Breakthrough entrepreneurs overcome all obstacles
We’ve come together to celebrate the dynamic unstoppables who are propelling forward to a brighter future for us all. They are the visionaries who launch and reimagine businesses, employ millions and endow their communities, leaving legacies of accomplishment and enrichment while setting the pace for generations of entrepreneurs to come.
We salute the finalists and congratulate the winners you’ll read about in the following pages.
Partner and East Central Program Director
WINNERS: Molly North, Al. Neyer | Bryan Salesky, Argo AI LLC | Peter Coratola Jr., Ease Logistics Services LLC | Jeff Berding, FC Cincinnati | Mona Pappafava-Ray, General Carbide Corp. | Andy Lefkowitz, Locus Fermentation Solutions (Locus FS) | Adam and Michael Wallenstein, Neptune Plumbing & Heating Co. | Kaveh Zamanian, Rabbit Hole Distillery | Dieter Moeller, Rhinestahl Corporation
FINALISTS: Mike Zelkind, 80 Acres Farms | Jorge Garcia-Zuazaga, MD, Apex Dermatology and Skin Surgery Center | Chad Silverstein, Choice Recovery, Inc. | Bill Dysert, Exscape Designs | Leo Ruberto, Feazel, Inc. | Fred Ode, Foundation Software, Inc. / Payroll4Construction.com | Condrad Daniels, HJI Supply Chain Solutions | Jeff Dulaney, LSP Technologies, Inc. | Craig Rutledge, LSS Holdings, LLC | Patrick Ghilani, MRI Software LLC | Mark Franco, MXD Process | Robert Klonk, Oswald Companies | Merry Korn, Pearl Interactive Network | Katie Blakeley, PetFirst Pet Insurance | Margie Brickner, Reliant Capital Solutions | Adam Dwidari, Scarpetta Shoes | Brian Burke, SellYourMac.com | Andy Eastes, SkuVault, Inc. | Steve Peplin, Talan Products, Inc. | Eric Preston and Bill Spohn Sr., TruTech Tools
President and CEO
Nominated by: Pam Weber, PNC Real Estate and Annie Daniel, PNC Bank
Al. Neyer, a commercial real estate development and design-build firm, has been in business for 125 years. President and CEO Molly North leads the organization through an aggressive landscape by embracing complexity. North approaches creative financing and multifaceted arrangements fearlessly. And with the economic wind at her back, she’s pushing Al. Neyer into new markets, such as Nashville. The challenge, in this environment, is taking care not to grow too quickly. To this end, North guides the company through a metered, methodical assessment of each new market it enters that takes into account the experiences of each previous expansion before undertaking the next.
The Al. Neyer team keeps a close eye on scalability, implementing resources and redesigning processes to lean-out operations and bring the century-old organization into the digital age. Its focus is on organic growth rather than growth through acquisitions, and keeping teams small and agile to preserve their entrepreneurial spirit.
North’s unique problem-solving ability has been the hallmark of her leadership. When she assumed the role of CEO, Al. Neyer was in its sixth generation of family ownership, which didn’t have a clear succession plan. North worked to attract and retain top talent and transitioned the organization to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan.
Much of Al. Neyer’s strength comes from its A-team talent, and its recruitment efforts, which emphasize diversity and inclusion, are aligned with its market expansion strategies. The company is now larger than ever and poised to take advantage of a period of rapid growth.
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Argo AI, LLC
Nominated by: Summer Fowler, Argo AI
Founding a business is inherently difficult, but it’s another story to do it while developing self-driving autonomous vehicles. Bryan Salesky, CEO of Argo AI LLC, is solving a problem that has never been solved before, raising capital in a new industry and tackling insurmountable regulatory and public perception risk, all while focusing on safety at all costs.
Argo AI — founded in 2016 to solve transportation accessibility, infrastructure congestion and safety problems — received a $1 billion investment from the Ford Motor Co. when the company was less than four months old. Argo is the only self-driving vehicle company with a customer for its software and a nonvertically integrated structure. It expects to close another OEM partnership this summer.
Ford put its trust in Salesky, who was a member of the Carnegie Mellon University robotics lab team that won the 2007 DARPA challenge: a 60-mile, six-hour autonomous vehicle race without human intervention.
This garnered attention from Google. While working in its autonomous vehicle division, Salesky discovered the difficulty of engaging companies to manufacture equipment for autonomous research with its specificity, low volume and robust technical requirements. This was compounded by Google’s need to keep the division vertically integrated, which limited Salesky’s ability to scale. He saw this as an opportunity and started Argo AI.
With the explosion of automation, machine learning and robotics, talent management is Argo’s AI biggest challenge. Therefore, Salesky created a program to develop the skills of anyone with a computer sciences degree from any university for an entry level position in the company.
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Peter Coratola Jr.
Founder and President
Ease Logistics Services, LLC
Nominated by: Molly Carpenter, Smart Business
Leaning on his experience and passion for the logistics industry, Founder and President Peter Coratola Jr. started Ease Logistics Services LLC in 2014 with three phones and a few likeminded employees. He set out to create the first logistics company truly focused on superior customer experience.
