example of it involving his company, RDP Foodservice LLC.

Last summer, a huge power outage afforded RDP the opportunity to show how an independent food service company partners with its customers.

“We took our tractor-trailers out to restaurants, and we collected their product because we had power and refrigerated the perishables so they wouldn’t lose their product,” says Mizer, president and the oldest grandson of company founder Richie DePaolo, who popularized not only the silver dollar-size slice of pepperoni but also the cardboard box for pizza.

Being an independent supplier right in the area has its pluses, but the premise that his company as an independent is a good fit for independent restaurateurs can’t be overlooked.

“Once you realize that you want to be the champion of independence, and you can go out and tell that story of being an independent yourself, it really helps clarify what your role is and what your job is,” Mizer says. “We decided, ‘OK, that is going to be who we are going to fight for. Those are the ones we want to create partnerships that we can help grow.’”

Here’s how Mizer aligns his company’s role as an independent food supplier to his customers, who are independent restaurants, and how the two grow in success together.

A journey to an identity

Developing your identity, that is, your brand, takes considerable thought. And maintaining it over a period of years is no small feat. RDP’s journey took it from a small business to a large enterprise.

The company originated in the 1930s as a family-run grocery store, and in 1957 added a food service business, primarily catering to pizza houses. From 1985-96, the company was part of Sysco Corp., the largest food service company in the world.

“But Sysco decided to dismantle the company, and our family decided to go back to being independent, and we started the whole process over again,” Mizer says.

RDP had drifted away from its identity while under Sysco, and the years there showed the company that food service is a huge, multibillion-dollar industry where it was a drop in a bucket.

When a company is in the position to assess its identity, it often happens at a crossroads. For RDP, its exit from Sysco was prompted by the family members that they had to stand for something.

“What we felt we needed to stand for was the independent restaurateur, the guy who creates that local flavoring in your community or in your neighborhood,” Mizer says.

Mizer and his team looked back on the company’s history and how it supported the independent restaurateur.

“He is the flavor of this country,” he says. “Someone has to go to bat for those guys. When there are people who move away from town and move back, they don't come back to relive their childhood by going to a corporate restaurant. They really want to find that neighborhood place that represents their childhood.”

Likewise, if you are visiting another city, you don’t want to experience it by going to a corporate restaurant like the same ones in your town.

“So you go to Baltimore, Md.; you want to find that guy who has those crab cakes,” Mizer says. “He has been making them for three generations on the beach, or near the water. That is where you get the flavor of your community.”

Once you realize that you want to be the champion of independence and you can tell the story of being an independent yourself, it really helps clarify what your role is and what your job is.

“So the whole industry became a little bit easier for us,” Mizer says.

Make the effort to hustle

Once your identity has been clarified and your role planned, it’s time to take action — and to hustle.

“I think one of the reasons why we are still here is my grandfather and my uncles just outhustled everyone; it was that dedication where they were manually checking orders to make sure they were correct, working ungodly hours all the time,” Mizer says.

While today’s employees don’t manually check orders off a clipboard, there is a new and better idea.

“I think computer technology today has kind of evened that playing field,” he says. “The technology that is available to me as an independent is the same technology that the big corporate people are using.

With technology as a tool, all players in an industry can work toward perfection — getting your order at the price you negotiated without any errors at the time you want your delivery.

“That's what we are all going to; all the things that my grandfather and uncles had to do in years past are now being done by a computer,” Mizer says. “If we all get to perfection, then how does that customer make his decision?”

This is when differentiation comes in. Call it added value or a bonus. Mizer calls it personality.

“I think for the very first time now, personality becomes a little bit more of a factor,” he says. “We not only have to sell you Heinz ketchup, we have to put a personality behind it — which is how do we help you grow your business? How do we create an experience for you buying from RDP that the other companies can't create?”

Going it alone — as an independent — is actually a strong point, he says. While conventional wisdom may say there is strength in numbers, Mizer can politely disagree; RDP’s annual revenue tops $164 million.

“Independence is a strength; independence isn't a weakness,” he says. “When you open your own restaurant or whatever that might be, you are putting your own personal interests on the line. And when you do that, you may feel like you have to go to a corporate giant because those corporate giants get the best deals with the best products or the biggest selection. That's not necessarily the case in food service. Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better.

“We think we are as competitive as anybody,” Mizer says. “We think that when we are helping the independent restaurateurs, they shouldn't have to sacrifice anything by working with another independent.”

Motivate with mottos

One of the last steps in securing your identity is to get all employees on board with the program. That means engagement in the mission, which when brought to fruition, creates a sense of satisfaction.

“When they get a chance to see that they can actually put their thumbprint on the growth of a company, it is really invigorating to them,” Mizer says.

While everybody at your company plays a role in your success, they need to realize how they fit in with selling a product that may not be unique. It’s the experience that will make it different from the competition.

“Every year we have these little mottos that we use like motivation throughout the year,” he says. “They are all part of it, so one year, it was 'Move the needle' and if there wasn't something in this organization that moved the needle, then we cut it out and didn’t use it anymore. We went with a different approach.”

Mizer and his team use a motivational phrase to help keep the excitement going.

“Last year, we had the motto ‘Create the experience’ and that was everybody in this company realizing that for a customer to be satisfied, we have to create an ultimate experience, whether it is from the receptionist to the salespeople to our drivers, to how we treat them to special events, you really create an experience for that relationship because we don't sell anything that is unique.

“I don't sell iPads. You want an iPad? You have to buy it from Apple. We sell Heinz ketchup, which you can buy from anyone, from a grocery store to any of my competitors, so you have to find a reason to create that experience.”

Mizer’s motto for this year is ‘Pull the rope.”

“We all realize for a restaurant to be successful, every department within this company has to work together; we all have to pull the rope at the same time,” he says.

Mizer passes his enthusiasm weekly with the senior management and three different huddles throughout the company with all the employees.

“Then they are hearing it from the passion of me so they all understand exactly what our goals are,” he says. “If there is something that we need to do a better job of, we will voice it then. But everybody needs to know that every department has to work closely together pulling that rope.

