An entrepreneur is someone who bounds into the unknown, creating the future. When we first honored four forward-thinking entrepreneurs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1986, we had only just begun to recognize the forward thinking that is the hallmark of American business. Now, Entrepreneur Of The Year® reaches across the country to encompass nearly 10,000 distinguished U.S. alumni celebrated in 25 U.S. regional programs. We also extend to 145 cities and 60 countries worldwide.
We’ve come together to celebrate those dynamic entrepreneurs who are propelling forward towards a brighter future for us all. They are 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.
REAL ESTATE, HOSPITALITY & CONSTRUCTION (WINNERS) Steve Kimmelman and David Conwill, Redwood Living, Inc. | (FINALIST) Matt Fish, Melt Bar and Grilled | (FINALIST) Ariane Kirkpatrick, The AKA Team
SERVICES (WINNERS) John Nottingham and John Spirk Nottingham Spirk | (FINALIST) Daniel Richards, TestOil | (FINALIST) Ed Taylor, Technical Assurance, Inc. | (FINALIST) Karl Warnke, The Davey Tree Expert Co.
FAMILY BUSINESS (WINNER) Vic DiGeronimo, Jr., Independence Excavating, Inc. | (FINALIST) Michael Merritt, MERRITT | (FINALIST) Vincent LoSchiavo, Antonio’s Pizza/LoSchiavo Restaurant Group
FINANCIAL SERVICES (WINNERS) Ned Huffman and Deborah Rogan, Bellwether Enterprise/Real Estate Capital, LLC | (FINALIST) Kelly Price, National Automotive Experts/NWAN | (FINALIST) Dave O’Brien, Risk International Services, Inc.
COMMUNITY IMPACT (WINNER) Ken Babby, Akron RubberDucks | (FINALIST) Brian Zimmerman, Cleveland Metroparks | (FINALIST) Joe Matejka, Jr., Custom Fundraising Solutions, LLC
Here are the 2017 Entrepreneurs Of The Year® for Northeast Ohio
Real Estate, Hospitality & Construction
Redwood Living, Inc.
Nominated by: David Ferguson, Merrill Corporation
As an apartment dweller in his early years, Steve Kimmelman became familiar with some of the burdens of living in an apartment building. He realized that most renters are not happy with their apartments, which are typically designed to maximize density and profit for developers, not provide livability for the residents. In 1991, with the help of a few strategic investors, Kimmelman formed Kimmelman and Co.
He began by purchasing and managing five rental communities in Northeast Ohio. In order to learn as much as possible about the wants and needs of his tenants, he lived in one of the communities. Unlike traditional vertical apartment living, Kimmelman wanted to build apartment communities that were more like neighborhoods of single-family homes. This meant providing residents with private garages, personal patios and most importantly, single-story units free from noisy upstairs or downstairs neighbors.
During a vacation in the Redwood forests, he was struck by the peace and tranquility of the trees and the natural surroundings. He felt it was the perfect embodiment of the apartment communities he was developing. Thus, Redwood Living, Inc. became the new name of his business.
In 2002, Kimmelman began to regularly cross paths with David Conwill, who had gained quite a bit of experience in real estate. Conwill felt a connection to Kimmelman and his vision to create a revolutionary apartment living experience. From 2002 to 2008, the duo partnered together on various deals and Redwood Living experienced slow, smart and disciplined growth to set the stage for the future.
With Kimmelman serving as the company’s CEO and Conwill as its president, Redwood has become a fully integrated real estate development and management company specializing in single-story, suburban apartment communities that have the essence of those neighborhoods that Kimmelman had yearned for years earlier. The company is in six states and is expanding rapidly.
President and Owner
Melt Bar and Grilled
Nominated by: Mark Scott, Smart Business Magazine
After getting his culinary degree, Matt Fish spent 15 years honing his skills in Cleveland restaurants. Through hard work, dedication and a gift from his father, he realized his dream in 2006, opening of the first Melt Bar and Grilled in Lakewood.
The gourmet grilled cheese sandwich restaurant prides itself on creative additions to the household sandwich and an extensive craft beer selection. Fish, who is the president and owner, further distinguishes Melt by focusing on the atmosphere — each location has unique decorations designed by Fish — as well as wait staff personality and ability.
Melt now has more than 10 restaurants, including two contracted locations at Northeast Ohio stadiums. It also entered the Columbus market, which added customer and brand awareness challenges.
What made Fish fall in love with the industry was the constant challenge to remain ahead of the curve and growing while still remaining profitable.
A few years ago, Fish realized Melt was growing too rapidly. Some locations had become less profitable. Fish had to focus on budgeting and standardizing labor, food and beverage costs. After many brainstorm sessions, Fish invested in an industrial kitchen at the corporate headquarters, which is now used for many food preparation tasks.
Because of his humble beginnings and willingness to help out at a short-staffed location, Fish has never struggled to connect with his employees. Fish hires based on competency/personality rather than looks or style. This was unique at the time as most tattooed and pierced individuals were asked to cover them up. Many of the initial group who started in Lakewood have continued to work for Melt in various roles, including as executives.
