Demian Sellfors has always been ahead of his time. That aspect led the self-taught IT professional and graphic design artist to branch off from an established special effects studio and begin his own web-hosting company in the humble confines of his apartment.
He focused on offering the best in both quality and customer service, and the public took notice. Soon, Sellfors’ company was acquired by one of his customers, Media Temple, which recognized his ability to lead and appointed him CEO 12 years ago. The company grew as Sellfors took a hands-on approach working directly with employees to coach, mentor and nurture the skills within each.
If you ask Sellfors his greatest contribution to the company’s success, he would dismiss his role as an innovator and instead point to his ability to inspire greatness in others.
One of the challenges he faced was determining how to position his company among its competitors, many of which were caught in a downward spiraling price war. It prompted Sellfors to follow a new strategy — Why not offer the best quality for the highest price?
Media Temple maintained its product positioning with great success, boasting the industry’s lowest churn rate of 1.3 percent compared to the industry average of 3 to 7 percent.
In the workplace, Sellfors is all about success, but he wants the pursuit of that success to be filled with fun and personal fulfillment. There is yoga and CrossFit at lunch and a catered meal every other Friday.
Children and pets are welcome at the office, and there’s even a nap area employees can use to re-energize.
Sellfors wants his employees to be at the top of their game, and if they need to take a little time off to recharge, they can do it. Each employee gets a paid, one-month sabbatical every three years. It all adds up to the last of the company’s five core values, which is simply, “Enjoy the Journey.”
How to reach: Media Temple, www.mediatemple.net
Dinesh Ravishanker and a team of graduates from the University of California, Irvine, did not have a lot of money in 2004 when they set out to launch what has become a game-changing business in CallFire.
But they had a passion for innovation and the energy to build a company that would transform the way the business world communicates. The result is a company that has grown its customer base to more than 100,000, with 15,000 new users coming aboard in 2012 — without a dime of venture capital.
CallFire simplifies telephony, making sophisticated and expensive carrier-class telecom capabilities available through affordable and easy-to-use graphical user interface and application programming interface platforms. Any business, from start-up to large enterprise, can reach its customers on any device using text message or voice.
Ravishanker, CallFire’s co-founder and CEO, is committed to building a company that will have staying power and be able to evolve as the fast-paced world of technology moves forward. In order to do that, he knows he’ll need employees who have a diverse skill set and a willingness to tackle new challenges as they come up.
CallFire has a number of health initiatives in place including nutritious food alternatives on-site and the promotion of athletic activities. Ravishanker also encourages employees to continue learning and attend seminars to gain new skills that can help them be more productive in their work.
He wants to build a brand that people associate with a strong work ethic and a spirit of customer service. But Ravishanker also wants the brand to stand for love of community and compassion for those who haven’t experienced as much success in life.
During a vacation, Ravishanker traveled to Nicaragua where he worked with a group of speech pathologists to help children overcome their speech problems. He also helped renovate two orphanages. This spirit to help is what he encourages in his people as they seek their own path to give back.
How to reach: CallFire, www.callfire.com
Sam Naficy is the president and CEO of DTT, a technology company in the video surveillance industry. Although DTT has emerged as a dominant player in its industry and continues to deliver cutting-edge services and technology through Naficy’s leadership, it had modest beginnings, often facing capital constraints and tough competition.
With DDT’s early financial struggles, Naficy decided to change DTT’s business model from a fixed-fee service to a monthly subscription service to adjust to the competitive market and offer his clients newer technology. He also made necessary infrastructural investments to serve his clients better.
Although business was booming, he found himself unable to keep up with demand. It was not until he was able to thoroughly convince his father-in-law about his vision for DTT the he was able to obtain the needed funds to continue DTT’s operations.
Through the years there have been many formidable competitors that have tried to enter DTT’s market, but all have been unsuccessful in penetrating the company’s dominance. Much of this can be attributed to Naficy’s focus on his customer’s needs instead of trying to dabble in various aspects of the technology world.
