Northeast Ohio’s Smart 50 Awards celebrate area’s top executives

On behalf of Corporate College and Cuyahoga Community College, I want to personally congratulate the recipients of the sixth annual Corporate College Smart 50 Awards, presented by Smart Business.

We are privileged to partner with Smart Business and present the Corporate College Smart 50 Awards in celebration of Northeast Ohio’s top executives and in recognition of their talent to effectively build and lead innovative and “smart” organizations. All of this year’s honorees have made a difference in their organizations and in the region. Their positive impact on employment has reinvented the Northeast Ohio landscape into one of the most up-and-coming business regions in the country.

These large, mid-sized and emerging companies’ leaders motivate and inspire people. They are passionate and focused on what they do. The executives we are celebrating today are able to tackle unique business challenges and continue to lead their organizations toward success. Corporate College is honored to acknowledge this year’s nominees.

Corporate College is a division of Cuyahoga Community College, a nationally recognized leader in higher education and member of the League for Innovation in the Community College. Corporate College is known for its best-in-class client solutions including training, consulting, conference and hospitality services to the business community and its strategic partners. Since its inception in 2003, Corporate College has worked with organizations in all sectors and professionals at every level. We run our organization as a CEO would run his or her business and understand the challenges leaders and organizations face. Clients turn to us for training solutions to meet their strategic business goals and consulting services that improve individual, team and organizational performance. Corporate College provides professional training and development tailored for today’s dynamic business environment.

Robert J. Peterson, J.D., CPA
President and CEO
Corporate College, a Division of Cuyahoga Community College
[email protected]



2019 Smart 50 Award honorees

Chris Adams
President and CEO
Park Place Technologies

A global leader in data center maintenance, Park Place Technologies provides a cost-effective, service-first alternative to post-warranty maintenance for storage, server and networking hardware. By keeping customers’ mission-critical hardware continuously running, the organization maximizes data center uptime in more than 140 countries.

The company’s success stems in large part from its award-winning ParkView service, which proactively detects faults in storage, server and networking hardware. Park Place has also implemented a 24/7 domestic call center and immediate incident escalation, direct access to OEM-experienced engineering teams and flexible service level agreements to meet organizations’ unique needs.

Led by President and CEO Chris Adams, Park Place acquired six companies over the past year, resulting in $250 million in revenue during 2018.

Cal Al-Dhubaib

Leveraging a background in data science, Cal Al-Dhubaib created data analytics consulting firm Pandata to transform the way companies react to their customers. Its innovative Perception Intelligence technology transforms large amounts of qualitative feedback into actionable advice, pulling raw customer feedback data from virtually any source and language, including web analytics, customer surveys, online product reviews, blog posts and social media.

The solution engine analyzes data to detect core themes, providing comprehensive customer profiles in an interactive dashboard that allows companies to track trends and customer sentiment, and drill into concern areas as they relate to services or products. Armed with this insight, brands can better manage their reputation, provide customer service and make informed product and service decisions to boost sales.

Todd Barnhart

GARDINER is a full-service HVAC, energy solutions and professional services company. In 2017, President Todd Barnhart led the company to become the exclusive factory systems, parts, services and solution representative in Northern Ohio for Daikin, the world’s largest HVAC manufacturer.

In addition to brokering this strategic partnership, Barnhart has driven innovation across company operations, bringing new products and services to the market to directly address client needs. A key focus has been growing GARDINER’s energy and performance solutions business, which accounts for one-third of sales, transforming the company from a traditional manufacturer’s representative into a diversified professional building service company. Most recently, Barnhart launched a new Training & Technology Center in Solon to showcase GARDINER’s innovation in the local industry.

Elizabeth Barry
President and CEO
Delta Systems Inc.

For nearly 50 years, Delta Systems Inc. has provided the outdoor power equipment industry and adjacent markets with high-quality electronic components products. Led by President and CEO Elizabeth Barry, safety, performance and reliability are of critical focus, ensured through the company’s rigorous development matrix.

Key to its expert product lifecycle management process is that each product — including switches, controls, interfaces and connectivity innovations — is managed from design concept to design validation and successful launch under one roof. The team works closely with customers from start to finish through a stage gate process to understand challenges and develop a partnership to bring each vision to reality.

Much of Delta Systems’ success comes from collaboration, with Barry fostering an environment with the flexibility to encourage new ideas and experimentation.

Eric Beck, DO, MPH
UH Ventures

Launched in 2016, UH Ventures was created to develop innovative new business models leveraging existing University Hospitals capabilities to benefit patients and develop new revenue for the health system. Under the leadership of Eric Beck, DO, MPH, it leverages a two-pronged approach to identify, develop and deploy disruptive and innovative creations toward these ends.

The first is its Operations Platform, which includes the oversight and potentialization of existing UH verticals. The second is its Ventures & Innovations Platform, which stands up a variety of opportunities that can play a vital role in the overall future of health care. Combined with its diverse team of innovators, comprehensive process and toolkit, and wide-ranging portfolio of projects, UH Ventures is positioned to take risks to deliver value and vitality for UH, its patients and the local community.

Jeff Beck
President and CEO
LeafFilter Gutter Protection

LeafFilter Gutter Protection’s cutting-edge gutter guard technology provides customers with a permanent solution to protect gutters against clogs. The system eliminates the need to clean gutters and protects homes from water-related damages. 

Selling directly to consumers, the brand has broadened the reach of its technology since naming CEO Jeff Beck, who has prioritized automating and scaling LeafFilter’s processes. Notably, he’s built a custom ERP and CRM solution to unify sales, service, marketing and finance within a central system for increased efficiency and scalability.

This has been a critical foundation as LeafFilter has continued to expand and restructure. It now falls under the umbrella of a newly formed entity Leaf Home Solutions, alongside new accessibility solutions brand Leaf Home Safety Solutions.

Kris Beck & Mike Pepe
CEO; Founder & President

Kris Beck and Mike Pepe joined forces in 2018 to scale the growth of Proformex, a cloud-based software platform that helps agents, advisers, trustees and fiduciaries proactively monitor their clients’ life insurance policies. The system automates the manual, time-consuming work required for proper life insurance policy management to improve operational efficiency, profitability and customer experience.

Securely storing relevant data and documentation for an agent’s entire book of business for both comprehensive and individual policy management, the smart technology behind Proformex tracks and analyzes policy performance. The platform alerts an agent when performance issues arise and can identify opportunities for delivering more value. Additionally, Proformex automates client reporting.

Maria Bennett
Founder, president and CEO
SPR Therapeutics Inc.

In the midst of a national opioid crisis, SPR Therapeutics Inc. is working to identify an alternate solution to pain management. The medical device company is engaging in developing, manufacturing and commercializing interventional pain management therapies that are non-opioid based and minimally invasive. 

Founder, president and CEO Maria Bennett leverages SPRINT® technology, which she invented while completing her master of science degree in biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University. Left in place 60 days, SPRINT® is the first and only peripheral nerve stimulation technology for the treatment of acute and chronic pain that is not permanently implanted. The company has been able to continue development of this smart technology through $30 million in federal funding and grants from the Department of Defense and National Institutes of Health.

Mike Boddy
The Anderson-Dubose Co.

Since his promotion to COO of The Anderson-Dubose Co. (AD) in 2018, Mike Boddy has made significant strides in improving the safety, sustainability and scalability of the organization, which provides logistics solutions to corporations in the quick service industry. Chief among his accomplishments was closing a complex 53,000-square-foot warehouse expansion. Day-to-day operations continued smoothly through Boddy’s orchestration of resources and internal collaboration, and AD celebrated two years injury free as of April 2019.

Boddy has also made headway in implementing warehouse automations, as well as the realignment of field and customer service operations to optimize special customer requests and restaurants’ backroom processes. This realignment translates to a 95.77 percent customer satisfaction rating, ranking AD among the top percentile in the U.S.

Destiny Burns
CLE Urban Winery

Destiny Burns has brought her vision of a “working winery” and tasting room to the historic urban setting of Cleveland Height with CLE Urban Winery. Although the number of wineries is growing at a rapid rate in the region, Burns sets her location apart with a unique combination. Guests enjoy multiple award-winning wines in the tasting room, while seeing the craft brewery-style winery in action, experiencing production from start to finish.

CLE Urban Winery wines are handcrafted and bottled on site to ensure high-quality and affordable end products and are named in honor of Cleveland. Burns hosts wine-related events, wine education and appreciation programs, classes and clubs, and plans to expand through additional local tasting rooms and a wholesale distribution channel.

David M. Carr
Brennan Industries

Brennan Industries — a manufacturer of hydraulic, pneumatic and instrumentation fittings, adapters and accessories — recently celebrated 65 years in business, and President David M. Carr leads the organization to continuously evolve with the times. He conducts frequent process reviews with his management team and employees, and makes smart improvements to streamline operations and boost customer accessibility.

His most recent improvement is the expansion of the company’s Solon corporate facility, built with employees in mind — employees whom Carr considers to be Brennan Industries’ greatest assets. The building will have state-of-the art technology in the warehouse and front office, with collaborative spaces, a dedicated training center and customizable workstations that can be used at standing or seated levels. Carr will continue his open-door policy, encouraging innovative thinking and problem solving.

Julie Chase-Morefield
President and CEO
Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio

Regional nonprofit Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio works with a vast network of partners to acquire, gather and distribute nutritious food to tens of thousands of people throughout Crawford, Erie, Huron and Lorain counties. Although it started as a small operation, President and CEO Julie Chase-Morefield’s efforts since joining the organization in 2004 have helped grow it into the largest hunger-relief organization in North Central Ohio and the fourth-largest largest nonprofit in Lorain County.

Under her leadership, Second Harvest has significantly increased distribution of food and grocery products to member charities and developed education and programming around healthy, nutritious food options. Among these initiatives are a farmer’s market push, fresh produce partner education and healthy School Pantries food distribution program.

Joseph DiRocco
Regional President
Northeast Ohio
Fifth Third Bank

Under the leadership of Regional President Joe DiRocco, collaboration and talent within Fifth Third’s commercial and private bank divisions have excelled. DiRocco inspires this team to focus on the customer and the community by tying employees’ work to improving lives through financial solutions and supporting strong communities.