While assessing opportunities to expand into new markets like Detroit and Pittsburgh, Fish recently began hiring externally for additional executives to complement the existing team, bringing fresh perspective and diverse experiences.
President and Owner
The AKA Team
Nominated by: William Gary, Cuyahoga Community College
Growing up on East 100th Street and Cedar Road in Cleveland, Ariane Kirkpatrick was surrounded by several locally owned mom-and-pop establishments, from grocery stores to seafood markets, all owned by people of the black community. As a black woman growing up in this neighborhood, Kirkpatrick was filled with an overwhelming sense of community pride and entrepreneurial spirit, and wanted to become an entrepreneur and own her own business.
Shortly after graduating from Warrensville Heights High School, Kirkpatrick started her first business venture. She used her graphic design experience to start a Kinko’s-type store and used her initials to call it A Better Kopy. The business didn’t work out, but it provided her with valuable networking and connections to get into residential construction, where she did a lot of the hard labor herself.
Kirkpatrick spent time working for the city of Warrensville Heights first as a home inspector, then as the city’s chief of housing. In 2008, she was ready to start her own company. Along with her sister and brother-in-law, she started a commercial cleaning business that is still successful today.
A year later, she launched The AKA Team, a full-service firm that provides construction management, self-performance construction, commercial waterproofing and commercial cleaning. AKA is an acronym for Kirkpatrick and her two sons, Ali and Kristopher. Although college educated with successful jobs, both sons are taking part in project management courses with the end goal of coming back to Cleveland to take over the family business. Kirkpatrick, AKA’s president and owner, has already begun preparing her sons to carry on the legacy she has built.
Family is the most important thing in Kirkpatrick’s life. Her grandfather, who she never met, owned a barbershop and Kirkpatrick took it as a sign that she was destined to lead a business of her own.
John Nottingham and John Spirk
Nomimated by: Brian Feliciano, Oswald Companies
Nottingham Spirk thrives on creativity and looks for employees who bring multiple areas of expertise to their work. Customer research, branding, engineering, rapid prototyping, 3-D design aesthetics and manufacturing sourcing are just a few of the skills that enable the company to take products from concept to commercialization in an average of 12 months. This is markedly faster than the normal product development period of 18-36 months.
Founded by John Nottingham and John Spirk more than 45 years ago, Nottingham Spirk employs more than 50 professionals. The co-presidents were not originally from Northeast Ohio, nor did they have any family contacts to help pave the way for their business. They simply followed a passion to innovate and help others do the same.
Over the years, the business partners have endeavored to continually reinvent themselves, the company and their client/partner ventures. Nottingham Spirk has trademarked the term “vertical innovation,” which refers to the company’s product development process and real-time innovation centered on owning the innovation process from ideation through product launch.
Company leadership sees its people as the greatest strength of the business. Nottingham and Spirk believe it is better to empower their people to create their own vision and share it with management. Their perception is that if they were to meddle too much within specific projects assigned to their team, workers would get frustrated with the constant oversight and leave.
Projects are completed concurrently, which is meant to ensure that at any given point in time, employees will have worked on a successful project. Management motivates team members through a profit-sharing program that is tied to the performance of the company and also the individual performance of employees. The company’s effective talent management is validated by an average employee retention rate of 16 years and a project success rate of 86 percent.
President and CEO
Nominated by: Elena K’Meyer, PNC Bank
While working as a consultant, Daniel Richards, who’d started several companies already, connected machine downtime at major plants with predicative maintenance. Richards quit his job and put his savings toward purchasing equipment to apply a new niche technology that assisted with oil analysis. Thus, TestOil began.
TestOil provides routine and specialized testing of lubricants used at power generation, chemical processing and other 24/7 industrial facilities.
However, the company that created and sold him the instrumentation also launched an oil analysis program and sued Richards. So, Richards began manufacturing the instrumentation and testing materials himself. Within a few years, he held more than 50 percent market share.
One attribute of Richards’ leadership as president and CEO is persistent execution. Same-day turnaround of oil analysis reports is a leading differentiator. Additionally, operators address 100 percent of customer questions upon the initial phone call. These both contribute to a nearly nonexistent customer attrition rate.
Richards puts employees as priority No. 1. Many of the company’s employees started at entry level and current employees often refer new hires. Employees also review the job applications and vote on 20 finalists. At a group interview session, the employees select two prospects to supplement Richards’ first choice. The three potential hires then go through one-on-one interviews.
On a quarterly basis, Richards hosts an off-site meeting where employees present ideas and commit to projects to help improve the company. This not only adds value, employees become invested in the business and expand their entrepreneurial/leadership experience.
One remarkable item about Richards is that TestOil isn’t his only business. He founded several nonprofits; piloted a training course for employees and others to become certified lubrication and oil analysts; started a technology company; and is the CEO of a leading supplier of custom industrial chemicals.
Visionary and Founder
Technical Assurance, Inc.
Nominated by: Christin Miller, Technical Assurance Inc.
Ed Taylor’s family has been in the construction business for generations. However, after running a branch of his father’s business at a young age, Taylor knew it wasn’t right for him. He left the business and reflected on ideas that excited him.
