FINALIST / TECHNOLOGY
As an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Jay Whitacre strived to take the problems surrounding energy storage and address them with real-world solutions powered by innovation and collaboration.
It’s a mentality he took into the business sphere when he founded Aquion Energy Inc. in 2008. Whitacre founded Aquion to help answer three questions — how much energy does the world need, where are the holes in how we currently store energy and how quickly can we develop stationary storage technology that is costeffective, renewable, nontoxic and can be produced quickly on a large scale?
Whitacre’s excitement about the work of his team is contagious. He is excited about problem-solving and making a positive impact on the world. Whitacre’s attitude and his ability to engage his team in Aquion’s mission have helped make the company a worldwide frontrunner in the stationary storage space. It’s a prestigious honor, and Whitacre has remained focused on leading the company through its many growth phases.
Whitacre maintains his sights on business decisions and thoughts of where the company should be positioned in order to take advantage of future growth opportunities. The Aquion management team joins Whitacre in leading the company with a focus on growth and problem-solving.
The company’s innovative approach to problem-solving has taken a signi?cant amount of effort, since the ?eld of stationary energy storage is still yet to be completely de?ned. However, Whitacre has identi?ed some market separators that make Aquion’s approach unique. Aquion’s technological innovation has emphasized low-cost, zero environmental impact and a very long functional lifetime. With that focus, the company has no direct competitors in its space. ?
HOW TO REACH: Aquion Energy Inc., www.aquionenergy.com
The early days of kCura were filled with many sleepless nights as Andrew Sieja crisscrossed the country with his laptop trying to build a business. He’d go to trade shows alone and fall asleep on hotel room floors working to get software out to potential users.
He knew what they needed and early on, it fell upon him to make sure they got it.
As the business has grown into an e-discovery software company with more than 200 employees, that level of accountability has not diminished. While he does have a team of people around him to help make things happen, Sieja still holds himself to the same high standards he did when he first launched the business.
He’ll get up in front of his employees and talk about mistakes he made or opportunities he missed and how he could have done it better. Then he goes out and makes sure he doesn’t repeat the mistake. His goal is to show employees how important it is to follow through and to not place blame when that doesn’t happen.
As president and CEO, Sieja has built close ties with his employees and his clients, which haven’t been affected by the growth of the firm. He still wants kCura to be a place where people love to come to work, and he wants Chicagoans to be proud to have kCura doing business in their neighborhoods.
Sieja listens to his employees and implements their ideas. He makes them feel as if it’s their company too, because he really believes it should be that way. Sieja has put kCura in great position to keep on growing.
How to reach: kCura Corp., www.kcura.com
FINALIST / TECHNOLOGY
When Robert Daley and Henry Thorne founded 4moms in 2005, they combined Daley’s venture capital experience with Thorne’s engineering background to create innovative, high-tech products for home use.
The company’s name comes from Daley and Thorne’s original focus group, composed of four mothers, who helped the duo explore products to serve the infant, toddler and small children markets. The collaboration helped to create 4moms’ ?rst product, the Cleanwater Infant Tub.
4moms’ products now include an updated version of the Cleanwater tub and the mamaRoo, which is an infant seat that uses a dual-motion robotic platform to mimic parents’ motions. One of the company’s newest products, a powerfolding stroller called the Origami, has created a national buzz with appearances on CNN and NBC’s “Today Show.”
Daley and Thorne have persevered to bring these products to market. They’ve faced shipping delays, skyrocketing material costs and retailers afraid of anything new. The pair has taken risks, but throughout the struggles, Daley and Thorne have prepared for success by conducting careful market research and sales trials with retailers.
Overwhelming consumer interest in 4moms’ products has driven impressive sales, but it has also put Daley and Thorne under pressure to quickly devise more brilliant solutions. The duo has always answered the innovation bell due to their experience and market knowledge. Due to the hard work of Daley and Thorne, 4moms has the team and the product pipeline it needs to stay ahead.
The leadership philosophy of the company’s co-founders encourages creative growth, using robotic technology to solve common problems that parents of young children face. Daley and Thorne realize parenting can always be a little easier — and it can be, as technology gets faster, lighter and cheaper. ?
HOW TO REACH: 4moms, www.4moms.com
WINNER / TECHNOLOGY
When Dr. Xuecang Geng took over as the vice president and chief scientific officer at Blatek Inc., the company was in the midst of financial troubles. Shortly after Dr. Geng arrived, the company had to endure a round of layoffs. With Blatek at a low point, Dr. Geng decided to renew his team’s focus on developing new ideas based on research and innovation.
Through Dr. Geng’s leadership, Blatek has grown in the types of projects it is willing to undertake. From developing a composite material that has more uses than typical ceramics to developing the company’s reputation and quality, Dr. Geng has helped make the impossible possible through his leadership, dedication and passion to ?nd solutions.
