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 the dynamic entrepreneurs who are propelling forward toward a brighter future for us all. You are visionaries who launch and reimagine businesses, employ millions and endow your communities, leaving legacies of accomplishment and enrichment while setting the pace for generations of entrepreneurs to come.
We salute the finalists being honored tonight and congratulate the award winners!
HEALTHCARE & COMMUNITY (WINNER) Dan Williamson, Aspen Medical Products | (FINALISTS) Marcia Manker, Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center and Saddleback Memorial Medical Center | Randy Barth, THINK Together
Here are the Entrepreneurs Of The Year® for Orange County
In 1997, Dave Dickerson was working with private investigators, researching criminal records for PI clients, but he sensed a void in the industry. Turnaround times for comprehensive background screening on a large scale for organizations could take several weeks, and the information collected wasn’t always highly reliable. This caused significant delays in employee onboarding. In an attempt to combat this problem, Dickerson formed Accurate Background.
At first, the company primarily sourced court record information and provided it to other employment screening companies. But shortly after its inception, Dickerson, who is the company’s CEO, was approached by a Fortune 100 retail organization. From that first client, Accurate Background has grown to support HR, loss prevention and security/legal professionals directly, with over 400 employees and more than 7,300 customers of all sizes.
Dickerson’s tenacity, perseverance and vision were illustrated during the 2008 recession when the company’s revenue fell by 40 percent with the loss of two key clients. His controller confirmed that if things remained as they were, Accurate Background would be out of business within six months.
Not only did Dickerson turn things around by 2009, he made a critical decision to hire an experienced strategic consultant to help him restructure the company. He proceeded with his plans, despite facing uncertainties and cash flow problems.
Dickerson is currently focusing the majority of his time and energy on inorganic growth through acquisitions, after he hired his C-suite team just two years ago. In his own words, “he knows what he knows and he is smart enough to know what he does not know.” He is not a micromanager and empowers his employees, which encourages his team to be innovative and creative thinkers.
Dickerson is passionate, enthusiastic and has a clear vision for his company and the industry. This has contributed to both low employee turnover and strong client loyalty.
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Ad Exchange Group
Peter Nguyen is well known within the advertising and digital media industry as a thought leader, innovator, teacher and entrepreneur.
He started his first company, a tutoring service, at age 19 and a graphic design and full-service printing firm a year later. His first advertising campaign kicked off a decade ago, right when physical products in the consumer digital space were taking off. Throughout the years, Nguyen has launched over 60 brands.
As the foremost authority in direct-to-consumer digital advertising, Nguyen has created dozens of multimillion-dollar internet brands and the entrepreneurship program, Accelerated Ventures.
With his success in the consumer digital space, Nguyen started Ad Exchange Group in 2013. It was the first advertising company that utilized a pay-for-performance methodology, delivering results to its customers prior to charging its customers.
The firm has 750 employees and nine offices globally. Ad Exchange’s entrepreneurial culture and uniqueness attract talented leaders within the industry, thereby giving it an even stronger competitive advantage. The firm has a great retention and has only had one employee quit.
Nguyen, who is the company’s CEO, also purchased or created four additional companies to create a vertical supply chain that supports every part of the consumer purchasing process: a direct customer fulfillment company, a customer service call center, a business to manage risk and chargebacks for direct response merchants, and a merchant processer.
Nguyen encourages his company to be involved in the local soup kitchen and hosts silent auctions to donate to a variety of children’s charities.
Personally, he has a passion for humanitarian research related to water, food, medicine and energy. For example, Nguyen invested in a machine with a partner at Stanford University that transforms air to water. The company currently has a contract to put units that provide clean drinkable water in the Philippines, with plans to expand to Asia and Africa.
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Smart Utility Systems
Born and raised in India, Deepak Garg has seen towns without water, which led him to realize that the world’s natural resources are limited and must be preserved. To that end, he created a mobile utility platform to bridge the gap between the customer engagement experience and utilities, landing his first contract with an electric company in 2009, and eventually growing to include water.
Smart Utility Systems is a cloud platform for utility companies that focuses on energy efficiency, water conservation, customer engagement, mobile workforce and big data analytics. It simplifies the customer experience by providing easy-to-read analytical dashboards to facilitate better natural resource conservation. Users can pay for utilities through the app via credit card, observe current use and understand “surge” fees, which can encourage users to conserve energy and save money. It also will recommend rebates and suggest appliances to buy that are the most energy efficient.
The platform is set up much like white label retail products, giving the company flexibility as it explores the ways it can approach the market. Orange County and India serve as the call center, and sales, marketing and corporate are based in Orange County.