Essentially, he grew his company vertically rather than horizontally — providing a litany of services for specific customer needs. The company’s “secret sauce” is its product’s ability to extract sales detail from point-of-sales systems and mirror it with a video image.
Recently, DTT also rolled out a new product called the SCREAM service, a feedback app that operates in the cloud so the owner/operator receives customer feedback immediately by text and can respond immediately to any issues.
During the past 14 years, DTT has supported more than 27,000 customer locations for renowned brands such as McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, the Peninsula Hotel and has just developed a new relationship with Arby’s. With 350 employees residing in various departments, Naficy has grown the equity value of the company immensely.
How to reach: DTT, www.dttusa.com
Walter Driver, the CEO of Scopely, Inc., graduated from college with a degree in creative writing, a skill he says was necessary to envision a company as distinctive as Scopely, a developer and distributor of mobile apps to enable third-party game developers to build, retain and monetize an engaged audience.
Driver saw an opportunity in the technology space since most gaming companies in Silicon Valley focused on the code and programming behind the applications they created. But Driver wanted to make gaming an emotional experience. With the vision of fusing technology and traditional entertainment, Scopely was born.
The technology industry moves extremely quickly, and Driver has proved his ability to adapt in an ever-changing environment. For example, when Scopely was first founded, most games were developed on the Facebook platform. However, Driver quickly identified the maturation of the technological ecosystem and shifted focus to the iOS platform for mobile devices.
At the highest level, Scopely is building a network of socially connected games that are supported by its proprietary platform. The company allows independent game developers to compete head-to-head against the largest developers in the world in the battle for reach, revenue and users.
Scopely’s technical infrastructure allows developers to develop games efficiently. Its social mechanics are designed to create experiences that retain users and drive them to continually engage.
What distinguishes Scopely further is that unlike traditional publishers or social platforms, Scopely takes a hands-on approach to working with partners. By partnering with elite developers and dedicating resources to each game title it publishes, Scopely ensures that it only produces quality products.
Driver’s strategy has paid off. Experts expect 1 billion smartphone users by the end of 2013 and more than 2 billion by the end of 2015. Tablet sales are growing even faster. The growth in the mobile device industry is organic, and Scopely has identified a way to profit from the wave sweeping across the globe.
How to reach: Scopely, Inc., www.scopely.com
In 1988, Martha de la Torre and Joe Badame could not have expected the small publication they created would grow to become the largest free Spanish publication in the country. The two young CPAs also could not have imagined the numerous obstacles they would need to overcome to ensure the company’s success.
As the husband-and-wife co-founder’s entrepreneurial adventure began with El Clasificado, so did the hard work and many sacrifices. At first, they did everything themselves. De la Torre became the salesperson and marketer, while Badame took care of operations.
Severely undercapitalized, de la Torre and Badame did everything they could to keep the business alive. They didn’t take salaries for 10 years, sold their cars and home, and even moved in temporarily with de la Torre’s father.
In 1992, however, Badame developed a strategy that would eventually take El Clasificado to new heights — he changed the company’s distribution model, moving from home delivery to bulk-drop. After computerizing the company’s distribution system, he also began an aggressive news rack market saturation initiative throughout Los Angeles. It was a major risk for the company, but also a move that positioned El Clasificado as the leading free Spanish publication in Southern California.
This business model continues today and has allowed El Clasificado to expand its reach from California’s Central Valley to San Diego, and, most recently, to Yuma, Ariz. The company’s award-winning distribution system has set the publication apart from its competitors, having been the first free publication in Spanish to contract with major supermarkets and convenience stores for distribution.
In addition, El Clasificado stands above the competition, as the publication is hyper-localized into zones grouped by zip codes. This strategy allows advertisers greater pricing options and flexibility to advertise in their preferred areas.
Upon launch of El Clasificado in 1988 only 10,000 copies were distributed, and today, total circulation has grown to 510,000 copies distributed throughout 48 zones, 300 cities and 23,000 distribution points.