For the first year, Coratola focused on building the business’s credit, even if it meant over-drafting his personal bank account. Then, he dialed in on ever-improving customer experience and establishing a good reputation.
Since 2014, Ease has outgrown its space twice, while continuing to focus on innovative solutions. The company utilizes a three-shift approach to ensure clients and carriers get the same treatment and a two-minute response at all times. Instead of the traditional, single point of contact, a dedicated contact works each shift to ensure someone is always available to answer questions or resolve an issue.
Ease has avoided the jack-of-all-trades employees common in the industry. Instead, the company puts an employee’s skill set to work in the best way possible. To minimize the industry’s high turnover rates, Coratola created a strong employee benefits program with fair salaries and paid time off, while avoiding long hours unless they are necessary.
Ease’s recent move to a large office with warehouse and loading dock space will position it as a full-service logistics company. Along with a continual focus on customer service and innovative technology solutions, the company plans to open a new office in the western U.S. to increase the support capability of each shift.
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President and General Manager
Nominated by: Warren Weber, PNC Bank
FC Cincinnati is a professional soccer team formed in 2016 that played in the United Soccer League. Led by President and General Manager Jeff Berding, the club was awarded Major League Soccer expansion in 2018, after submitting its formal bid in January 2017. Its road to MLS expansion was the fastest in MLS history, just 277 days from expansion bid submission to award date.
Berding is a Cincinnati native, former long-time executive with the Cincinnati Bengals and a former elected member of the Cincinnati City Council. As a volunteer at one of the largest youth soccer clubs in the region, Berding knew the soccer appetite in the city was thriving and growing — an environment hungry for its own professional soccer team. He developed a business plan that utilized data analytics to understand local demographics, comparable markets and the strengths and weaknesses of established professional sports teams in other cities.
Securing a site for the stadium was a significant challenge that required negotiations with the MLS and overcoming many political and community obstacles. He went door to door to talk with residents and secured funding from local investors, and ultimately secured the site that will be the club’s home in downtown Cincinnati in 2021.
Since FC Cincinnati was founded, it has set numerous attendance records, surpassing its own initial estimates and growing to nearly 26,000 fans per game in 2018, a figure that surpasses the progress of 20 MLS teams, all while playing in the USL.
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President and CEO
General Carbide Corp.
Nominated by: Denis Pasay, General Carbide Corp.
President and CEO Mona Pappafava-Ray not only maintains the business her father founded, she expanded General Carbide Corp. to provide a high-quality finished product directly to the end users, essentially competing with its current customer base.
Pappafava-Ray’s decision to transform the business from a traditional preform business to also be a tooling company was a risk. While General Carbide was continuing to develop and enter the new industry of finished ground products, the company lost traditional customers and oil and gas hit a recession. Her philosophy was “the sky is not falling, it is just raining, so grab an umbrella.” Rather than making cuts to keep the company afloat, Pappafava-Ray decided to continue the transformation and maintain a focus on quality and efficiencies.
Today, even with the challenges of entering new markets and trade concerns with China, Pappafava-Ray continues to push her employees to develop innovative ideas to improve processes and produce better products for its existing and new customer base. For example, with the rise of electronic cars, Pappafava-Ray has the company researching these cars to determine what it can provide, rather than relying on its strength in the combustion engine market.
And while General Carbide sometimes makes poor decisions, for Pappafava-Ray, it’s about the learning experience. For instance, the process to create a new product failed seven times before it was successful. Rather than punishing the development team, she met with them to understand what happened, so that they could learn from it and adjust going forward.
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Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO
Locus Fermentation Solutions
Nominated by: Teresa DeJohn, Locus Fermentation Solutions
Andy Lefkowitz has been a serial entrepreneur nearly his entire career. He started out as a securities attorney at Jones Day before becoming one of the youngest partners on Wall Street at Shea & Gould in Miami. Shortly after leaving Shea & Gould, Lefkowitz lost everything in Hurricane Andrew — his house was leveled and his belongings were destroyed. It the mid ’90s and Lefkowitz moved back to Cleveland to live with his parents. He became active in the community and in his synagogue, a sequence of events that introduced him to Sean Farmer.
Farmer had an idea that probiotics were beneficial for consumption and that he could commercialize them for a series of food and beverage applications. Lefkowitz started helping him with some legal consulting, and they founded Ganeden Biotech in the late ’90s. Through this partnership, Lefkowitz increased his focus on operations and grew Ganeden to the premier IP-based probiotic supplier for over-the-counter food and beverage spaces. The success was profound, and Ganeden was sold off to private investors.
After successfully exiting Ganeden, Farmer and Lefkowitz began exploring additional applications of probiotics and microorganisms. They found opportunities in the oil and agricultural industries and created Locus Fermentation Solutions. Led by Lefkowitz as co-founder, chairman and CEO, Locus FS utilizes microbrew technology to create small batches of probiotics that are individualized to its client base. The typical client of Locus FS is one who may be facing different challenges, such as the drilling conditions of an oil well or soil composition in farming.
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Adam Wallenstein, President
Michael Wallenstein, President
Neptune Plumbing & Heating Co.