Smart Utility Systems’ employees come from a variety of backgrounds. While not all of them come to the company with a “green” mentality, they become more environmentally aware over time. As a company, they deployed a reverse osmosis water treatment project in a government school in India to provide clean drinking water for the students.
The culture is about empowerment and working hard, but Garg, the company’s CEO, insists that family comes first, allowing employees the flexibility to deal with matters at home.
Garg has found a way to disrupt the market while adhering to government regulations, which has helped him become a leader in the market and stay ahead of the competition.
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CEO and co-founder
Dean Stoecker co-founded Alteryx, Inc. in 1997 with one goal in mind: to democratize the data analytics space and expand the capabilities and analytical sophistication available to all data workers. In the time since, the CEO has led the company through an IPO and to the forefront of the self-service data analytics industry.
When Alteryx’s software platform launched in 2006, the market lagged behind Stoecker’s original vision. By 2014, the market was showing signs of readiness for the data analytics revolution, and Stoecker decided to lower the annual license fees to attract more customers. The result was a resounding success.
Alteryx has benefited from a vibrant, engaged user community that it fostered through an online community site and live events, such as its annual Inspire customer conferences, which drew over 1,600 attendees in 2016.
The company’s growth attracted the attention of outside investors. Stoecker was initially hesitant, given that he’d self-financed and bootstrapped the day-to-day operations for nearly 14 years. But he ultimately decided to partner with private equity firms that shared his vision of data analytics and possessed valuable industry experiences and insights.
Stoecker is so committed to the culture he’s built at Alteryx, that he still participates in the onboarding and training of every new employee. Also, ingrained in that DNA are commitments to social responsibility and philanthropy.
The Alteryx for Good program allows universities and emerging market governments to utilize Alteryx’s software platform for free, and employees can give away software licenses to charitable organizations. Congruently, Alteryx employees donate working hours toward training and coaching charities in the use of the software. To date, over 200 charities have benefited.
To foster a collaborative and fun workplace, Stoecker maintains an open-door policy with his 450 employees, a relatively flat management structure and open work spaces, including a fully restored VW van with two keg taps.
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CEO and founder
Going down the road less traveled has always been more appealing and rewarding for Ray Grainger, CEO and founder of Mavenlink. When most of his friends in high school were submitting college applications, Ray, at age 17, applied to serve on an Antarctic expedition with the National Science Foundation. He served on two expeditions, reached the South Pole and earned a Congressional Medal. This journey taught him resourcefulness and an ability to get things done when faced with endless constraints. He learned to be comfortable when uncomfortable. Ultimately, Grainger attributed this foundational experience to the development of his entrepreneurial spirit that has shaped his career.
Grainger’s journey into founding a company was not conceived alone. Based on his Arctic experience, he came to value the importance of the right team. This led him to start the company with two other associates. Grainger believes that having three people at the top provided the bandwidth needed to meet the challenges of starting a business, as well as the ability to meet consensus. Grainger highly values collaboration and teamwork in achieving entrepreneurial success.
Mavenlink delivers enterprise-class software as a service that transforms how businesses work with distributed teams, contractors and clients around the globe. The company’s technology suite enables organizations of any size to better manage and scale their people, projects, revenue and profitability.
Grainger’s engineering education had a tremendous impact on him. He believes that education is the most reliable mechanism to raise a person’s standard of living. To this end, he has devoted substantial amounts of his time and money while serving on the board of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, for 10 years. He also chaired the budget and finance committee during the financial crisis. Grainger encourages Mavenlink employees to continue their education and supports their endeavors through flexible work arrangements.
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In 2001, Tim Britt began building Synoptek, LLC, consulting for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar businesses that were forming their online presence.
Synoptek’s consulting business was the largest part of its revenue mix. But after the financial crisis, the consulting business evaporated. As finances dried up, Britt and his wife liquidated their 401(k)s and put the funds into the business. His wife even worked for the business for several years to keep payroll down.
Those difficult times, however, provided an education for the CEO and changed the company. It moved away from custom consulting to managed services, a space in the middle market that is highly fragmented and characterized as having providers that are more beholden to technology suppliers than their customers. Synoptek introduced a custom client experience to standardized managed service provider services.
Middle-market companies tend to have few employees supporting the IT function, so Synoptek established its place as a fractional CIO, parsing its services into eight categories that encompass all of what a midsize business needs in one place. Each category has a service manager who maintains a road map for their customers to manage their technology, help them with decision-making, and provide enterprise-level products and services that meet specific compliance standards.