How to reach: El Clasificado, www.elclasificado.com
If you saw a movie script that detailed the life of Moctesuma Esparza, you would never believe that it was historically accurate. Esparza was a leading activist and organizer in the Chicano movement of the 1960s, fighting for civil rights and equality for Mexican-Americans.
His involvement left him at one point indicted and facing life in prison for being an organizer of the revolution. But within two years of having the charges dropped, Esparza had not only turned things around, he was working in the West Wing of the White House with security clearance.
Having overcome those kinds of odds, Esparza might have been on easy street with the launch of a multiplex theater chain. But he has worked hard to ensure Maya Cinemas North America, Inc. is all about quality.
His passion is not in day-to-day management, but rather in bringing an idea to life. So he spends a great deal of time working on developing business strategies, identifying new locations to expand into and then getting that location off the ground.
Esparza has also been a leader in raising new market tax credits since part of his strategy is to target markets that other movie theater companies are reluctant to enter. In order to succeed, he hired a dedicated and highly involved president and COO, Frank Haffer, to manage long-term operations and hired strong local managers to run his multiplexes.
Esparza is admired by colleagues for his innate ability to persuade and inspire. He recognizes and rewards individuals who contribute to the company’s vision while giving managers the freedom to perform their jobs how they see fit.
Esparza hasn’t forgotten where he came from. He launched an innovative program that gives patrons the opportunity to round up their purchase to the next dollar and have the money donated to a local college scholarship fund that will be restricted to students within a designated area.
How to reach: Maya Cinemas North America, Inc., www.mayacinemas.com
Loren Bendele has been an entrepreneur from the day he started selling Blow Pops out of his backpack at school. His mother and father owned a popcorn and yogurt shop, and Bendele would buy the Pops wholesale to sell to fellow students. It was a profitable venture until he was asked to stop by his teachers.
But Bendele’s career in business had begun.
In 2007, Savings.com was Bendele’s effort to build an online coupon site that built consumer trust with coupon codes that always work. He put in the time building relationships with bloggers who could create buzz for his business and with companies who wanted to offer their coupons on his site.
Bendele’s ability to relate to people and build those strong relationships is due at least in part to his time spent as a stand-up comedian. While it’s not a path many leaders follow to business success, being up on stage helped him develop his storytelling skills and his ability to read people.
One of his keys to attracting customers and quality employees alike is not only a belief in his self and what he is selling, but the ability to get his audience to believe, too.
Bendele didn’t have a crystal-clear vision of what his business was ultimately going to look like, but he knew he wanted great people and an office dog. A sign hanging on the office door that says “Dog on premises” and the smiling faces on the people who work at Savings.com indicate he has met those goals.
But Bendele is not satisfied with what he has achieved to this point. He is developing a grocery application that would be available on all smartphones. It would allow consumers to walk into a grocery store and look up the best deals within the grocery store as well as download any available coupons.
Bendele is hopeful that within five years, Savings.com will be the most dominant player in grocery couponing.
How to reach: Savings.com, www.savings.com
With Intrepid Investment Bankers, there is something behind the number three. There are three on the management team: W. Michael Rosenberg, CEO; James B. Freedman, managing director; and Ed Bagdasarian, managing director. They exude a combination of humility, charisma and energy when discussing their journey from aspiring bankers to their current entrepreneurial venture.
The company has a three-part focus: meeting customers’ needs, understanding how to be a strategic player and embracing innovation through unconventional standards.
Founded in 2010, Intrepid is becoming a major player in the investment banking industry, leveraging the experience of Rosenberg, Freedman and Bagdasarian.
Their experience goes back more than two decades. They built their first venture, Barrington Associates, into one of the most successful independent investment banks in the U.S. It was later sold to Wells Fargo. After Wells Fargo acquired Wachovia Securities in 2008, the trio helped integrate Barrington into Wachovia Securities.
