Will Gruver pursued the American dream after earning a degree in economics from Northwestern University — but it didn’t take long for the Minnesota native to realize that working at a bank in Chicago’s famous Loop District couldn’t satisfy his entrepreneurial yearning or heartfelt need to enrich the lives of others.
So in 2002 he threw caution to the windy city and moved to the Dallas suburb of Celina where he launched USP&E Global. His goal was to design, build and operate fuel-efficient and renewable power stations, primarily in emerging markets.
Gruver says his decision to risk it all was truly a no-brainer, because the U.S. economy was growing at a snail’s pace while overseas markets were booming. And given the choice, he’d rather be sorry, than safe.
“The barriers to entrance have never been lower while the financial and humanitarian rewards have never been greater,” he says. “There are unbelievable opportunities in out of the way places for anyone willing to take a risk.”
On the surface, it seems like Gruver’s chancy decision might yield big dividends. After all, the International Energy Agency expects global energy demand to increase by one-third by 2035, with nearly 60 percent of the demand coming from countries with a burgeoning middle class like China, India and the Middle East.
But outsiders who try to navigate the business landscape in developing nations are often stymied by language and cultural differences and bureaucratic red tape. Small firms like USP&E also face stiff competition from energy, engineering and infrastructure giants like Siemens, which plans to expand its reach in emerging markets over the next five years.
Gruver would need to leverage the expertise of experienced globe trotting partners and employees to realize his dream of bringing power, jobs and hope to people in underdeveloped countries.
People in struggling countries are often wary of outsiders and for good reason. Consider the impoverished West African nation of Sierra Leone where slavery and the sale of so-called blood diamonds to outsiders during the 1990s fueled a brutal civil war and now only those who can afford generators have access to electricity.
Gruver, who employs a faith-based approach to leadership, believes that creating communities and jobs isn’t a consequence of doing business — it’s a reason to be in emerging markets and a moral obligation. Moreover, he scoffs at strangers who suggest that he should hasten his company’s growth by offering officials in underdeveloped countries financial incentives to secure permits or minimize red tape.
Instead, he follows his moral compass by hiring local people to operate and maintain a power station once construction is complete. He says that providing training and jobs creates trickle-down good will, and an environment of mutual respect, that leads to new opportunities. He cites his firm’s ability to secure multiple contracts in Sierra Leone, which is experiencing annual GDP growth of 35.9 percent, as an example.
He pays local workers well once a week and gives each employee a bag of rice to supplement their family’s meals.
“You build trust by keeping your word, and by giving people jobs and a career path,” Gruver says. “Hope was lost in Sierra Leone when we arrived two years ago. It’s remarkable how just a little bit of reliable growth can make a difference. We’re not only giving these people jobs and electricity — we’re giving them hope.”
Leverage strategic partnerships
How difficult is the business climate in Sierra Leone? The country’s overall ease of doing business ranks 140th out of 185 economies according to data compiled by The World Bank. Worse yet, it ranks 173th in dealing with construction permits and 176th in getting electricity, which means Gruver needs strategic alliances to achieve his philanthropic and economic mission.
“It’s very difficult to break into a foreign country without leveraging the established trust of companies that know the ins and outs of the local business and have tenured relationships,” he says.
In addition, having relationships with highly regarded and diverse companies such as Caterpillar, General Electric, Hyundai and Ernst & Young Africa helps USP&E overtake entrenched local competitors by offering clients turnkey power solutions. And the company’s nimble size and vast network helps it customize its deliverables and pounce on prospective opportunities.
“Some competitors just sell power plant support or construction or they only work in Venezuela because they don’t have the alliances to compete on a bigger stage,” Gruver says. “We can offer everything from design to construction and ongoing support for our plants by leveraging the abilities and products of our strategic partners.”
When USP&E couldn’t find a local printer to deliver documents to a prospective client in Johannesburg, South Africa, E&Y stepped in and its actions helped the fledgling power company close the deal. Other relationships have lead to inaugural deals in France and Spain.
“We’re not a huge company so we look for mutually beneficial relationships that extend our capabilities,” he says. “We expect to generate revenues of around $50 million this year and that’s largely due to our strategic partnerships which have never been stronger.”
Hire diverse and passionate people
Companies encounter unfamiliar technical and cultural challenges when they venture beyond the U.S. border. Having a diverse, multi-cultural staff with global business experience is critical in an environment where local knowledge plays a critical economic role. This is especially true in emerging markets, where decision makers are interested in knowing whether companies are interested in them as people or just want their dollars.
There’s no shortage of opportunities for globally experienced engineers and energy-savvy technicians — especially in Texas. So how has a mid-size company with fairly limited resources managed to hire 110 movers and shakers over the last three years?
