Ernst & Young 2015 Entrepreneur Of The Year
For these game changers, vision is only the beginning
EY has long celebrated the entrepreneurial spirit of men and women who have followed and achieved their dreams. Over almost three decades, we have applauded their commitment to innovation and perseverance in the face of enormous risk. They saw a different future and made it happen.
The EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® Program provides an enduring legacy to these dynamic leaders, recognizing their vision and impact. By uniting them in a lasting network of peers who thrive where so many others have failed, we have helped to build an influential community of innovative entrepreneurs.
Each June, we host celebrations in 25 U.S. cities to toast the vision and impact of the men and women who are regional finalists. These leaders have changed the lives of countless others by building their businesses and giving back to their communities.
Join us in celebrating their passion, innovation and tireless pursuit of business excellence.
Congratulations to all of our finalists!
program director, Midwest
EY Entrepreneur Of The Year®
EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2015 Midwest
Lou Gentine and Louie Gentine, Sargento Foods Inc. | Austin Ramirez, HUSCO International | Marc Malnati, Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria | Ted, Nick and Patrick Balistreri and Margaret Harris, Sendik’s Food Markets LLC |
MANUFACTURING, DISTRIBUTION & INFRASTRUCTURE
Cary Brendan Wood, Sparton Corporation | Michael T. Clune, Clune Construction Company, LP | Honey-Can-Do International | Tony Fiscelli, Lifting Gear Hire Corporation | Christian Herrmann, Morton Salt, Inc. |
J.B. Pritzker, Pritzker Group |
Zaid Alsikafi, Madison Dearborn Partners | Pam Buchanan, NASDAQ OMX | Paul Carbone, Pritzker Group | Kevin Conroy, Exact Sciences Corporation | Michael Gauthier, Gauthier Biomedical, Inc. | Frank Jaehnert, Brady Corporation | Kristi Ross, dough, Inc. | Doug Waggoner, Echo Global Logistics |
WINNER – Business Services
Ross Freedman and Brad Schneider knew from a young age that they wanted to be entrepreneurs. They both come from families of entrepreneurs, which had a profound impact on their idea of success. They watched their parents and the satisfaction they took from building their own businesses and knew that they wanted that feeling for themselves.
After developing a friendship in college, Freedman and Schneider committed to building a business by starting something from nothing — agreeing to do it together.
They earned their management and information system degrees and both joined Arthur Andersen Consulting knowing they needed time in the corporate world to develop business acumen and technical skills.
They left the comfort of the corporate world and started a website development and e-commerce business called Wired Matrix. Freedman and Schneider credit the business for teaching them how to effectively sell, develop and nurture business relationships, and create a powerful brand. The company quadrupled in size in three years and merged with West Monroe Partners, helping Freedman and Schneider learn about how to scale a consulting company.
After the merger, they pitched the idea for a new service line to West Monroe Partners resulting in little traction. The entrepreneurial duo decided it was time to move out on their own and co-founded Rightpoint.
Rightpoint was started on the basis of uniquely combining tech consulting with creative marketing to offer business solutions with an unwavering focus on user experience. Freedman and Schneider brought together creative artists and technical engineers to develop not only sound technical solutions, but an attractive and easy-to-use design.
They challenge their employees to be intrapreneurial, meaning they want them to do as they have done and start something from nothing, apply new approaches and take calculated risks. It’s a philosophy that keeps Rightpoint at the forefront of its industry. ●
FINALIST – Business Services
President and CEO
When you meet Andrew Limouris, you realize that he’s not only an intelligent and driven individual, but genuinely compassionate and sincere in his lifelong passion for service. The longevity and growth of Medix is a testament to his dedication to live his values every day.
Medix got its start in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Limouris took little more than a loan from his father-in-law and a business plan he had formed years before to found the company where he now serves as CEO and president.
During the first year, the company only had five employees, but Limouris’s true strengths as a leader were able to shine. A natural leader, he was out in the market pitching his idea to prospective clients despite several hardships in his personal life. Medix has never been about being successful in the traditional sense. No, for Limouris, success was about personal fulfillment, growth and impacting the lives of others.
Fourteen years later, Medix has become a staffing company that focuses on impacting the lives of those less fortunate with recognition that the revenue generated is ultimately just an outcome of those positive impacts.
Limouris encourages and challenges each person on his team to focus on the purpose of his or her actions. It’s in deep contrast to the philosophy that many take which is to focus strictly on the outcome.
When it comes to personnel, Limouris gives his employees a lot of autonomy as compared to a traditional staffing company, which is something desired by many young individuals entering the workforce. He believes people want to feel valued at their chosen place of employment more than ever before. They want to make a difference and want to be with organizations where they can simultaneously make a good living and make that difference. ●
FINALIST – Business Services
Ted F. Perlman
The HAVI Group, LP
Ted F. Perlman founded The HAVI Group, LP back in the summer of 1974 with a vision and a typewriter. His personal mantra has always been, “Deliver the promise,” which is what helped him envision a better way of handling distribution for McDonald’s 140 Chicago-area locations.
He calculated the risks of moving forward with what he had envisioned and found a typewriter in a McDonald’s purchasing office where he finalized his proposal.
Shortly thereafter, he and his partner, Bob Roque, won the business, formed the Perlman-Roque company and dedicated themselves to Perlman’s mantra.
A year later, McDonald’s was looking for an exclusive packaging supplier. Perlman and Roque had their hands full with their business still in its infancy, but Perlman calculated the risk of acquiring additional business, conferred with Roque and considered the impact on client service.
Knowing it would be challenging, the duo gave a packaging proposal to McDonald’s and won the business. To efficiently tackle the packaging supply business, Perlman and Roque formed Perseco, a division of Perlman-Roque.
Over the next 40 years, Perlman took HAVI from its humble beginnings to a global power by decisively following his vision, staying true to the mission, overcoming challenges and trusting the individuals around him.
Today, the company is well-positioned to successfully navigate increasing complexity. It offers services ranging from marketing and packaging to logistics, supply chain analytics, promotions management and freight management.
Perlman has strongly emphasized professional development through coaching and targeted training that enhances individual capabilities.