Taylor took a chance on a new business — enclosure consulting. The company, Technical Assurance, Inc., uses a team of engineers, technical professionals and consultants to help customers manage their existing buildings, managing national multi-facility building enclosure programs of varying size, geography and complexity. Areas of expertise include roofs, facades, doors, windows and skylights, in addition to below-grade structures, parking and hardscape pavements, and multi-level parking structures.
Taylor, the company’s visionary and founder, has built a business that defines employee growth and development as a measure of success. As part of Technical Assurance’s semi-annual review process, Taylor asked an employee to share his career goal. With coaxing, Taylor learned that his true goal was to provide his family with enough income so that his wife could stay home to raise their children full time. He sat down with this employee and mapped out a two-year path to achieve this goal.
Once the company’s core values were established, a few employees left on their own accord, leaving behind a community of employees with common goals and values. No employee has ever been laid off. Further, all employees have received a bonus each year since the company started. Organizationally, Technical Assurance connects with veterans as an employer and supporter. Providing jobs, donations, company-wide fund raising challenges and the encouragement of employee volunteerism keeps veterans’ causes at the forefront of Taylor’s philanthropic efforts.
Chairman and CEO
The Davey Tree Expert Co.
Nominated by: Joe Moran, PNC Bank
Karl Warnke’s mindset from his early days at The Davey Tree Expert Co. was centered on improving the quality of life for others through the business. During the interview for his first management position, Warnke was asked how he could continue to build his influence. His response was that he wanted to be on the company’s board of directors. He was driven by a feeling of responsibility to do whatever he could to help the company, regardless of his position. Today, he serves as the company’s chairman and CEO.
The Davey family was the originator of arbor culture dating back to 1880. Davey was the first company of its kind in the U.S. and Warnke sees that there is a sense of pride that goes along with that history. At the same time, Davey Tree has evolved to incorporate the latest tools and technologies into its work. The company utilizes a technical services group as a think tank of innovation for new products and services, and has nurtured a number of ideas in the last 18 years. This includes a patented, no-phosphorus fertilizer to take care of lakes and a patented tree growth retardant.
The group has turned technical services into a profit center, providing technical support and offsetting overhead costs by developing partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service. Davey developed a product called I-Tree, allowing people to see how much carbon a tree absorbs, how much runoff it stops and other technical information working in conjunction with the agency. Davey also manages the process of innovation by engaging large companies to implement sustainable solutions within the world’s largest industries. Each year, the company provides a corporate responsibility report to show the connection between its services and the impact on employees, clients, the natural environment and communities.
Manufacturing & Distribution
Jarrett Logistics Systems
Nominated by: Matt Wagner, Jarrett Logistics Systems
Michael Jarrett was faced with a dilemma. While his company needed him to relocate out of state, his family wanted to stay in Northeast Ohio. Jarrett considered his options and decided to start his own business. Luckily, he convinced his wife, Diane, it could work and the Jarrett family was able to stay put.
His business plan was to provide small and mid-cap companies with the technology, operational efficiencies and supply chain management that the third-party logistics industry provided to large corporations.
To generate investment revenue, the couple co-founded PackShipUSA, which focused on packing and shipping furniture and large residential items across the globe with common carriers. Diane primarily ran PackShipUSA, and nearly a year later, Jarrett resigned from his job and opened a second business: Jarrett Logistics Systems.
With no outside investment, the need to create a profit-earning, self-sustainable business was paramount. The company turned a profit by 2001, but due to 9/11 and the recession that followed, financial hardship of two large customers threatened the company’s sustainability.
Jarrett, the company’s president, has since turned his startup in a small Orrville office into the six successful companies he has founded or co-founded. His role has changed significantly in 19 years, but even today, Jarrett personally interviews nearly all applicants to not only JLS, but all his companies. He believes character is the most important quality in a potential employee.
He also has strong ties to the Orrville community where many of his businesses are located, such as the fitness center across the street from JLS, which offers a discounted membership to all employees that is more than covered by the reimbursement plan. One of JLS’ core values is civic responsibility.
JLS differentiates itself from other logistics companies by creating a personalized experience for its clients. And while the company is ready to embrace technology, the focus on client relationships will always be top priority.
Flack Global Metals
Nominated by: Aaron Schultze, Flack Global Metals
Flack Global Metals is a next-generation service center that has forgone the traditional model in favor of a network that provides solutions to its customers around the world.
Jeremy Flack, CEO of Flack Global, developed his company’s competitive advantage from juxtaposing his steel and finance backgrounds. Seeing aspects of the steel industry that were limiting, he developed a business model that would take volatility out of the equation by not owning any large equipment, forming an asset-light business that manages its risk and provides supply chains to its customers while creating unlimited geographic access.
The first significant obstacle Flack faced was securing financing to start the business. When he discovered he could only get a loan based on accounts receivable, he bought $2.5 million of steel inventory with his own money, taking on considerable risk.