“We promote our mission because it attracts like-minded people who want to work for more than a paycheck,” Gruver says.
Indeed, what people want most is the chance to make a difference according to Alexander Hiam, the Massachusetts-based author of “Business Innovation for Dummies.” Although a great salary doesn’t hurt, professionals are flocking to disruptive, world-changing organizations where they can feel good about what they do.
Interviews at USP&E usually start with a rudimentary question and answer exchange, but the conversation quickly turns toward the company’s overseas exploits. At that point, candidates who are merely interested in collecting a paycheck usually exit, while those who are passionate about the company’s mission are hooked on the idea of traveling the world and meeting buyers, sellers, and facility managers on multiple continents with different languages, cultures and customs.
And since engaged employees are generally more productive than their less motivated counterparts, the passion factor allows Gruver to boost the return on his fairly small staff. His experience is validated by more than 29 studies that link employee engagement to better service, sales, profits and shareholder returns.
“I lead an awesome team of executives, directors, engineers, project managers and technicians,” Gruver says. “They can have any job they want but they work for USP&E because they’re passionate about helping people.”
Harness the power of the Internet
USP&E doesn’t pay for advertising on Google or Yahoo, and it doesn’t have a commercial sales team. Yet, the company manages to garner five to 15 legitimate leads per day through the strategic deployment of some 80 websites.
Gruver studied web development in college — and refers to himself as a technophile — so he knows a thing or two about search engine optimization. Invariably, USP&E comes up near the top of the page when a prospective client searches the Internet for power engineering solutions or providers because the company owns the rights to a variety of keyword-rich domain names.
A strategic domain name can increase a website’s ranking especially if the domain matches the search query. The tactic is especially effective for small companies that don’t have a large advertising budget or well-known brand, since it snares prospective clients who search on keywords or phrases instead of a company name, and having a strong web presence may even attract investors.
“Executives often think that they have to pay for strategic Internet placement but that’s simply not true,” Gruver says. “Managing search engine optimization is so important to growing companies that it needs to be a top priority for executives right after cash flow.”
Speaking of cash flow, it’s still a daily priority for Gruver given the company’s age and rapid growth. He’s learned to say no to unnecessary frills and how to streamline operations by investing in mission critical areas that yield the best return. He credits his mentors with telling him the truth about frivolous spending instead of what he wants to hear while teaching him the virtues of risk taking and pushing boundaries.
“It’s amazing how just one disruptive idea can change the fortunes of so many people,” Gruver says. “We’re not just creating jobs — we’re creating hope — and that’s a wonderful thing.”
How to reach: U.S. Power & Environment Global, (469) 726-4780 or www.uspowerco.com
The Gruver File
Name: Will Gruver
Title: CEO and founder
Company: USP&E Global
Born: Minneapolis, Minn.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in communications and economics, Northwestern University.
What was your first job?
My first job was a youth pastor, but I started my first company when I was just 10. It was a landscaping business which I built up and sold to my partner after I finished high school.
Who do you most admire in the business world and why?
Entrepreneurs, especially those who head-up small businesses, because they’re the risk-takers who are pushing the boundaries and making a difference in this world. It’s the developing nations that offer the greatest growth and philanthropic opportunities, but it takes courage, passion and a forward-thinking strategy to pursue those opportunities.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Practice work-life balance. It’s easy to become entrenched in your business and overlook family and friends. I’m more motivated and productive on a daily basis because I have balance in my life.
What’s the key to success in emerging markets?
There’s so much corruption that’s it’s critical to build trust. You won’t muster repeat business unless you take the time to become a valued and trusted supplier.
What’s your definition of business success?
It may sound like a cliché, but helping other people. It’s easy to make money; the hard part is making a difference. There are unbelievable opportunities in this world for anyone willing to take a risk. For a company to thrive there has to be a reason for it to exist. Profits are important but it’s how you get there that counts.
Awards: Finalist, 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year, Ernst & Young
Recipient, Dallas Business Journal’s “40 Under 40”Award
Finalist, INC. 500, fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.
Dallas 100 Entrepreneur Award, USP&E placed seventh out of the 100 fastest-growing privately held companies in the Dallas area
Back in 1988, actor Paul Newman wanted to find a way to give back to children, and not just any kids but kids who were in serious need of a chance to act like kids. So Newman started the Paul Newman Association of Hole in the Wall Gang camps dedicated to serving children with serious illnesses.
Today, the association is called Serious Fun Children’s Network. It comprises 14 camps, one being Flying Horse Farms in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, that provide summer activities where kids can be kids and forget their illnesses for a week.