In 2014, the Perlman family sold its ownership in the business to Russ Smyth and an entrusted team of senior leaders, many of whom reported to Perlman for many years. As the founder, Perlman continues to be involved as a trusted adviser. ●
WINNER – Consumer Services
Al Goldstein had already put together a rather impressive resume when he set out to launch Avant on New Year’s Day 2013. He had partnered with his long-time high school friend to start Pangea Properties, investing in distressed apartment properties and breathing new life into the communities in which they resided.
It had been a great success, but Goldstein wanted to do more. Born in Uzbekistan and raised in the northern suburbs of Chicago, Goldstein had learned the meaning of hard work and the American dream from the example set by his parents.
With Avant, Goldstein wanted to provide a cheaper and better credit alternative to middle-class consumers in the U.S. After a month, the company issued its first loan and raised $1 million in seed funding. Goldstein and his new business were on their way.
While working in investment banking, Goldstein learned a very important lesson about humility, which has become a solid foundation for everything that he does, as well as the way he manages and leads his teams.
As CEO, his philosophy is to create an environment where employees believe in Avant’s vision. The composition of employees is based on the self-select model — people who join the company really believe in it and want to be there. Employees are generally taking large pay cuts, but are then equitizing in the company. The drive to make the company succeed then becomes one of the biggest contributors to Avant’s culture.
Goldstein has changed his feelings about the value of culture in a business. He sees how it binds the employees together to push harder and work collaboratively to figure out how to solve problems and innovate. It should come as no surprise then that as many as 70 percent of Avant’s new hires come from referrals. ●
FINALIST – Consumer Services
Heather Sanderson had a vision when she started Overture Promotions. She wanted to create a promotional marketing agency that provided first-class service at a reduced cost to clients — a combination rarely seen in the industry.
She accomplished her goal by reducing the product supply chain and offering several services in-house — an innovative theory that posed a risk of increasing operating expenses.
Instead, it increased the quality assurance to Overture’s clients, helping the three-person business grow to 125 employees. Today, Overture works with well-known companies, including Coca-Cola, UPS, OfficeMax, Uber and Google.
Sanderson, CEO, has built a company that provides more in-house services than any promotional product distributor in the industry. It allows for substantially greater control of the product supply chain process, resulting in branded merchandise produced with greater quality and reduced costs. The company plans to continue to invest in technology and further reduce the product supply chain with the ultimate goals remaining constant: provide first-class service, reduced costs and high-quality products.
On the personnel side, Sanderson’s top priority at Overture has always been to abide by the work hard, play hard mentality. The company has a serenity room equipped with a massage chair, a mini bowling alley, a foosball table, basketball hoops and motorized scooters.
Additional initiatives include health and wellness programs, company-sponsored gym memberships and monthly company outings.
The amenities have helped create an atmosphere throughout the company where everyone feels a sense of responsibility toward one another.
Sanderson is continually looking to improve fundamental processes within the business, resulting in a more efficient work environment and additional one-on-one time with clients. Overture provides client teams that bring industry-specific experience to their efforts to support clients and give the company a competitive edge over others in the industry. ●
FINALIST – Consumer Services
Founder and CEO
Rockit Ranch Productions
Billy Dec had to overcome many obstacles in his personal life as a teenager growing up in Chicago. His father lost the family business and then became terminally ill, leaving Dec to quickly find a way to not only support his family financially, but also manage the emotional responsibility of becoming the family patriarch.
While finishing high school, Dec managed 18 part-time jobs. When he looks at Chicago, he sees a place that supported him when he needed it most, and he has made it his life’s mission to give back and become a pivotal force in elevating and connecting Chicago with the rest of the world to show outsiders the true greatness of his city.
Rockit Ranch Productions is a reflection of Dec’s vision for Chicago. The company is a restaurant and entertainment development company that owns and operates six restaurants and one nightclub in the downtown Chicago area. Dec has been able to retain individuals who have worked for him since the beginning, people who want to control their own destinies and add value to the Chicago culinary and entertainment industry.
The business model for Rockit Ranch focuses on elevating the entertainment experience and providing high-quality products and service. An entrepreneurial and collaborative culture empowers the company’s professionals to use proven strategies in innovative ways. As founder and CEO, Dec further supports innovation by taking responsibility for any failures, while successes belong to others.
In addition to the day-to-day work of the company, Dec makes philanthropy a priority. He attributes his success in large part to the hardships his family endured when he was a teenager. Dec makes the time to provide leadership to numerous corporate, civic and not-for-profit organizations whose work he believes in and enjoys. ●
FINALIST – Consumer Services
George H. Jacobs
President and CEO
Windy City Limousine & Bus LLC
George H. Jacobs has been interested in limousine services since 1978 when he started his career as a forklifts salesperson. When presented by his boss with a personal task to purchase a limousine, Jacobs immediately took a liking to the relationship-building and organizational dispatching aspects of the transportation industry.
In 1985, he purchased American Limousine Services and grew it into the largest limousine company in the U.S. He retired in 2005, but that didn’t last long.
His former employees did not like the leadership that had replaced Jacobs at American Limo, and a second suitor for American Limo asked if he would raise money and create a new company — Windy City Limousine & Bus LLC.
With no vehicles and no chauffeurs, Jacobs grew the company without actively taking existing customers from his old business. Jacobs also loves local competition, but not for the typical purpose of making his own company stronger.
Instead, Jacobs calls and refers location competition for dispatching needs when he is overbooked.
He doesn’t play the blame game when problems arise. He accepts responsibility, investigates problems and then calls his customers to explain what happened and why it won’t happen again.
As CEO and president, Jacobs recognizes that the success of his company starts at the core of the service — with the chauffeurs. He provides in-house training and goes the extra mile by teaching the chauffeurs where all doors are located at the largest venues (Wrigley Field, McCormick Place, hotels, etc.) He also encourages his employees and independent contractors to buy their own vehicles. Every Windy City Limousine chauffeur carries an iPad to project a sense of professionalism when taking a company-operated limousine.