Nominated by: Kate Mathews, PNC Bank
When Adam and Michael Wallenstein came into Neptune Plumbing & Heating Co. in 2008, the company was almost exclusively in the new construction business. When a building was being built, Neptune would go out and install the plumbing components and that would be the end of that particular contract.
Adam saw opportunity for growth. In 2008, he and Michael teamed together to launch a service side to the plumbing business. Rather than simply installing the plumbing and moving on, they were now offering warranties and service contracts to help with repair and maintenance of plumbing systems.
Today the service component of the business makes up to approximately 25 percent of the revenue and employs 17 full-time technicians, plus full-time dispatchers. During the economic downturn in that same timeframe, the service business actually grew and helped make up for the shortfalls created by the lack of new construction in the area.
This success gave rise to an additional component, prefabricated plumbing. When people think of prefabrication in general, the most common thoughts are of sheet metal or other fairly standard items. In this case, Adam and Michael, who both serve as presidents in the company, saw an opportunity to pre-fabricate the materials that would go into a property, ship them to the builder and have the builder put the modules together using a set of instructions provided by Neptune. The prefabrication component of the business made up approximately 30 percent of the company’s revenue in 2018, and 2019 is shaping up to be even better.
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Founder and CEO
Rabbit Hole Distillery
Nominated by: Jackson Andrews, Endeavor
Rabbit Hole Distillery’s premium craft spirits portfolio is distinguished by all-natural, local ingredients and strong flavor profiles. Founder and CEO Kaveh Zamanian, an Iranian immigrant, began 10 years ago in the industry when there were more than 200 bourbon recipes across 10 to 15 major distilleries, making it a very difficult market to enter. To differentiate Rabbit Hole, Zamanian created a concept in which the art and science of distilling are merged with a unique tasting and hospitality journey that showcases the process of bourbon making through an immersive experience.
The distillery is located in the NuLu neighborhood, near the heart of downtown Louisville, and includes an events space, a restaurant and bar, tasting room and a retail space. With its glass walls, elevated decks and accessible location, the building is designed to deliver transparency to consumers so that they can learn and get excited about the distilling process.
Zamanian, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and practiced as a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst and professor at the University of Chicago for 27 years, attributes much of his success with Rabbit Hole to his background in psychology because it has helped him to better understand people, their behaviors and their interests.
Rabbit Hole is now the 16th largest bourbon distilling facility in the world, with plans to become one of the major international spirits brands by developing a portfolio of products, with the Rabbit Hole brand represented in every form of spirit.
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President and CEO
Nominated by: Douglas Adams, PNC Bank
Rhinestahal Corporation is a high-tech manufacturing and tooling outfit that works with original equipment manufacturers. Operating in specialty tooling services — the company is currently a licensee of GE, CFM International and Rolls Royce — has positioned Rhinestahal to provide additional services in every part of its customers’ supply chains.
President and CEO Dieter Moeller in 2006 took over the business that his father, a German immigrant, started in the late 1960s. Focused on bringing an entrepreneurial mindset to the company, Moeller took what was a niche contract manufacturing business and turned it into a self-sufficient integral player to the high-tech manufacturing and tooling enterprise.
Moeller identified the tooling work the company did as its growth opportunity. He pitched the idea that he could decentralize the process and alleviate strain on its customer, GE Aviation, by obtaining an exclusive license with the company and acquiring its tooling division. Though GE initially turned down the offer, a new executive at GE found Moeller’s proposal and reached out. He worked to edge out other prospective acquirers. Despite having a smaller outfit, the relationships he developed and the company’s renowned high-quality craftsmanship helped Moeller win the business, a move that added significant value to the company.
Moeller has proven that he is a leader who can deftly identify the needs of others and works to find solutions to meet those needs. As the high-tech machining and mechanics industry faces disruptive technological change, Moeller continues to help Rhinestahl identify solutions for its customers.
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CEO and Co-founder
80 Acres Farms
Nominated by: Rebecca Haders, 80 Acres Farms and Kevin Brown, PNC Bank
80 Acres Farms, led by CEO and Co-founder Mike Zelkind, is the first fully automated indoor farm in the U.S. Using a vertical farming technique, 80 Acres has disrupted the farming industry by eliminating issues such as cross-country transportation, pesticides and food waste. Its artificial intelligence-powered growing system has helped produce high-quality, nutritious products at an affordable price.
Zelkind created 80 Acres in part because he wanted to address how critical resources were being used. He also recognized that farmers, despite advancements in modern techniques, still struggled with negative effects from weather, pests and logistics.
Through the use of robotics and technology, 80 Acres is able to grow produce much faster than can be done in a traditional outdoor environment or greenhouse by controlling factors such as CO2 levels, as well as when and how much to stress the plants to get the right level of nutrition and flavor. The company uses a closed-loop hydroponic delivery system and recycles the water, while also relying on energy-efficient LED lights and temperature control to keep grow zones in the right indoor climate at all times. Through these methods, 80 Acres is able to grow produce year-round, without interruption.