Chief among the banking institution’s focus to improve lives is aiding millennials in paying down the significant challenge of student loan debt. Fifth Third has developed two unique apps to help them do so; the Momentum app enables debit card users to round up purchases to make micropayments toward loans, while the Dobot app connects to a checking account and automates savings. Since launching Momentum in 2017, Fifth Third has helped users pay down $2 million in student loan debt.

Aaron Christopher Evans
Co-founder and CEO

Co-founded by CEO Aaron Christopher “A.C.” Evans in 2016, Drips is leveraging innovative artificial intelligence to help brands connect with consumers the way they prefer to be reached and when. Utilizing analytics of human behavior, the Drips platform securely automates lead and customer interactions via email, SMS text messages and automated calls.

The marketing software technology helps brands better scale their outbound efforts, receive more qualified inbound calls, create goodwill with their prospects and reduce overall lead generation costs. Additionally, Drips provides white glove service to continually test market campaigns and programs so clients continue to learn how to provide better messages to the consumer and improve performance. With the success of its smart technology, Drips is projected to double its revenue in 2019.

Frank Fantozzi
President and Founder
Planned Financial Services

Planned Financial Services is an independent financial planning and wealth management firm celebrating 25 years of sustained growth and success. Founder and president Frank Fantozzi leads the firm in providing for the financial well-being of his clients, evolving and innovating to stay at the cutting edge of the industry.

Restructuring the company in 2016 as a full-service Registered Investment Advisor, Fantozzi’s ongoing success stems from utilizing an innovative Return on Life® approach with clients. This strategy combines insightful analysis with personalized financial strategies and investment advice. Over the past year, PFS earned accolades including a Centre for Fiduciary Excellence LLC certification, Distinguished Marketing and Sales Award, Weatherhead 100 Upstart award and Forbes Best-In-State Wealth Advisors distinction.

Megan Fellinger
President and CEO
Morrison Products Inc.

Led by the third generation of the Holmes family, Morrison Products Inc. has grown to become the leading manufacturer of stamped metal products in the country, designing, manufacturing and selling air moving equipment for the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industries worldwide. In recent years, President and CEO Megan Fellinger has focused on deepening the integration of continuous improvement into all aspects of business processes.

In response to 2018 Department of Energy increases in efficiency requirements, she led Morrison to acquire a fan manufacturing company and elevate its quality program. Management also recruited additional quality leaders and engineers to develop improved airflow technology.

Combining Morrison’s 2018 acquisition and organic growth, the team has grown by 107 percent year over year while increasing revenue 125 percent over the past 10 years.

Jeremy Flack
Founder and CEO
Flack Global Metals

Recognizing a void in the steel industry, Jeremy Flack founded Flack Global Metals — which fulfills supply chains for OEMs using flat rolled steel, aluminum and stainless — in 2010 using an innovative, asset-light model and proprietary risk management hedging solutions. The business is independent of geographical location, leveraging a broad, carefully developed network of suppliers, placing FGM in a unique position to adapt its supply chain to best serve its customers, giving them a better way to buy steel.

In 2018, FGM secured an expanded facility with the addition of RaboBank, a global commodity trade finance bank. The first of its kind in the North American steel industry, it emphasizes current market pricing rather than dated appraisals and supports FGM’s ability to utilize that pricing in its financing.

Patrick Ghilani
MRI Software

Joining MRI Software, a provider of real estate and investment management software, as CEO in 2014, Patrick Ghilani set out to rebuild the company’s legacy as an innovator and market leader. In the years since, he’s done that, channeling innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit into a new, customer-centric mission.

His efforts included working on internal communications, elevating industry veterans within the business and bringing in seasoned leaders from outside to bolster his team. MRI’s progress attracted strategic investment, and by 2016, it had embarked on an acquisition spree that continues today, entering into new markets.

Shifting MRI toward a plug-and-play platform model, and SaaS deployment methodology, Ghilani maintains the company’s open and connected approach to software, and the company adds hundreds of new clients each year.

Todd Goldstein
Co-founder and CEO

Todd Goldstein co-founded LaunchHouse with the vision of a community in which entrepreneurs and small business owners could build their dreams together. Over the past decade, he’s worked to make that vision a reality, creating a coworking community designed with private offices, open office space, conference rooms and a maker’s space.

By sharing resources such as printing, wi-fi and coffee among members, overhead remains low, making LaunchHouse an affordable option for companies of various sizes.

The benefits go beyond budget, with Goldstein emphasizing networking, education and an environment for growth. LaunchHouse brings together a diverse community that collaborates together to support one another’s goals and provides support by connecting companies to a network of funders and investors when the need arises.

Kevin Goodman
Managing Director, Partner
BlueBridge Networks LLC

Helmed by Managing Director and Partner Kevin Goodman, IT solutions provider BlueBridge Networks has built a reputation for excellence and reliability while diversifying its offerings over time, including data center services, cloud computing, cyber security practice, managed services and infrastructure solutions. Engineering its assets to high specifications, BlueBridge stands out from competitors through its uniquely designed data centers, which provide redundancies for business continuity and network security.

It practices internally what it preaches in terms of network security measures and partners with a network of vendors based on the resources they can offer BlueBridge customers, rather than relying upon an exclusive vendor partnership. A one-stop shop, BlueBridge aims to help businesses maximize uptime and minimize costs while getting their messages across to clients.

Chris E. Haas
President and CEO
All Pro Freight Systems Inc.

Borrowing $500 from his mother in 1990, Chris E. Haas began All Pro Freight Systems Inc. as a one-man freight brokerage business, making cold calls out of the basement of his starter home. He’s since grown the company into a successful, full-service transportation needs supplier offering local, regional and long-haul trucking, as well as warehousing facilities and storage trailer rental.

A leader in the transportation management industry, All Pro Freight’s success stems from its market-driven business model. Haas’ team works closely with the company’s customer base, providing customized transportation management services that help increase efficiency and productivity while driving bottom-line profits. Providing professional transportation services in local markets and throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada, All Pro Freight is known for consistently reliable, on-time, safety-conscious delivery.

Paul Hanna
Blue Technologies Inc.

Blue Technologies is an award-winning office technology solutions provider led by President Paul Hanna. Its continued growth stems from Hanna’s belief in being a student of the game, even after 20 years in business. His strategy keeps Blue in front of technology evolution to ensure consistent delivery of industry-leading products backed by world-class service.

Hanna instills this dedication to providing clients with exceptional products and service throughout the organization through Blue’s “Commitment to Excellence–EVERY DAY,” a five-point service pledge made to customers in writing to protect them after an acquisition. Employees are empowered to live up to this commitment through ongoing training and vendor certifications, access to subject matter experts and technology resources, including a recently upgraded ERP and website with Hubspot integration.

Bruce Hennes
Founder and CEO
Hennes Communications

Hennes Communications is one of the few firms in the U.S. focused exclusively on crisis communications and crisis management. Founded by CEO Bruce Hennes, it offers a wide range of services, including media training, litigation communications support, pre-crisis preparation, peer reviews of crisis plans and crisis drills.

Hennes founded the firm in 1989 as a public relations firm, but after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, business evaporated. Seeking to reinvent the company, Hennes analyzed the firm’s work over the past decade and recognized a niche specialty in crisis management.

He’s since grown Hennes Communications into an award-winning firm serving billion-dollar clients. Much of this success stems from Hennes’ smart decision to staff the firm exclusively with senior-level consultants with the experience and gravitas to field crisis management and crisis communications.

Ramzi Hermiz
President and CEO
Shiloh Industries Inc.

Since its founding in 1950, Shiloh Industries Inc. had experienced modest growth as a small, regional automotive supplier. However since appointing Ramzi Hermiz as president and CEO seven years ago, growth has been exponential for the now-global enterprise.

Hermiz analyzed industry trends and refocused on Shiloh’s mission to design, engineer and manufacture sustainable lightweighting solutions. While competitors focused on a single process or material to manufacture products, Shiloh focused on customers’ product goals and specifications — such as improving emissions and fuel economy — to provide the best solution, with alternatives based on total vehicle cost. The success of Hermiz’s smart strategies is demonstrated by both organic and acquisition growth, with revenue jumping from $400 million to $1.1 billion in 2018.

Anthony Hughes
CEO and co-founder
Tech Elevator

An immersive 14-week coding boot camp with tracks in Java and .NET, Tech Elevator is the brainchild of Co-founder and CEO Anthony Hughes. Passionate about the program’s mission to elevate people, companies and communities, Hughes’ innovative approach to training and technology has helped more than 600 graduates obtain skills to transition their careers into the technology field.

Across products and solutions, Tech Elevator’s experienced team develops a process and program that are scalable across each market. With its curriculum serving as an instructional foundation, the team iterates and improves after each cohort and offers customized versions specific to client company needs.

In addition to its signature boot camp, Tech Elevator hosts specialty workshops and meetups, including partnership events with Women Who Code and Women in Tech.

William Koehler
Team NEO

Team NEO works to enhance Northeast Ohio’s economy by collaborating with partners to attract new businesses and help those already established to grow. In 2018 alone, the business development organization worked with JobsOhio and other economic development partners on 76 projects expected to generate 6,329 new jobs and $2.34 billion in capital investment for the region.

The organization’s success is derived largely from CEO William Koehler’s strategic focus on developing a high-performing, collaborative economic development network to support its mission, tapping into the public, private and philanthropic sectors. To facilitate alignment of these partners, Team NEO facilitates regional “Innovation Clusters,” connecting companies, academic and research institutions with opportunities to collaborate and take advantage of emerging trends that build on the region’s industrial, organizational and workforce strengths.

Andrew Lefkowitz
Chairman, CEO & Co-Founder
Locus Fermentation
Solutions LLC

Andrew Lefkowitz is a seasoned entrepreneur with a proven track record in building and exiting successful and innovative businesses focused on finding economical, green solutions that benefit our planet. That’s the driving force behind his venture Locus Fermentation Solutions LLC, the accelerator company for Locus Agricultural Solutions and Locus Bio-Energy Solutions LLC.

Locus FS’s goal is to use microorganisms as cost-effective, safer alternatives to chemicals that address pain points in variety of industries. This had never been successfully implemented, until Lefkowitz’s team solved production challenges with patented fermentation technology. Now, it’s making significant impacts on productivity challenges in agriculture, and oil and gas. Since its founding less than five years ago, Locus FS has grown to seven offices in four states.