The result is a business that keeps customers coming back again and again. ●
WINNER – Emerging
Co-founder and co-owner
Co-founder and co-owner
Bonnie Micheli and Tracy Roemer were close friends and neighbors in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood long before they collaborated to start Shred415. Both had the passion and determination to open a fitness studio and fill the need for a high-intensity interval training option in Chicago.
Micheli and Roemer leveraged previous experiences in the fitness industry to determine the concept, but had no doubt it would be a winner.
As the business began to come together, it was supported by five pillars, which would serve as its foundation.
First, the target audience would be women, specifically mothers. But classes had to be designed to accommodate and attract men. Next, the duo wanted to create a premium product that would not be cheap, but would offer amenities that would provide great value.
Third, there was an enormous emphasis on recruitment, training and retention of high-quality, experienced instructors. Everyone learns from the bottom up so his or her knowledge of the business is complete.
Fourth, Micheli and Roemer wanted to keep a careful eye on customer acquisition costs and unit economics to make sure the business was strong and positioned for continued growth.
Finally, the goal was to build a community of members, not just a customer base. Micheli and Roemer are in the studios regularly not just to teach classes, but to be part of the community and be engaged in what’s happening at Shred415.
The co-owners perform monthly attendance analyses to monitor the popularity of instructors by day, time and location. They frequently modify class schedules to ensure that each instructor is given the best chance to successfully sell out their class. Shred415’s people-first culture has led to extremely high instructor retention rates and, as a result, continuity in their class offerings that keep clients coming back to their favorite instructors. ●
FINALIST – Emerging
Matt John Howard
The concept for EatStreet, Inc. began when Eric Martell ordered a meal through an online ordering company. When the meal was delivered, he noticed an extra service charge and a level of customer service that did not meet his expectations.
Martell went to Matt John Howard and Alex Wyler and posed a question: Could we create an ordering company that did not have extra fees passed to users and provided better customer service?
They both agreed it could be done and invested $1,000 in the company. Wyler and Martell got to work creating the website and the necessary technology to bring their vision to life. Howard took on the role of salesman, recruiting restaurants. They focused on customer service and within a year, more than 100 restaurants had signed up.
But success did not come immediately. Some restaurants began to question why they were signed up for the service and after six months, the trio was questioning whether the company could continue.
At the same time, Howard connected with a restaurant owner who was about to close down due to lack of sales and offered EatStreet an opportunity. Howard, Wyler and Martell put together a promotion that resulted in more than 100 orders, which kept the restaurant open for another two years until Howard helped the owner sell the business. It provided the traction EatStreet needed to get noticed and solidify itself as a player in the space.
These days, Howard serves as CEO, Wyler as CTO and Martell as CIO. Together, the trio has built a management team with diverse experiences and perspectives to build the business. They also encourage ownership of projects and strive to find projects for employees that provide tangible results. This way, there is a constant reward for performance and a sense of personal accomplishment. ●
FINALIST – Emerging
Bruce Neumiller is driven and motivated to set himself apart. Prior to Gearbox Express, Neumiller was a power transmission gearbox professional. He encountered strong disapproval for voicing different opinions or alternative plans of action for gearbox repair in an industry entrenched in long-standing, customary processes.
These concepts have proven, however, to be leading factors in defining Gearbox’s phenomenal growth and success within the wind power industry, even in the company’s short life.
Neumiller wants people to know that his company does things differently and has found a way to provide customers with a product and service unlike anyone else in the market. By focusing on transparency, integrity and a commitment to achieving success, Neumiller has been able to create a unique, thriving culture at Gearbox that not only motivates and empowers the Gearbox team, but produces highly successful operations.
As CEO, Neumiller strongly feels that first impressions can significantly impact how others perceive you in the long run.
He wants people to know that he is an upstanding individual focused on doing the right thing, regardless of the circumstance; and he wants customers to recognize the company for its high-quality, customer-centered standards. Through this transparency, Bruce builds trust and goodwill amongst his teams, who have a clear understanding of the company’s standards and their role to meet those expectations, and his customers, who know exactly what to expect with every order.
In order to further embrace these values, Gearbox offers a warranty above and beyond that of the original equipment manufacturers. Rather than a simple parts-only, two-year warranty, Gearbox offers a five-year, risk-free warranty that includes the cost of a crane (including freight) and labor. The warranty is unique in the industry and is one of the ways Neumiller and the Gearbox team have listened to the market and incorporated their customers’ needs into its business plan. ●
FINALIST – Emerging
Todd Black is a veteran of the staffing industry, but he saw an opportunity to focus on staffing the IT industry with an innovative approach. Through his leadership and direction, Optomi, LLC has become the fastest growing IT staffing company in the industry.
Black’s leadership style began to develop when he was running a much larger staffing company prior to Optomi. His personal and professional standards were higher than the expectations of the previous company, so Black set out to create a place where he and a team could achieve those high expectations.
Black, COO, feels everything at Optomi. People are more than just numbers to him and everything truly matters. Black relies on trusted individuals within his company to help Optomi be more than just a business. It’s a family.
He has structured the company to have a manager who covers each regional office. Also involved in direct management is his business partner, Michael Winwood, his wife and Winwood’s wife.
The philosophy at Optomi has never been about being the largest IT staffing firm. It’s about being the best — achieved by living Optomi’s values daily, and always maintaining that focus.
The company has developed strong infrastructure under Black’s leadership and guidance. Optomi now has seven regional offices to support the constantly growing business. The company thrives on Black’s idea that you don’t have to do everything, but make sure you can do a few things really well. Optomi is all about building the relationship, instead of the traditional staffing focus on simply placing people in employment spots.
Black employs a full-time people consultant whose sole responsibility is to contact all the consultants in the organization to check in on how things are going and whether there are concerns that need to be addressed. His motto is that a happy consultant leads to a happy client. ●
WINNER – Family Business
Sargento Foods Inc.
Sargento Foods Inc. is a family business that was started by Lenard Gentine Sr. back in 1949. Throughout the company’s history, a Gentine has been at the helm, but family members are not given a birthright to lead, nor are jobs created for them.
In fact, family members must work outside Sargento for at least three years, and all corporate officers, family or not, must have a college degree. Nothing is given except the opportunity to succeed.