“This is what's on our plate for this week. This is how we can be a better company.”

How to reach: RDP Foodservice LLC, (614) 261-5661 or www.rdpfoodservice.com

Takeways

Take a journey to an identity.

Make the effort to hustle in your business.

Motivate with mottos to keep the troops engaged.

The Mizer file

Mark Mizer

President

RDP Foodservice LLC

Born: Dayton, but I moved to Columbus right afterward.

Education: Upper Arlington High School, then I graduated from Ohio University. I studied business communications, and then I actually studied to be in the fashion world. My first job out of college, I went to work for The Limited, and it really set the tone for that kind of outside-the-box thinking.

What you was your first job and what did you learn from it?

My very first job was dragging clay tennis courts. I think I learned that people depend on you and punctuality. And if you're not there, you’re going to lose your job.

Who do you admire in business?

I admired a guy named Dick Solove. He has passed away. He was known as being a really tough businessman. Yet when he got older, he gave back to Ohio State University. They named the cancer hospital after him. Solove taught me the importance of giving back to the community and how important that is. Also the Les Wexners of the world. I think what I find interesting in business leaders are the ones who are successful, but yet they want to go down in history for more than just that. They are the ones who want to give back to the community.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

Sam Walton said, ‘The true CEOs of our company are our customers. And they can hire and fire us at any time by just buying their products from somebody else.’ That is one I use a lot.

What is your definition of business success?

I think the definition of success really is the ability to change the lives of not only your customer base, but of the lives of your employees. We really are a team over here with my two cousins who are executive vice presidents, Rich and Chris DiPaolo.

Published in Columbus

For 27 years, Ernst & Young has championed the entrepreneurial spirit of men and women pursuing excellence in their businesses, teams and communities.

Ernst & Young founded the Entrepreneur Of The Year Program to recognize the passion of entrepreneurs and to build an influential and innovative community of peers. We received more than 1,680 national entries for this year’s program, from the country's most deserving entrepreneurs. Their triumphs stand as a testament to the role they play as visionaries and leaders.

Entrepreneurs change the world and make it a better place to work and live. We honor them for their fortitude and resilience, and we celebrate their ability to forge new markets, navigate uncharted territory and fuel economic growth.

We gather here in Northeast Ohio and in 24 other cities across the U.S. to honor all of the finalists and welcome the new class of entrepreneurs into our Hall of Fame.

Congratulations to all of the 2013 Northeast Ohio Entrepreneur Of The Year finalists and winners. We applaud them all for their unyielding pursuit of business excellence and we are honored to share their inspiring stories with you.

 

Whitt Butler, advisory partner, Ernst & Young;  program director, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Northeast Ohio.

 

Here are the 2013 Northeast Ohio Entrepreneur of the Year winners and finalists:

Distribution and Manufacturing

Winner – Gary M. Schuster, president and CEO, OMCO

Finalist – Scott T. Becker, president and CEO, Chromaflo Technologies Corp.

Finalist – Jeffery L. Rand, owner and president, HB Chemical Corporation

Finalist – James R. Keene, president and owner, Keene Building Products

Finalist – Michael K. Baach, CEO, The Philpott Rubber Company

 

Education and Non-profit

Winner – Carol L. Klimas, president, Lake Ridge Academy

Finalist – William Scott Duennes, executive director, Cornucopia, Inc.

 

Financial Services

Winner – Jeremy E. Sopko, CEO, Nations Lending Corporation

Finalist – Brendan Anderson and Jeffery Kadlic, co-founders and co-managing partners, Evolution Capital Partners, LLC

Finalist – Jeffery Concepcion, founder and CEO, Stratos Wealth Partners, Ltd.

Finalist – Ralph M. Della Ratta, managing director, Western Reserve Partners, LLC

 

Health Care and Pharmaceutical Services

Winner – Drew C. Forhan, founder and CEO, ForTec Medical

Finalist – Dale M. Wollschleger, president, ExactCare Pharmacy

 

Professional Services

Winner – Joel Adelman, founder and CEO, The Advance Group of Companies

Finalist – Scot Lowry, president and CEO, Fathom

Finalist – Alan Jaffa, CEO, Safeguard Properties Management, LLC

 

Public Company

Winner – Michael F. Hilton, president and CEO, Nordson Corporation

Finalist – Walter M. Rosebrough – president and CEO, STERIS Corporation

 

Retail and Consumer Products

Winner – Jimmy Zeilinger, founder and president, Brand Castle, LLC

Finalist – James D. Braeunig, president and CEO, Ball, Bounce & Sport, Inc.

Finalist – Kimberly Martin and Sarah Forrer, co-owners, Main Street Cupcakes

 

Technology

Winner – Kris Snyder, CEO, Vox Mobile, Inc.

Finalist – Yuval Brisker, co-founder, president and CEO, TOA Technologies

Finalist – David Levine, president, Wireless Environment, LLC

 

Family Business Award

Winner – Marc Brenner, president and CEO, Ohio Technical College

Finalist – Marty Kanan, president and CEO, King Nut Companies

Finalist – Scott J. Balogh, president and CEO, and Steven Balogh, vice president, Mar-Bal, Inc.

 

Published in Cleveland
Sunday, 30 June 2013 20:00

Honoring the best of the best

 

For 27 years, Ernst & Young has celebrated the entrepreneurial spirit of men and women who have followed their dreams to pursue innovation and entrepreneurial excellence, changing the lives of countless others by building their businesses and giving back to their communities.

The passion they’ve poured into their businesses and the triumphs they’ve achieved stand as a testament to the role they play as visionaries, leaders and innovators. Ernst & Young founded the Entrepreneur Of The Year program to recognize these dynamic leaders and to build an influential and innovative community of entrepreneurs.

We have gathered here in Greater Los Angeles and in 25 other cities across the U.S. to applaud these entrepreneurs for taking the road less traveled, and welcome the regional award recipients into our entrepreneurial Hall of Fame.

