From a failed dot-com start-up, Carl Erickson and Bill Bereza took three interns, second-hand furniture and the remainder of a lease from the ashes of that company and from it built Atomic Object, a software product development company.
Erickson had been a professor for 10 years and was less than impressed by the status quo of the custom software development industry. He saw projects constantly over budget, deadlines getting blown, poor quality and unmet user needs. He wanted to do it differently and set out to build better software.
That goal has never been fully reached – and that’s the beauty of it, as Erickson, who serves as president, pushes people to continuously grow and improve. In the early days, everyone contributed to marketing efforts, but as Atomic grew, particularly in the last few years, employees became more complacent and subscribed to the idea that someone else would do it. As a result of this mentality and the down economy, revenue flat-lined in 2009.
In December 2009, Erickson realized that decreased technical marketing participation and diffused responsibility were risks to the company’s long-term success. As a result, through a series of meetings and talks, he decided to implement a standard that each employee would create one blog post per month. In March of this year, the company finally hit this goal. While it may not seem overly victorious, trying to get about 25 talented people who are dedicated to quality but are often introverted and technical to blog is quite the feat. The results shows that Erickson’s relentless approach to leadership is to achieve what is best for the company and his tenacity for creating success, no matter the challenges or people involved.
How to reach: Atomic Object, (616) 776-6020 or atomicobject.com
In Roy Church’s office hangs a plaque that reads, “Perseverance moves mountains.” For 24 years as president of Lorain County Community College, Church has personified this philosophy, leading the institution to become one of the top community colleges in the country.
As an entrepreneurial leader, Church envisioned the development needs and opportunities of the region and championed them. His commitment to high standards and his determination and passion for progress are reflected in the success of LCCC.
LCCC has become a national leader in fostering education and economic innovation. The college has created initiatives and private-public partnerships to build talent, grow businesses and jobs, and nurture young entrepreneurs, and it is the only community college in Ohio to offer a degree in entrepreneurship. As a result, the American Association of Community Colleges, in partnership with the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, recently selected LCCC as one of 10 community colleges in the nation to participate in a Virtual Incubation Network.
Church and the college have built successful resources to encourage and support high-growth, technology innovations and entrepreneurs to grow new businesses and jobs to be competitive on the global stage. Together, they have been responsible for Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise, Entrepreneurship Innovation Center, and Innovation Fund, all of which develop young entrepreneurs and start-up companies.
Under the direction of Church and its education mission, LCCC has seen record growth.
When Church came in as president in 1987, he implemented vision-based strategic planning, which engages the community and stakeholders in designing the direction, goals and objectives of the institution. Today, what’s known as Vision 2015 has created a sense of purpose and direction at the college, where the actions of the individual drive the success of the organization and influence the success of the community.
How to reach: Lorain County Community College, (800) 995-5222 or www.lorainccc.edu
The status quo can be quite the barrier for many leaders and businesses to get past. David Thomas Palmer recognized this in his role as CEO of ClearCount Medical Solutions Inc., a company that works to prevent retained foreign bodies and improve surgical safety.
Palmer left a prestigious position at Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse to take on this role to join an under-capitalized company with a novel idea. When he started, he wanted to get over this major obstacle and introduce a new way for hospitals to address the process of counting and reconciling sponge counts.
The company’s first product series are the first systems to manage sponges in the operating room through a combination of counting and detection. The two systems in this series enable a device-reconciled count to avoid the most common hazard of surgery, the falsely reconciled manual count. The system also provides a wand for a scan over the patient or elsewhere in the operating room to quickly detect missing items. The benefit of sponges is that they do not need line-of-sight to be counted, as is needed with competitive products based on bar-coding. The system saves 10 to 15 minutes associated with finding missing sponges, which at $200 a minute estimated operating room expenses, can mean thousands of dollars. It also eliminates the need for X-rays to find missing sponges and reduces litigation associated with patients who are sent home with sponges sewn in and who face serious infection and have to go through another surgery and recovery process.
He has successfully built a skilled and cohesive management team, raised the appropriate capital and provided clear vision toward product development, and advanced market demand. He has established ClearCount as a market leader and also differentiated the company as a result of his business acumen.
How to reach: ClearCount Medical Solutions Inc., (412) 931-7233 or www.clearcount.com
In just five years under Michael Robb’s leadership as executive director of the Center for Community Resources, the nonprofit organization has grown from one agency to three and nearly tripled the number of staff members, and its revenue has grown nearly 800 percent. The organization aims to be a regional human service agency focused on providing support and services for people to succeed and communities to thrive.
This kind of success is the result of Robb’s visionary ideas, but he doesn’t just have vision. He also converts his vision into reality with strong leadership skills and the ability to successfully manage people, finances and systems. He has a great ability to think quickly on his feet and doesn’t let a “no” stop him when he knows it’s the right direction the organization should be going in. For example, during the state budget impasse two years ago, many other agencies suspended their services or closed completely, but under Robb’s leadership, CCR preserved money and cash flow and not only sustained services to the region but even took on additional programs and hired staff during that challenging time.