Under the leadership of Lou Gentine, chairman, the corporate culture has been defined as one that values all stakeholders. This includes not only the employees, but the customers, suppliers and community. The company’s motto of people, pride and progress reflects this as well.
Throughout the company’s history, Sargento has faced the ups and downs of the economy. In times when business was not always good, Lou and Louie Gentine, CEO, have had to make decisions around the business, including employee compensation.
Instead of pushing pay cuts to plant employees, however, the leaders started at the top to preserve the compensation of those who do the day-to-day work. Their philosophy is that those who make the business decisions should take responsibility for them.
Sargento has faced continued pressure to automate the business, but Lou and Louie have committed that no employee will lose their job to a machine. Through planned expansions and transition programs, everyone is able to maintain a job with Sargento.
At the end of the day, Lou and Louie strive to build stakeholder value, which does not mean you have to have the Gentine name. It means you are part of the Sargento family.
Everyone in the Sargento family plays a part in management, not just the executives. Ideas are sought from throughout the company and employees are continually nominated and recognized for their contributions. ●
FINALIST – Family Business
President and CEO
Austin Ramirez was only 7 when his father purchased HUSCO International with a loan from the bank and the family’s entire savings. Ramirez overheard his mom say that the family might end up living on the street if it didn’t work out. At his age, it sounded exciting. He didn’t realize that he would need to make a similar commitment years later, with a much different feeling.
As he was growing up, Ramirez did not have a lot of involvement at HUSCO. He helped with janitorial duties and other odd jobs, but spent the majority of his time training and participating in competitive swim meets. He went to the University of Virginia, earned a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering and had an offer to join the family business. But Ramirez headed to San Francisco to work for McKinsey & Co. where he was quickly identified as a top performer.
It was important to Ramirez that he pave his own path. He earned his MBA at Stanford University and took an offer to return to HUSCO to head up the company’s automotive division.
Shortly after his arrival, the Great Recession hit and Ramirez committed significant capital to the business to keep it afloat. He was now all-in just as his parents had been nearly 25 years earlier.
Over the next several years, as Ramirez refocused and increased research and development spending, navigated significant organizational changes and led the rollout of new fuel-efficiency products, the automotive business took off. In July 2011, he was named the company’s president and CEO.
Ramirez believes in empowering employees to have both ownership and accountability and employs a hyperfocused approach to hiring and retaining employees. He personally meets every professional employee hired to ensure they understand the values of culture and people development. ●
FINALIST – Family Business
Owner and CEO
Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria
Marc Malnati started working at Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria — his father’s business — as a teenager and returned to the business full time shortly after graduating from the University of Indiana in 1978. It was around that time that his father was diagnosed with cancer. He died shortly thereafter and Malnati was tasked with managing the business at 22.
His first task would be a tough one: The company’s third location in Flossmoor was going under. The location was not ideal — it was 50 miles away from the company’s headquarters and support systems — and an ineffective management team was in place. The experience would prove to be quite helpful to the young entrepreneur.
Malnati made the tough decision to close the Flossmoor location after being $500,000 in debt. Over the next three years, he paid back each of his vendors for the debts associated with the failed Flossmoor location even though he was not legally obligated to do so. The decision had left Malnati with second thoughts as to whether he was cut out to work in the restaurant business.
He decided to continue and learn from the company’s past mistakes. As owner and CEO, he understood the importance of location selection and of having an effective management team. These lessons would provide integral to the company’s success going forward.
He opened a carry-out store in Wilmette, doing so before today’s well-known carry-out pizza places had come to be. It was based on his decision to remain in the restaurant business, but not be centered on liquor and bar activity.
The corporate business began as two restaurants, but now under Malnati’s vision and leadership, Lou Malnati’s offers more than 40 dine-in restaurants or carry-out only locations, as well as an e-commerce component where people from around the country can get Lou Malnati’s delivered to their doorsteps. ●
FINALIST – Family Business
Sendik’s Food Markets LLC
When Ted, Nick and Patrick Balistreri, members, and Margaret Harris, owner, purchased Sendik’s Food Markets LLC in 2001 from their father and uncle, an ambitious growth plan quickly began to take shape.
The Balistreri siblings wanted to open 10 stores in 10 years. Through the same hard work and dedication that the family has given to the business since its humble beginnings as a produce cart in 1926, that goal was achieved.
But during that growth period, they never lost their core values. That meant making sure every store operated as a customer-first, servant-first quality operation. If they had not been able to maintain that high standard, they would have adjusted or delayed their goal since the customer experience is more important than anything at Sendik’s.
The siblings emphasize the leadership skills that they learned from their father. Each has his or her own strength: Patrick in produce, Margaret in floral and gift, Nick in seafood and Ted focusing on the company’s strategic vision. They do not cross into each other’s territories, but rely on each other’s strengths and talents. They meet regularly to discuss business, but also to make sure they are still connecting personally.
They also invest in their employees and are constantly looking for ways to improve by bringing in outside speakers and advisers to help develop new ideas and stay at the forefront of creativity and trends.
The effort to engage employees is furthered by the store advisory council, which takes a representative from each store to address issues that come up.
One of the unique attributes of Sendik’s is that it truly is an independent business. It does not have contracts with suppliers, but relies on agreements that outline how to conduct business together. This ensures that Sendik’s receives the best quality products at fair prices, allowing the grocer to change vendors if they feel they need to. ●
WINNER – Manufacturing, Distribution & Infrastructure
Cary Brendan Wood
President and CEO
When Cary Brendan Wood arrived at Sparton Corporation in 2008, the company was just months away from filing for bankruptcy. Within two years, Wood restructured the company by negotiating with customers and suppliers, closing plants and restructuring the workforce.
With the restructuring complete, Wood got to work growing the company. He made investments in research and development, organic growth and acquisitions. Ambitious financial goals were set and then achieved and Sparton was on its way.
One of the keys to the turnaround was a shift in focus from financial survival to operational and strategic growth. As president and CEO, Wood was able to scale down a company struggling to beat bankruptcy and turn it into a business that could grow through innovation, acquired and organic growth and a defined vision for the organization.
Wood developed a vision framework, Sparton Production System, which defines the company’s overall management style, helping Sparton accomplish objectives and create value for clients.