Next, it was Intrepid’s time in the spotlight. In just more than two years, it has grown into a leading M&A adviser in Southern California as measured by completed transactions, number of bankers and revenue. This was all done during challenging economic climates and is an example of the founders’ entrepreneurial drive, vision and skill.
One of the practices that differentiates Intrepid from other investment bankers is its compensation method. Instead of the traditional salary plus bonus structure followed by many Wall Street firms, Intrepid makes every banker a “deal partner” who participates in the fees generated by the firm. This meritocracy structure rewards initiative and results.
Intrepid hopes to create a new standard for middle market investment banks with its philosophy on client service and industry. Teams that put together deals view their roles as hands-on managers of the deal process, leaving nothing to chance and driving every aspect of the transaction with passion. The firm’s senior bankers participate in each facet of the deal process.
How to reach: Intrepid Investment Bankers, LLC, www.intrepidib.com
For 27 years, Ernst & Young has championed the entrepreneurial spirit of men and women pursuing excellence in their businesses, teams and communities.
Ernst & Young founded the Entrepreneur Of The Year Program to recognize the passion of entrepreneurs and to build an influential and innovative community of peers. We received more than 1,680 national entries for this year’s program, from the country's most deserving entrepreneurs. Their triumphs stand as a testament to the role they play as visionaries and leaders.
Entrepreneurs change the world and make it a better place to work and live. We honor them for their fortitude and resilience, and we celebrate their ability to forge new markets, navigate uncharted territory and fuel economic growth.
We gather here in Northeast Ohio and in 24 other cities across the U.S. to honor all of the finalists and welcome the new class of entrepreneurs into our Hall of Fame.
Congratulations to all of the 2013 Northeast Ohio Entrepreneur Of The Year finalists and winners. We applaud them all for their unyielding pursuit of business excellence and we are honored to share their inspiring stories with you.
Whitt Butler, advisory partner, Ernst & Young; program director, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Northeast Ohio.
Here are the 2013 Northeast Ohio Entrepreneur of the Year winners and finalists:
Distribution and Manufacturing
Education and Non-profit
Health Care and Pharmaceutical Services
Finalist – Scot Lowry, president and CEO, Fathom
Retail and Consumer Products
Winner – Kris Snyder, CEO, Vox Mobile, Inc.
Family Business Award
NEO Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year
Ralph Della Ratta Jr.
Western Reserve Partners, LLC
When Ralph Della Ratta Jr. gets asked, “What were you thinking starting a new entrepreneurial chapter in your life at age 55?” he responds that he missed three things: being engaged in the game, doing great things for great people, and providing strategic direction.
After retiring from a remarkably successful career in the investment banking industry, Della Ratta had a revitalized vision of a project that would delve into the Cleveland mergers and acquisitions market. He approached three former colleagues with a proposition that held an unsure outcome without the smallest guarantee.
However, between Della Ratta’s deal-savvy reputation, proven track record and constant ambition, these three individuals made large personal investments to help get Western Reserve Partners, LLC, up and running based solely on their faith and trust in Della Ratta.
Western Reserve Partners was formed to bring middle-market clients high levels of quality and service usually reserved for much larger companies. The company provides M&A, capital raising and other financial advisory services to middle-market companies across a focused set of industry verticals, including industrial, business services, consumer, health care, technology and real estate.
Each engagement is tailored to the client’s specific objectives and relevant market dynamics. Thoughtful advice, keen market insight and well-crafted transaction processes have resulted in more than 80 percent of the company’s sell-side engagements closing at valuation ranges that meet or exceed expectations.
Western Reserve’s senior professionals share an extensive background in large-cap advisory work and have advised on dozens of transactions of $1 billion or more. The company brings the benefits of this experience to its middle-market clientele, and its assignments are all actively managed by senior professionals from kick-off to closing. Western Reserve’s managing directors average nearly 30 years of experience and have collectively executed more than 600 transactions during their careers.
Della Ratta has been determined to position Western Reserve Partners as a reputable, respectful and innovative institution.
How to reach: Western Reserve Partners LLC, www.wesrespartners.com