Congratulations on your achievements! Ernst & Young looks forward to helping you find new and innovative ways to continue to grow your business and accomplish your goals.

Brian Ring is a partner and program director for Entrepreneur Of The Year, Greater Los Angeles.

April Spencer is a partner and program director for Entrepreneur Of The Year, Greater Los Angeles.

 

Business Services

Winner

Janice Bryant Howroyd, The Act 1 Group, Inc.

Finalists

Jamey Edwards, Emergent Medical Associates

Jessica Firestone, Tempest Telecom Solutions, LLC

Consumer Services

Winner

Clarence Daniels Jr., Concession Management Services, Inc.

Finalists

Mel Elias, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf

Rick Stollmeyer, Mindbody, Inc.

Emerging

Winner

Jeff Stibel, Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp.

Finalists

Tim Cadogan, OpenX

Jeff Green, The Trade Desk

Financial Services

Winner

Robert V. Sinnott, Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors

Finalists

Mike Rosenberg, James B. Freedman and Ed Bagdasarian, Intrepid Investment Bankers, LLC

Loren Bendele, Savings.com

Media

Winner

Moctesuma Esparza, Maya Cinemas North America, Inc.

Finalists

Martha de la Torre and Joe Badame, El Clasificado

Walter Driver, Scopely, Inc.

Technology

Winner

Sam Naficy, DTT

Finalists

Dinesh Ravishanker, CallFire

Demian Sellfors, Media Temple

Family Business Award of Excellence

Winner

Helene An, Elizabeth An, Hannah An, Catherine An, Monique An and Jacqueline An, House of An

 

Judges

Jim Armstrong, Clearstone Venture Partners

Chuck Davis, Technology Crossover Ventures *

Mark Hardy, Aurora Capital Group

Jeri Harman, Avante Mezzanine Partners

Carlton Jenkins, The Yucaipa Companies

Brad Jones, Redpoint Ventures *

Eric Kutsenda, Seidler Equity Partners

Barry C. Levin, Snak King Corporation *

J. Christopher Lewis, Riordan, Lewis & Haden Equity Partners

Dr. Linda Livingstone, Graziadio School of Business & Management, Pepperdine University

Mark Stagen, Emerald Health Services **

Kamran Pourzanjani, Bestcovery.com **

Julie Schoenfeld, Perfect Market, Inc.

* Prior award recipient

** Prior award recipient and national finalist

Published in Los Angeles

For 27 years, Ernst & Young has championed the entrepreneurial spirit of men and women pursuing excellence in their businesses, teams and communities.

Ernst & Young founded the Entrepreneur Of The Year Program to recognize the passion of entrepreneurs and to build an influential and innovative community of peers. We received more than 1,680 national entries for this year’s program, from the country's most deserving entrepreneurs. Their triumphs stand as a testament to the role they play as visionaries and leaders.

Entrepreneurs change the world and make it a better place to work and live. We honor them for their fortitude and resilience, and we celebrate their ability to forge new markets, navigate uncharted territory and fuel economic growth.

We gather here in Northeast Ohio and in 24 other cities across the U.S. to honor all of the finalists and welcome the new class of entrepreneurs into our Hall of Fame.

Congratulations to all of the 2013 Northeast Ohio Entrepreneur Of The Year finalists and winners. We applaud them all for their unyielding pursuit of business excellence and we are honored to share their inspiring stories with you.

 

Whitt Butler, advisory partner, Ernst & Young;  program director, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Northeast Ohio.

 

Here are the 2013 Northeast Ohio Entrepreneur of the Year winners and finalists:

Distribution and Manufacturing

Winner – Gary M. Schuster, president and CEO, OMCO

Finalist – Scott T. Becker, president and CEO, Chromaflo Technologies Corp.

Finalist – Jeffery L. Rand, owner and president, HB Chemical Corporation

Finalist – James R. Keene, president and owner, Keene Building Products

Finalist – Michael K. Baach, CEO, The Philpott Rubber Company

 

Education and Non-profit

Winner – Carol L. Klimas, president, Lake Ridge Academy

Finalist – William Scott Duennes, executive director, Cornucopia, Inc.

 

Financial Services

Winner – Jeremy E. Sopko, CEO, Nations Lending Corporation

Finalist – Brendan Anderson and Jeffery Kadlic, co-founders and co-managing partners, Evolution Capital Partners, LLC

Finalist – Jeffery Concepcion, founder and CEO, Stratos Wealth Partners, Ltd.

Finalist – Ralph M. Della Ratta, managing director, Western Reserve Partners, LLC

 

Health Care and Pharmaceutical Services

Winner – Drew C. Forhan, founder and CEO, ForTec Medical

Finalist – Dale M. Wollschleger, president, ExactCare Pharmacy

 

Professional Services

Winner – Joel Adelman, founder and CEO, The Advance Group of Companies

Finalist – Scot Lowry, president and CEO, Fathom

Finalist – Alan Jaffa, CEO, Safeguard Properties Management, LLC

 

Public Company

Winner – Michael F. Hilton, president and CEO, Nordson Corporation

Finalist – Walter M. Rosebrough – president and CEO, STERIS Corporation

 

Retail and Consumer Products

Winner – Jimmy Zeilinger, founder and president, Brand Castle, LLC

Finalist – James D. Braeunig, president and CEO, Ball, Bounce & Sport, Inc.

Finalist – Kimberly Martin and Sarah Forrer, co-owners, Main Street Cupcakes

 

Technology

Winner – Kris Snyder, CEO, Vox Mobile, Inc.

Finalist – Yuval Brisker, co-founder, president and CEO, TOA Technologies

Finalist – David Levine, president, Wireless Environment, LLC

 

Family Business Award

Winner – Marc Brenner, president and CEO, Ohio Technical College

Finalist – Marty Kanan, president and CEO, King Nut Companies

Finalist – Scott J. Balogh, president and CEO, and Steven Balogh, vice president, Mar-Bal, Inc.

 

Published in Akron/Canton

Each year in June, Ernst & Young celebrates entrepreneurial leaders in 25 regions across the country as part of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards. This marks the 27th year in which Ernst & Young has recognized those leaders.