Wood restructured his sales team and incentive programs to drive revenue for organic growth. He allocated a significant investment in research and development at Sparton, which helped the company be seen as a market leader, differentiating it from competitors.
After stabilizing the company’s credit and cash availability, acquisitions helped Sparton gain access to inventory, talents and assets at higher returns on investment. Wood’s background and experience in acquiring distressed businesses and making them profitable has helped Sparton make profitable investments and boost growth.
After five years of successful growth, Wood and his team are now facing the challenges associated with implementing an aggressive five-year growth strategy. He is carefully making transitions to sustain the growth of Sparton and navigate through the associated risks with multiple acquisitions and fast double-digit growth. ●
FINALIST – Manufacturing, Distribution & Infrastructure
Michael T. Clune
Chairman and CEO
Clune Construction Company, LP
Michael T. Clune came to the U.S. in 1978 as a hardworking Irishman without a high school degree and $60 in his pocket. He also had an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong desire to better his family. He purchased the interior construction subsidiary of LaSalle Partners in 1997, which soon became Clune Construction Company, LP. He has grown the fledgling startup into a rapidly growing, national construction company that continues to expand into new regions.
Since the company’s inception, Clune has developed a strategy of transparency and trust with both employees and clients to develop long-lasting relationships in a somewhat challenging industry.
Clune lives by the mantra that “you can’t possibly build anything on your own.” Since starting the business, the company’s chairman and CEO has made bringing in the right personnel at all levels a priority. He believes employees must come before profits and works hard to cultivate and help shape the future direction of his employees’ careers to ultimately drive the overall success of the organization.
Clune developed an employee stock ownership plan for each employee that begins on day one of employment. Not only does he provide 100 percent paid health care, among other benefits, but he invests in the personalized career path of each employee. This creates an added benefit for every client, which is the opportunity to work with some of the most talented, experienced and respected professionals in the construction industry.
In addition to a passionate commitment to customers, Clune has built a culture that believes in and supports the premise of giving back to those in need. Clune himself is actively and personally involved in cancer research. In March 2015, he presented Gateway for Cancer Research with a check for $120,000. It’s the first installment of a $1 million contribution Clune announced in 2013. ●
FINALIST – Manufacturing, Distribution & Infrastructure
Honey-Can-Do International was formed right before the global financial crisis that struck in 2008. Steve Greenspon’s life savings were invested in the business and he was determined to become a successful home organization manufacturing company, despite the challenges he faced.
As a startup consumer products company, Honey-Can-Do lacked experience and credibility in the market. But Greenspon leveraged his contacts from previous business ventures to meet with well-known retailers, tell his company’s story and value propositions, and potentially sell his products.
Even after being told numerous times by critics that there was a slim chance he would be able to successfully build a consumer product company in such a short period of time, Greenspon has grown Honey-Can-Do into a leading brand for household organization products.
One of the challenges Greenspon faced was related to personnel. Many people lost their jobs in the 2008 financial crisis and the market was flooded with potential candidates.
Many of Greenspon’s first employees accepted salaries far below what they had received in their former roles because they believed in his mission and passion. But it appears both parties made wise decisions. The company has maintained low turnover and its unemployment insurance rates have steadily gone down each year due to the decreasing number of employees leaving the business.
Greenspon, CEO, attributes Honey-Can-Do’s strong people culture to the freedom in the workplace. Employees can wear what they are comfortable in and have the freedom to work the schedule that best fits their lifestyles.
In the spirit of transparency and teamwork, Honey-Can-Do holds a monthly meeting for all employees where the company’s financial figures are presented, new products are discussed and each department is given the opportunity to share challenges that it faces or recent successes. It all leads to a business that continues to broaden its reach. ●
FINALIST – Manufacturing, Distribution & Infrastructure
Lifting Gear Hire Corporation
It was a difficult time for Tony Fiscelli’s father. The career he had built for himself and his family came to a sudden halt when the transportation company he worked for went out of business. Fortunately, his father landed on his feet as foreman at a United Kingdom-based lifting equipment company that was expanding its operations to the U.S.
At the time, Lifting Gear Hire Corporation had 100 pieces of equipment and two employees in the U.S. It paved the way for Fiscelli to help his father by driving delivery trucks while home on summer breaks from Ohio University. It’s where the story of another successful entrepreneur begins.
After Fiscelli graduated from college, he was offered a job at Lifting Gear Hire. As a budding college graduate looking for a successful career in engineering, it was not his first choice.
The opportunity to work closely with his dad and all the good people he worked with at Lifting Gear Hire led him to accept the position of health and safety engineer in 1995.
In this role, he was responsible for ensuring that safety standards and training procedures were operating consistently at all locations. Only a year in this position, one of the managers at Lifting Gear Hire quit and Fiscelli was asked to fill the role.
He thrived in the position and continued to advance in the organization, eventually being named president. Fiscelli came to realize that coming to work at Lifting Gear Hire was one of the best decisions he ever made.
Today, the family that owns the business relies on Fiscelli to manage its U.S. operations. After the U.K.-business was sold, the U.S. business became the largest division of the company. ●
FINALIST – Manufacturing, Distribution & Infrastructure
Morton Salt, Inc.
Christian Herrmann was born and raised in Germany, and was proficient with numbers from an early age. He knew he wanted to be an investment banker and started at the bottom as an intern with a German bank before moving to London to work at one of the largest investment banks in the world.
He was very successful, but ultimately decided that investment banking wasn’t for him.
Herrmann didn’t like the project-oriented nature of the work and wanted to dedicate himself to driving tangible results within one organization. His career path eventually led him to Morton Salt, Inc.
Herrmann became the company’s CEO in October 2012 and was tasked with turning the company around to reach the operating results its parent company, K+S Group, was seeking at the time it acquired Morton Salt in 2009.
Herrmann understood significant challenges were ahead, but he was confident in his ability to reinvent the struggling U.S. corporate icon.