Robb also encourages the people around him to think outside the proverbial box. One of CCR’s programs was born out of his ability to think globally about the utility crisis in the county. He approached other agencies to invest staff or funds to help the greater good. Then the organization trained part-time staff and AmeriCorps volunteers to help people set up payment plans with utility companies to avoid shut offs. CCR has been able to solicit funds from community partners, which are then used to help people in need make initial payments to utility companies. His vision led to a new program, and this program is a model not just for the commonwealth but has also been sought after by other counties.
How to reach: Center for Community Resources, (724) 431-0095 or www.ccrinfo.org
While Dennis Ciccone was leading Lycos Ventures, the fund invested in Carnegie Learning Inc. in 2001, and he assumed a seat on the company’s board of directors.
The company was newly incorporated as a private company and had evolved out of Carnegie Mellon University’s cognitive and computer science departments. It was applying theory about how students learn to the development of math software and textbook curricula for high school students struggling with the transition from arithmetic to algebraic thinking.
The company’s technology was strong but education was still largely perceived to be a social issue, not a global economic indicator like it is today. Ciccone saw the challenge of technology infrastructures in the schools being inconsistent or nonexistent, which presented another obstacle to entry. After five years, Carnegie Learning was struggling to make sales objectives and manage implementations, and in January 2005, Ciccone was named interim CEO to infuse the “missionary” culture of the company with an aggressive sales and marketing strategy.
He saw a great opportunity to revolutionize an industry that had changed very little in a century. He moved point of sales entry from the school building level to the district superintendent and state decision-maker levels where there was an opportunity to change misperceptions about students’ abilities to learn and to demonstrate the viability of software as a new educational tool.
He went in armed with data to support the company’s software, and Ciccone was able to grow the company’s booked revenue by 50 percent in the first fiscal year as CEO in 2005. Going into 2011, Carnegie Learning has achieved six years of consecutive year-over-year growth of 20 to 30 percent, which is well above the industry average of 5 percent. Even more importantly, the company’s technology helps more than 500,000 students in 3,000 schools across the country to succeed in math and prepare them for the modern economy.
How to reach: Carnegie Learning Inc., (888) 851-7094 or www.carnegielearning.com
Not many people would leave a successful career in California and move their family to Detroit to work for a mom-and-pop business, but Brad Oleshansky isn’t like most people.
He’s run with the bulls in Spain, participated in a triathlon, sold popcorn with his son’s Boy Scout troop and even brokered a “relationship” between his 10-year-old daughter, who is a duct tape fashion designer, and the CEO of a duct tape company.
He began his career as an entertainment lawyer in Beverly Hills, Calif., representing clients in the entertainment, licensing and marketing industries, and later worked as vice president of business affairs at the Game Show Network until he decided to move his family.
Big Communications, which focuses on health care relationship management, went through the pain of the dot-com bust, and the organization nearly went out of business. In 2004, the founder restructured the company and brought Oleshansky on as its first president. He accepted the offer and moved to Michigan because he saw huge potential in the business and was willing to take the tremendous risk to come on board, bringing with him the passion and drive that he’s used to approach the rest of life.
During tough times, he took salary cuts like other managers did to avoid layoffs, but he was confident the company could make it. His ideas and strategy led to 30 to 40 percent annual growth for four years, and the company became so strong that in 2008, led and negotiated an acquisition of the company by Meredith Corp. He now serves as CEO of the organization and continues to be passionate about driving innovation. He says that innovation isn’t just one thing -- it’s everything.
How to reach: Big Communications, (248) 246-5209 or www.bighrm.com
David Simpson joined Hospice of the Western Reserve as executive director in 1985, when the agency served only Lake County and had just 18 hospice patients.
From that beginning, Simpson, who now serves as CEO emeritus, has created the fourth-largest nonprofit hospice organization in the United States, the 10th-largest hospice organization of any kind in the United States and an organization that is pre-eminent in the conceptualization and delivery of end-of-life care.
Hospice of the Western Reserve now serves 6,000 patients annually in six Northeast Ohio counties, cared for by more than 900 paid and 1,200 unpaid employees. Under Simpson’s leadership, Hospice of the Western Reserve has formed groundbreaking programs for pediatric, prenatal, AIDS, dementia, veterans and cardiopulmonary care.
Simpson has created a hospice and palliative care program that is viewed not as a competitor but as a partner by the three largest health care systems in Cleveland, all of which recognize that Hospice of the Western Reserve is a world-class leader in its discipline.
Simpson has guided the organization through numerous mergers, acquisitions and facility openings, most notably, the opening of Hospice House, a 42-bed residential facility on Lake Erie and the first inpatient hospice facility in the Greater Cleveland area. Hospice House took eight years to complete and offers bedridden patients access throughout the building and outdoors thanks to oversized doorways. Individual rooms at Hospice House were built to look and feel as much like a home as possible.