For 2013, the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Gulf Coast Area program is called “Leading the Way.” There is no other place in the country where entrepreneurial innovation and leadership no matter the entrepreneur’s background is accepted and supported. We have continually seen significant innovative strides throughout a variety of industries in the Gulf Coast area, most notably in the energy, technology and the medical industries. It is the culture of the Gulf Coast that the individual or group of individuals working together can accomplish great things when they take the initiative in their own hands.

That culture was the foundation of the Gulf Coast in the early years and that culture remains today. This is why we believe the Gulf Coast led the country during the recent down years and today in population and job growth. The companies represented at this year’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Gulf Coast Area awards grew the number of people employed by 20 percent and grew revenues by 16 percent over the last year. There can be no doubt these entrepreneurial leaders, through their leadership, will continue to strengthen our country’s economy. That is why we believe the Gulf Coast is once again “Leading the Way”!

Ernst & Young has been recognizing these risk-taking visionaries for 27 years and, over that time, has recognized more than 10,000 entrepreneurial men and women. The Entrepreneur Of The Year Award has grown to be recognized as the leading business award. While Ernst & Young is proud of this accomplishment, the credit goes to the thousands of entrepreneurial leaders who have been recognized over the years. The fact that the program has endured and grown for more than 27 years is a true testament to the entrepreneurial leaders themselves.

The program celebrates entrepreneurial leaders in 25 U.S. regions each year. The regional award recipients then participate in the National Entrepreneur Of The Year awards in November in Palm Springs, Calif. At that ceremony, 10 award recipients are selected and one is selected as the National Entrepreneur Of The Year overall award recipient. The National Entrepreneur Of The Year overall award recipient will then participate in the World Entrepreneur Of The Year in Monte Carlo, along with award recipients from 50 other countries. This truly is the world’s business award.

The National Entrepreneur Of The Year Program is the culminating event for a four-day Strategic Growth Forum that had about 2,000 participants last year. This is the only event of its kind that is focused on the CEOs of companies. The panelists and speakers are unparalleled and in the past have included special guests such as George W. Bush, former President of the United States; Frederick Smith, chairman, president and CEO of FedEx Corp.; and Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin. This year will feature Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman and CEO, General Electric Co.; Bernard Tyson, incoming chairman and CEO, Kaiser Permanente; and Jeffrey Sprecher, founder, chairman and CEO, Intercontinental Exchange, Inc.

We are honored to present the 27th Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards-Gulf Coast and to recognize the entrepreneurial leaders of the past, present and future in the Gulf Coast that are “Leading the Way” to keep this the greatest country in the world to do business.

Todd Zuspan is a partner with Ernst & Young LLP ?and is the director of the Entrepreneur Of The Year Gulf Coast Area program.

Family Business Award of Excellence

Award recipient

Kenneth L. Robison,

Crest Industries

Construction & Industrial Services

Award recipient

Stephen V. Pate

Strike, LLC

Finalist

James Joseph Frischhertz

Frischhertz Electric Co., Inc.

Finalist

Troy Collins

Nathan Granger

Quality Companies USA, LLC

Finalist

Jeffrey Gerald Davis

The Brock Group

Consumer Products

Award recipient

Donald P. Klein

Chesmar Homes, Ltd.

Finalist

Basim Shami

Farouk Systems

Finalist

Stacey Gillman Wimbish

The Gillman Companies

Finalist

Gary Kiedaisch

Igloo Products Corp.

Finalist

Jerry Lasco

Lasco Enterprises

Distribution & Manufacturing

Award recipient

Walter Emanuel Blessey Jr.

Blessey Marine Services

Finalist

Arthur Moore

American Alloy Steel, Inc.

Finalist

Amit Bhandari

Biourja Group

Finalist

John L. Magee

Crane Worldwide Logistics

Finalist

Mark C. Arnold

GSE Environmental, LLC

Finalist

Fred Koetting

Schulte Building Systems

Transformational

Award recipient

David D. Dunlap

Superior Energy Services, Inc.

Energy Services

Award recipient

Larry O'Donnell

Rockwater Energy Solutions

Finalist

Darron Anderson

Express Energy Services

Finalist

John T. Rynd

Hercules Offshore, Inc.

Finalist

Christian J. Beckett

Pacific Drilling

Exploration & Production

Award recipient

Mark E. Ellis

LINN Energy, LLC

Finalist

Michael Minarovic

Arena Energy, LP

Finalist

John D. Schiller Jr.

Energy XXI

Finalist

David H. Welch

Stone Energy Corp.

Health Care

Award recipient

Dana Sellers

Encore Health Resources

Finalist

Taseer A. Badar

Altus Healthcare Management Services

Finalist

Andrew C. Knizley

Houston Orthopedic & Spine Hospital

Finalist

T. J. Farnsworth

SightLine Health

Midstream Services

Award recipient

R. Bruce Northcutt

Copano Energy, LLC

Finalist

Brad Childers

Exterran Holdings, Inc.

Finalist

Gregory L. Ebel

Spectra Energy Corp.

Services

Award recipient

Drake Ellis

Community Trust Bank

Finalist

Bryan Leibman

Frosch International Travel, Inc.

Finalist

Michael L. Soper

Legacy Funeral Group

Finalist

Jose S. Suquet

Pan-American Life Insurance Group

Technology

Award recipient

Peter M. Duncan

MicroSeismic, Inc.

Finalist

Joel Bomgar

Bomgar

Finalist

Jonathan Brett Klein

Luis Luque

Cimation

 

Judges

Gregory D. Brenneman

Shelaghmichael Brown

Doug J. Erwin

Joe R. Fowler

Scott W. Smith

Cindy B. Taylor

Richard E. Zuschlag

 

 

Published in Houston
Sunday, 30 June 2013 20:00

Honoring the best of the best

 

For 27 years, Ernst & Young has celebrated the entrepreneurial spirit of men and women pursuing innovation and entrepreneurial excellence in their businesses, their teams and their communities. We are excited to announce that this year we received more than 1,600 national entries from some of the country's most well deserving entrepreneurs.