The farm’s closed-loop system uses 95 percent less water than a conventional farm. And by locating the indoor farms close to customers, 80 Acres cuts down significantly on the costs, time and environmental impact of cross-country transportation, providing customers with fresher, longer-lasting product while drastically reducing food waste.
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Jorge Garcia-Zuazaga, MD
President, Founder and Mohs skin cancer surgeon
Apex Dermatology and Skin Surgery Center
Mayfield Heights, Ohio
Nominated by: Ruth Barnum, Apex Dermatology
As the founder of Apex Dermatology and Skin Surgery Center, Dr. Jorge Garcia-Zuazaga has been laser focused on his company’s mission — the provision of accessible dermatological care and the battle against skin cancer. Understanding the sensitive nature of seeking skin care — and the importance of the timing of treatment — Garcia-Zuazaga has created a culture at Apex that strives to treat each patient as a rock star.
Historically, dermatological appointments took weeks to schedule, and treatment plans were largely not individually focused. Focusing on a connection with the patient, Apex evaluates each situation and provides a focused and timely treatment plan that has proven to be a major differentiator for the company.
This level of excellence and innovation has been a driver in both Garcia-Zuazaga’s personal and professional journeys. After receiving an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering, Garcia-Zuazaga, a Mohs skin cancer surgeon, was selected for a highly competitive U.S. Navy flight surgeon position. He has gone on to build a highly successful and innovative career in dermatology. He learned and perfected innovative surgical techniques, excelled in leadership roles and sought to apply this breadth of experience and knowledge gained when he established Apex Dermatology in 2011.
Apex Dermatology has seven locations in Northeast Ohio and performs more skin cancer surgeries than even the region’s premier, large hospital systems, a position of pride for Garcia-Zuazaga, the company’s president, and his team. Each of Apex’s seven locations has a uniform facility setup, which enhances the company’s primary approach of accessibility.
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Choice Recovery, Inc.
Nominated by: Steve Wise, National Construction Workforce
The summer of his senior year at The Ohio State University, Chad Silverstein had a collections internship in Cleveland. Hitting the phones, Silverstein’s immediate success surprised his superiors. He wasn’t using industry-standard procedures of pressuring debtors; Silverstein’s success stemmed from his overwhelming compassion.
Upon returning to school in 1997, Silverstein founded Choice Recovery, Inc. Within six months, he pulled in 100 clients — driven by a simple goal of changing the perception of collections by helping those in need. To build a business he wanted to work in, Silverstein created an environment without managers, where everyone reported to him and people had flexible schedules.
While revenue growth is a key metric, what truly matters are the personal letters the company receives from customers and staff. In addition, when a teammate sought to make a greater impact, Silverstein provided the opportunity to start [re]start, a staffing company that helps Choice Recovery’s customers find new jobs.
Recently, Silverstein felt like he was bogging down the day-to-day operations, despite the fact that Choice Recovery was hitting its revenue metrics and had won multiple best workplace awards. It was time to hire a COO. After running through candidate after candidate, he found someone able to quickly understand Choice Recovery’s unique culture and the complex industry of collections. This new COO is looking to use automation to eliminate repetitive tasks and keep the firm small enough to maintain the culture, while Silverstein is focused on creating a system to share knowledge on specific job aspects through online videos.
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Founder and CEO
Nominated by: Robert Goble, PNC Bank
Bill Dysert caught the “dirt disease” at a young age, writing a paper in seventh grade about the excavation company he planned to own and run one day. Raised in a humble, working-class home, Dysert learned early on the value of hard work and determination. At the age of 12, he began working for a neighbor’s landscaping business. By age 16, he had bought his own truck and equipment. After completing a horticultural program in high school, Dysert began working in a large landscape development firm. At 23, he took out a $15,000 line of credit on his and his wife’s first home and founded Exscape Designs. Over the course of 15 years and through periods of economic downturn, Dysert has grown the company as founder and CEO from an ambitious idea to a successful business with annual revenue projected to more than double in the next few years.
To expand his business acumen and capabilities, Dysert was selected to participate in the Entrepreneurial Master’s Program, a three-year program at MIT, where he was exposed to many philosophies and styles that he has since incorporated into his own personal leadership style.
Dysert’s idea was to build a landscaping business that focused on customer experience and was rooted in sound organizational values, and under his leadership, the company has realized this goal. His leadership is typified by his all-in mindset that pervades the company, which means clearly identifying the goal, owning the steps, executing on a plan and standing by the work.
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Nominated by: Eric Lukingbeal, PNC Bank
Serial entrepreneur Leo Ruberto has never worked for someone else, aside from his time in the Marine Corps. He purchased Feazel Inc., which provides residential and commercial customers exterior restoration solutions, from Mike Feazel in 2013.
Ruberto, who serves as president, expanded the business from one location to four cities in Ohio, Indianapolis, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. He envisions the company, which operates in 22 states, expanding into the western region of the U.S. Feazel also will be moving to a new headquarters this year to accommodate growth and allow for the most efficient work environment.
Ruberto is an innovator who constantly works to improve the quality of services provided to the customers, such as new technology — i.e., virtual reality googles, 3-D sales program and drones — that’s more commonly associated with a startup than a roofing company.