At the start, Flack Global experienced growing pains with technology. The company’s first sales system didn’t work as anticipated when it went live, which sent the company into a period of loss because it couldn’t service its customers. The company worked around the clock to find a solution. After a few weeks employees developed about 35 cases that saved the company. Sound business procedures that came out of that experience are still serving the company well today.
Within in the first few years of business, Flack had one customer making up approximately 85 percent of his revenue. Recognizing the need to diversify, Flack Global acquired Consolidated Metal Products in 2015. After the transaction, the company doubled organically with the combined knowledge and synergies from the acquisition. The company also recently acquired Kenwood Painted Metals to continue diversifying the business.
Today, Flack Global is experiencing tremendous growth. The steel service center sees technology, innovation and understanding its customers as core to its continued success.
Nominated by: Joseph Gross, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses
Amy Bircher’s entrepreneurial spirit was on full display during the first year of MMI Textiles. She started the business in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Cleveland without taking any loans from banks, friends or family to fund the expenses she incurred to grow the company.
This meant sleeping in her car when traveling throughout the Midwest to win customers and taking draws against her commission from suppliers. Bircher focused on building relationships through face-to-face communication. She named the company MMI, which stands for me, myself and I, to demonstrate her commitment to the business. It’s consistent with what she considers to be her greatest strength as an entrepreneurial leader — the drive and eagerness to be the best she can be.
MMI has now been in business for 20 years, servicing end-product manufacturers of sewn products, and customers worldwide.
Innovation plays a vital role in how things are done at MMI and is a leading reason the company has sustained its double-digit growth year over year. Bircher, the company’s owner, is particularly focused on business development and product development. Business development involves ensuring that existing customers’ needs are being met while product development relates to staying ahead of the market and investing in new and innovative ideas that provide solutions in the textile industry.
MMI recently secured several patents for innovative technologies, including a flame-retardant fabric that can withstand temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees — the first of its kind. The company has also developed new strategic partnerships that encourage collaboration with suppliers and customers, as well as the development of new technologies. Through these relationships, MMI has become involved in industries such as digital printing that allow it to broaden its reach. The company is in the beginning stages of expanding domestically and to China, Taiwan, India, Germany and Mexico.
Vic DiGeronimo, Jr.
Independence Excavating, Inc.
Nominated by: Andrew Rutherford, PNC Bank
The work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit that characterized previous DiGeronimos is present in Vic DiGeronimo, Jr. as he carries on the legacy he inherited at Independence Excavating, Inc.
Unlike many third-generation family businesses, the excavating and heavy construction company continues to grow under DiGeronimo’s leadership due to his enthusiasm for expanding the breadth of services and his ability to transform a single job into more. The company differentiates itself as a one-stop shop and currently more than 20 family members are employed at various levels.
Since becoming president in 2009, DiGeronimo has established a reputation as a fair leader and dependable business partner willing to take risks and add value.
For example, he saw an opportunity in Pinecrest in Orange Village, Northeast Ohio’s largest mixed-use development. The concept of an excavating company putting equity into a development project was new. At first, the major hedge fund investor had reservations. But within a few months, the investor became so enthusiastic that it is now their preference to operate this way on all development projects.
This also showcases one of DiGeronimo’s mantras: Don’t let your ego get ahead of your ability. While the deal’s structure was innovative and risky, he knew the land’s value after it had been excavated would more than cover his initial investment.
Since finding and holding onto talent is critical, the company now has about 15 engineering interns and last year DiGeronimo hired a full-time recruiter. DiGeronimo believes it’s better to compensate employees according to their worth, rather than pay them less and see them leave.
The company also expanded the number of employees dedicated to safety, incentivized employees with safety awards and reviewed every recordable injury. In turn, in 2016, there were only six recordable injuries out of 1.3 million man-hours, two of which were bee stings.
Nominated by: Jonathan Sadler, Oswald Companies
Merritt began in a garage in 1967 when George A. Merritt and his partner started making kitchen cabinetry. The company was incorporated as Profac Inc.
George’s sons, Michael and Keith, began helping in the shop in the late ’70s, later transitioning to Merritt’s administrative side. From the start, Michael was interested in how the whole shop functioned and growth opportunities. Keith focused on shop operation.
The company also evolved from kitchen cabinets to corporate offices. By 2000, Merritt achieved national status as one of the country’s 10 best millwork companies. George passed away unexpectedly in 2001, and the brothers had to carry on their father’s legacy while balancing their desire to grow the business.
Since 2001, Merritt has formed partnerships with some of the world’s great woodworking artisans. Even as the business evolved and grew, Michael, CEO, remained steadfast to his father’s principles: Do good work, and do it on time.
Over its 50 years, Merritt hasn’t missed a deadline. This is partly because Merritt is involved in the construction process from the beginning, often taking on a de facto project management role. Michael recognizes Merritt’s success is tied directly to its employees. For example, the company is holding six events to celebrate its 50th anniversary, with three of those exclusively for employees.
Early on, Michael saw the need for competent, highly skilled and loyal workers. Talent coming out of U.S. trade schools favors mass manufacturing over custom millwork, so Michael has sourced labor from Germany and Austria. This has opened doors to new markets for growth, including woodwork on super yacht interiors.