Upon taking the reins of Morton Salt, Herrmann quickly realized the company was a product of neglect — it was an orphan division of its prior owner. The company’s systems and processes were outdated and inefficient. Employees were complacent and resistant to change. The company did not have a clear strategy for growth, or meaningful metrics to assess and drive revenue/profitability growth. Herrmann knew it was up to him to be the change agent responsible for modernizing the company’s systems and culture, ultimately driving the operating performance improvement the company required.
Herrmann examined all aspects of the company and implemented several initiatives to remove the bottlenecks and improve connectivity amongst the company’s functions and locations. He also upgraded Morton Salt’s operating systems, which helped with production planning, product pricing decisions and other operational decisions.
Herrmann does not micromanage, he strives to find and empower the right people to drive the organization forward. ●
WINNER – PE/VC Backed
Chairman, president and CEO
Tim Walbert was ready to build a great career as a sales representative in the pharmaceutical industry. Eventually, he would move up the chain and obtain an executive position in sales management.
But just as quickly as his sales career commenced, Walbert was encouraged by an early mentor to apply for a temporary internship in marketing to better understand the company’s business operations. It turned out to be a great move.
His appreciation for sales, executing a successful go-to-market strategy and his comprehensive understanding of the product life cycle were strengthened through increasing responsibilities at Searle, Merck and Abbott, shaping his leadership and management style.
His success has been driven by empowering teamwork and loyalty, encouraging a spirit of entrepreneurship and embracing failure as a learning opportunity instead of a negative outcome.
As chairman, president and CEO at Horizon Pharma, Walbert puts a lot of stock in surrounding himself with talented individuals, enabling those people to perform at a high level while also embracing their opinions.
He has built a company at Horizon that is focused on flexibility and accountability. His core team operates with a high level of trust, which permeates across the entire organization. Employees are expected to act as owners of the company, but leadership recognizes that different work styles and priorities outside of work sometimes require different schedules. Horizon has embraced flexibility without sacrificing accountability or results.
The concept has increased morale and retention, helping to support an entrepreneurial spirit at Horizon. Employees are encouraged to take risks without fearing failure. When ideas come forth that make it a more efficient and effective company, the people who came up with the ideas are compensated.
It leads to a culture where everyone is committed to the company’s success and doing what needs to be done to ensure it continues. ●
FINALIST – PE/VC Backed
Chairman and CEO
Marathon Pharmaceuticals LLC
Jeffrey Aronin became interested in rare disease treatment early in his career. As a young man working in the pharmaceutical industry, he realized that focusing on blockbuster drugs was financially profitable, but left thousands of patients without treatment.
When he became involved in the development of an epilepsy treatment, he experienced firsthand the joy and relief of individuals who received treatment and it proved to be a tipping point. Aronin knew what he wanted to do — change peoples’ lives.
Aronin, chairman and CEO of Marathon Pharmaceuticals LLC, attributes the success of both Marathon and his first company, Ovation Pharmaceuticals, to developing and sustaining a shared vision with his team. In a fast-moving, sometimes unpredictable industry, the management team at Marathon is constantly making difficult decisions. Aronin has faith that his executive team will come to an agreement and execute efficiently and effectively.
The management team openly debates each decision, but everyone moves forward as one when a decision is reached.
Aronin encourages a patient-first focus, determining courses of action and target treatments based on patient needs. Marathon’s business model identifies potential drug development targets by working with patients and advocacy groups. That is opposite of the traditional method of identifying which illnesses a certain molecule can potentially treat. The Marathon method invigorates Aronin’s team, positioning it to find the first drug or treatment for the identified, rare disorders.
Aronin’s passion for Marathon’s mission is infectious and his team believes in the vision, even drawing various executives out of retirement to come back to work at Marathon. A hardworking, energetic leader, Aronin encourages his team to continually think long term and trust in their shared mission.
The result is a company with an entrepreneurial culture that can identify talent that has the skill and temperament to thrive. ●
FINALIST – PE/VC Backed
CEO and co-founder
Stuart Frankel began his career as an accountant and subsequently began practicing law. His charisma combined with the discipline of accountancy and law has allowed Frankel to succeed as an entrepreneur where others have failed. His success has allowed him to maintain a strong professional network that he uses today to nurture Narrative Science.
The company is experiencing rapid growth by providing a product/service that is not clearly understood by most industries. Through Frankel’s guidance and expertise, the company has more than 50 high-profile clients, including the likes of Credit Suisse, Forbes, the Big Ten Network, Deloitte and Publicis Groupe. Other noteworthy clients include American Century Investments, MasterCard, the U.S. intelligence community and National Health Services of England.
He moved on to have even greater success with Performics, a marketing services online advertising company. Frankel was not deterred by slow growth in this company’s first year, holding to his belief that he could build a sustainable and viable business. His competitors noticed the success of Performics, and DoubleClick eventually acquired the company. Frankel continued to nurture Performics and DoubleClick until the company was sold to Google.
The varied experiences and success stories have one thing in common: Frankel, the company’s CEO and co-founder, and his commitment to hard work and success. The dedication continues at Narrative Science and the company is set to change the way the world receives and understands data.
Narrative Science is centered on four core values: First, employees should understand that working at Narrative Science is a mission, not a job. Next, everyone is part of a team. Third, achieving speed to market through simplicity and finally, the importance of providing exceptional customer service.
The values shape the company’s culture and its team that is working toward a mission to transform journalism and reporting in many business industries. ●
FINALIST – PE/VC Backed
Jack Lynch’s story is that of the classic American entrepreneur. He delivered papers and washed dishes as a child and paid his way through Boston University waiting tables, loading UPS trucks and stocking the shelves of department stores.
After college, Lynch quickly climbed the ranks in the publishing business where he landed a job as vice president of sales at age 27.
After successful stints as the founding CEO of BigChalk.com and the president and CEO of Pearson Technology Group, Lynch took a position on the executive board of Wolters Kluwer. The position gave him the chance to travel around the world, at which time he began to see the country’s slipping status in education as an issue of both social justice and global competitiveness.
A mentor once told him, “Make sure whatever you end up doing, do something worthy of your life.” In November 2012, he accepted the position of CEO at Renaissance Learning.
Renaissance believes in creating tools that empower teachers to perform their jobs more effectively, not in creating software applications that are meant to replace them. The company employs many former teachers, so it has an intimate understanding of its customers’ daily needs and concerns.