Managed services held up through the crisis and today has grown to nearly the size of Synoptek’s pre-recession consulting business, providing reliable, recurring revenue for the company.
Synoptek now specializes in many aspects of business technology services, such as cloud strategy and implementation, cybersecurity, help desk and managed network infrastructure in domestic and international markets. The company focuses on global strategy and corporate development and execution, working with businesses and state and local governments to plan their IT strategies.
As the IT managed service market begins to consolidate, it is Britt’s goal to capture additional market share through acquisition, branding and exceptional client service.
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Healthcare & Community
Aspen Medical Products
When Dan Williamson’s company wanted him to move to Chicago, Williamson stayed in California and took a leap of faith to work with his business partner at a startup that sold cervical collars.
As he learned how to be an entrepreneur, Williamson set up the company’s processes and systems, finding ways to reduce costs and revamp the sales and marketing departments to get out of debt.
In 1991, the startup was sold to a Scandinavian company, Laerdal Medical, which had developed an innovative cervical collar that kept patient skin from breaking down. Unable to sell this product to the U.S. hospital market, Williamson convinced Laerdal to sell him the patents, rights, manufacturing and inventory in 1993, and Aspen Medical Products was founded.
Today, Aspen is a world leader in the design, development and sales of upper and lower spinal orthotics with over 200 employees and more than 50 products.
The company’s full-time R&D team develops and designs cervical, lumbar and sacrum collars. Williamson’s goal is three new products each year, although Aspen usually develops five. Last year, it came out with 18 new products.
The CEO is also looking into new markets for back braces. Rather than just designing and developing braces for the medical industry, he sees a need for commercial back braces as well as selling over the internet directly to patients.
Williamson considers his employees Aspen’s No. 1 asset. When employees are new, he works right alongside them until they become acquainted with their new positions. Once Williamson knows they are performing the correct tasks, he steps back and does not interfere or micromanage.
He also believes in building relationships with employees’ families as well. The company takes annual trips and Williamson invites the employees’ spouses.
In addition, the employee earnings at Aspen are in the top 75th percentile for Orange County jobs.
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Marcia Manker was one of the first non-physician leaders in the FHP system, which operated Orange Coast Memorial before it became part of the Memorial Care Health System. She was brought in by founder and philanthropist Dr. Robert Gumbiner after completing her MBA at California Polytechnic State University.
Gumbiner wanted to bring in some “business minds” to help improve efficiencies within the system. In Manker’s first two years, she did four- to six-month rotations within the various business functions to develop the acumen needed to attack the most inefficient areas. She took a number of steps that increased the quality of care the hospital offered and led to an increased demand for services. Manker quickly earned the reputation of being a humble leader, problem solver and innovator, and was frequently called upon to help with issues outside the normal scope of her responsibilities.
When Memorial Care Health System acquired the hospital in early 2002, the physicians demanded that she be retained.
As CEO at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center and Saddleback Memorial Medical Center, Manker’s philosophy is simple: Meet the medical demands of the community and they will reward you by coming to the facility. Along the way, figure out how to make it profitable.
Increased local demand for triaged emergency room services led to an expansion of the ER at Orange Coast Memorial.
Under Manker’s leadership and vision, the campus has reinvented itself from a local hospital into centers of medical excellence, new models of care and established outpatient facilities. Employees are encouraged to lend their time and talents to various charities and causes. Many of her innovations have been adopted by the parent company.
Her vision for the future includes continuing to rebuild her teams across the health system, sharing newly developed products and services throughout the entire MemorialCare Health System family, and integrating the recent acquisition of Saddleback Memorial Medical Center.
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CEO and founder
Before the age of 30, Randy Barth had tremendous success as a stockbroker. But rather than stay in the corporate world, he sought to take part in social initiatives that would prove to be bigger than him.
When Barth saw how a gang-infested, crime-inflicted neighborhood had parents scrambling to protect their children, he mobilized his church to provide after-school support and educational services for the neighborhood kids. Demand for these services blossomed into neighborhood-based centers and ultimately into the schools.
Once their safety was secured for a few hours each day after school, the children showed academic progress. THINK Together, with Barth as its CEO, was encouraged to expand on the program that was having an impact.
The nonprofit THINK Together partners with schools and communities to implement academic solutions that close the education gap, changing the odds for hundreds of thousands of California students in the areas of early learning and summer and after-school academic and enrichment services. It also offers leadership development for teachers and school administrators.