Michael also established Merritt 2.0., an internal initiative to solve problems and build defined processes. The goal is to build a handbook of daily best practices with the input of Merritt employees.
Antonio’s Pizza/LoSchiavo Restaurant Group
Nominated by: Meredith Rankin, Smart Business Magazine
Founded in 1967, Antonio’s Pizza is Northeast Ohio’s oldest family-owned pizzeria.
Vincent LoSchiavo, the third generation of LoSchiavo’s involved in the ownership of the restaurant, was working in real estate in the early 2000s when he found his grandfather’s restaurant was faltering.
In 2005, LoSchiavo and his brother bought out their uncle’s stores, and approached their father, who owned the other locations, about aligning the vision and mission of Antonio’s Pizza. He reached an agreement with his family and set out to revitalize the brand.
Among the early steps was returning the original four stores to profitability, which started by identifying each store’s weaknesses.
One restaurant, for example, had maintained the quality of the food but offered a lackluster customer experience. After giving the store the needed attention, marketing materials were distributed with the message, “Same family recipe, new management.” Within the year, the store greatly improved its sales.
With a firm handle on the operations of the original stores, LoSchiavo transitioned his focus to top-line growth and began identifying markets to add new stores. Antonio’s opened 14 locations in Cleveland and three in the Akron/Canton area.
LoSchiavo expanded the menu offerings beyond pizza, which allowed the company to add catering services.
He then transitioned to improving the bottom line. He implemented a customized point-of-sale system that provided real-time data to the corporate leadership team, allowing it to monitor key metrics for each store and compare current and historical data to evaluate store performance and trigger coupon mailings to select customers.
He also added a sourcing and distribution arm. Antonio’s could now directly source its raw materials and centrally produce certain nonperishables. As its owner, LoSchiavo has grown Antonio’s presence and sales while maintaining family control of all the restaurants.
Retail & Consumer Products
LeafFilter North, Inc.
Nominated by: Amanda Curry, LeafFilter North, Inc.
In 2005, CEO Matt Kaulig started LeafFilter North, Inc. from his basement. For the first few years, Kaulig was a one-man show, scheduling appointments, taking all sales calls on his personal cellphone and storing inventory in his garage.
From his hands-on experience, Kaulig built a business model that allowed him to expand. Fueling the company’s growth through his own profits, he opened three new offices a year for 10 years. This year, LeafFilter added its first offices in Canada.
After trying a dealer network business model that gave up too much control, today the company is the sole manufacturer, seller and installer of LeafFilter gutter guards, providing customer support from sales to installation.
Even after growing its employee count, Kaulig has remained the face of LeafFilter and is highly involved in every aspect of his business. Kaulig also connects with his employees with a weekly Skype video communicating site-specific and overall financial performance.
In 2016, he remodeled LeafFilter’s corporate headquarters. The Hudson headquarters includes a unique call center containing a green siren that rings with each new lead and an in-house digital marketing department that has played a lead role in LeafFilter’s fast-paced growth.
Due to his background playing football at the University of Akron, Kaulig thrives on competition and brought that mentality to his sales and workforce. One of his overriding mantras is TNT, today not tomorrow. His sales force not only returns the lead call the day it was placed, it sends a representative to the customer’s home and has an installer on standby ready to complete the order.
Kaulig brings the same passion and drive to his newest endeavor, NASCAR. In 2016, he created Kaulig Racing, a full-time American stock car racing team with LeafFilter as the primary sponsor.
Nominated by: Spencer Dieken, PNC Bank
G.B. Pillai started his own business in 1976 when he recognized a void in the market whereby zoos had limited scale of product in their gift shops and did not offer a vast product line that represented all of the species on hand at the zoo.
At first, Pillai continued his job as an electrical engineer, using his time on the weekends to market his sample products to zoos to try and establish relationships and obtain orders. In the early years, Pillai and his wife built the business together out of their home.
By 1979, Pillai decided to leave his lucrative career as an electrical engineer to pursue his passion full-time, incorporating his business under the name K&M Toys, named after the initials of his two children. Rebranding later resulted in the change of the business to its current name, Wild Republic.
The business started domestically in the U.S. and then by the 1990s, expanded internationally with facilities currently in Canada, China, Australia, Denmark, India and the U.A.E. Wild Republic started out by primarily marketing its plush animals to zoos. At the time, zoos were losing government funding and Pillai, the company’s CEO, was able to demonstrate to zoos that expanding their gift shop business would provide a crucial source of revenues.
The company is not just thinking about making a sale with its products, however. Wild Republic is known for having a wider range of species than any of its direct competitors. To foster children’s curiosity about nature, the company puts tags on its products with animal facts and references its website where full profiles and photos of the species reside.
It has also partnered with respected organizations such as the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University. These organizations understand Wild Republic’s mission to provide lifelike, education-focused product offerings in support of wildlife.
Nominated by: Mark Hall, PNC Bank
Husband and wife Phillip and Jackie Wachter, CEO and creative director of Fount LLC, started out of their apartment in 2014. The business has grown into an energetic fashion studio in downtown Cleveland that has added employees and a second location in Columbus.