“We serve children with heart disease of all kinds, including heart transplants, children with all forms of pediatric cancer, kidney disease, severe asthma, children with autoimmune disease, and children with gastrointestinal disease and blood disorders,” says Mimi Dane, Flying Horse Farms’ president and CEO. “We do traditional camp activities like archery, swimming, boating, fishing, arts and crafts, and a canine program.”
Flying Horse Farms was founded in 2009 and became a member of Paul Newman’s Association in 2011. The group serves children ages 7 to 15. This year will be Flying Horse’s third summer season of camp.
These camps hit home for Chuck Fowler when he was first introduced to the Serious Fun Children’s Network by Cleveland Clinic’s head of pediatric cardiology, Dr. Gerard Boyle. Fowler, who is CEO of Fairmount Minerals, a producer of industrial sand, lost his 14-year-old daughter, Angie, to melanoma.
“One of her great desires was to be able to get outside and play rather than be sitting in the hospital room the whole time, and she wasn’t able to do that,” Fowler says.
Fowler has since been extremely active at Flying Horse Farms. He joined the board of directors, the finance committee, and the building and maintenance committee.
“We took this as an opportunity to honor our daughter Angie but also make it possible for other kids to experience camp and the outside and, as Paul Newman said, ‘Raise a little hell,’” Fowler says.
Flying Horse Farms hosts camps for families, a residential camp for the children with serious illnesses and a sibling camp for brothers and sisters who aren’t ill but would still enjoy having fun at camp. Flying Horse offers two things that make it different from most other camps around.
“One is we have a full-time medical staff here,” Dane says. “We have a full-time medical director and a full-time nursing director for each camp that we have.”
The other thing that makes Flying Horse different from most other camps is that because having a child with a serious illness is a big weight on the shoulders of those families, the camps are free of charge.
“As a consequence, we really rely on our corporate donors, our individual donors and fundraising,” she says. “It costs about $2,500 a camper for a person to come to camp.”
Organizations such as Fairmount Minerals and individuals like Chuck Fowler are critical to the work that Flying Horse has done.
“The corporate support that we’ve had, both at the CEO level from Chuck and from Fairmount Minerals, has been invaluable to us,” Dane says. “Chuck has been very supportive with his time, talent and treasure.”
In addition to serving on the board, Fowler and his wife helped put up the capital to get Flying Horse Farms started.
Much of that success depends on the support of Flying Horse Farms’ donors and fundraising efforts. Flying Horse and Fairmount host an area event called Campfire. This year, the event will be held at Severance Hall on April 19.
“It is a celebration of the legacy of Paul Newman and of Flying Horse Farms,” Dane says. “A reception will begin the evening followed by a performance within Severance Hall and then a dinner and dessert reception will be afterward. We will be joined by Clea Newman, Paul’s daughter. ”
The first Campfire event was held in 2011, of which Fairmount Minerals was a presenting sponsor. It will have that role again for the 2013 event. ?
2013 CIN Pillar
Pillar Award for Community Service Finalist
vice president of customer care
Victoria’s Secret Direct
(614) 415-7000 | www.victoriassecret.com
Among its many community activities, Victoria’s Secret Direct joined with the Children’s Hunger Alliance to present the first Kids Day Backpack Bash for more than 500 children at Montgomery County Fairgrounds Historic Roundhouse in July 2012. The Kids Day event promoted the USDA Child and Adult Food Program, which provides hot meals and snacks for children ages 5 to 18 at approved after-school program sites during the school year.
In addition, Victoria’s Secret Direct has supported the Children’s Hunger Alliance’s Taste to Remember event since 2006 and contributed almost $34,000 to the event. Other corporate contributions include $95,000 in support of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Schools and Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities initiatives and the Children’s Hunger Alliance’s annual Menu of Hope event.
Each year, Victoria’s Secret Direct hosts Community Cares Week in Dayton. Community Cares Week supports multiple nonprofit organizations in the community with community service hours.
Melanie Rose-Billhardt, vice president of customer care for Victoria’s Secret Direct, has served as chair of the Children’s Hunger Alliance’s Southwest Ohio Regional Board, serving Cincinnati, Dayton and surrounding communities for five years. She also serves on the agency’s governing board.
Rose-Billhardt has worked to raise awareness of the Children’s Hunger Alliance by securing various marketing materials for board members to distribute when introducing the agency to corporate and community members.
She has contributed her time, talent and personal resources to advance the Children’s Hunger Alliance’s mission and vision, and she was instrumental in securing additional corporate funds to support the Kids Day 2012 Backpack Bash.