To better understand the distribution process, Ruberto started a distribution business, Capstone Supply, in 2014. He felt that understanding the procurement process creates efficiency. This company was acquired by the nation’s largest distributor of roofing, windows, siding, gutters and other construction materials in 2017.
When Ruberto took ownership at Feazel, one of his goals was to invest in and empower his people. Ruberto also is always searching for new ways to give back. For example, an office manager in Cincinnati drew his attention to a local newspaper story, where an older woman never received the roofing services she paid for. Feazel finished the job for free.
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Founder, Chairman and CEO
Foundation Software, Inc. /Payroll4Construction.com
Nominated by: Caitlyn Ryan, Foundation Software
It was 1982 and Fred Ode was in New York City presenting a unique accounting software proposal to the Koch Erecting management team that was responsible for constructing one of the country’s most iconic symbols of freedom: The World Trade Center. At the time, Ode was working as a programmer for an accounting software company that, to this day, is responsible for a large portion of market share for construction accounting software packages around the world.
Ode understood the difficulties and complex environment that construction companies such as Koch Erecting dealt with from a project management perspective. These skills, along with the ability to provide a trusted and respected relationship, allowed Ode to win the contract with Koch Erecting.
It wasn’t long before Ode started to envision a business of his own based on untapped opportunities he saw with his clients.
After several months of self-reflection, a close friend’s advice and several serious phone conversations, Ode flew out to Koch’s office on Jan. 3, 1985, to meet with several key decision makers. When he got back to Ohio, he put pen to paper and mailed Koch a proposal for a new construction accounting software program. He signed the company up for business on Jan. 21, 1985, and Foundation Software was born.
The company’s founder, chairman and CEO found additional entrepreneurial success when he launched Payroll4Construction.com, which continues his legacy of providing valuable software for the construction industry. Ode understands that while the accounting software space is one of the oldest industries in business, innovation is the key to its future.
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HJI Supply Chain Solutions
Nominated by: Kevin Shurn, Superior Maintenance Co.
HJI Supply Chain Solutions is a third-party logistics company that’s been enhancing the productivity and efficiency of its clients by helping them reduce inventory, outsource noncore activities, improve customer satisfaction and pilot new business opportunities with less risk.
President Condrad Daniels is blazing the company’s trail forward as its second-generation leader. The son-in-law of the company’s co-founders worked his way up through the family company over the course of a decade to take over what remained of the business after the family sold off a large part of its transportation business.
Daniels expanded and developed HJI’s corporate framework and facilities infrastructure, laying the groundwork for substantial growth from a single client to a diversified client base. He invested in an ERP system and doubled the company’s facility size, which showed customers the capacity HJI had to serve them.
Daniels also sought out clients in industries other than automotive, which enabled the company to open another, larger facility dedicated to nonautomotive supply chain management. That decision led to 200 percent growth for the company in three years.
The company has found success through organic growth under Daniels, and has recently completed an acquisition of a women- and minority-owned business in Memphis, Tennessee, that brought HJI more nonautomotive customers. The move also gave HJI a presence in a FedEx hub, which has enabled the company to bring on additional clients and grow with the opening of another facility in the city.
Nominated by: Brad Dunnington, Dunnington & Associates
When Founder and CEO Jeff Dulaney, Ph.D., developed his laser peening technology, he was the only person in the world who understood it. Laser peening is a superior metal surface enhancement technology, which can extend the fatigue life of metal parts by more than 10 times, improving safety and reducing operational costs.
During his 24-year tenure at LSP Technologies, Inc., the first laser peening company in the U.S., Dulaney has developed more than 100 patents with the help of his team of scientists, physicists and engineers. In addition, he’s guided LSP Technologies to become an AS9100 certified company for laser processing services. By allowing its customers to license the intellectual property, LSP reduced the adoption barrier and set the stage for sustainable global growth.
But LSP’s accomplishments didn’t come without hardships. Early in the life of the company, Dulaney’s proprietary technology was stolen by a third-party research company. Motivated to further revolutionize laser shock technology, he developed the world’s first commercially available laser peening system a few years later.
Today, Dulaney believes that it is just as important to invest energy and resources into creating a high-performing team culture as it is to build IP. The firm, which is employee-owned, almost doubled in size in 2018.
The ability to grow professionally and lead new initiatives within a largely unchartered global market has helped attract high-caliber talent. LSP is now aiming to expand beyond laser peening, and its new innovations are already opening new doors with companies like Caterpillar and NSRP ship builders.
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President and Owner
LSS Holdings, LLC
Nominated by: The team at LSS Holdings LLC
LSS Holdings, LLC is actually two companies: Life Safety Services, a national provider of passive fire protection inspection and repair for commercial facilities, and Hughes Environmental, a national provider of industrial cleaning services for manufacturing and other commercial facilities. Both companies were formed by President and Owner Craig Rutledge.
These lines of business have a high degree of difficulty because their sales are dependent on jurisdictional regulations that govern the frequency of inspections, competition from local businesses that offer services at a lower cost and high workforce turnover.