Lynch understands that this relationship between Renaissance and the teachers that use its applications is the secret sauce that differentiates his company.
One of the keys to achieving this status as an industry leader is the remaking of the company’s sales force. Renaissance had fallen into a pattern of selling to its existing customer base without trying to uncover new opportunities in the market. Many sales representatives would be on the road for hours at a time, passing on many potential customers between stops to check in with existing ones.
Lynch shifted the sales team from a revenue focus to a market opportunity focus, allowing Renaissance to expand its customer base. ●
WINNER – Retail & Consumer Products
Scott B. Mandell
Enjoy Life Natural Brands, LLC
It was the final assignment for an entrepreneurship course Scott B. Mandell was taking at Northwestern University. Mandell and his team developed an idea for a food company that produced baking mixes free of common allergens that plague millions of Americans, receiving an A for their efforts.
Mandell had one more class to take, a leadership course taught by none other than Oprah Winfrey. It was in that class that Winfrey’s advice to “live life without regrets” convinced Mandell to leave behind a surefire career in banking and launch Enjoy Life Natural Brands, LLC.
Two guiding principles have served the CEO and his company well from the beginning. The first was to create a moat around the company’s brand, which was done by being the first company to exclusively produce food products free from the eight common allergens — known as “The Big 8” by the Food and Drug Administration.
In order to accomplish this ambitious goal, Enjoy Life had to manufacture all of its products in-house to ensure the integrity of the environment the food was being cooked in.
The entire brand relied upon having a clean track record of being safe for consumers with food allergies, so any compromise in such a promise would have a catastrophic impact on the company’s image.
The second principle was the belief that the value of the company was in its brand and not its bottom line.
By focusing on developing the right logo and packaging, and investing in research and development to continually improve the taste quality of its products, Enjoy Life’s goal was to give kids with food allergies a sense of normalcy. The financials were important, but that commitment to the company’s promise made to consumers took priority and guided the direction of the business. ●
FINALIST – Retail & Consumer Products
Founder and CEO
When Brad Wilson first launched Brad’s Deals, he faced some significant obstacles. Many retailers chose to issue cease-and-desist orders because they did not want their deals and coupon codes shared. Wilson won in the courts, and was eventually able to make new inroads with many retailers by demonstrating how his business could actually help them by generating a valuable pipeline of consumers to their respective websites.
Today, Brad’s Deals is able to approach retailers with deals it believes will do well with their consumer base. Wilson’s vision and perseverance created a win-win situation for all parties involved.
The core focus of Brad’s Deals is consumers. As founder and CEO, Wilson recognizes that the minute his company loses consumer trust, it risks losing everything. Therefore, he has given his editorial team free rein to act in the best interest of the consumers. The company will only promote deals that it would be comfortable recommending to friends and family. Brad’s Deals has even gone so far as to completely banish some retailers if their values prove to be incongruent.
Additionally, Wilson is making a concerted effort to make the Brad’s Deals brand more personal than typical e-commerce retailers, especially when it comes to customer service. For example, the customer service team will personally and promptly respond to customer comments made on their website.
The team knows that timely, helpful and courteous responses have a multiplying effect. For every single person who posts a question or needs assistance, there are likely many others who have encountered the same issue or had a similar question.
Again, Wilson’s focus is on providing the best deal for consumers. His company takes an overarching look at the universe of deals offered by retailers, identifies the best deals and then provides the valuable information to consumers in impartial, accelerated ways. ●
FINALIST – Retail & Consumer Products
Patrick James O’Brien
Paris Presents Inc.
It was 2010 and Patrick James O’Brien had built a career worthy of envy with SC Johnson. In the early 1980s, he convinced the SCJ team to buy the rights to “Shout,” the famous song by the Isley Brothers that would soon become synonymous with the company’s Shout brand of stain removers.
He worked hard to cultivate a reputation as both a keen strategist and marketer. In 2003, his efforts earned him a new role in London as president of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. O’Brien found success in this role before returning to the U.S. in 2010. It was then that he was faced with a very difficult decision. After nearly three decades with SCJ, O’Brien chose to leave the company to pursue work that gave him a new set of firsts.
A year later, he was asked to join the board of Paris Presents Inc. and by the summer of 2012, he was asked to become the company’s CEO. Through a relentless focus on category management innovation and an attitude of what can we do, Paris Presents continues to drive a series of firsts in the cosmetic accessories category.
Under O’Brien’s leadership, Paris Presents has moved from providing private label cosmetic accessories to one of the fastest growing consumer product brands in 2014. His knowledge and deep appreciation for the importance of insights, analytics and innovation are what keep Paris Presents ahead of the competition.
The core of O’Brien’s leadership style is centered on his belief in his people. The decades of learning from his team, seeking to understand and building confidence to take risks are all part of how O’Brien leads Paris Presents.
Innovation has played a big part in the company’s success and likely will continue to do so in the years ahead. ●
WINNER – Technology
Founder and CTO
Founder and Chief Revenue Officer
Signal Digital, Inc.
Marc Kiven believes any good entrepreneur can find a large growing market, build a company that grabs a share of that market and exit when the time is right. The real challenge for a great entrepreneur is to create a market from scratch without displacing anyone.
In the case of Signal Digital, Inc., the plan was to create a company that could be the first real answer to a problem plaguing marketers for the better part of the past decade. It was a challenge Kiven, the company’s founder and chief revenue officer, Eric Lunt, founder and CTO and Mike Sands, CEO, were confident they could solve.
If a consumer looks at a product on his or her computer, tablet or phone, the brand’s marketing vendors may interpret it as three separate consumers using three separate channels. The brand’s channel vendors do not have the ability to connect the data in a meaningful way.
As a result, when marketers act on this data, they don’t really know the behavior of the potential customer. The misinformation and lack of cross-channel communication prevents marketers from getting to know their target customers. Successfully marketing to just one person is difficult.
Signal’s goal is to be the neutral provider of data by connecting every consumer in the world to every brand and their related vendors instantly. With Signal’s platform, it only takes 50 milliseconds to connect consumers to vendors. Signal’s partnership with the advertising agency and brand is neutral — no one is displaced in the process. Signal’s clients end up with a better return on vendor spending by sharing the data. As the brand’s digital outreach grows, Signal grows because its scalable platform can process endless amounts of data volume.