Pillar Award for Community Service Finalist
Union Savings Bank and Guardian Savings Bank
(513) 247-0300 | www.usavingsbank.com, www.guardiansavingsbank.com
The philosophy at Union Savings Bank and Guardian Savings Bank is straightforward: They get involved in community activities because it’s the right thing to do.
Led by CEO Louis Beck, the company’s service projects are employee-driven. Each month, the company holds an employee action committee meeting open to all employees. Anyone in the company can come and present a project or an organization close to his or her heart that he or she wants the banks to support.
Beck leads the company’s community giving. He is the driving force and sets a strong example through action. He never misses a community action committee meeting and constantly supports, encourages and motivates everyone around him.
The impact that Union Savings Bank and Guardian Savings Bank has on the community is far-reaching. Each year on Thanksgiving, the employees and families of Union and Guardian get together in the morning and carry out a major holiday initiative. They meet at the Kroger grocery store on Ferguson Road, load their cars and then deliver Thanksgiving dinners to needy families all over Cincinnati. Last year, they gave dinners to more than 900 families.
In addition, if not for Union and Guardian’s giving spirit, students at Ethel M. Taylor Academy, Lincoln Heights School and South Avondale School would not have the wealth of school supplies and backpacks the company provides; and the residents at Tender Mercies, a shelter for mentally ill homeless people, would not have Christmas presents and dinners provided by the company’s workers.
Nonprofit Board Executive of the Year Award
Ellen M. Katz
president and CEO
The Children’s Home of Cincinnati
www.thechildrenshomecinti.org | (513) 272-2800
Ellen Katz has been president and CEO of The Children’s Home since 2005, although she has worked with the agency since 1990. During this time, the agency has responded and adapted to the changing needs of children and families in our community and has received local and national recognition for quality service.
Today, Katz is focused on developing the vision and strategy to ensure long-term growth and success for The Children’s Home. She has grown the agency from 189 employees in 2005 to 270 today. That staff runs 25 programs and related activities serving 6,000 clients annually, up from 1,200 clients in 2005.
Under Katz’s leadership The Children’s Home of Cincinnati has seen its assets and endowment grow from $70 million to more than $81 million and its budget increase from $13 million to $19 million. Her work has impacted the community, helping thousands of children overcome significant behavioral and educational challenges.
Katz’s leadership has propelled The Children’s Home into a flexible, innovative organization that consistently responds to the ever-changing needs of vulnerable children and their families. She utilizes unique management techniques and processes, effectively harnessing for-profit business to help the 148-year-old agency adapt to changing economic circumstances.
These kinds of collaborations have resulted in higher quality and an increased impact of services, greater presence in the community and in increase in funding opportunities, as well as decreased duplication of community services and a better capacity to serve children with the greatest needs.
Pillar Award Finalist
founder and CEO
Systems Evolution Inc.
(513) 459-1992 | www.sysev.com
Systems Evolution Inc. is a close-knit company, which is why its employees were hit hard when a tragic accident changed the life of one their own. After a 2005 bicycle accident took the life of 10-year old Josh Helfrich, the son of SEI consultant Ann Helfrich, the consulting firm channeled the support and compassion of its team to found Josh Cares.
As founder and CEO of SEI, Dan Pierce has played a lead role in creating the charity and making it a focus of SEI. Several months after Josh’s accident, Dan and his wife reached out to Ann and her family with the idea to create a philanthropic initiative in Josh’s memory. The result was Josh Cares, a program within Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
The motivation behind Josh Cares is that no child should suffer through a serious illness and lengthy hospitalization without ongoing presence and support of a family member. Josh Cares provides these children with surrogate companions — Josh Cares Child Life Specialists — who can offer the love and support and help them connect them with classmates, friends and family who cannot be there.
Today, SEI employees lend their time, talents and financial support to Josh Cares. SEI individual employees have donated nearly $62,000 of their own money to Josh Cares to date. As a company, SEI has also led corporate donations to the charity since its inception, contributing nearly $50,000 in sponsorship support and employee giving matches. And through the volunteer efforts of SEI employees, Josh Cares has been able to raise an annual budget of $335,000 to support many children and their families in their time of crisis.
2013 CIN Pillar
Pillar Award for Community Service Finalist
Larry A. Sheakley
(800) 877-2053 | www.sheakley.com
Larry A. Sheakley, owner and CEO of the business services company Sheakley, leads by example. Dedicating a phenomenal amount of time and energy to community service initiatives and nonprofit work, Sheakley’s altruistic actions motivate his employees to involve themselves in volunteer efforts.
Currently, Sheakley serves on the board for the Cincinnati Music Hall Revitalization Committee and is actively involved with both the Oversight Committee of the Partnership for a Greater Cincinnati and the Lighthouse Youth Organization.