The Wachters designed and created wallets and necklaces from quality leather in their spare time, eventually adding luxury leather totes and handbags.
In 2014, Country Living magazine requested they overnight three totes and schedule a phone interview for a story about eager new entrepreneurs. Staying up all night to create these bags, it was their first “big break.”
As their product and customer base grew, they quit their jobs and joined their skills of web development, styling, photography and design to focus on their passion for American-made, quality and timeless products.
Fount encourages quality over quantity, which allows the company to offer a lifetime warranty. For example, the Wachters sampled 80 different tanneries in Italy prior to choosing their supplier, placing fair business practices at the top of the list of deciding factors. They also donate their leather scraps, sell them to local small business owners or even trade them for small machinery.
In 2016, the television show “Cleveland Hustles” wanted to feature the Fount brand. The couple only planned to operate online, but the show wanted them to open a storefront and create stocked inventory. This investment and the show’s publicity proved to be a significant asset.
While the Wachters haven’t taken on investors, they attract interns from Kent State University’s fashion program, and partner with a local charity to bring in refugees to help hand stitch the leather straps. Most employees have never worked with leather or sewing, so the Wachters are building a training program. They also plan to add a day care facility to their studio.
Bellwether Enterprise and Real Estate Capital, LLC
Nominated by: Mallory Frantz, The Siegfried Group, LLC
Ned Huffman and Deborah Rogan, veterans of the commercial mortgage industry each with more than 30 years of experience, have worked together since they were both in the commercial mortgage division of Mellon Mortgage. When this division was sold, they began Capstone, a commercial mortgage company. Built from scratch, it was eventually bought by Provident Bank, which was acquired by National City.
Huffman and Rogan soon realized their vision didn’t align with that of a large, national bank. In 2008, they left Capstone and built Bellwether Enterprise Real Estate Capital, LLC from the ground up, using only their past working relationships, their personal finances and those of the investors that had come with them from Capstone.
Bellwether, a full-service commercial mortgage company specializing in multifamily and affordable housing, is headquartered in Cleveland and has 30 production offices across the country.
Huffman, company president, and Rogan, COO, used their complementing leadership styles to grow Bellwether into a national commercial mortgage-servicing platform. Their growth has been both organic and through the acquisition of two companies, which allowed them to expand into additional markets.
The company has an array of products from life insurance to commercial mortgage loans, along with licenses with government housing agencies. Bellwether originates these products, selling them and retaining the servicing of much of its portfolio.
Bellwether was launched during the financial crisis. The timing was fortuitous, allowing the partners to develop processes to set them apart. For example, while competitors focused on areas to scale back and reduce their workforces, Bellwether positioned itself to hire and focus on servicing.
It also encouraged Huffman and Rogan to be more conservative. To prepare for the next downturn, Bellwether is growing its servicing portfolio to offer steadier revenue streams. With its national expansion, the partners are working to ensure the company’s future.
National Automotive Experts/NWAN
Nominated by: Jake Pease, Oswald Companies
Kelly Price began her career as a salesperson at a car dealership and was quickly identified by management as someone with a thirst for knowledge and a drive to succeed. She was asked to take over the dealer’s finance department where she was forced to teach herself the intricacies of auto insurance, a highly regulated and complex field. With little formal training in finance or insurance, Price not only taught herself best practices, she also became the corporate trainer for the dealership’s finance department.
In that role, she identified several industry challenges: the slow timing of claims, the poor details around captive insurance companies and the general risk structure of automotive insurance. These problems caused both frustration and uncertainty for the dealership. Fortunately, Price had a solution in mind. She recognized the need for a more accurate, transparent and timely reporting model, which became a core competency for National Automotive Experts/NWAN. Price founded NAE in 1996 and has built it into a multi-million dollar business.
Price has a common saying during company meetings: “Just because that is how it works today, it doesn’t mean it’s the best way. How can we make it better tomorrow?” As an example of this emphasis on continuous improvement, NAE recently formed a captive insurance company for the purpose of assisting its current client base and expanding its business offerings outside the automotive industry.
Price, who serves as president, values her company’s role as a partner in helping others maximize their potential. Instead of prioritizing volume by accepting contracts with any agent who would marginally increase revenue, NAE employees are trained to build relationships and help agents grow their business. As a result, Price has agents approaching her in hopes of doing business with her company. She has demonstrated a commitment to building a profitable and sustainable relationship with agents that has positioned NAE for continued growth.
Chairman of the Board
Risk International Services, Inc.
Nominated by: Ryan White, INSIGHT2PROFIT
Unlike most insurance brokers who drive insurance sales based on the compensation provided to them by insurance companies, Dave O’Brien guided Risk International Services, Inc. to take an innovative approach. He wanted to focus on aligning clients with the best insurance provider for their needs. This unbiased approach, although less profitable upfront, allows Risk International to be completely aligned to client interests and independent of the insurance industry.