To overcome these challenges, Rutledge is helping LSS to innovate both in how these companies serve their customers and how they create more sustainable revenue streams while maximizing profitability. The company is developing and enhancing an existing application that will impact multiple aspects of the business and would be a unique product in the market. He has come to understand that LSS cannot grow according to its targets and serve the number of clients required to meet revenue targets by growing at the same rate. His plan has the potential to increase top-line revenue growth in a sustainable manner, reduce back office cost and increase employee efficiency. The new application will overhaul and streamline the CRM process, including customer identification, contract management, service delivery, invoice generation and cash collection, while reducing back office support requirements and costs. The application will also enhance reporting capabilities and put the certification process into the hands of customers through training and licensing an SaaS product, while creating an annuity revenue stream.
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MRI Software LLC
Nominated by: Emily Wells, MRI Software
Patrick Ghilani sees himself as the chief culture officer at MRI Software LLC. When Ghilani became CEO in 2014, he focused on reinvigorating the business — completely revamping the company and focusing on market and innovation. Founded in 1971, the company had become stagnant and needed growth and innovation. Ghilani adopted the lion as the company’s mascot in order to “Restore the Roar.” He used his energy and passion to take a stale company and turn it into a highly acquisitive company filled with opportunity. He developed five core values for MRI Software employees — make the pride proud, get it done, strive to amaze, be fearless and enjoy the ride.
Ghilani has led the company through years of rebuilding, surviving investment changes from multiple private equity firms when it is generally customary for outside leadership to be brought in by the private equity investors. He focused on a strategy shift to broaden the software platform and offerings, which has differentiated the company from its competitors.
The result of Ghilani’s leadership has been an explosion of growth over the last several years. In 2014, MRI Software had one office outside of Cleveland. Today, the company operates numerous offices across six countries, and the number of employees has grown from 400 to 1,300.
Ghilani has created a Leadership Council, a forum for a shared vision for all people in the company who manage others. Here, he shares financial and operating updates and provides an opportunity for the group to solve any people issues that need to be addressed.
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Nominated by: Steve Drigg, PNC Bank
Mixer Direct, which does business as MXD Process, designs and manufactures liquid mixers and tanks, as well as the control systems to connect and automate the equipment needed to do so.
Mark Franco, the company’s president, has had to hurdle great obstacles since the company’s inception, which has helped him overcome business problems. For example, in the company’s earliest days, he secured a large project to provide a customer with mixers and tanks, and contracted the work out. When Franco stopped hearing from the contractor, he flew to Las Vegas to check on the progress in person and found a shuttered warehouse. Instead of giving up, he looked over the manufacturer’s balance sheet and came up with a cash flow plan that enabled his project to be completed, while also saving the manufacturer’s business.
Franco has since grown the business to a point that he no longer fears a situation such this. He and his staff continue to demonstrate exceptional problem-solving skills and creativity to set Mixer Direct apart from the competition.
Mixer Direct was the first mixing manufacturer to take to the digital market-place in 2010, while much of the rest of the industry’s businesses continued to use catalogs. Its Mixer Genius concept gave customer same-day, customized mixing solutions over the phone. The company also combined several different segments, such as mixer manufacturing, tanking manufacturing and control system processing, enabling the company to develop these segments without outside contractors, which yields impressive margins that will help the company as it pursues growth.
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Nominated by: The team at Oswald Companies
Robert Klonk believes that creating a workforce that cares about one another is what fosters a culture of caring for the customer. With that philosophy in mind, Oswald Companies has a sabbatical program that allows employees with 10 years of experience to take a 30-day sabbatical to recharge. The sabbatical is paid, and employees receive a bonus during this time to support their sabbatical endeavors.
Every Monday morning, Klonk attends a weekly producer meeting with approximately 80 members of senior leadership and those who have direct customer contact. This supports a teaming environment and demonstrates that customer relationships are the responsibility of everyone at Oswald.
Twice a month, Klonk participates in “Breakfast with Bob” sessions, during which the CEO has breakfast with 15 to 20 employees from across the company. This helps Klonk understand what is going on in the trenches and ensures every employee’s voice is being heard, especially those who hear directly from the customers. Throughout the year, Klonk will have breakfast with everyone at Oswald. Klonk believes that by hiring and retaining the best talent, the company is hiring and retaining the best innovators who will create customer-demanded solutions and deliver an exceptional customer experience.
Klonk refers to his organization as having 400 employee-owner-entrepreneurs-in-training who are tasked to act like an owner and find a better way, which perpetuates a sense of innovation and caring that has always been the foundation for the culture at Oswald. The company has grown to become one of the nation’s largest independent insurance brokerage and risk management firms.
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Pearl Interactive Network
Nominated by: Bill Kiefaber, Marketing Works
In 2004, Merry Korn was ready for her next challenge. She saw that many underserved communities lacked good jobs — jobs with constant, steady income, health care benefits and opportunities for advancement. She founded Pearl Interactive Network, a contract center company, and worked with nonprofits and government agencies like Welfare to Work and Goodwill to give hiring priority to challenged populations, such as disabled veterans, veterans, military spouses and people with disabilities.