In 2015, a new superintendent, unions and litigation resulted in THINK Together losing the contract with its marquee client, the Santa Ana Unified School District. To reverse its fortune, Barth created Principal’s Exchange, a B Corp with a shareholder corporate structure that allowed Barth to use the data from the program and the school districts as part of an educational consulting business. This helped THINK Together provide school districts with a more simplified educational support structure focused on improving cohesion between school administrators, and teachers and students in the classroom, while simultaneously helping it stand out among its competitors and increase its growth.
The Principal’s Exchange program continues to pursue its goal of creating more visibility into the successes that these school districts have and telling an evidence-based story to the world.
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Founder, chairman and CEO
Martin Manniche began his entrepreneurial journey at age 16. He has started nine companies and successfully sold the first eight.
Manniche has the ability to take risks, help his teams buy into the opportunities and execute on plan. His best quality as a leader is his ability to take risks on atypical employees and empower them to success. He will always take ability and talent over experience.
Greenwave Systems has over 300 employees and offices in Denmark, Korea and Singapore. Manniche set out to take on complex engineering topics to differentiate his company from current standards and create barriers to entry for future competition. His ability to maintain a strong culture as Greenwave expands has played a key role in its success.
As chairman and CEO, Manniche founded Greenwave to solve the three challenges to connected services: interoperability, security and scalability — all of which his company helped define for the internet of things industry.
While he could have secured early-stage sales, Manniche and his key leadership team spent the first three years perfecting the software architecture to make its platform truly scalable and horizontal.
With 200-300 percent change in the tech industry, Manniche knows he can’t run the same business model, even when business is going well. The company needs to be agile.
His team of technologists’ initial focus was on energy management, including integrated heating/cooling and the world’s first connected lightbulb. As the business model pivoted to smart home devices, Greenwave developed a platform that could scale wider, using the cloud efficiently and making the endpoint applications more affordable and intelligent.
Over the past two and half years, the company has invested in a second version of the platform and worked to include data mining and prediction analytics. Now, as the leading global managed services and IOT company, Greenwave looks to expand its strategic partnerships and customer base, while constantly innovating to outpace competition and customer demand.
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CEO and founder
Lane Rankin started out as a middle school and high school math teacher who was passionate about teaching children using technology in the early 1990s. He was able to leverage his computer science and applied mathematics background to form an innovative style of teaching that was ahead of its time. After the positive reaction to his teaching style, he was approached by Apple to become an advocate for using technology in the classroom. He was building a foundation that would serve him well as CEO and founder at Illuminate Education.
Rankin’s vision has always been to innovate and inspire using education as the means to the end. He considers himself to be part educator, part entrepreneur and part evangelist. He assembled a team of motivated and committed employees who have built Illuminate Education into a premier software solution for education. The software harnesses large sums of data, converts it into compatible formats and allows users to make data-driven, real-time decisions. Educators can assess with great accuracy which students will do best in which classes. It also reaches beyond the classroom, empowering schools to use predictive analysis to identify students who are most likely to commit suicide or be at risk for substance abuse.
The company has achieved significant growth and one of Rankin’s challenges has been to maintain his company’s strong culture while growing at such a fast pace. He prioritizes keeping employees motivated and inspired while achieving the goal of growing the business. Rankin recently engaged a consultant to share best practices on process and communication for growing companies. Illuminate Education has also had to work hard to win over school districts that are leery of investing in his product because of increasing state budget restrictions. Rankin has customized his sales approach to account for the nuances of different regions and simplified the interface to ensure ease of use. His company is now five times bigger than its largest competitor.
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CEO, president and founder
Renova Energy Corp.
In 2006, when Vincent Battaglia founded Renova Energy Corp. in his garage with $500 and a passion for sustainability, solar power was still an emerging industry dismissed by many as a novelty.
The company initially offered a five star energy audit for customers focused on cost reduction and environmental improvement options, such as LED lighting and first-generation solar products. But the energy audit business model proved challenging. With little-to-no upfront fee, and a long sales cycle and product conversion rate, long-term prospects were dim. After Battaglia’s mentor advised him to cross-sell alternative products and services, he shifted away from the energy audit model and put his hopes in alternative energy and its next-generation products and infrastructure.
Its shift to creating energy independence for homeowners and business has led the company to install the most solar systems of any local company and land it on a list of Solar Power World’s Top 50 Solar Installers in the country, out of more than 8,000 similar companies. Renova has further evolved to provide branded advanced energy storage battery systems.
Battaglia, the company’s CEO and president, has also invested heavily in customer-facing technology and support with the NetSuite enterprise solution. Dubbed “Sol,” it facilitates precise engineering, job costing, resource management, customer relationship management and the smooth transfer of customer information between departments.