O’Brien came to Risk International, where he now serves as chairman of the board, by way of Oswald Cos. As that company’s president, he instituted growth strategies that invigorated the company and drove innovative change throughout the more than 100-year-old insurance brokerage. With that success, he took a leap of faith and left Oswald to purchase a sizable portion of Risk International. At the time, Risk was a middle-market outsourced risk management provider on the verge of losing nearly one-third of its revenue because of client acquisition.
Despite the uncertainty, O’Brien was impressed with the company’s business model and felt it had vast, untapped potential that could benefit from his experience and insight. Over the next five years, he led Risk from a small, outsourced risk management firm to a global leader through his strategic vision and emphasis on culture.
O’Brien relies on frequent and transparent communication to build an open culture for leaders and employees. When he first joined Risk, he felt the senior management team was equipped and capable of leading the necessary change. However, communication to lower levels was insufficient to drive the change forward. O’Brien and his team continually strive to share the company’s strategy to all levels of the organization in order to bring alignment and buy-in to the goal of reducing the total cost of client risk. By following the same principles himself, O’Brien has created a culture in which employees embrace their roles.
IT Software & Services
President and CEO
Nominated by: Meredith Rankin, Smart Business Magazine
Brett Lindsey was a prominent leader in the development of Everstream, a fiber-based network solutions provider serving businesses located and operating in Northeast Ohio and throughout Michigan, leading the company through the investment process.
The company’s growth model is focused on expanding sales of its current product offerings, which include ethernet, internet, dark fiber, data center, cloud backup and recovery, and engineering and construction solutions, rather than focusing on differentiation. The differentiation strategies of many of its competitors have left them vulnerable to losses in individual markets, while offering specific growth opportunities for Everstream.
Lindsey, the company’s president and CEO, led Everstream through a roadshow in 2014, which secured debt financing to support the creation of the company as a 100 percent for-profit subsidiary of OneCommunity.
Once preliminary financing approval had been obtained, Everstream was notified that tax-exempt bonds previously issued by OneCommunity would be required to be paid back.
Lindsey and the Everstream management team had to go back to the investors and request additional funds to support the payoff of the tax-exempt bonds, which were required to be paid prior to obtaining the new funds. The delay in financing and cash availability restrictions led to significant increases in the company’s trade payable accounts. Lindsey worked directly with key vendors to ensure the company’s operations continued until the new funds were available.
Everstream is an employee-centric business. Lindsey understands his and the company’s success is dependent on the level of talent around him and the trust he and his management team foster throughout the organization. Local and regional newspapers and business ranking agencies have repeatedly named Everstream a “Best Place to Work.”
The company expects to grow through acquisitions and Lindsey sees significant opportunities in the future as demand for Everstream’s product continues to be strong.
Nominated by: Ron Boynar, Oswald Companies
At 9 years old, Daniel Anstandig began broadcasting children’s programming out of his parents’ house. His self-built, 15-watt transmitter began interfering with Cleveland’s Fox 8, and his broadcast was shut down. When John Carroll University heard his story, the 12-year-old was offered a job at their college radio station.
Anstandig created his own streaming audio company at age 14, splitting his time between high school and visiting buyers and companies. After three years, he sold his company to Microsoft and started working for ClearChannel’s CEO. He would turn around recently purchased radio stations, helping enhance their business, sales and programming strategy.
At age 24, Anstandig sought startup investment to launch Futuri Media with his “crowdcasting” song-request program, Listener Driven Radio. LDR enables listeners to take over their favorite radio stations by voting on the songs they want to hear.
When Futuri started in 2009, many stations didn’t have the ability to pay upfront. The CEO and his team created a network syndication model, where stations gave Futuri airtime in return for their LDR product and Futuri then sold that airtime to advertisers.
Futuri now holds 11 published or pending patents. Its platforms are used at more than 1,000 TV and radio stations in 20 countries, reaching more than 100 million consumers monthly. In order to shape the future of media, it’s important to stay ahead of the changes. Anstandig believes a forward-thinking mindset starts with the company culture.
Futuri is consistently rated among the best places to work in Northeast Ohio. Having more than doubled its staff in just over two years, Futuri made executive development and strategic recruitment top priorities. The company regularly hosts workshops and continuing education, such as bringing in a veteran astronaut to discuss problem solving and software development processes and a former FBI counterintelligence agent to talk about building rapport and negotiation.
CEO, Chairman and Founder
Nominated by: David Ferguson, Merrill Corporation
Foundation Software delivers job cost accounting, project management and mobile applications, along with industry education and bookkeeping services, to help companies run the business side of construction.
In 1983, Fred Ode, the company’s CEO, chairman and founder, was recruited away from his job by a software firm that offered him increased leadership and supervision responsibilities. After several months with this organization, Ode asked to be promoted to department head. He was told no. The refusal caused Ode to take a step back and consider what he wanted.
After several months of self-reflection and a close friend’s advice, Ode took a leap of faith and reached out to a former client. After several serious phone conversations regarding their satisfaction with their current project management system, Ode met with several key decision-makers at the company and pitched a proposal for a new construction accounting software program. When they accepted the offer, Foundation Software was born.
Ode views innovation as the willingness to penetrate into existing markets and do what is best for his current and prospective clients. This has allowed Foundation Software to come up with its innovative contract summary page.