Cecil Lipscomb
Executive director
United Black Fund
of Greater Cleveland

Since its inception in 1981, the United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland has helped local grassroots service agencies in Greater Cleveland become sustainable, growth-oriented resources for their communities through comprehensive support spanning operations, finance, governance, talent and programming. The organization has supported more than 80 agency partners each year with grants in excess of $12 million.

One such partnership is UBF’s efforts with Eliza Bryant Village, the oldest continually operating African-American long-term care facility in the United States. UBF Executive Director Cecil Lipscomb serves as the second vice chair for Eliza Bryant Village’s board, overseeing the development of innovative programs such as food demonstrations and chair yoga that help vulnerable African-American seniors overcome barriers to improving quality of life.

Colleen Lorber

Colleen Lorber, Ph.D. is COO of psi, the largest private education and school health organization in Ohio, serving more than 500 schools. Focused on providing educational and health services to schools for more than 41 years, the organization has evolved significantly with Lorber as COO.

Of key strategic focus for Lorber and her team has been increasing the organization’s presence and influence among the major education groups in Ohio. They have also updated psi’s operating procedures to add technology to its employees, schools and supervisory staff for increased accountability, compliance with state and federal mandates, and more in-depth quality assurance of the organization’s extensive school service programs. Lorber has helped psi acquire more than 25 new school contracts and increase revenue by more than $3 million.

Andrew Macek
OMNI Systems

In eight years with custom label converter and supplier OMNI Systems, President Andrew Macek has fine-tuned the company’s operations, working to develop meaningful metrics for rapidly streamlined efficiencies and industry-leading process improvements. His efforts have helped OMNI Systems improve its fill, run efficiency and scrap rates, and earn recognition as a leading manufacturing company in the United States by “Printing Impressions.”

Also of strategic importance to Macek is the satisfaction of OMNI Systems’ employees. He’s made strides to promote a positive, engaging workplace culture that encourages employees to bring ideas to the table, rewards high performers and ultimately boosts sales. Under his leadership, the business was named top workplace for worker satisfaction by Monster and Kununu in 2017.

Victoria Marquard-Schultz

Victoria Marquard-Schultz, Esq., is CEO of OxyGo LLC, a fast-growing, multinational medical and industrial gas equipment manufacturing company. Over the past 26 years, it has grown to be recognized as a market leader for its high-quality products and technical and regulatory expertise in the multibillion dollar compressed gas industry.

Marquard-Schultz leads the organization with a strategic focus on leveraging technology as a means to improve quality of life, demonstrated in OxyGo’s innovative portable oxygen concentrators. The small, lightweight medical devices can make doctor-prescribed medical oxygen from the surrounding air, eliminating the need to carry heavy tanks and the worry of running out of oxygen. OxyGo provides customizable options and accessories, as well, including car chargers, backpacks and single- or double-cell batteries.

Lori McClung & Scarlett Bouder
CEO; President
Advocacy & Communication Solutions LLC

Fifteen years ago, Lori McClung and Scarlett Bouder joined forces to cofound Advocacy & Communication Solutions LLC, a national communication, advocacy and strategy development service provider for government, nonprofits, philanthropy and for-profits. ACS helps organizations advocate for policy change and communicate effectively with audiences who have the power to effect change.

McClung and Bouder have fostered project success and intentional, steady revenue growth through a three-part, “magic” formula: working only with clients and issues they care about, having flexibility to scale their teams of experts to match client need and carrying a small but purposeful portfolio of clients. This formula has empowered ACS to provide individualized attention to its client base and earned it numerous awards and accolades.

Sam McNulty
Bier Markt, Bar Cento,
Market Garden, Speakeasy
and Nano Brew

Sam McNulty’s knack for envisioning beyond what is to what could be has helped him to achieve success as a real estate developer, investor and restaurateur. He’s applied his visionary skills to contribute to the revitalization of West 25th Street in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood, founding Market Garden Brewery, McNulty’s Bier Markt, Bar Cento, Speakeasy and Nano Brew.

McNulty achieved these successful ventures with the help of business partners Mark Priemer, Mike Foran and Andy Tveekrem, relying on complementary skills without the need to bring in outside investors. When they opened their first venture, Bier Market, in 2005, they faced significant criticism due to the condition of the neighborhood. However their efforts paid off, and today, West 25th Sreet is a thriving destination.

Travis Mlakar

Founded in 1920 by Pauline and Harold Keil, long-time paper merchant Millcraft has sustained customer-centric values for nearly 100 years through three generations of women owners. Now in its fourth generation as a family-owned business, Millcraft is steered by President Travis Mlakar.

Mlakar continues to focus on Millcraft’s legacy of family and community, leading the company into new markets and diversifying capabilities through strategic acquisitions. He drives Millcraft’s commitment to supporting sustainable forest management, adhering to both the Forest Stewardship Council® and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® Chain-of-Custody Standards in providing responsibly sourced paper products.

Millcraft has experienced consistent revenue growth year over year and earned numerous industry recognitions. The company has 250 employees, 17 locations and more than $250 million in revenue.

Dominique Moceanu
Owner and president
Dominique Moceanu
Gymnastics Center

In 1996, Dominique Moceanu became the youngest Olympic gold medalist in U.S. gymnastics history at the age of 14. Since then, she’s become widely known for more than her gymnastics prowess; Moceanu has become a passionate national advocate for a safer gymnastics and youth sports environment, free from abuse.

To build upon this legacy, she opened a state-of-the-art gymnastics facility, Dominique Moceanu Gymnastics Center, in 2018 in Medina. She’s overseen every detail, with a focus on athlete health and safety, as well as joyful celebration of the sport. A place where every family member can enjoy activities ranging from instructional gymnastics and gymnastics camps to yoga, the center is a safe space for young athletes, embodying the motto “Peace. Strength. Balance.”

Bernie Moreno
Bernie Moreno Cos. /

Local car mogul Bernie Moreno has become a well-known advocate of blockchain technology, a digital, decentralized and public ledger for recording transactions — and its potential to aid in the revitalization of Cleveland. With the goal of making the city ground zero for this young, still-emerging technology, Moreno has brought together a collection of Northeast Ohio’s top leadership minds in an initiative called “Blockland.”

This collective seeks to create a technology and innovation ecosystem that would be for blockchain what Silicon Valley was for internet and digital technology — a hub that will attract significant investment, new jobs and new residents to Cleveland. To ensure success, Moreno has united resources under 10 strategic focus groups spanning talent development, business applications, legal systems, research and more.

Fred Ode
Founder and CEO
Foundation Software /

When Fred Ode started Foundation Software in 1985, it was a one-man operation. Today, the fast-growing, family-owned national seller of software and payroll services employs a team of 300 and counting. Recognizing early on the accounting complexities faced by the construction industry, Ode has focused on creating smart, contractor-specific software solutions through both Foundation and sister company

Staying on top of shifts in both the industry and in technology, Ode continues to finetune his signature FOUNDATION construction accounting software solution to meet user needs, even undertaking a complete rewrite at one point in the 1990s. Most recently, he built out Foundation’s Research & Development Department, developing complementary products, features and services that have generated continued growth and development.

John T. Petures Jr.
President and CEO
Akron Community Foundation

When John T. Petures Jr. took the helm of Akron Community Foundation — a permanent philanthropic endowment targeting Summit County residents and Greater Akron — in 2008, the Great Recession dipped the foundation’s assets from nearly $140 million to less than $100 million. However, through smart, strategic planning with his staff and board of directors, Petures not only guided the foundation through the recession but developed new ways to revitalize the community resource to reach record growth.

By overhauling outdated policies and procedures both internally and externally over the past decade, Petures has fostered better relationships with potential donors and existing fund holders. In that time, Akron Community Foundation has nearly doubled the number of charitable funds to 640, growing to $215 million in assets.

Michael Rainer
MISCO Refractometer

Celebrating its 70th anniversary, refractometer solutions provider MISCO is a well-established organization. However, under the leadership of CEO Michael Rainer, the company has maintained the fresh energy and atmosphere of a startup, constantly evolving to stay relevant and innovative within the market.

While the company is singularly focused on offering refractometers, Rainer has overseen research and development to branch into a diverse set of industries and developed refractometry products and services tailored to the unique needs of those industries. Concentrating MISCO on perfecting instrument capabilities to outperform its competition, its Model AQUAR-H2 has been hailed as the Rolls Royce of refractometers, rated by FishLab as the best overall and the most precise on the market. MISCO’s newest refractometer also features innovative IoT capabilities.

Doug Sibila
President and CEO
People Services Inc.

Doug Sibila leads People Services Inc., a network of companies dedicated to providing quality supply chain logistics services and value-added services. Prioritizing acquisitions as the key to People Services’ growth, he’s undertaken a number of them over the past eight years, including an acquisition of Terminal Warehouse that doubled the company’s size.

Strategic buys have expanded People Services’ warehousing and logistic services capabilities across polymers, chemicals, automotive, industrial, consumer goods and, most recently, food-grade storage. They’ve also seen the organization expand into seven states with 42 locations.

With Sibila driving enhanced corporate planning, technology investments and human resource functions across the company, as well as smooth acquisition integrations, People Services has doubled in revenue since 2012 and more than quadrupled from 2009.

John Skory
Regional president
The Illuminating Co.,
A FirstEnergy Co.

John Skory began his career with electric utility provider The Illuminating Co., A FirstEnergy Co., in 1977, washing trucks and reading meters. Over the following four decades, he worked his way up the corporate ladder with passion and a dedication to learning, to become regional president of the organization. A Cleveland kid at heart, Skory has spent seven years in this role, largely focused on developing his Northeast Ohio employees and the community at large.

Internally, Skory has made a significant investment in professional training and continuous improvement initiatives, including a recurring training program for front-line employees who perform hazardous electrical work, as well as team-developed servant leadership training, which has helped union and nonunion leaders hone traits of selfless leadership.

David Sokol
Garland Industries Inc.

David Sokol joined Garland Industries Inc. — a manufacturer and distributor of roofing and building envelope solutions for construction, retrofit and renovation needs in commercial, industrial and public building markets — in 1990, working his way through management positions and contributing to record-setting growth. He was promoted to president in 2004, and he’s since led Garland in a smart merger and acquisition program that has enhanced its manufacturing capacities and expansion into new building maintenance and waterproofing markets.

Sokol focuses on promoting a family atmosphere and providing front-line assistance and support to Garland’s salesforce and the leadership of Garland’s subsidiaries. This growing team consists of more than 1,280 employees generating corporate revenue in excess of $735 million annually.