Local resources, support and community acceptance are critical to each market the company enters, which is why Renova is pursuing an ESOP plan and insists on direct hires only — no subcontractors are used in order to maintain the highest caliber and quality of trained professionals.
Company retention rates are 40 percent higher than national averages and a recent employee survey found nearly 90 percent of employees are “very satisfied” with work at Renova, which no doubt helped the company win two awards for workplace culture.
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Raghu and Rohit Marwaha
Raghu and Rohit Marwaha were teenagers when their father brought his family to the U.S. from India in 1994 in pursuit of the American dream. A year later, they joined their parents and sister working at the family’s newly acquired Subway franchise in South Central Los Angeles. A second location opened up in 1996 in Inglewood, California, where Raghu and Rohit oversaw operations and faced a number of difficult challenges. The sociopolitical environment in Inglewood was very tense at the time around issues of race and crime. Despite the difficulties, the brothers worked hard and came up with creative ways to assimilate into the environment and the store became even more successful than the first.
During each of the next two years, the Marwaha family franchised another Subway store, bringing the total to four locations. At this point, Raghu and Rohit’s father stopped pursuing new stores to allow his children to focus on their college careers. Raghu and Rohit attended California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and majored in business and electrical engineering, respectively. Both brothers pursued other careers after graduation, but decided they didn’t have the passion for what they were doing. So they went back to the franchising business. They each became a manager of one of the four stores the family owned and took more than 50 percent pay cuts to do it. Even with the drastic decrease in financial freedom, both were far happier than they had been in their previous occupations.
It was at this point that they realized that the franchising business their father had started years before could be the springboard for growing a hugely successful entrepreneurial venture. As co-CEOs at Marwaha Group, they use the lessons they learned from their father each day and have built a business that now boasts 150 company-owned locations and another 1,500 overseen through various business ventures.
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Passco Companies, LLC
Bill Passo started with humble beginnings, but he never let that stop him from seizing opportunities and turning challenges into successes. He earned his Juris Doctor at UCLA and began practicing law shortly after graduation. At the age of 27, Passo decided to quit his job and move back to Orange County to start his own law practice.
With no clients, and a wife and a child to take care of, he was determined to make his new law practice work. He went to several banks for a loan of $2,500, but was unsuccessful many times before he finally found a bank that agreed to loan him the money. He capitalized on the opportunity and within six months he was able to pay back the loan and purchase a house for his family.
It didn’t take long before Passo determined he was capable of running his own business and formed Passco Companies, LLC. The multi-family and commercial real estate investment firm has built an investor services department that is as robust as any other department in the company. It’s a testament to Passo’s willingness to put the interest of his investors above all else.
All investors have access to staff and management services, and they receive frequent communication from the company. Passo invests in each property just like he would invest if it were his own, and genuinely cares about his investors.
As CEO, Passo prefers what he calls an “enlist-and-enroll” management style that allows him to attract and retain the best talent. When the company was going through management changes, the new president personally requested that Passo be more involved in the company because of how important and influential he is to all the employees. He trusts his team, which is what allows him to think more broadly. He refuses to micromanage anyone and prefers to look at accomplishments and teamwork as a measure of success.
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The experiences, relationships and innovation Michael Cerillo and Ben Hoch employed during their very successful first venture, Board Dudes, became the formula that allowed their new company, U Brands, to achieve great success in only three years.
In January 2014, Hoch and Cerillo met for coffee to discuss their next project, having sold their last company and finished their time on the acquiring company’s board following the transition. They decided that their chemistry and brand in the industry was too important to break apart. That day, they formed the business plan for U Brands, a company with a focus on creating a boutique feel to stationary products that targets the mass retail market.
Soon after, they were able to secure meetings with some of the largest national retailers by leveraging their connections and reputation from their first business. Hoch, who is president, and Cerillo, who serves as the CEO, believe their fun-loving personalities and approach to business meetings have enabled them to form and maintain the relationships necessary to excel in the industry.
They quickly hired key talent that helped them design the initial SKUs that landed them in Target, Walmart, Staples and other retailers before building a single prototype. The response to their business and product lines were so great that U Brands achieved its three-year revenue projections within its first 12 months.
At the end of 2016, U Brands owned the entire stationary display at Target, half of Walmart and key end cap displays at Staples and Bed Bath & Beyond.
Hoch and Cerillo deflect all the credit to their innovative design team for creating product lines that continue to stay ahead of the trends and their competitors. However, it is Hoch and Cerillo’s energy, industry expertise and personal connections that are the true catalyst behind the early success of U Brands.
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