For example, Korn saw an opportunity to help near her call center in Tempe, Arizona, which has a high level of unemployment among Native Americans. She built relationships and offered high-paying jobs with benefits and opportunities for growth. The result? Korn has been invited to lease space for a call center on the reservation, a rare occurrence.
While Korn initially struggled to find a market and secure financing, her ability to focus on neglected workforces became an advantage, allowing her to ramp up quickly. She’s gone from an unemployed single mother of two to CEO of a business with 400-plus permanent, full-time employees.
To combat the high turnover that’s often found in call centers, Korn lays out a seven-step career path for her employees at onboarding. Korn also takes pride in the benefits and pay she can provide at Pearl Interactive Network and is excited about the long-term prospect for new business through Pearl Tele-Life Care, a service that provides constant monitoring of a patient’s health through a platform of smart home and personal devices.
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PetFirst Pet Insurance
Nominated by: Derrick Littlejohn, PNC Bank
PetFirst Pet Insurance, led by CEO Katie Blakeley, offers comprehensive pet insurance coverage. It prides itself on its innovative distribution channels — direct to consumer, animal welfare agencies, employer groups and strategic partners in the pet category. The company uses A-rated insurance carriers to underwrite its products, while PetFirst employees focus on marketing, sales, customer experience, accounting, and claims and risk management.
Innovative ideas and failing fast have been key to PetFirst since the company’s beginnings. Early on, Blakeley and her team researched saturated markets in the U.K., finding that a number of pet insurance products were encountered by consumers as they shopped. That prompted the team to approach The Kroger Co. in the U.S. and enter into a partnership to offer PetFirst products there, something that hadn’t been tried before. It led to a successful pilot that was extended out.
PetFirst also launched a product based on customer feedback when an employer group approached the company about fixed-rate policies. Blakeley and her team simplified the company’s product policy and worked with underwriters to offer a product that fit the customer. It became a unique fixed-rate product in the market.
This ability to conduct the research, understand the insights the data are showing and then act comes easily to PetFirst. The company is nimble in addressing the market with new products via new distribution channels while retaining existing customers. That’s led to impressive results. Blakeley has been leading PetFirst through immense growth, increasing EBITDA by more than 800 percent over the past three years.
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President and CEO
Reliant Capital Solutions
Nominated by: Sarah Miller, Inspire PR Group
President and CEO Margie Brickner started her career in collections, later moving to sales and marketing. During those 25 years, she didn’t seriously consider starting her own company until she began to disagree with her company’s decision-making. After a lot of soul searching, she took the plunge in 2007 and started Reliant Capital Solutions, an accounts receivable management company.
Brickner began by cold-calling clients, incredibly landing a meeting with University of Phoenix and closing the account. This win, due to fortunate timing and Brickner’s ability to sell herself, dovetailed into sustained success across education, government and industry over the next decade.
In an industry known for aggressive techniques, significant turnover and a seedy reputation, Brickner blazed a different path with her work ethic, high energy and enthusiasm. She wanted her employees to be well trained, well compensated and treated as family. Tellingly, there are multiple married couples in the office, as well as generations of families. Currently more than 80 percent of Reliant’s recruits come from referrals, and new hires go through an extensive training program and nesting period.
From humble beginnings, Brickner now leads over 300 employees, works with more than 400 colleges, has Reliant positioned to be a national leader in accounts receivable management and expects to quadruple annual revenue in the near future.
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Founder and CEO
Nominated by: Rachel Baileys, Scarpetta Shoes
Unlike many successful entrepreneurs, Founder and CEO, Adam Dwidari studied actuarial science, not business. But he developed an entrepreneurial mindset early, initially dreaming of building an optometry business, and later selling merchandise online, including bicycles, video games and area rugs, to help fund his college tuition at The Ohio State University.
It took unwavering creativity and innovation to build Scarpetta Shoes, an online retailer for women’s designer shoes at discount prices, from scratch. As part of that journey, Dwidari acquired inventory without buyers, moved his business from a basement to a warehouse and assembled a team of more than 30.
Similar to Dwidari, most Scarpetta Shoes employees were hired without experience in the retail industry. He and his team look for people who share a passion for the future of the business and are able to take an idea from start to finish.
The ever-changing retail market landscape and internal operations are continual challenges. Scarpetta Shoes doesn’t choose specific inventory or sizes; excess inventory is purchased in lots. Dwidari developed software that tracks and prices the company’s inventory, which has increased productivity. In addition, Scarpetta Shoes manages its e-commerce site internally, which enables it to quickly adjust promotional offers and adapt to consumer responses.
The company recently opened its first pop-up store. Rather than relying on the space for revenue, it’s more about discovering customer needs. Dwidari plans to open more pop-up stores, expand to a new warehouse space and office location and grow the international e-commerce business by partnering with other companies.
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President and Chief Mac Man
Blue Ash, Ohio
Nominated by: Todd Wilkowski, Frost Brown Todd LLC
SellYourMac.com is a trusted and highly independently rated Apple trade-in company. It buys, sells and services the complete lineup of Apple products.
As President and Chief Mac Man, Brian Burke is the quintessence of pure entrepreneurship. Having launched a multimillion-dollar electronics trade-in business from the basement of his home in 2006, Burke embodies the sheer power of an entrepreneurial spirit amid great adversity.