The blood, sweat and passion they’ve poured into their businesses and the triumphs they’ve achieved stand as a testament to the role they play as visionaries, leaders and innovators. Ernst & Young founded the Entrepreneur Of The Year Program to recognize this passion for excellence and to build an influential and innovative community of peers.

We have gathered here and in 25 other cities in the U.S. to welcome the men and women who are regional award recipients into our entrepreneurial Hall of Fame and to toast their commitment to succeed. We applaud them for launching their companies, opening new markets and fueling job growth.

So let’s celebrate their achievements, perseverance and tireless pursuit of business excellence.

John Belli, office managing partner, Ernst & Young, Orange County

Kim E. Letch, partner, Entrepreneur Of The Year program director, Orange County

Kathy Beckman, Entrepreneur Of The Year program manager, Orange County

 

Family Business Category

Winner

Gennaro “Jerry” Paolone, Car Sound Exhaust Systems Inc.

Finalists

Jim Beck, Nature’s Best

Eve Yen, Diamond Wipes International Inc.

Real Estate & Hospitality

Winner

Alan J. Fuerstman, Montage Hotels & Resorts

Finalists

Doug Bauer, Tom Mitchell and Mike Grubbs, TRI Pointe Homes

David Kim and Jerome Fink, The Bascom Group

Retail & Consumer Products

Winner

Hezy Shaked, Tilly’s Inc.

Finalists

John Fuller, The Johnny Rockets Group Inc.

Nick Seedorf, nuCourse Distribution Inc.

Business Services

Winner

Heidi Golledge, CyberCoders and CareerBliss

Finalists

Dr. Vinod Jivrajka, AppleCare Medical Enterprises

Caryn Siebert, Carl Warren & Company

Technology

Winner

Joseph Renton, Systems & Software Enterprise

Finalists

Dominic Gallello, MSC Software Corp.

Jonathan Ord, DealerSocket Inc.

Financial Services

Winner

Anand Nallathambi, CoreLogic Inc.

Finalists

Stephen Gordon, Opus Bank

Michael Joseph Purcell, Global Cash Card

 

Judges

Bala Iyer, Board Member

Life Technologies, QLogic, IHS,

Skyworks Solutions, Power Integrations

Prior Judge – 2009, 2012

 

Bruce Hallett, Managing Director

Miramar Venture Partners

 

Dan Lubeck, Managing Director/Founder

Solis Capital

 

*Dean Yoost, Board Member

Union bank, Pacific Life, Emulex, Belden Inc.

Prior Judge – 2010, 2011

 

*Doug Ammerman, Board Member/Director

Fidelity, Stantec, William Lyon Homes, El Pollo Loco

Prior Judge – 2011, 2012

 

Gary Jabara, Founder & CEO

Mobilitie, Inc.

Prior Winner – 2012

National Winner - 2012

 

Glenn Schafer, Chairman

Janus Capital Group, Skilled Healthcare

Prior Judge – 2011, 2012

 

Matthew Jenusaitis, President & CEO

OCTANe OC

Prior Judge – 2012

 

  • * Judge’s spokespeople

 

 

 

 

 

Published in Orange County

Dave Penrod and his management team at Belk had an order as tall as a homemade lemonade: change the company manta from “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to “Modern. Southern. Style.”

“Our customers viewed us as old fashioned and one-dimensional, so we decided that it was time to modernize our approach to the business while retaining our traditional Southern values,” says Penrod, who oversees 100 stores in the heart of the South — Georgia, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina as chairman of Belk’s Southern Division.

Belk has had just three CEOs since its founding in 1888 — that is until 2010, when the heretofore low-key department store chain launched a makeover with the goal of reaching annual revenues of $6 billion within five years.

Historically, Belk has catered to shoppers who patronize its 301 brick and mortar stores located in small- to mid-size cities throughout the Southern U.S. But recently, it’s been ceding sales to savvy city slickers like Macy’s and Nordstrom, who use the Internet and mobile apps to infiltrate rural markets. Admittedly, the company has fallen behind in the e-commerce and social media arena, and many of its stores could use a facelift.

The company wants to leverage its strength, which is appealing to the tastes, culture and buying habits of Southern shoppers, while improving in lagging areas.

To that end, management adopted a new logo and the new tagline. The company is investing $270 million in store improvements, $210 million in information technology, $53 million in e-commerce and $4.5 million for a new e-commerce fulfillment center in Jonesville, S.C.

Penrod is charged with implementing the company’s strategic plan in his division, and as every executive knows, change is difficult — especially for tenured employees. In fact, a survey of 3,199 global executives by consulting giant McKinsey found that only one change transformation in three succeeds. Here is Penrod’s approach to instilling change and yet keeping Southern values at Belk.

Create line-of-sight

Penrod is creating line-of-sight between the company’s objectives and his employees’ daily activities as part of his plan to achieve long-term structural and cultural transformation. Now, workers can see how going the extra mile to satisfy a customer can propel Belk’s sales and profits.

“The way we communicate our brand to consumers is by being friendly and hospitable because that reflects traditional Southern values,” he says. “We need to go out of our way to smile and greet shoppers the minute they enter the store so they experience our Southern hospitality.”

And since employees often need a compelling story to change their behaviors, Penrod is using a structured communications program to breathe life into Belk’s new brand and encourage his team’s evolution.

Employees in Penrod’s division review results from the day before and set daily goals during a 10-minute morning huddle with their manager. The short sessions reinforce change and build mindshare toward the company’s strategy.

“You can’t broadcast a list of goals and think that everyone gets it,” Penrod says. “You need frequent reminders to create a shared vision and buy-in for your strategy.”

He’s also increasing his team’s chances of success by building their skills and capabilities.

After only 75 percent of customers said they were satisfied with their shopping experience in a recent survey, Belk launched a new customer service training program for its 23,000 associates. But Penrod took training and development to the next level in his division, by launching a formal succession planning regimen and development program for high-potential employees.