Alison A. Spitzer
Spitzer Management

The fourth generation of her family to lead Spitzer Management, a network of dealerships selling new and used vehicles, President Alison A. Spitzer is making strategic moves to ensure the business makes it to a fifth generation. Focused on building a team with a common vision and being open to the ever-changing market, she’s made great strides for the organization, reducing turnover and navigating shrinking industry margins.

Spitzer’s efforts have earned her recognition in Cleveland Crain’s 40 under 40, Automotive News 40 under 40 and Automotive News 100 Leading Women lists. She is one of only a handful of women on the retail side of the industry to have been honored in the history of the latter award, which is only given out every five years.

Bill Spohn Sr.
President and CEO
TruTech Tools Ltd.

Established in 2007 by President and CEO Bill Spohn Sr., TrueTech Tools Ltd. is an online distributor of advanced tools and test instruments for technicians serving the HVACR, building performance and weatherization markets. As a digital platform, TrueTech rarely encounters customers in person, so Spohn focuses on providing excellent engagement, training tools and resources through website, podcast and social media channels.

TruTech harnesses the power of the internet to increase customer intimacy and crowdsource ideas to improve its business and those of its vendors, serving as a channel for users to provide feedback to manufacturers on likes, dislikes and suggestions for product improvement. Its smart digital strategy has contributed to multiple years of double-digit growth and receipt of the Inc. 5000 award in 2016 and 2018.

Scott Swaldo
General manager
Gervasi Vineyard

Through a combination of luck and strength of vision, the Gervasi family acquired the nearly abandoned Jabberwocky Tree farm in 2009 and turned it into Gervasi Vineyard, a premier winery and vineyard in Canton. Today, each year the 55-acre estate attracts more than 200,000 visitors looking for a great place to dine, spend a getaway or host an event.

General manager Scott Swaldo, son of owner Ted Swaldo, oversees operations and continued development of the brand, inspired by his family’s Italian roots. Under their joint guidance, Gervasi Vineyard has grown to encompass a winery, three restaurants, indoor and outdoor event venues, luxury overnight suites, a boutique gift shop and, coming soon, a state-of-the-art distillery and coffee house by day, cocktail lounge by night.

Jill Van Auken
Van Auken Akins Architects LLC

Despite the male-dominated nature of the architectural industry, Jill Van Auken founded Van Auken Akins Architects LLC in 1992 with a vision to earn a seat at the table and win projects that are rewarding, as well as have a positive impact on the community. Today, although licensed women architects account for just 20 percent of the profession, Van Auken Akins has built a staff that is 70 percent female.

While she is often the only woman at a project meeting or job site, Van Auken’s hard work and perseverance have allowed her to establish an impressive client list, with 80 percent of clients coming from referral. She also donates her time and services to schools to mentor the next generation.

Kevin R. Weidinger
President and CEO
Great Lakes Fasteners Inc.

Great Lakes Fasteners Inc. has supplied quality production and MRO fasteners to Midwest manufacturers since 1958. The organization has grown largely through strategic acquisitions, particularly after the economy slumped in 2008.

Unlike competitors during that time, President and CEO Kevin R. Weidinger led the company to invest in salespeople and work with manufacturers on process and cost reductions, suggesting less-expensive standard parts and more efficient ways to buy and stock production lines. The organization extended special credit terms to several clients to help them through the financial crisis. These efforts paid off, with Great Lakes Fasteners weathering the storm and benefiting today from a seasoned staff and loyal clients who have rewarded the organization with additional business opportunities and referrals.

Ed Weinfurtner
Great Day Improvements LLC
dba Patio Enclosures
& Stanek Windows

Serial entrepreneur Ed Weinfurtner acquired Great Day Improvements LLC, the exclusive manufacturer and installer of Patio Enclosures® brand sunrooms and screen rooms, and Stanek Windows, in 2014. The organization was experiencing significant financial and operational challenges and suffering from low employee morale.

Weinfurtner came in with a simple strategy to turn the business around: Focus on the needs of the company’s customers and evaluate the organization’s core competencies. Driving continuous improvements backed by new tools to gauge real-time performance and customer satisfaction data, Great Day Improvements has since doubled in revenue size, expanded into nine new markets over the past two years and ranks as one of the Top 25 largest residential remodeling companies in the U.S. by Qualified Remodeler. 

Sonia M. Winner
President and CEO
Cleveland Museum
of Natural History

As president and CEO of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Sonia M. Winner leads the nearly 100-year-old institution’s efforts to leverage philanthropic support and share the impact of science education and research, both locally and globally. Backed by an outstanding team of world-class scientists, researchers and educators, Winner has been recognized by trustees for her effective leadership and strategy to deliver on the museum’s promise to create a more engaging and interactive showcase at the forefront of conservation, science education and scientific discovery.

Winner has made notable strides in talent management and development for the museum, with a passion for nurturing STEM-based careers for women. She oversees the continued modernization of the museum campus, ensuring renovation projects respond to changes in technology, science education and the community.

John Ziss Jr.
Executive vice president
Kurtz Bros. Inc.

John Ziss Jr. is part of the fourth generation of Kurtz family members moving into leadership roles at landscaping supply and delivery company Kurtz Bros. Inc. Over the last decade, he’s contributed to the expansion of the company, building a vision for the future that includes broadening of the company’s products and services offerings, and its reach both regionally and nationally.

As executive vice president, Ziss takes a hands-on approach to leadership, working beside employees to support and encourage them to be the best they can be. He’s also working to implement a continuous improvement model across company operations, products and services to ensure the company is the best it can be. His smart strategies have helped Kurtz Bros. develop into a leader in the waste-to-resource industry in Northeast Ohio. 

Great culture: The foundation of your success

Congratulations from Alliance Solutions Group to all of the 2019 Smart Culture honorees! It is personally rewarding to watch the growth of this community of culture-focused companies we are creating here in Northeast Ohio.

Today’s competitive recruitment environment makes culture more important than ever to attract and retain top talent. It’s arguably the biggest marketing tool for enticing candidates to join your business. It also happens to be fundamental to business success.

Since great culture is an organization’s only sustainable competitive advantage, creating and maintaining that culture has to be a priority. Leadership cultivates the foundation of culture to empower employees to achieve the company mission and realize how vital each of their contributions is to furthering those goals. Maintaining culture, especially through times of growth, requires dedication and focus.

As the leader of Alliance Solutions Group, I’ve made it my personal mission in 2019 to demonstrate the beliefs of the company and reinforce the behaviors that reflect those values. I’m committed to making sure our culture remains the living and breathing entity we can all embody as we grow. Culture can’t be delegated … It must be demonstrated.

As we move into our third year of the Smart Culture Conference, it’s exciting to witness the momentum we’ve created as we all look for more ways to invigorate and innovate. I’m excited to share these examples with you as we all know that GREAT cultures encourage employees to work toward becoming the best versions of themselves.

Aaron Grossman, CEO
Alliance Solutions Group




Register today for the 2019 Smart Culture Conference, presented by Alliance Solutions Group, featuring the 2019 Smart Culture Awards, on March 14, 2019 at LaCentre Conference & Banquet Facility, to celebrate great cultures and provide positive learning opportunities for those looking to enhance their organizational culture. Speakers will include Tony Mercurio, President & CEO, National Interstate Insurance and Jean Bourgeois, President, Excelas, LLC.

We will also be announcing the 2019 Buffalo Award winner, presented by CultureShoc.


ASI Environmental Services
Krista Gesaman, CEO

ASI Environmental Services provides quality products and services for liquid waste management. In addition to its reputation for unparalleled service standards, integrity and a commitment to earning the trust of every customer, ASI prides itself on its experienced, well-trained staff. This team is united under a common goal: to protect the health of the nation, one satisfied client at a time.

Rejecting the term “employee” altogether, ASI’s team members realize it takes smart, hard-working, creative and diverse people to help its customers and environment. As such, CEO Krista Gesaman has built ASI’s culture on appreciation of the different talents that each individual brings to the organization.

Whether team members are considered a “service professional” or “scheduling professional,” each is trained and certified to be a leader in their position within the environmental services industry. To maintain a high degree of cutting-edge professionalism, ASI hosts weekly team trainings spanning industry developments, technical skills and safety protocols. Team members also participate in off-site training seminars.

Additionally, ASI provides positive, supportive team-building activities throughout the year such as birthday celebrations, monthly food holidays, quarterly community service activities, team competitions and more. Whether creating a float for the “Canal Days” parade, collecting food and clothing for the Canal Fulton S.A.L.T. box, or sponsoring a fourth-grade poster contest, these team activities help promote a fun, cohesive culture.

Bravo Wellness
Jim Pshock, founder and CEO

Bravo Wellness is a data-driven corporate wellness provider that empowers employers and health plans to achieve their most challenging wellness goals: proven reduction in health risks, measurable decreases in the benefits cost trends and strengthened overall team performance and culture. Bravo leadership, helmed by Founder and CEO Jim Pshock, applies this expertise within, intentionally striving to build a company where people want to work.

The company’s efforts begin with the hiring process, when candidates and new hires receive what Bravo calls “red carpet” treatment. A strategic onboarding program ensures an employee’s first week with Bravo is positive, productive and ultimately enjoyable. They receive a fun welcome box, are assigned a Bravo Buddy to help them get acquainted with the company and their role, and go through Bravo 101, a consistent overview of what Bravo does, who it serves and what leadership expects of every employee.

Pshock gets directly involved with this program, leading a session on the history of Bravo. His team also gathers HR surveys at various intervals and hosts a special session and scavenger hunt to ensure new hires have the opportunity to ask follow-up questions in a comfortable environment.

Bravo also hosts ongoing trainings and career development sessions to help retain top talent, provides employee recognition programs and is in the process of rolling out standing desks for all staff.

Cardinal Credit Union
Christine Blake, president and CEO

Cardinal Credit Union has been providing financial services to employees of companies and organizations in the Mentor/Cleveland area for more than half a century. A not-for-profit financial cooperative owned by its members, Cardinal offers a broad range of banking products and services, including checking accounts, CDs, credit cards, auto loans, debt-consolidation loans, mortgages and more.

President and CEO Christine Blake leads the company in building a strong culture that encourages and supports teamwork, integrity, mutual respect and accountability — Cardinal’s core values. The company’s ultimate goal is to provide an inclusive, collaborative and engaging workplace, where staff members are challenged to do their best and ideas are supported.