During a time of slow job market growth, Burke recognized the need for a service that would allow individuals to sell used gadgets in a hassle-free manner to lower the cost of upgrading to newer technology. In an era where individuals are upgrading cell phones and computers every 16 to 18 months and new products are being introduced daily, Burke has helped more than 100,000 customers recoup value from their used devices.
SellYourMac does more than just buy, sell and service used Apple products. In the eyes of its customers, the company relieves the burden of having to resell used devices to generate cash for new ones. It provides a stepping-stone to get the latest popular gadget. SellYourMac’s unmatched customer rating is due in large part to its differentiation in terms of service offerings. SellYourMac offers the fastest quote process, best instructions and communication, industry-leading customer support and constant dialogue with customers to gain insight into their user experience.
Burke has positioned SellYourMac to win and retain more customers through innovations in speed and ease of trade-in, all while upholding customer trust and service confidence.
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Nominated by: Sam Smock, SkuVault
SkuVault is a cloud-based inventory and warehouse management system. Its real-time quantity synchronization prevents out of stocks, its barcoding and quality control reduce picking and shipping errors and its smart reorder reports ensure purchasing decisions are backed by hard data.
CEO Andy Eastes started SkuVault with a big idea, but without initial capital or direct access to the market. He and his co-founder used revenue from freelance jobs building websites and other IT consulting gigs to fund the company and hire employees.
The initial version of the company’s warehouse management software was built utilizing Microsoft Access database and SQL before transitioning to the current cloud-based system that offers users more flexibility and accessibility in their inventory management process. This enhancement alone has resulted in a much higher rate of growth and created opportunities to service clients of all sizes.
The pivot to the cloud also enabled the company to personalize the software to ensure flawless integration with different accounting, shipping and POS systems.
SkuVault has formed multiple strategic partnerships with companies that provide services to the same clients as SkuVault, partnerships that continue to be a growth catalyst for the company. This has led to SkuVault being widely integrated and seamlessly operate with other systems.
Eastes operates SkuVault as not only a tech company, but also a service provider. The company is building both great technology on the back end and high-performing teams of customer service professionals on the front end to create a uniquely rich experience for clients.
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Talan Products, Inc.
Nominated by: Eric Schwarz, BNY Mellon
Steve Peplin is the co-founder and CEO of Talan Products, Inc. As the grandson and son of a manufacturer, Peplin had the industry in his blood. At the age of 12, he would perform welding procedures and drafting for his family’s company. After a series of adventurous jobs including oilfield roughneck, logger, cowboy, chef, high-rise constructor and sailor, Peplin was eventually drawn to manufacturing because it seemed to him that people were always trying to cut out the middle man.
He and two others started Talan in 1986 with a small amount of money and one customer. The company produced one part but built off of those modest early days and continues in operation 33 years later.
Although he was not born with a golden spoon, Peplin came across an opportunity with a buyer who needed 500,000 pieces. He and his younger brother, Rich, decided to pursue the job. They came up with a price and suggested adding John Talan, a tool-and-die maker, as another partner. That single customer produced the foundation for today’s world-class company. With Peplin’s strength in sales and customer relations, he was — and unquestionably is — the rainmaker. The business delivers superior quality for a variety of customers, allowing Peplin and his partners to continue to grow the business.
Continuous improvement is the mantra of all successful manufacturing companies, including Talan. From an early stage, Talan decided to implement an innovative, comprehensive strategic planning process that is refreshed annually.
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Eric Preston, Vice President and General Manager
Bill Spohn Sr., President and CEO
Nominated by: Robert Stein, University of Pittsburgh Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence
One of Bill Spohn Sr.’s greatest strengths as an entrepreneurial leader at TruTech Tools is his ability to explain highly complex things in a way that makes sense to everyone. The explanation normally comes in the form of a chart or graph the employees call a “Billagram.” His understanding of the flow of money, information and products is one of the key drivers to his success as an entrepreneur.
While Spohn is the company’s president and CEO, Eric Preston’s biggest strength is his out-of-the-box thinking and his people skills. Preston, who serves as vice president and general manager at TruTech, is an expert at maintaining customer intimacy and identifying pain points to ultimately provide the best customer experience possible. It fits in nicely with Spohn’s motto, which is, “There are no fences, keep going.”
This was advice given to him in a quarterly review from a previous job, words that resonate with Spohn because they conceptualize the entrepreneurial spirit he has created at TruTech.
The company has invested in a Customer Enterprise Planning system that automates interactions among the e-commerce site, inventory and TruTech’s accounting system. The goal of the automation is to remove routine tasks for employees and allow them to focus closely on customer needs. TruTech works closely to analyze and optimize both paid and organic advertisement, which leads to continuous improvement of its website and marketing programs. Hits are monitored on the websites to determine which and how much of each product or kit should be marketed.
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Bellwether Enterprise Real Estate Capital, LLC
Evoqua Water Technologies
Legion Logistics, Inc.
Modern Transportation Services
V-Soft Consulting Group Inc.
* Previous award winner