Dr. Geng’s leadership has helped bring the company to new levels. With a renewed focus on problem solving, Blatek is now able to adapt solutions to ?t the needs of speci?c customers. Now, customers come to the company requesting solutions to problems, such as improved performance for a speci?c end use in an ultrasonic system. Blatek is a manufacturer of highperformance ultrasonic transducers.
Once the design has been developed and the product created, the customers continue to return and recommend Blatek to other companies looking for innovative solutions.
Blatek employs about 50. As such, the culture is highly focused on individual employees and what skills they bring to the table. Employees have specialized skill sets particular to the jobs they have.
The role of Dr. Geng and his leadership team is to ensure that each employee is executing daily tasks with the ultimate goal of carrying out the company’s vision — to continue working to ?nd specialized solutions and create specialized products to meet the needs of each customer. ?
HOW TO REACH: Blatek Inc., www.blatek.com
Technology – Winner
In 1996, Jack Blumenstein identified Gogo LLC as an investment opportunity for his private equity firm. His firm has since invested more than $200 million into Gogo, a leading provider of in-flight connectivity and a pioneer of wireless in-cabin entertainment solutions. Blumenstein, who served the company as chairman, president, CEO and director, played a pivotal role in Gogo’s development and growth.
When he started with Gogo, the company was a pre-product start-up that was attempting to create an affordable phone system for private aircraft. Today, the company has succeeded where others have failed and has built up its portfolio of aircraft entertainment solutions. Sadly, Blumenstein passed away this February, leaving leadership responsibility to Michael Small who has been Gogo’s president, CEO and director since 2010.
During the past two years, Small has helped increase Gogo’s revenue and aircraft installation growth. Throughout 2011, he helped guide the launch of several groundbreaking products and has the company poised to introduce several technology enhancements that position it for future growth.
That same year, Gogo completely rebranded itself and launched a multimedia platform. The new platform extends the company beyond Internet connectivity and into in-flight entertainment services, which opens new revenue streams for Gogo and its airline partners. The new multimedia platform offers passengers exclusive access to online services such as real-time travel information, destination content, news and information, exclusive shopping deals, and social network integration from their Wi-Fi enabled device.
In 2012, Gogo will unleash its second-generation airto- ground technology called ATG -4, which will quadruple capacity to an aircraft with very little incremental cost, enabling continued rapid growth in revenues and profitability in the U.S.x How to reach: Gogo LLC, www.gogoair.com
FINALIST / SERVICES
John Sell took over as president of the regional trucking company Wayne W. Sell Corp., after his father, the company’s founder and namesake, died in 2008. During the economic downturn that followed, Sell had the vision to invest heavily in equipment to service the natural gas industry. He also made the decision to upgrade his ?eet with new technology and back-of?ce software.
These decisions enabled the Sarver, Pa.-based company to address competitive challenges and comply with toughening government regulation while keeping its trucks as fuel-ef?cient as possible. Sell’s foresight positioned the company to set itself apart from its competitors and take advantage of the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom.
A signi?cant challenge Sell faces is a shortage of skilled drivers. To combat this, Sell has embarked on a rebranding project, which includes a new website and application process that the company’s leaders believe will make it more attractive to prospective drivers.
Founded by Sell’s father with a single tractor and trailer in 1954, Wayne W. Sell Corp. has grown to more than 70 tractor trailers, and now offers ?at bed, van and bulk tank services in the northeastern United States.
John Sell has been the leading force in increasing the company’s revenue by more than 100 percent since he become president. Sell believes in differentiating the company from its competitors through superior service, so Wayne W. Sell Corp. offers 24/7 live dispatch and customer service.
In the future, Sell plans to increase the size of the company’s ?eet between 5 and 10 percent, depending on the state of the economy and growth in the natural gas industry. ?
HOW TO REACH: Wayne W. Sell Corp., www.wwsellcorp.com
Since her days working in the auditing department at Ford Motor Co., Michele Honomichl, co-founder and CEO of Celergo, has never stopped thinking about how to take the extra step to better serve customers.
After managing the creation of Ford’s best-in-class expatriate administration system, she was inspired to develop the concept further and left the company to return to school and cultivate a global expatriate management services business.
Honomichl soon co-founded GPSLink, which offered a unique, virtual relocation management model and software for expatriate administration. However, the software failed to gain traction with the prospects she was targeting. With her wheels spinning, Honomichl’s customer-centric thinking soon prompted her to seek answers from the marketplace. She went back to her prospects for GPSLink to ask questions and learn more about their pain points. What Honomichl uncovered turned out to be a game changer.
A trend she found through these conversations was the need for local payroll systems for employees in foreign locations. Recognizing a chance to meet this need, she and her partner decided to switch gears. For more than a year, they worked without compensation or funding to develop Celergo, a new business with the same target customers as GPSLink, but focused on global payroll services. By shifting to meet an underserved market in expatriate administration, the business thrived.