Offering opportunities for personal growth and professional development, Cardinal promotes its own strategic growth through an intensive management training program that encourages employees to think outside the box in providing unique solutions for financial challenges. It further supports staff through 401(k) plans, robust insurance options, alternative work arrangements, paid vacation, educational and continuing educational assistance and more.

Additionally, employees are recognized and highly compensated for referrals, sales production and service excellence. Cardinal also provides opportunities for community involvement and youth instruction. These efforts help the credit union attract and retain educated, hard-working employees and position the company as a community leader benefiting individuals and the Ohio community at large.

Cleveland Clinic
Dr. Tomislav Mihaljevic, president and CEO

Cleveland Clinic is an integrated health care system consisting of 12 regional hospitals, 19 family health centers and locations in Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Canada, Abu Dhabi and London. Led by President and CEO Dr. Tomislav Mihaljevic, it’s also the second-largest employer in Ohio, with more than 53,000 caregivers.

All Cleveland Clinic employees — from the shuttle bus driver to the CEO — identify themselves as “caregivers.” United under the belief that every life deserves world-class care, this collective team is devoted to caring for each other as well as patients, resulting in a culture in which staff members are valued, nurtured and encouraged to achieve their very best. 

Among the hospital’s top priorities are diversity and inclusion, with the aim of building a workforce that represents the patients and communities it serves. Also key are clear communication, transparency and employee recognition through daily intranet updates, ONE HR Workday and Portal, weekly e-blasts, monthly leadership meetings, celebrations and awards.

By supporting diverse specialists operating together as a unit, Cleveland Clinic has developed into one of the most efficient and innovative medical centers in the world. Its caregivers have made some of the most important breakthroughs in medicine, and their research is leading the way in tissue regeneration, the genetics of heart disease and breast cancer, and large-scale clinical trials of cardiovascular medicines.

Compass Packaging
Phil Rath, founder and president

Compass Packaging is a corrugated sheet plant that manufactures shipping containers and point of purchase displays. Established in 2003 with five employees, the family-owned business has grown to operate three production shifts supported by 75 team members.

Founder and President Phil Rath has grown the company with a focus on creating a safe and energetic work environment for its employees, while producing a quality product and providing quality service for its customers at a fair price. At the core of this effort is the belief that if you treat team members and vendors fairly, care of customers comes easily.

Compass Packaging management prides itself on providing excellent benefits, including a 50 percent company match on health and medical insurance, 100 percent covered disability, life and accidental death insurance, a partial 401(k) match with profit-sharing potential and a hefty turkey at Thanksgiving for all employees.

The company also engages its employees in an annual town hall meeting to review Compass Packaging’s core values and assess whether it’s being managed in accordance with them, ensuring everyone has a voice in the process.

Finally, the company also fosters fun within its community of Mantua with events like cookouts and paid movie days, as well as community engagement through the sponsorship of education scholarships, a police K9 training program and local youth sports teams.

Concept Services Ltd.
Dan Harsh, president and co-owner

Concept Services Ltd. is a leader in new business development and lead generation. Its diverse range of services includes outbound lead generation, inbound lead management, Salesforce design, implementation and support, data services, customer service and customer satisfaction.

Led by President and co-owner Dan Harsh, Concept has maintained the same passion for its employees as it did starting out as a small, family-owned business in 2002. Grown to employ a staff of 120 associates, the “Concept Culture” revolves around a workspace that encourages employees to take control of their careers.

Key to this focus has been cohesive communication. As the company has grown, Harsh invested in adding Chatter to its SalesForce interface, enabling employees to communicate with one another and with the whole company through a single platform. He also moved Concept’s operations last year from three separate campuses to a single 26,000-square-foot facility. Designed with open communal spaces and quiet private spaces, a game room and outdoor walking path, the new location promotes both productivity and relaxation to support the hard work and dedication Concept team members put in each day.

The company also invests in once-a-month professional development training sessions, excellent benefits, fun engagement activities like a holiday coffee and hot cocoa bar, and heartfelt thank yous to further ensure that employees feel happy and appreciated in their roles.

Brett Lindsey, president and CEO

Fiber network services provider Everstream defines its culture by one attribute: transparency. Driving transparency both in communication and business dealings has enabled President and CEO Brett Lindsey to create a culture where team members want to work.

Promoting an open door policy at all levels of the business, Lindsey makes this focus clear from the very start, conducting one-on-one meetings with all new employees after 30 days of employment. From there, the company keeps employees apprised of goings-on through quarterly newsletters, monthly team meetings and a digital in-kitchen display showcasing routine updates.

Should employees have concerns, wants or needs in response to these updates, they can communicate directly with Everstream’s dedicated Culture Committee. Ideas can also be submitted anonymously through regular surveys or an idea box.

Investing in developing and rewarding team members is also critical to Everstream’s culture. The company’s human resources team hosts a Leadership Training Series with sessions covering topics including basics of leadership, coaching and feedback, and generational differences in the workplace. It also recognizes achievers through social media features, sales incentive programs and a monthly, quarterly and annual peer-driven employee recognition program, with rewards including an all-expenses paid trip.

Well-positioned to grow and succeed in their current roles, Everstream team members have a personal stake in the business as well, thanks to the company’s profit-sharing plan.

ExactCare Pharmacy
Dale Wollschleger, R.Ph., president and CEO

Providing pharmacy care for patients on multiple medications — including med reconciliation, refill management, presorted packaging and home delivery — ExactCare Pharmacy inspires its employees with a value proposition that is reflective of the organization’s dedication to patient care. Led by President and CEO Dale Wollschleger, R.Ph., this value proposition is detailed in ExactCare’s Patient Promise and Core Values, which focus on putting patients first.

Created specifically to drive the company’s culture and serve as a guide for everything it does, employee ownership of this message is driven by internal communications, training materials, office décor and more highlighting the Patient Promise in the first person, as “I am the Patient Promise.”

ExactCare Pharmacy’s Talent Acquisition team begins referencing the Patient Promise and Core Values at the beginning, from potential candidates’ initial phone screening to ensure they would be a good fit for the pharmacy’s culture. This focus is then consistently reinforced during the orientation and onboarding process, through individualized annual reviews and within an internal employee communication called the Daily Dose.

Every employee has the opportunity to submit content for the Daily Dose to highlight a co-worker or supervisor for going above and beyond. This peer-to-peer recognition, which also highlights birthdays and anniversaries, is an important complement to the many ways that employees can be acknowledged by the company and their supervisors, such as the Patient Promise Award and a recognition wall.

Excelas LLC
Jean Bourgeois, founder and president

Excelas LLC is a national provider of medical record analysis and related services that help health care providers effectively respond to claims and litigation. However, while it emphasizes professional excellence in support of these services among its staff, Founder and President Jean Bourgeois also recognizes that employees have priorities and demands beyond their careers.

That’s why she drives a holistic approach to caring for Excelas employees. This includes supporting five employee-led teams focused on career well-being, physical well-being, social well-being, financial well-being and community well-being. Each team coordinates activities and volunteer opportunities to contribute to a culture of total well-being for all employees.

Excelas staff also has a number of channels to engage with senior management to effect change within the organization, including a monthly suggestion box, quarterly coffee chats with the CEO and staff brainstorming sessions.

Employees also enjoy great flexibility as to where and when they complete assigned projects, with 75 percent working exclusively from home. Team members also take advantage of “convenience time,” an innovative, award-winning program in which they can alter their standard work schedule for up to eight weeks with no impact on benefits in order to meet personal needs.

The Excelas leadership team’s focus on creating an engaged and flexible culture has resulted in a turnover rate of less than 5 percent each of the past seven years.

Fiorilli Construction Inc.
Carmen Fiorilli, president

Fiorilli Construction Inc.’s pursuit of a desirable culture begins with one thing — attracting the right people for the right seats, says President Carmen Fiorilli. That’s why, when considering potential employees, management looks beyond qualifications to perform job-related tasks. It actively seeks individuals who embody the company’s core values, and a commitment to the ideals of its core focus on Delivering Construction Excellence (DCE) through “Building Synergistic Authentic Relationships.™”

Fiorilli Construction’s value around Building Synergistic Authentic Relationships™ emphasizes the importance of relationships and the idea of giving before receiving. This is a mutual commitment, with employees putting the greater good of the team ahead of self-interest, while in return, the company invests in each individual.

As such, and understanding that construction is a tough business that places many demands on team members’ time and attention, Fiorilli Construction provides employees with development and wellness programs, charitable activity initiatives, quarterly reviews and a flexible, remote-friendly work schedule to help alleviate pressure.

Management also incorporates convenience and fun into the workday, with perks that include a dry cleaning service coordinated directly from the office, bring your dog to work days, chair massages, potlucks, giveaways and games. Employees are encouraged to schedule time for monthly individual “clarity breaks,” as well, to review their plans or think strategically and refocus on their goals, ultimately helping the company to Deliver Construction Excellence.

Flack Global Metals
Jeremy Flack, CEO

Helmed by CEO Jeremy Flack, Flack Global Metals (FGM) fulfills supply chains for OEMs using flat rolled steel, aluminum and stainless. Flack leads the company in the disciplined pursuit of excellence, challenging his team’s abilities, expectations, biases and the status quo every day.

This culture of excellence is established through the clearly defined core values of Transparency, Validation, Affinity for Risk, Relentless Learning, Thoughtful Disagreement and Persistence/Resilience. FGM employees are encouraged to take risks and disagree. They are recognized for their efforts, but also called out for inaction. Failures happen and mistakes are made, but they are looked upon as a natural part of the process and opportunities for growth.

Ultimately, the success of a culture that embraces risk-taking and thoughtful disagreement to achieve innovation and success, is that communication around resulting conflict is focused on the issues. Management doesn’t make it personal, always assume positive intent with its team and steering in constructive directions.

Every employee collaborates directly with senior leadership through annual SPEAK! Meetings, an approach that guides them in understanding their work and communication styles, their strengths and weaknesses, to objectively evaluate performance and determine their best path forward.

FGM also facilitates open, teamwide communication across geographies through Avaya video meetings, the Slack app and a proprietary app called “MyFlack” that acts as a repository for important information, including feedback polls and company announcements.