Fortunately, Signal has only lost four engineers since its inception: Two went to work at Apple and two went to Facebook. ●
FINALIST – Technology
Founder and CEO
Dan Adamany has taken a relentless approach to improvement as founder and CEO of AHEAD. He works closely with his 133 employees to establish a homegrown culture that not only solves today’s problems, but proactively thinks about what might work to address the concerns of tomorrow.
Adamany was raised by two entrepreneurs and was always taught to think ahead and have the courage to lead.
When he was getting ready to launch AHEAD, Adamany brought in key business partners, including one of his former college friends. They were integral in helping him develop both a presence in the IT space and stronger management and leadership skills.
But as AHEAD began to transition out of infancy and gain traction in the industry, Adamany shared a different vision for the company’s future than that of his partners. So he bought them out and took complete ownership of the business.
The change was difficult at times — the company had a 30 percent turnover of employees — but it proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Adamany purposefully slowed down and adopted a methodical approach to examine all aspects of the business. As a result, there was a complete shift in how he fulfilled the role of CEO. He became more involved in company finances and restructured all of the executive compensation incentives, despite some initial opposition. The new financial incentives aligned with the company’s mission, reduced inefficiencies and created transparency for employees.
Adamany moved everyone from cubicles to open desk spaces to spark creative cross-functional group discussions. He launched quarterly town hall meetings with employees and built a more hands-on environment. He also generated positive confrontations between employees that would lead to better solutions for the business.
He set the tone for a company that could dominate its industry. ●
FINALIST – Technology
Anova Technologies, LLC
Mike Persico got started in technology a few years after graduating from college. Not unlike many other young professionals, Persico was convinced he would jump straight into a high-profile job and never look back. He soon realized that his vision wasn’t realistic and he took a variety of jobs to pay the bills.
One of those jobs was selling insurance at Blue Cross Blue Shield, where Persico discovered his passion for technology. When his desk PC started to break down, Persico realized he was pretty good at fixing it. He started playing around with the software and found that he enjoyed problem-solving issues related to technology.
He decided to take a new position as a help desk technician at Kirkland & Ellis where his desire to fix anything that was broken kept him working long hours. But to him, it wasn’t about the work. He was driven by his own clock, wanting to meet his own objectives and satisfy his own curiosity.
It all set the tone for Persico to take the reins at Anova Technologies, LLC. As the company’s CEO, he wants workers to come in and contribute right away and have opportunities to advance in the business, which provides connectivity and hardware to electronic trading clients.
Anova does not hire outside middle management personnel. Although there currently is a need for individuals at that level, Persico wants the need to be filled from within and challenges existing employees to step up and fill those roles.
Persico recognizes the challenges of maintaining such a collaborative, empowering culture. He thinks having leaders who carry the flag, but also have the flexibility to work with different regions can make all the difference. If his team can share his passion for taking on challenges, Persico believes the culture will continue to thrive. ●
FINALIST – Technology
Dan Ushman and Zak Boca began their business partnership as high school students interacting through AOL chat rooms. Ushman was from Illinois and Boca was from Kentucky, and they were just “a couple of ambitious nerds,” Ushman says.
But it was during this time that they created the foundation for an Internet advertising company that catapulted the idea of what now stands at SingleHop.
With an initial investment of $1,500 charged on Ushman’s father’s credit card, the business was launched. Cold calling from bathroom stalls, closing business deals before heading off to class, high school was an atypical experience for the duo. What makes it even more interesting is the fact that they had never formally met.
Ushman sold the advertising company he and Boca had been developing before he turned 18. They wanted to bootstrap something with a larger scope. Boca flew to Chicago and a new company began to take shape in Ushman’s living room.
Juggling college, working at a pizza shop and their growing business, an early buyout offer became a consideration. After talking it over with both family and mentors, Boca and Ushman decided to stick with it and moved into a new office space in a converted elementary school in the Chicago suburbs. SingleHop has become the industry’s fastest growing provider of hosted private cloud and on-demand servers.
Ushman, CMO, and Boca, CEO, use a leadership style that empowers employees, allows for mistakes and holds employees accountable.
Innovation has and will continue to play an integral roles in the company’s success.
One of Ushman’s mentors told him that when your tailwind becomes your headwind, that is when you know you need to change your strategy. It has been a motivating compass for Ushman as he works with Boca to continually innovate and build upon prior successes. ●
It’s difficult to sum up everything that J.B. Pritzker has done for the city of Chicago. It starts with his work as managing partner at Pritzker Group, but that’s just scratching the surface of what the Duke University and Northwestern University School of Law graduate has accomplished.
As president of the Pritzker Family Foundation, he created The Children’s Initiative, which funds innovative research and programs for children in underserved communities. The Erikson Institute recognized Pritzker for this initiative with its Spirit of Erikson Institute Award. He also supported the creation of the Pritzker Consortium on Early Childhood Development at the University of Chicago, which is led by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman.
Pritzker plays an active role at a number of civic institutions including the Field Museum of Natural History, Northwestern University, World Business Chicago, the Economic Club of Chicago and the Commercial Club of Chicago. He helped found the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center and the Illinois Venture Capital Association, the leading regional advocates for entrepreneurs and investors, respectively.
Pritzker led the campaign to build the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, a world-class international institution dedicated to human and civil rights and to teaching universal lessons of the Holocaust.
He also served as co-chairman for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, but his political involvement spans three decades. In the 1980s, he worked as a legislative aide and policy adviser to three members of Congress. In the 1990s, he founded Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century — a national organization dedicated to attracting voters under the age of 40 to the Democratic Party. He also ran for U.S. Congress.
Pritzker is a leading proponent of entrepreneurship and a stronger technology sector focus in the Midwest.
Pritzker lives in Chicago with his wife, M.K., and their two children. ●
Madison Dearborn Partners
Exact Sciences Corporation
Gauthier Biomedical, Inc.
former president and CEO
co-CEO and president
Echo Global Logistics