He has been the chairman of the Cincinnati Art Museum, co-chair of the Cincinnati Opera Capital Campaign, vice chair of the Taft Museum of Art, a board member of the Cincinnati Fine Arts Fund and a member of the Cincinnati Ballet Building Committee. He has held the positions of president of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of America local chapter and co-chair of Team in Training and Leadership Campaign board member for United Way.
Additionally, Sheakley has worked in the past to benefit Ohio employers as the president of the National Association of Unemployment Tax Organizations and as a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Employment Services in Ohio.
Sheakley, which provides business services such as payroll, human resources and workers’ compensation, was founded in 1963 as Raymond Sheakley & Associates. Purchased in 1980 by Larry A. Sheakley as a business with less than $1 million in sales and concentration in only one area, Sheakley has grown into a successful company of more than 2,000 employees with headquarters in Cincinnati and a total of nine regional offices in Ohio, Iowa and Tennessee.
Pillar Award Finalist
president and CEO
(800) 860-9495 | www.powernetglobal.com
PowerNet Global understands the best way to contribute to its local communities is to offer its employees the opportunity to volunteer their time.
To encourage community involvement, the communications provider gives charitable paid time off, which allows employees to appropriate up to eight hours of their paid time per calendar year to any charity of their choice.
Some organizations that PowerNet employees support include The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the City Gospel mission, The Healing Center and Transformation Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky.
In addition, the company takes care of its own. PowerNet organized donations and support for an employee whose teenage daughter was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Employees raised money to purchase an iPad so she could remain connected to family and friends and be entertained while at the hospital.
The company also took a picture of employees holding big letters that spelled, “Get well soon, Julia!” and sent it to the family.
PowerNet also has the PowerNet Global Social Committee, which prepares a variety of events throughout the year to provide employees with opportunities for fun and fellowship. It hosts fundraisers to help support local charities and offers opportunities for employees to partake in company fellowship.
For example, it has hosted yard sales with proceeds going to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer, a “Biggest Loser” event with half of the proceeds going to benefit the Fairfield Food Pantry and a school supply drive for local students.
Pillar Award Finalist
(800) 381-0053 | www.paycor.com
One of Paycor Inc.’s most important guiding principles is “taking care of each other.”
The payroll processing company created its own community service program, Community Partners, to coincide with the principle. The grassroots program encourages employees to take care of the Greater Cincinnati community.
The effort began in March 2010 as a way for Paycor associates to share their community service passions with their co-workers, raise awareness for charitable events and causes that are important to them and gain support for their participation in community activities. It is not funded by corporate financial contributions; associates give their own time and resources.
Since the program started, Paycor associates have led a total of 152 events, filling 3,289 volunteer opportunities. In 2012 alone, Paycor associates led 41 events, filling 909 volunteer opportunities.
Paycor supports Community Partners with an intranet page that publicizes the events, allowing associates to connect with event leaders and enabling them to share their successes by posting event recaps and photos.
Paycor also motivates participation by giving all associates a Community Partners certificate they use to collect stickers for each event they attend. Once an associate reaches 10 events, he or she is rewarded with a T-shirt or other item.
Paycor has worked with a number of charitable organizations, including the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Junior Achievement, March of Dimes and American Cancer Society, to name a few, and plans to continue growing and expanding in years to come.
Pillar Award Finalist
president and CEO
Messer Construction Co.
(513) 242-1541| www.messer.com
Messer Construction Co. CEO Tom Keckeis believes in leading by example.
Keckeis has always recognized that giving back to the community is important and that it is essential to take part in the community where one lives and works.
Throughout his career, Keckeis has been involved in a number of nonprofit organizations. He is a current board member and past chair of the Greater Cincinnati YMCA and serves on the board for Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, where he leads the Corporate Giving Committee.
While Keckeis enjoys all aspects of community service, he says his real strength is in construction, and this is where he can make the most impact.
For nine years, Keckeis was involved with People Working Cooperatively, an organization that helps the elderly stay in their homes by assisting them with necessary repairs. He used his knowledge and experience in renovations to make a substantial impact and even recruited his children to help.
Through his example, Keckeis has led Messer to be a good neighbor, and the company’s employees have supported their communities with time, energy and financial resources.
In the past 21 years, Messer, on behalf of its employee-owners, has invested more than $12 million to make its communities better places to live, work and raise families.
In 2011, Messer and its more than 800 employees invested more than $1.5 million in community organizations across the nine regions in which it builds. Included in that investment are three $25,000 grants awarded by the Messer Foundation to employee-recommended community organizations.