Foundation Software
Fred Ode, chairman and CEO

Fast-growing Foundation Software, a family-owned national seller of software and payroll services based in Strongsville, employs just under 300 people and counting. While exciting, the challenge of rapid growth is that the corporate culture of family focus and community can be difficult to maintain.

That’s why Chairman and CEO Fred Ode has focused on consistent, scalable strategies to take care of his employees. He believes that making sure employees have the resources they need to live a happy and healthy life, both inside and outside of work, ensures that they, in turn, will take care of Foundation’s clients.

Rewards are vital to this vision. Ode hosts monthly and annual employee appreciation events — such as themed lunches, laser tag parties and chili cook-offs — and provides training opportunities. He also provides wellness-based initiatives, including on-site gym spaces, free personal training and fitness classes, prize-based corporate wellness challenges and 100 percent subsidized costs for offsite wellness programs, such as memberships to the local recreation center and Weight Watchers.

Additionally, Foundation regularly gives away hundreds of tickets to professional Cleveland sports games and outdoor concerts, giving employees the opportunity to interact with the Cleveland scene.

Ultimately, the unique community built within Foundation, combined with Ode’s passions for helping others develop their skills and rewarding their success, has created a place where employees want to go to work.

Group Management Services
Mike Kahoe, president

Mike Kahoe, president of Group Management Services (GMS), a professional employer organization and third-party administrator, credits the company’s positive culture as the main driver behind its growth and success. He’s build this positive environment through professional development strategies and employee reward programs designed to ensure that associates thrive.

Through GMS, employees can obtain support to further their education academically or through professional certifications, including a tuition reimbursement program. Management provides internal training, tools and resources, as well, including a proprietary sales training program that has helped promote consistency across company locations.

GMS celebrates its employees’ success in many ways, from organizing milestone anniversary events to awarding prizes in a quarterly, team-based brainstorm competition called GMS Duel. The company also provides incentive-based quarterly wellness initiatives and hosts lunches, holiday parties and an annual chili cook-off to bring team members together.

Since moving to a new headquarters space last year to accommodate his growing team, Kahoe has invested in an on-site gym, yoga studio, meditation room, locker room and lounge area for employees to get away from their desks and socialize. When they are at their desks, he’s outfitted the modern spaces with state-of-the-art technology and other resources for efficient collaboration. 

By providing an environment where GFS employees can grow and thrive, Kahoe has, by extension, helped his business, and ultimately his clients, thrive.

Bill Priemer, president and CEO

Hyland is the developer of the enterprise content management and process management software suite called OnBase. Under the leadership of President and CEO Bill Priemer, the company has embraced a mission to help customers and partners — and its employees — exceed their potential. As such, it has created a culture that prioritizes a healthy work-life balance and ensures employees are treated like family.

To facilitate such a culture, Hyland invests in both personal and professional team member development. Partnering with their managers to strategically guide and plan their career path, associates have access to company-provided resources such as a robust Hyland Career Map tool, role-based learning plans, mentoring and diversity resource groups and programs. Hyland also provides for employees personally with onsite wellness, daycare, dining, salon and fitness services, and offers convenience and entertainment perks such as auto care, dry cleaning, event tickets and area discounts.

While such offerings help support and motivate employees on the front end, Hyland prioritizes employee rewards and recognition for a job well done, too. The company provides milestone recognition, “Player of the Week” shoutouts and prizes, profit-sharing opportunities and an annual Employee Appreciation Day, among other initiatives.

By providing an environment where team members like to come to work, Priemer and his team have created a supportive workplace that produces better results for Hyland employees and customers alike.

Sam Falletta, CEO

Incept’s culture is driven by a commitment to its core purpose — to build clients, partners and employees up into the best possible version of themselves. To achieve this, Sam Falletta — CEO of the multichannel contact center — has not only defined six guiding values for his staff, but also 33 behaviors that describe the daily practices that make this culture come to life.

First on this list is the foundational behavior of self-awareness. As such, Incept empowers its team members with skills and resources to better manage their personal and professional development, including extended training, peer-to-peer support groups, internal communication and productivity apps, a transparent employee intranet and bimonthly evaluations. 

Incept also makes big bets on great people early by rewarding exceptional performance and talent with additional opportunities and perks, including an employee of the month initiative, gift card incentives for working extra hours and PTO rewards for perfect attendance. 

Equipping employees to be successful and rewarding them when success is achieved is particularly critical for Incept, as its pay-for-performance pricing model is designed so the company is only compensated for delivering the desired results for its client. To accept this level of risk, Incept consistently focuses on recruiting, training and retaining the best employees.

National Interstate Insurance
Tony Mercurio, president and CEO

As a leading specialty property and casualty insurance holding company, National Interstate Insurance offer more than 30 insurance products and employs an ever-growing staff to support them. Led by Tony Mercurio, president and CEO, company leadership has made investments over the past several years to support its staff in return.

Realizing the need for a third building on its Richfield Campus, Mercurio and his team designed a new structure. The newly completed headquarters dedicates nearly two floors to flexible, collaborative spaces ranging from spacious meeting rooms with state-of-the-art technology to smaller, more casual areas and common locations.

The building also features a fitness room with the latest in exercise equipment, a studio for yoga and other workouts, an activity room with foosball and ping-pong tables, shuffleboard, a bowling machine and board games, a mothers’ room for new moms returning to work, a café with gathering spaces and a coffee shop serving Starbucks®  products. Additionally, two enclosed pedestrian walkways were added to the campus to link all three National Interstate buildings, allowing employees to travel between buildings without going outside.

Valuing transparent communication at all levels of the organization, National Interstate management keeps employees informed on company news, initiatives and employee achievements through its magazine, Extra Mile, expanding social media campaigns and by Mercurio attending monthly all-employee breakfast meetings.

Rock The House
Matt Radicelli, founder and CEO

Rock The House is known in the live events industry for its innovative production elements, the latest entertainment options and a range of equipment and services. The entertainment group is dedicated to providing meaningful experiences between people. Externally, that means partnering with clients to bring their event vision to life; internally, it’s all about teamwork and passion to achieve something extraordinary together.

To achieve this, RTH Founder and CEO Matt Radicelli has built a culture around “ROCKstar” employees who embody leadership, innovation, positivity and accountability, among other core values. These values are consistently reinforced through open communication, advanced training and achievement-based incentives.

Associates communicate with supervisors directly through regularly scheduled meetings to voice feedback, build and maintain meaningful connections, and grow personally and professionally. They also engage in ongoing advanced training throughout the year, as well as team building and education sessions at the company’s annual All-Staff Meeting.

Employees are also recognized and rewarded for their successes. RTH not only provides staff with excellent benefits and opportunities for growth and support, it hosts a variety of fun appreciation events to alleviate stress, ranging from yoga classes and taco nights to movie days and impromptu cookouts.

By building a core team of ROCKstars who are invested, present and empowered on a daily basis, RTH has created a culture of excellence where employees are excited to do their jobs.

Sgt. Clean’s Car Wash
Brian Krusz, co-owner

Co-owned by Brian Krusz, Sgt. Clean’s Car Wash aims to be the most preferred and referred car wash in the Cleveland area. Yet as the company quickly grows toward this goal, management has developed a secondary, internal aim: To promote its team from within.

To achieve this, leadership approaches hiring interviews with the goal of talking applicants out of working for the company. Providing a holistic understanding of what will be asked of candidates, including the nonglamorous parts of their jobs, the approach may result in a slightly lower hire rate. But it also results in a significantly higher retention rate, and higher-quality hires.

Because all team members are vetted for the potential to take on more responsibility in the future, Sgt. Clean’s Car Wash is easily able to meet its goal of promoting from within. Management grooms these associates by financing advanced leadership courses through Skills Path, hosting a mentor program and new “Leader in Training” program, and holding ongoing monthly summits for both the sales team and site leaders.

Sgt. Clean’s Car Wash also incentivizes associates with above-average compensation, including some salaried positions and benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans. It also offers opportunities for monthly performance-based bonuses. With engaged team members who have skin in the game, the company continues to grow in revenue and expand into new markets.

The O’Neill Group
Patrick O’Neill, president and CEO

The O’Neill Group, an insurance and risk management services provider, has built a successful foundation upon the intentionality of its workplace culture. Recognizing that culture has an enormous impact on the performance of the company’s staff, President and CEO Patrick O’Neill has led the development and implementation of a strategic culture plan referred to as The O’Neill Way.

This plan is composed of 30 fundamental behaviors, operating on an eight-step framework. It serves as a roadmap to guide team members in defining and ritualizing these behaviors, hiring and retaining cultural fits, coaching and teaching on the fundamentals, leading by example and, most important, being accountable to what The O’Neill Group is, what it does and why.

New hires are selected because they fit The O’Neill Way. It’s taught through initial training, quarterly meetings with leadership through their first year and annual performance reviews. The plan is also reinforced through ongoing internal and external communications including weekly emails focusing on a fundamental, discussions of the weekly fundamental at the start of the week in both internal and external meetings, fundamental flip charts serving as visual reminders at each desk and Way Cards that can be taken as reminders to client, prospect and carrier meetings.

By prioritizing a cultural fit over and above traditional qualifications, The O’Neill Group has seen positive trends in employee hiring, retention and performance.

Jodi Berg, president and CEO

High-performance blender company Vitamix has grown significantly over the past 98 years. As a result, President and CEO Jodi Berg recently undertook a mission to redefine and recommit to the family-owned business’s roots. She engaged employees at all levels to determine why they loved working for Vitamix, and what they wouldn’t want to see the organization lose as it grows.

The result is the Vitamix CORE, encompassing its mission, purpose, values, corporate edge, guiding principles and business objectives. The central values that emerged are family, customer quality, integrity and teamwork, supported by dedicated leadership, openness to change and a commitment to personal growth. The CORE also includes Vitamix’s purpose of liberating and nourishing a zest for life, and its mission, to create relationships for life by designing, developing and producing the world’s best-performing and most reliable blending solutions, both of which are focused on people, not sales.

Providing a roadmap for leadership and employees alike, this CORE is discussed with potential candidates to ensure consistent alignment with Vitamix’s culture as the company continues to grow. It is then communicated through the onboarding process and reinforced with pocket-sized CORE cards, ongoing trainings and mentorship, and annual performance reviews.

Recently, Vitamix also implemented “CORE Ambassadors,” an interdepartmental group that meets monthly to find ways to drive home this vision with employees through announcements, special recognition and rewards programs and volunteer opportunities.

Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2017 Northeast Ohio

An entrepreneur is someone who bounds into the unknown, creating the future. When we first honored four forward-thinking entrepreneurs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1986, we had only just begun to recognize the forward thinking that is the hallmark of American business. Now, Entrepreneur Of The Year® reaches across the country to encompass nearly 10,000 distinguished U.S. alumni celebrated in 25 U.S. regional programs. We also extend to 145 cities and 60 countries worldwide.

We’ve come together to celebrate those dynamic entrepreneurs who are propelling forward towards a brighter future for us all.  They are visionaries who launch and reimagine businesses, employ millions and endow their communities, leaving legacies of accomplishment and enrichment while setting the pace for generations of entrepreneurs to come.


Craig Glazier
Partner & Entrepreneur Of The Year® Co-Director




Dan Tompkins
Partner & Entrepreneur Of The Year® Co-Director





REAL ESTATE, HOSPITALITY & CONSTRUCTION  (WINNERS) Steve Kimmelman and David Conwill, Redwood Living, Inc. | (FINALIST) Matt Fish, Melt Bar and Grilled |  (FINALIST)  Ariane Kirkpatrick, The AKA Team

SERVICES   (WINNERS) John Nottingham and John Spirk Nottingham Spirk | (FINALIST) Daniel Richards, TestOil | (FINALIST)  Ed Taylor, Technical Assurance, Inc. | (FINALIST)  Karl Warnke, The Davey Tree Expert Co.  

MANUFACTURING & DISTRIBUTION  (WINNER) Michael Jarrett, Jarrett Logistics Systems |  (FINALIST) Jeremy Flack, Flack Global Metals  (FINALIST) Amy Bircher, MMI Textiles  

FAMILY BUSINESS  (WINNER)  Vic DiGeronimo, Jr., Independence Excavating, Inc. |  (FINALIST)  Michael Merritt, MERRITT |  (FINALIST)  Vincent LoSchiavo, Antonio’s Pizza/LoSchiavo Restaurant Group  

RETAIL & CONSUMER PRODUCTS  (WINNER)  Matt Kaulig, Leaf Filter North, Inc. |  (FINALIST) G.B. Pillai, Wild Republic | (FINALISTS) Phillip and Jackie Wachter, Fount LLC  

FINANCIAL SERVICES  (WINNERS)  Ned Huffman and Deborah Rogan, Bellwether Enterprise/Real Estate Capital, LLC |  (FINALIST) Kelly Price, National Automotive Experts/NWAN | (FINALIST) Dave O’Brien, Risk International Services, Inc.  

IT SOFTWARE & SERVICES  (WINNER)  Brett Lindsey, Everstream |  (FINALIST) Daniel Anstandig, Futuri Media | (FINALIST) Fred Ode, Foundation Software  

COMMUNITY IMPACT  (WINNER)  Ken Babby, Akron RubberDucks |  (FINALIST) Brian Zimmerman, Cleveland Metroparks | (FINALIST) Joe Matejka, Jr., Custom Fundraising Solutions, LLC  


Here are the 2017 Entrepreneurs Of The Year® for Northeast Ohio


Real Estate, Hospitality & Construction


Steve Kimmelman
David Conwill
Redwood Living, Inc.

Nominated by: David Ferguson, Merrill Corporation

As an apartment dweller in his early years, Steve Kimmelman became familiar with some of the burdens of living in an apartment building. He realized that most renters are not happy with their apartments, which are typically designed to maximize density and profit for developers, not provide livability for the residents. In 1991, with the help of a few strategic investors, Kimmelman formed Kimmelman and Co.

He began by purchasing and managing five rental communities in Northeast Ohio. In order to learn as much as possible about the wants and needs of his tenants, he lived in one of the communities. Unlike traditional vertical apartment living, Kimmelman wanted to build apartment communities that were more like neighborhoods of single-family homes. This meant providing residents with private garages, personal patios and most importantly, single-story units free from noisy upstairs or downstairs neighbors.

During a vacation in the Redwood forests, he was struck by the peace and tranquility of the trees and the natural surroundings. He felt it was the perfect embodiment of the apartment communities he was developing. Thus, Redwood Living, Inc. became the new name of his business.

In 2002, Kimmelman began to regularly cross paths with David Conwill, who had gained quite a bit of experience in real estate. Conwill felt a connection to Kimmelman and his vision to create a revolutionary apartment living experience. From 2002 to 2008, the duo partnered together on various deals and Redwood Living experienced slow, smart and disciplined growth to set the stage for the future.

With Kimmelman serving as the company’s CEO and Conwill as its president, Redwood has become a fully integrated real estate development and management company specializing in single-story, suburban apartment communities that have the essence of those neighborhoods that Kimmelman had yearned for years earlier. The company is in six states and is expanding rapidly.

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Matt Fish
President and Owner
Melt Bar and Grilled

Nominated by: Mark Scott, Smart Business Magazine

After getting his culinary degree, Matt Fish spent 15 years honing his skills in Cleveland restaurants. Through hard work, dedication and a gift from his father, he realized his dream in 2006, opening of the first Melt Bar and Grilled in Lakewood.

The gourmet grilled cheese sandwich restaurant prides itself on creative additions to the household sandwich and an extensive craft beer selection. Fish, who is the president and owner, further distinguishes Melt by focusing on the atmosphere — each location has unique decorations designed by Fish — as well as wait staff personality and ability.

Melt now has more than 10 restaurants, including two contracted locations at Northeast Ohio stadiums. It also entered the Columbus market, which added customer and brand awareness challenges.
What made Fish fall in love with the industry was the constant challenge to remain ahead of the curve and growing while still remaining profitable.

A few years ago, Fish realized Melt was growing too rapidly. Some locations had become less profitable. Fish had to focus on budgeting and standardizing labor, food and beverage costs. After many brainstorm sessions, Fish invested in an industrial kitchen at the corporate headquarters, which is now used for many food preparation tasks.

Because of his humble beginnings and willingness to help out at a short-staffed location, Fish has never struggled to connect with his employees. Fish hires based on competency/personality rather than looks or style. This was unique at the time as most tattooed and pierced individuals were asked to cover them up. Many of the initial group who started in Lakewood have continued to work for Melt in various roles, including as executives.

While assessing opportunities to expand into new markets like Detroit and Pittsburgh, Fish recently began hiring externally for additional executives to complement the existing team, bringing fresh perspective and diverse experiences.

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Ariane Kirkpatrick
President and Owner
The AKA Team

Nominated by: William Gary, Cuyahoga Community College

Growing up on East 100th Street and Cedar Road in Cleveland, Ariane Kirkpatrick was surrounded by several locally owned mom-and-pop establishments, from grocery stores to seafood markets, all owned by people of the black community. As a black woman growing up in this neighborhood, Kirkpatrick was filled with an overwhelming sense of community pride and entrepreneurial spirit, and wanted to become an entrepreneur and own her own business.

Shortly after graduating from Warrensville Heights High School, Kirkpatrick started her first business venture. She used her graphic design experience to start a Kinko’s-type store and used her initials to call it A Better Kopy. The business didn’t work out, but it provided her with valuable networking and connections to get into residential construction, where she did a lot of the hard labor herself.

Kirkpatrick spent time working for the city of Warrensville Heights first as a home inspector, then as the city’s chief of housing. In 2008, she was ready to start her own company. Along with her sister and brother-in-law, she started a commercial cleaning business that is still successful today.

A year later, she launched The AKA Team, a full-service firm that provides construction management, self-performance construction, commercial waterproofing and commercial cleaning. AKA is an acronym for Kirkpatrick and her two sons, Ali and Kristopher. Although college educated with successful jobs, both sons are taking part in project management courses with the end goal of coming back to Cleveland to take over the family business. Kirkpatrick, AKA’s president and owner, has already begun preparing her sons to carry on the legacy she has built.

Family is the most important thing in Kirkpatrick’s life. Her grandfather, who she never met, owned a barbershop and Kirkpatrick took it as a sign that she was destined to lead a business of her own.

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John Nottingham and John Spirk
Nottingham Spirk

Nomimated by: Brian Feliciano, Oswald Companies

Nottingham Spirk thrives on creativity and looks for employees who bring multiple areas of expertise to their work. Customer research, branding, engineering, rapid prototyping, 3-D design aesthetics and manufacturing sourcing are just a few of the skills that enable the company to take products from concept to commercialization in an average of 12 months. This is markedly faster than the normal product development period of 18-36 months.

Founded by John Nottingham and John Spirk more than 45 years ago, Nottingham Spirk employs more than 50 professionals. The co-presidents were not originally from Northeast Ohio, nor did they have any family contacts to help pave the way for their business. They simply followed a passion to innovate and help others do the same.

Over the years, the business partners have endeavored to continually reinvent themselves, the company and their client/partner ventures. Nottingham Spirk has trademarked the term “vertical innovation,” which refers to the company’s product development process and real-time innovation centered on owning the innovation process from ideation through product launch.

Company leadership sees its people as the greatest strength of the business. Nottingham and Spirk believe it is better to empower their people to create their own vision and share it with management. Their perception is that if they were to meddle too much within specific projects assigned to their team, workers would get frustrated with the constant oversight and leave.

Projects are completed concurrently, which is meant to ensure that at any given point in time, employees will have worked on a successful project. Management motivates team members through a profit-sharing program that is tied to the performance of the company and also the individual performance of employees. The company’s effective talent management is validated by an average employee retention rate of 16 years and a project success rate of 86 percent.

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Daniel Richards
President and CEO

Nominated by: Elena K’Meyer, PNC Bank

While working as a consultant, Daniel Richards, who’d started several companies already, connected machine downtime at major plants with predicative maintenance. Richards quit his job and put his savings toward purchasing equipment to apply a new niche technology that assisted with oil analysis. Thus, TestOil began.

TestOil provides routine and specialized testing of lubricants used at power generation, chemical processing and other 24/7 industrial facilities.

However, the company that created and sold him the instrumentation also launched an oil analysis program and sued Richards. So, Richards began manufacturing the instrumentation and testing materials himself. Within a few years, he held more than 50 percent market share.

One attribute of Richards’ leadership as president and CEO is persistent execution. Same-day turnaround of oil analysis reports is a leading differentiator. Additionally, operators address 100 percent of customer questions upon the initial phone call. These both contribute to a nearly nonexistent customer attrition rate.