Honomichl’s continued focus on customer needs has helped her bring Celergo’s consolidated approach to global payroll for expatriate administration to more than 110 countries. For the past three years, Celergo has been recognized as one of the fastest-growing businesses in the U.S. by Inc. magazine.
How to reach: Celergo, www.celergo.com
Realizing firsthand a need for better services and support for realty agents, Michael Golden and Thaddeus Wong gave up their positions as topproducing agents at a small brokerage firm to start their own company to provide just that.
Co-founding @properties in 2000, they began as a small, four-person operation selling new construction. Twelve years later, it is now the largest real estate brokerage firm in Chicago and the 35th largest in the nation. In addition to a commercial real estate division, the company offers institutional services and property management.
Employing 1,050 real estate agents, Golden and Wong have grown @properties largely by attracting and retaining high-quality agents through strong levels of service and support. Much of this support comes in the form of professional marketing programs. To create successful programs, Golden and Wong utilized their combined
experience in condominium development sales, scaling the sophisticated marketing programs they once created for that market to the sale of a single home by a single agent.
The company has an internal marketing team that creates personalized logos, brochures and advertising promoting brokers and their listings, printing highquality and affordable materials in the company’s own print shop. This team has also negotiated bulk advertising discounts with media partners, passing those savings to @properties agents.
In addition to marketing support, the firm provides agents with opportunities to grow in both personal and professional capacities. The company offers yoga classes, employs full-time performance coaches to help agents develop personalized business plans, provides an improvisational workshop targeted toward real estate agents and offers weekly sales training classes. It also brings in guest speakers from around the country for larger events
How to reach: @properties, www.atproperties.com
FINALIST / SERVICES
When they co-founded SDLC LP, partners Scott Barnyak, Christy Maruca and Chris Simchick put up a quote in their of?ce. It read, “I am not worried that it’s not going to happen. I’ll make it happen. You go make the things you want.” This quote sums up the philosophy the three have used to transform SDLC from a start-up of ?ve employees into an industry-leading IT consulting business with 245 employees.
Having worked as colleagues for many years, Barnyak, Maruca and Simchick knew when they started SDLC that they shared a vision to create a company that would bridge the gap between business and IT — and the drive and work ethic it would take to make the business successful.
Seeing an opportunity to create a company that could better meet the needs of the IT consulting marketplace, the partners co-founded SDLC in 2004 with a differentiated business model, offering management consulting and technical execution at a market competitive price.
The partners’ growth strategy has involved building a team of employees that is equally committed to driving SDLC’s success. To make growth happen, they have reinvested much of the company’s capital to ?nd and retain talented people who share their vision.
Leveraging their home mortgages and savings to fund the start-up, the partners deferred compensation for the ?rst 15 months, focusing instead on hiring talented employees that could build the company’s practice areas. They also used the economic downturn as an opportunity to add new leadership and support roles, despite the fact that other businesses were cutting back on personnel.
But staying committed to the vision paid off. By 2011, SDLC was able to add 100 employees and a new Pittsburgh location to accommodate its business growth. ?
HOW TO REACH: SDLC LP, www.sdlcpartners.com
Joe Chalhoub founded Heritage-Crystal Clean Inc. in 1999 to provide automobile repair shops and industrial plants with a means to clean their greasy parts.
Chalhoub’s concept — provide a “sink-on-a-drum” and solvent to clean parts, backed by a scheduled service to resupply fresh solvent and remove the dirty solvent for further use — was not new. His former employer, Safety-Kleen Corp., had hatched the idea three decades earlier. Chalhoub left Safety-Kleen when it was sold to a new owner in 1998 and launched Heritage-Crystal Clean, based in Elgin, Ill., with the goal of becoming a strong No. 2 provider of parts cleaning and environmental services since Safety-Kleen dominated the market.
As expected, the company soon managed to break even, then gain market share and become successful. In 2008, Heritage-Crystal Clean completed an initial public offering and was listed on Nasdaq. New, complementary services and products were added. Used oil became one of them. In 2011 and early 2012, Heritage-Crystal Clean inaugurated what it calls the most modern used-oil re-refinery in the world. In 2011, the company was included in Forbes’ annual ranking of America’s best small public companies.
Heritage-Crystal Clean has implemented several incentive systems to encourage employees to focus on growth and customer retention. A key part of the company’s culture is the clear message from its leaders that constant growth is good and is expected. Chalhoub communicates regularly to all levels of the company, meeting with employees at sales offices to talk about the direction of the organization and to instill an awareness that employees’ contributions are essential to the success of the business.
How to reach: Heritage-Crystal Clean Inc., www.crystal-clean.com