In the 11 years that Hospice House has been serving Northeast Ohio, more than 10,000 patients have been cared for there. In January 2011, the board of directors of Hospice of the Western Reserve unanimously voted to rename the facility the David A. Simpson Hospice House.
How to reach: Hospice of the Western Reserve, (800) 707-8922 or www.hospicewr.org
Kevin Jones has a passion for his clients, his employees and his business. That passion led him to form Cardinal Resources LLC in 2004. At the time, Jones — who now holds the title of president — could see that his clients needed assistance in developing sustainable solutions to their environmental problems. He also saw that many communities did not have the resources to develop large water treatment systems but needed community-based treatment systems that are economical and relatively easy to maintain and operate. Jones was ahead of the market in 2004 but was willing to take the risk to focus his resources on solving these problems.
Jones formed Cardinal Resources with a very flat corporate structure that allows active participation by all employees. It has led to outside-the-box thinking and resulted in innovative solutions to technical problems. Jones’ vision for Cardinal Resources includes continuing to develop solutions to potable water and wastewater problems, as well as expanding the customer base for the Red Bird System. The RBS is a mobile, solar-powered water treatment system using natural media in patented filters and chlorine disinfection to produce high-quality drinking water from any freshwater source.
The RBS is the only fully integrated, completely portable water treatment system on the market that incorporates raw water filtration, does not require filtration chemicals and also provides residual disinfection.
Jones says that all of his company’s employees should be free to develop their talents and use their skills to develop products such as the Red Bird System. While developing the system, Jones solicited opinions from the staff at all levels of the company. This has led to a very open dialogue with all levels of the company, allowing fresh ideas to be welcomed and executed. The company structure has remained very flat to allow for easy communication.
How to reach: Cardinal Resources LLC, (412) 374-0989 or www.cardinalres.com
In 1999, Vince Thomas was just a college student with a dream. He started his business, which would become Billhighway, out of an attic when he developed a technology to manage his college roommates’ expenses.
He quickly saw a broader business need to integrate technology and financial performance into a cash management, accounting and payment processing system that could scale to thousands of organizations and unlimited users. He realized that membership-based organizations were losing significant revenue and saw an opportunity to help them become stronger financially. At the same time, he saw how difficult it was for them to get current, accurate information about financial status, particularly with receivables and payables.
He was convinced that he had developed a solution to these challenges but initially found little support so decided to self-fund his business. For the first few years, he traveled across the country and slept in his SUV while trying to drum up interest in his product. His other challenge was to find a banking partner, because his product required the electronic movement of funds, but initially found none.
So he did everything himself and focused on fraternities and sororities. In 2001, he finally got a banking partner to electronically move funds, and in 2003, he brought in his first major client, a 13,000-member organization. This milestone enabled him to hire staff and gain the resources to build the business and provide the credibility he needed to acquire other large clients.
As a result of his perseverance, Billhighway has significantly altered the way organizations manage their finances and has become the dominant player among college-based organizations, with an 80 percent market share. He’s also achieving growth with membership-based organizations across the country.
How to reach: Billhighway, (248) 273-0074 or www.billhighway.com
Charlie Hall had been laid off from his job as an aeronautical engineer at Boeing when he decided to become an entrepreneur. Using an idea his father had come up with decades ago, he spent every last dime to perfect and market a bread dispenser. It was moderately successful in the regional market, but Hall wanted to get a big break on the national scene. He wanted Walmart to start selling his product.
He took his Bread Buddy, which dispensed bread from the original wrapper, to the company’s Bentonville, Ark., offices. He waited all day but never got a face-to-face buyer meeting. Dejected but not defeated, he left a large stack of Bread Buddys in the lobby and went home.
A few days later, Walmart called and told Hall, president of Buddeez Inc., he had a good thing and started carrying it. The company’s product line has since grown to create an innovative household storage niche. Consumers can dispense everything from coffee to pet food to charcoal from Buddeez products.
Hall believes in surrounding himself with talented individuals that he allows the freedom to pursue the company’s goals: to succeed, quality and innovation must always take precedence over expedience and to not be a “me too” business.
Among those who benefit from Hall’s charitable donations are the Petco Foundation, PetSmart Charities and Lowe’s Charitable and Education Foundation. However, perhaps his truest commitment is to the families that work at and support the company’s manufacturing site in Union, Mo. He believes in American workers and operates his business in such a way to preserve as many local jobs as possible.
Buddeez’s culture is one of collaboration and gets its fuel from a can-do entrepreneurial enthusiasm. Because competition is fierce, Hall wants his people to be smarter, be more creative and work harder than the other guy — it’s the Buddeez way.
How to reach: Buddeez Inc., (636) 639-6804 or www.buddeez.com