To Ode, it is the value of knowledge that he brings to his clients that creates value more than the product. He has turned away prospective clients when he believed their current competitor’s systems were adequate.
Foundation Software has successfully attracted and retained employees because of the company’s fun, laid-back environment and open-door policy where all voices are heard and appreciated. Employees are given help to juggle both work and life through the corporate concierge program they can use to run personal errands.
Ode set Foundation Software up to be not just a construction accounting software company, but also to be a brand that will generate opportunities well into the future.
Owner and CEO
Nominated by: Meredith Rankin, Smart Business Magazine
After 14 years with the Washington Post, Ken Babby decided it was time to pursue his dream. As a child, Babby spent countless hours with his father, who was general counsel for the Baltimore Orioles, at Camden Yards. When he learned that the Akron Aeros, a Class AA Eastern League baseball team, was potentially for sale, he packed his car and spent the summer in Akron attending games, observing the experience and formulating his strategy.
In 2012, Babby put forth all his available assets and acquired the team.
Fan attendance was low and the game-day experience was focused primarily on baseball with little emphasis on the overall fan experience. He knew a pivot was needed to transition the business away from the traditional baseball model to one that emphasized affordable, family fun.
Babby re-branded the team as the Akron RubberDucks and invested $3.5 million in capital improvements that included several family hang-out areas, a play zone, fun promotions every night and creative and affordable food items.
Now the game-day experience includes a low-cost ticket price to open the park to families, free parking and an enhanced experience. The improvements have led to a 28 percent attendance increase over two seasons.
Babby is at every game, working the stands with his team. Every customer and family has his staff’s full attention. As owner and CEO, Babby continues to demonstrate the originality and innovation he’s had since he first took ownership. His rebranding, renovations, new promotions, enhanced menu and giveaways have been a resounding success with attendees.
Recently, Babby purchased the Jacksonville Suns, another Class AA baseball team, which he renamed the Jumbo Shrimp. Both teams operate under the Fast Forward Sports Group, wholly owned by Babby.
His vision is to deliver the affordable family fun experience to 1 million people annually.
Nominated by: Neil Quinn, Oswald Companies
From the day he started, Brian Zimmerman, CEO of the Cleveland Metroparks since 2012, has brought a level of private-company zeal to the organization.
Taking the helm of a political subdivision responsible for 23,000-plus acres of parkland in Cuyahoga County, including 456 buildings, eight golf courses, five beaches, two marinas and a zoo, was a change for Zimmerman. When he first arrived, the organization’s processes and functions were outdated and its organizational structure was impaired.
With his background running for-profit golf courses, he began to change the mindset of the organization from that of a political entity to one with a shared responsibility both to its employees and to the public. He installed metrics and systems as well as SWOT reviews and merit-based pay. Zimmerman also instilled a sense of loyalty and empowered his employees to make decisions.
To enact change, Zimmerman and his team had to work within the rigid structure of governmental politics. One example is the Metroparks’ effort to obtain control of five lakefront beaches from the state of Ohio. The multiyear effort required numerous attempts to convince the state Senate, two different governor’s offices, five different heads of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Cleveland’s mayor that it was the right thing to do.
Throughout the process, Zimmerman encouraged his team to stay true to the message that the move was in the best interest of the community. Once all the approvals had been obtained, the Metroparks began a significant effort to immediately reshape these properties, resulting in improved facilities and grounds. Amenities were added such as a new restaurant and water taxi service. It was only through extreme persistence that the team was able to accomplish its goal.
Under Zimmerman’s leadership, the Metroparks has embraced the idea of “disrupt before being disrupted.”
Joe Matejka, Jr.
Custom Fundraising Solutions, LLC
Nominated by: Timothy Holmes, PNC Bank
Custom Fundraising Solutions, LLC started as a combination of work experiences from two of CEO Joe Matejka, Jr.’s careers: fundraising and model home furniture sales. His first job out of college was in fundraising, which had him working closely with local sports teams and band programs. However, he realized that the products did not add value to the consumer.
His second career was as the owner of a business that furnished model homes. When the model home was sold, Matejka would sell the furniture. The business was profitable but limited. He could only do business where model homes were located and furniture often came in damaged, which was frustrating for consumers.
Matejka realized there was a way to incorporate his model home furniture business and fundraising into one concept.
He focused solely on mattress sales because they were rarely damaged, students understood the product, and it was a fundraiser that high school students could promote. Additionally, Matejka identified that there is a larger market for mattresses than the product offered in traditional fundraising events.
The first event sold 42 mattresses, raising more than $4,000 for a local high school football team. Matejka’s new business was born.
Customer Fundraising Solutions’ success relates to its ability to control two of the three cost centers in the mattress business, allowing for minimal overhead and lower prices to the customer so more money can be raised during fundraising.
The business evolved in Cleveland for several years before expanding to Buffalo, New York, and Cincinnati in 2008, which was both challenging and expensive. The business broke even for the first five years, but the effort proved worth the risk. In just one year, Customer Fundraising Solutions has collectively raised nearly $10 million for schools and has provided a livelihood for more than 100 families across the country.