The program boosts morale and productivity by giving employees a career path and improves retention by providing new hires with the necessary skills to execute Belk’s strategic plan. Plus, promoting from within helps preserve the company’s unique Southern culture.

Finally, Penrod’s fostering accountability and continuous improvement through the introduction of monthly performance reviews. Employees receive feedback and share ideas during one-on-one sessions with their area manager. Although the sessions take a fair amount of time, Penrod says they’re jumpstarting productivity and fostering innovation.

Since every employee looks at organizational change from the stand point of how he or she will be personally affected and self-preservation can take precedent, Penrod is allaying their concerns by offering them knowledge and opportunities.

“Failing to invest in your people is shortsighted because they drive customer satisfaction,” he says. “We came out of the recession with a renewed commitment to development and innovation and now, it’s paying off.” 

Support your local community 

Belk plans to continue it’s commitment of giving 2.5 percent of annual pretax income back to the communities it serves and for good reason. The $19 million in donated last year not only exhibits Southern values it distinguishes Belk from impersonal e-tailers.

Plus, employees can spread the company’s “Southern State of Mind” philosophy while rubbing elbows with members of the community as they paint classrooms, build bookcases, beautify school grounds and install educational murals as part of the company’s 125th birthday celebration.

“We call ourselves community partners but what does that mean?” Penrod says. “It’s the way we support local education and healthcare, but it’s also the way we treat our customers and our associates.”

For example, Belk had just acquired the Proffitt's and McRae's chain from Saks Fifth Avenue in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit Biloxi, Miss. Penrod says the company could have taken the insurance money and closed the store, but instead, they raised $1 million for local employees and continued to pay them until they got back on their feet.

CEO Tim Belk called the company’s decision to stay in Biloxi a defining moment as other companies abandoned the devastated region.

“Unlike other companies, we don’t measure the return from our donations, we do it because we believe that supporting the communities we serve is the right thing to do,” Penrod says. “Community support exemplifies our Southern culture and values, it’s an intangible asset that can’ be measured.”

Cater to customers 

Belk store sizes are tailored toward the needs of the local markets they serve. Stores range in size from 40,000 to 300,000 square feet of space, with an average size of approximately 92,000 square feet.

While management is introducing new lines of private label fashions by designer Cynthia Rowley and Carolina Panthers quarterback, Cam Newton, the merchandise selection in each store addresses the preferences of local customers.

Customized merchandizing is one reason why Belk is surpassing the competition in a key measurement for brick and mortar retailers. The 11 retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters posted just 1.1 percent growth at stores open more than a year in March. In contrast, Belk has had 12 consecutive quarters of comparable store sales growth and its comparable sales growth rate for fiscal 2013 was 6.3 percent.

“We use demographics like income, age and population size to adjust the assortment of merchandise in each store,” Penrod says. “But we refine that data based on our knowledge of the local community and by listening to our customers. Our growth in same store sales reflects our connection to the community”

For instance, the stores in South Florida offer a slightly different selection of merchandise when the snow birds arrive from Northern states. And some stores extend Southern hospitality to local shoppers by hosting evening parties that include refreshments, a fashion show and music by a local disc jockey.

Like many companies, Belk uses formal pulse surveys to gauge overall customer satisfaction. But customers can weigh-in at any time by completing an online survey or “Tell Us What You Think” card, and their feedback serves as a call to action for executives like Penrod.

“We adhere to something called the sunset rule,” he says. “When a customer expresses a concern, it’s referred to an executive and must be resolved by the end of that business day.”

But Belk’s management team doesn’t stop there; they use customer feedback to review underlying business practices and initiate adjustments to faulty policies and procedures.

For instance, the company is committed to giving shoppers the seamless omnichannel experience they crave, that reaches across stores, belk.com, mobile devices and social media.

It wasn’t until 2008 that Belk’s online offerings expanded beyond home goods and wedding registries to include clothing and other merchandise. Furthermore, the company estimates that only about 25 percent of online sales come from outside Belk’s sixteen-state footprint and customers can’t order a product online and pick it up in a local store — at least not yet.

The initial phase of improvements includes a new systems platform and functionality enhancements to make shopping online at belk.com easier and it’s developing a mobile app so customers can shop on-the-go from their favorite device.

Employees are charged with promoting the company’s improved website since multichannel shoppers spent 15 percent to 30 percent more than those who visit brick and mortar stores according to surveys by IDC’s Global Retail Insights research unit.

Although the firm didn’t embrace the social media craze until 2010 it now has a blog, a solid presence on Twitter and 789,988 “likes” on Facebook.

While net sales for the 53-week period ended Feb. 2, 2013 increased 7 percent to $3.96 billion, the company is banking on the growth of Internet sales and it’s Southern charm to reach $6 billion by 2015.

“When I visit our stores with members of the Belk family and talk to customers and associates, I get a true sense of what Southern means,” says Penrod. “As a guy who’s originally from Michigan, I’ve learned a whole lot about Southern style and hospitality.”

The Penrod File

Name: Dave Penrod

Title: Chairman, Southern Division

Company: Belk

Birthplace:Detroit

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business management, Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

What was your very first job? I was a caddy at a local golf course, where I learned a lot about human nature. Golf is a game where honesty, integrity and sportsmanship are paramount because it’s not monitored by referees, so it’s easy to cheat. I observed that some people are inherently honest and some people aren’t. What I learned as a caddy prepared me for life as well as my career.

Who do you admire most and why? I admire politicians like Hillary Clinton and John McCain because they’re truly business people who have to build consensus and balance disparate points of view to get anything done. It’s not easy to do that and I admire anyone who can overcome tremendous obstacles, relentlessly pursue a resolution and foster a spirit of collaboration.

What is your definition of business success? Sales and profits are important but you can’t achieve them by yourself. Your success as a manager hinges on the growth and development of your people. When they flourish and grow, the financial metrics take care of themselves.

What are the keys to leading organizational change? You’ll get some connectivity at a high level, but to truly inspire change, you need to take your message down to the individual level. Give your employees the opportunity to shape the direction of the organization by sharing feedback, especially from customers. Some folks won’t agree with your plan but most of them will engage if you employ a regimented communications strategy that is supported by performance management, training and career development. 

Published in Atlanta
Sunday, 30 June 2013 20:00

Entrepreneurs change the world

STL Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2013

Recognized as one of the world’s most prestigious business award programs, the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards celebrate gravity-defying innovators who build and run great companies. This June, we gather here and in 25 cities across the U.S. to honor all of our regional finalists and welcome the class of 2013 into our Hall of Fame.

Entrepreneurs change the world and make it a better place to work and live. We honor them for their fortitude and resilience, and we celebrate their ability to forge new markets, navigate uncharted territory and fuel economic growth.

Congratulations to this year’s finalists and winners for their unyielding pursuit of business excellence. We are honored to share their inspiring stories with you.

 

Randy Buseman, partner, Kansas City Ernst & Young Office

Mike Hickenbotham, partner, St. Louis Ernst & Young Office

 

Here are the 2013 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalists and winners:

 

Agriculture and Plant Sciences

Winner – J. Larry Sanders, Ph.D., president and CEO, Specialty Fertilizer Products, LLC

 

Engineering & Consulting

Winner – David Raboury, president and CEO, Terracon Consultants, Inc.

 

Entertainment

Winner – Robb Heineman, owner, president and CEO, Sporting Club

 

Industrial Products

Winner – J. Joseph Burgess, president and CEO, Aegion Corporation

 

Manufacturing

Winner – Joseph Suhor III, chairman and CEO, Suhor Industries, Inc.

 

Retail

Winner – Jim Schwartz, chairman and CEO, NPC International, Inc.

 

Technology & Business Services

Winner – Daniel Reed, CEO, UnitedLex

 

Transportation & Logistics

Winner – Artur Wagrodzki and Tomasz Tokarczyk, presidents, Artur Express

 

Turnaround

Winner – T. Michael Riggs, chairman, Jack Cooper Holdings

 

Finalists

-          Matthew J. Condon, CEO, ARC Physical Therapy

 

-          John H. Kramer Jr., president and CEO, Cambridge Engineering, Inc.

 

-          Jeffery Keane, founder and CEO, Coolfire Media, LLC; Coolfire Originals; Coolfire Solutions

 

-          Robert D. Taylor, chairman and CEO, Executive AirShare Corporation

 

-          Mark R. Bamforth, president and CEO, Gallus Pharmacueticals, LLC

 

-          Gary Jaffe, CEO, GL Group, Inc.

 

-          Stephanie Leffler, CEO, and Ryan Noble, president, Juggle.com

 

-          Cary T. Daniel, CEO, Pivot Employment Platforms

 

-          Mike O’Neill, CEO, John Nickel, president, and Kevin Quigley, executive vice president, Switch: Liberate Your Brand

 

-          Lenora Payne, president, Technology Group Solutions, LLC

 

-          Lisa Nichols, co-founder and CEO, Technology Partners

 

-          Geoff Coventry, COO, Rob Freeman, CEO, and Matt Gilhousen, chief development officer, TradeWind Energy, Inc.

 

-          Robert Griggs, president, Trinity Products, Inc.

Published in St. Louis

Will Gruver pursued the American dream after earning a degree in economics from Northwestern University — but it didn’t take long for the Minnesota native to realize that working at a bank in Chicago’s famous Loop District couldn’t satisfy his entrepreneurial yearning or heartfelt need to enrich the lives of others. 

So in 2002 he threw caution to the windy city and moved to the Dallas suburb of Celina where he launched USP&E Global. His goal was to design, build and operate fuel-efficient and renewable power stations, primarily in emerging markets.

Gruver says his decision to risk it all was truly a no-brainer, because the U.S. economy was growing at a snail’s pace while overseas markets were booming. And given the choice, he’d rather be sorry, than safe.

“The barriers to entrance have never been lower while the financial and humanitarian rewards have never been greater,” he says. “There are unbelievable opportunities in out of the way places for anyone willing to take a risk.”

On the surface, it seems like Gruver’s chancy decision might yield big dividends. After all, the International Energy Agency expects global energy demand to increase by one-third by 2035, with nearly 60 percent of the demand coming from countries with a burgeoning middle class like China, India and the Middle East.

But outsiders who try to navigate the business landscape in developing nations are often stymied by language and cultural differences and bureaucratic red tape. Small firms like USP&E also face stiff competition from energy, engineering and infrastructure giants like Siemens, which plans to expand its reach in emerging markets over the next five years.

Gruver would need to leverage the expertise of experienced globe trotting partners and employees to realize his dream of bringing power, jobs and hope to people in underdeveloped countries.

Establish trust

People in struggling countries are often wary of outsiders and for good reason. Consider the impoverished West African nation of Sierra Leone where slavery and the sale of so-called blood diamonds to outsiders during the 1990s fueled a brutal civil war and now only those who can afford generators have access to electricity.

Gruver, who employs a faith-based approach to leadership, believes that creating communities and jobs isn’t a consequence of doing business — it’s a reason to be in emerging markets and a moral obligation. Moreover, he scoffs at strangers who suggest that he should hasten his company’s growth by offering officials in underdeveloped countries financial incentives to secure permits or minimize red tape.

Instead, he follows his moral compass by hiring local people to operate and maintain a power station once construction is complete. He says that providing training and jobs creates trickle-down good will, and an environment of mutual respect, that leads to new opportunities. He cites his firm’s ability to secure multiple contracts in Sierra Leone, which is experiencing annual GDP growth of 35.9 percent, as an example.

He pays local workers well once a week and gives each employee a bag of rice to supplement their family’s meals.

“You build trust by keeping your word, and by giving people jobs and a career path,” Gruver says. “Hope was lost in Sierra Leone when we arrived two years ago. It’s remarkable how just a little bit of reliable growth can make a difference. We’re not only giving these people jobs and electricity — we’re giving them hope.”

Leverage strategic partnerships

How difficult is the business climate in Sierra Leone? The country’s overall ease of doing business ranks 140th out of 185 economies according to data compiled by The World Bank. Worse yet, it ranks 173th in dealing with construction permits and 176th in getting electricity, which means Gruver needs strategic alliances to achieve his philanthropic and economic mission.

“It’s very difficult to break into a foreign country without leveraging the established trust of companies that know the ins and outs of the local business and have tenured relationships,” he says.

In addition, having relationships with highly regarded and diverse companies such as Caterpillar, General Electric, Hyundai and Ernst & Young Africa helps USP&E overtake entrenched local competitors by offering clients turnkey power solutions. And the company’s nimble size and vast network helps it customize its deliverables and pounce on prospective opportunities.

“Some competitors just sell power plant support or construction or they only work in Venezuela because they don’t have the alliances to compete on a bigger stage,” Gruver says. “We can offer everything from design to construction and ongoing support for our plants by leveraging the abilities and products of our strategic partners.”

When USP&E couldn’t find a local printer to deliver documents to a prospective client in Johannesburg, South Africa, E&Y stepped in and its actions helped the fledgling power company close the deal. Other relationships have lead to inaugural deals in France and Spain.

“We’re not a huge company so we look for mutually beneficial relationships that extend our capabilities,” he says. “We expect to generate revenues of around $50 million this year and that’s largely due to our strategic partnerships which have never been stronger.”

Hire diverse and passionate people

Companies encounter unfamiliar technical and cultural challenges when they venture beyond the U.S. border. Having a diverse, multi-cultural staff with global business experience is critical in an environment where local knowledge plays a critical economic role. This is especially true in emerging markets, where decision makers are interested in knowing whether companies are interested in them as people or just want their dollars.

There’s no shortage of opportunities for globally experienced engineers and energy-savvy technicians — especially in Texas. So how has a mid-size company with fairly limited resources managed to hire 110 movers and shakers over the last three years?

“We promote our mission because it attracts like-minded people who want to work for more than a paycheck,” Gruver says.

Indeed, what people want most is the chance to make a difference according to Alexander Hiam, the Massachusetts-based author of “Business Innovation for Dummies.” Although a great salary doesn’t hurt, professionals are flocking to disruptive, world-changing organizations where they can feel good about what they do.

Interviews at USP&E usually start with a rudimentary question and answer exchange, but the conversation quickly turns toward the company’s overseas exploits. At that point, candidates who are merely interested in collecting a paycheck usually exit, while those who are passionate about the company’s mission are hooked on the idea of traveling the world and meeting buyers, sellers, and facility managers on multiple continents with different languages, cultures and customs.

And since engaged employees are generally more productive than their less motivated counterparts, the passion factor allows Gruver to boost the return on his fairly small staff. His experience is validated by more than 29 studies that link employee engagement to better service, sales, profits and shareholder returns.

“I lead an awesome team of executives, directors, engineers, project managers and technicians,” Gruver says. “They can have any job they want but they work for USP&E because they’re passionate about helping people.”

Harness the power of the Internet

USP&E doesn’t pay for advertising on Google or Yahoo, and it doesn’t have a commercial sales team. Yet, the company manages to garner five to 15 legitimate leads per day through the strategic deployment of some 80 websites.

Gruver studied web development in college — and refers to himself as a technophile — so he knows a thing or two about search engine optimization. Invariably, USP&E comes up near the top of the page when a prospective client searches the Internet for power engineering solutions or providers because the company owns the rights to a variety of keyword-rich domain names.

A strategic domain name can increase a website’s ranking especially if the domain matches the search query. The tactic is especially effective for small companies that don’t have a large advertising budget or well-known brand, since it snares prospective clients who search on keywords or phrases instead of a company name, and having a strong web presence may even attract investors.

“Executives often think that they have to pay for strategic Internet placement but that’s simply not true,” Gruver says. “Managing search engine optimization is so important to growing companies that it needs to be a top priority for executives right after cash flow.”

Speaking of cash flow, it’s still a daily priority for Gruver given the company’s age and rapid growth. He’s learned to say no to unnecessary frills and how to streamline operations by investing in mission critical areas that yield the best return. He credits his mentors with telling him the truth about frivolous spending instead of what he wants to hear while teaching him the virtues of risk taking and pushing boundaries.

“It’s amazing how just one disruptive idea can change the fortunes of so many people,” Gruver says. “We’re not just creating jobs — we’re creating hope — and that’s a wonderful thing.”

How to reach: U.S. Power & Environment Global, (469) 726-4780 or www.uspowerco.com

The Gruver File

Name: Will Gruver

Title: CEO and founder

Company: USP&E Global

Born: Minneapolis, Minn.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in communications and economics, Northwestern University.

What was your first job?

My first job was a youth pastor, but I started my first company when I was just 10. It was a landscaping business which I built up and sold to my partner after I finished high school.

Who do you most admire in the business world and why?

Entrepreneurs, especially those who head-up small businesses, because they’re the risk-takers who are pushing the boundaries and making a difference in this world. It’s the developing nations that offer the greatest growth and philanthropic opportunities, but it takes courage, passion and a forward-thinking strategy to pursue those opportunities.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Practice work-life balance. It’s easy to become entrenched in your business and overlook family and friends. I’m more motivated and productive on a daily basis because I have balance in my life.

What’s the key to success in emerging markets?

There’s so much corruption that’s it’s critical to build trust. You won’t muster repeat business unless you take the time to become a valued and trusted supplier.

What’s your definition of business success?

It may sound like a cliché, but helping other people. It’s easy to make money; the hard part is making a difference. There are unbelievable opportunities in this world for anyone willing to take a risk. For a company to thrive there has to be a reason for it to exist. Profits are important but it’s how you get there that counts.

Awards: Finalist, 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year, Ernst & Young

Recipient, Dallas Business Journal’s “40 Under 40”Award

Finalist, INC. 500, fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.

Dallas 100 Entrepreneur Award, USP&E placed seventh out of the 100 fastest-growing privately held companies in the Dallas area

 

Published in Dallas
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