Richards puts employees as priority No. 1. Many of the company’s employees started at entry level and current employees often refer new hires. Employees also review the job applications and vote on 20 finalists. At a group interview session, the employees select two prospects to supplement Richards’ first choice. The three potential hires then go through one-on-one interviews.

On a quarterly basis, Richards hosts an off-site meeting where employees present ideas and commit to projects to help improve the company. This not only adds value, employees become invested in the business and expand their entrepreneurial/leadership experience.

One remarkable item about Richards is that TestOil isn’t his only business. He founded several nonprofits; piloted a training course for employees and others to become certified lubrication and oil analysts; started a technology company; and is the CEO of a leading supplier of custom industrial chemicals.

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Ed Taylor
Visionary and Founder
Technical Assurance, Inc.

Nominated by: Christin Miller, Technical Assurance Inc.

Ed Taylor’s family has been in the construction business for generations. However, after running a branch of his father’s business at a young age, Taylor knew it wasn’t right for him. He left the business and reflected on ideas that excited him.

Taylor took a chance on a new business — enclosure consulting. The company, Technical Assurance, Inc., uses a team of engineers, technical professionals and consultants to help customers manage their existing buildings, managing national multi-facility building enclosure programs of varying size, geography and complexity. Areas of expertise include roofs, facades, doors, windows and skylights, in addition to below-grade structures, parking and hardscape pavements, and multi-level parking structures.

Taylor, the company’s visionary and founder, has built a business that defines employee growth and development as a measure of success. As part of Technical Assurance’s semi-annual review process, Taylor asked an employee to share his career goal. With coaxing, Taylor learned that his true goal was to provide his family with enough income so that his wife could stay home to raise their children full time. He sat down with this employee and mapped out a two-year path to achieve this goal.

Once the company’s core values were established, a few employees left on their own accord, leaving behind a community of employees with common goals and values. No employee has ever been laid off. Further, all employees have received a bonus each year since the company started. Organizationally, Technical Assurance connects with veterans as an employer and supporter. Providing jobs, donations, company-wide fund raising challenges and the encouragement of employee volunteerism keeps veterans’ causes at the forefront of Taylor’s philanthropic efforts.

Karl Warnke
Chairman and CEO
The Davey Tree Expert Co.

Nominated by: Joe Moran, PNC Bank

Karl Warnke’s mindset from his early days at The Davey Tree Expert Co. was centered on improving the quality of life for others through the business. During the interview for his first management position, Warnke was asked how he could continue to build his influence. His response was that he wanted to be on the company’s board of directors. He was driven by a feeling of responsibility to do whatever he could to help the company, regardless of his position. Today, he serves as the company’s chairman and CEO.

The Davey family was the originator of arbor culture dating back to 1880. Davey was the first company of its kind in the U.S. and Warnke sees that there is a sense of pride that goes along with that history. At the same time, Davey Tree has evolved to incorporate the latest tools and technologies into its work. The company utilizes a technical services group as a think tank of innovation for new products and services, and has nurtured a number of ideas in the last 18 years. This includes a patented, no-phosphorus fertilizer to take care of lakes and a patented tree growth retardant.

The group has turned technical services into a profit center, providing technical support and offsetting overhead costs by developing partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service. Davey developed a product called I-Tree, allowing people to see how much carbon a tree absorbs, how much runoff it stops and other technical information working in conjunction with the agency. Davey also manages the process of innovation by engaging large companies to implement sustainable solutions within the world’s largest industries. Each year, the company provides a corporate responsibility report to show the connection between its services and the impact on employees, clients, the natural environment and communities.

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Manufacturing & Distribution


Michael Jarrett
Jarrett Logistics Systems

Nominated by: Matt Wagner, Jarrett Logistics Systems

Michael Jarrett was faced with a dilemma. While his company needed him to relocate out of state, his family wanted to stay in Northeast Ohio. Jarrett considered his options and decided to start his own business. Luckily, he convinced his wife, Diane, it could work and the Jarrett family was able to stay put.

His business plan was to provide small and mid-cap companies with the technology, operational efficiencies and supply chain management that the third-party logistics industry provided to large corporations.

To generate investment revenue, the couple co-founded PackShipUSA, which focused on packing and shipping furniture and large residential items across the globe with common carriers. Diane primarily ran PackShipUSA, and nearly a year later, Jarrett resigned from his job and opened a second business: Jarrett Logistics Systems.

With no outside investment, the need to create a profit-earning, self-sustainable business was paramount. The company turned a profit by 2001, but due to 9/11 and the recession that followed, financial hardship of two large customers threatened the company’s sustainability.

Jarrett, the company’s president, has since turned his startup in a small Orrville office into the six successful companies he has founded or co-founded. His role has changed significantly in 19 years, but even today, Jarrett personally interviews nearly all applicants to not only JLS, but all his companies. He believes character is the most important quality in a potential employee.

He also has strong ties to the Orrville community where many of his businesses are located, such as the fitness center across the street from JLS, which offers a discounted membership to all employees that is more than covered by the reimbursement plan. One of JLS’ core values is civic responsibility.

JLS differentiates itself from other logistics companies by creating a personalized experience for its clients. And while the company is ready to embrace technology, the focus on client relationships will always be top priority.


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Jeremy Flack
Flack Global Metals

Nominated by: Aaron Schultze, Flack Global Metals

Flack Global Metals is a next-generation service center that has forgone the traditional model in favor of a network that provides solutions to its customers around the world.
Jeremy Flack, CEO of Flack Global, developed his company’s competitive advantage from juxtaposing his steel and finance backgrounds. Seeing aspects of the steel industry that were limiting, he developed a business model that would take volatility out of the equation by not owning any large equipment, forming an asset-light business that manages its risk and provides supply chains to its customers while creating unlimited geographic access.

The first significant obstacle Flack faced was securing financing to start the business. When he discovered he could only get a loan based on accounts receivable, he bought $2.5 million of steel inventory with his own money, taking on considerable risk.

At the start, Flack Global experienced growing pains with technology. The company’s first sales system didn’t work as anticipated when it went live, which sent the company into a period of loss because it couldn’t service its customers. The company worked around the clock to find a solution. After a few weeks employees developed about 35 cases that saved the company. Sound business procedures that came out of that experience are still serving the company well today.

Within in the first few years of business, Flack had one customer making up approximately 85 percent of his revenue. Recognizing the need to diversify, Flack Global acquired Consolidated Metal Products in 2015. After the transaction, the company doubled organically with the combined knowledge and synergies from the acquisition. The company also recently acquired Kenwood Painted Metals to continue diversifying the business.

Today, Flack Global is experiencing tremendous growth. The steel service center sees technology, innovation and understanding its customers as core to its continued success.


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Amy Bircher
MMI Textiles

Nominated by: Joseph Gross, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses

Amy Bircher’s entrepreneurial spirit was on full display during the first year of MMI Textiles. She started the business in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Cleveland without taking any loans from banks, friends or family to fund the expenses she incurred to grow the company.

This meant sleeping in her car when traveling throughout the Midwest to win customers and taking draws against her commission from suppliers. Bircher focused on building relationships through face-to-face communication. She named the company MMI, which stands for me, myself and I, to demonstrate her commitment to the business. It’s consistent with what she considers to be her greatest strength as an entrepreneurial leader — the drive and eagerness to be the best she can be.
MMI has now been in business for 20 years, servicing end-product manufacturers of sewn products, and customers worldwide.

Innovation plays a vital role in how things are done at MMI and is a leading reason the company has sustained its double-digit growth year over year. Bircher, the company’s owner, is particularly focused on business development and product development. Business development involves ensuring that existing customers’ needs are being met while product development relates to staying ahead of the market and investing in new and innovative ideas that provide solutions in the textile industry.

MMI recently secured several patents for innovative technologies, including a flame-retardant fabric that can withstand temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees — the first of its kind. The company has also developed new strategic partnerships that encourage collaboration with suppliers and customers, as well as the development of new technologies. Through these relationships, MMI has become involved in industries such as digital printing that allow it to broaden its reach. The company is in the beginning stages of expanding domestically and to China, Taiwan, India, Germany and Mexico.


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Family Business


Vic DiGeronimo, Jr.
Independence Excavating, Inc.

Nominated by: Andrew Rutherford, PNC Bank

The work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit that characterized previous DiGeronimos is present in Vic DiGeronimo, Jr. as he carries on the legacy he inherited at Independence Excavating, Inc.

Unlike many third-generation family businesses, the excavating and heavy construction company continues to grow under DiGeronimo’s leadership due to his enthusiasm for expanding the breadth of services and his ability to transform a single job into more. The company differentiates itself as a one-stop shop and currently more than 20 family members are employed at various levels.

Since becoming president in 2009, DiGeronimo has established a reputation as a fair leader and dependable business partner willing to take risks and add value.

For example, he saw an opportunity in Pinecrest in Orange Village, Northeast Ohio’s largest mixed-use development. The concept of an excavating company putting equity into a development project was new. At first, the major hedge fund investor had reservations. But within a few months, the investor became so enthusiastic that it is now their preference to operate this way on all development projects.

This also showcases one of DiGeronimo’s mantras: Don’t let your ego get ahead of your ability. While the deal’s structure was innovative and risky, he knew the land’s value after it had been excavated would more than cover his initial investment.

Since finding and holding onto talent is critical, the company now has about 15 engineering interns and last year DiGeronimo hired a full-time recruiter. DiGeronimo believes it’s better to compensate employees according to their worth, rather than pay them less and see them leave.

The company also expanded the number of employees dedicated to safety, incentivized employees with safety awards and reviewed every recordable injury. In turn, in 2016, there were only six recordable injuries out of 1.3 million man-hours, two of which were bee stings.


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Michael Merritt

Nominated by: Jonathan Sadler, Oswald Companies

Merritt began in a garage in 1967 when George A. Merritt and his partner started making kitchen cabinetry. The company was incorporated as Profac Inc.
George’s sons, Michael and Keith, began helping in the shop in the late ’70s, later transitioning to Merritt’s administrative side. From the start, Michael was interested in how the whole shop functioned and growth opportunities. Keith focused on shop operation.

The company also evolved from kitchen cabinets to corporate offices. By 2000, Merritt achieved national status as one of the country’s 10 best millwork companies. George passed away unexpectedly in 2001, and the brothers had to carry on their father’s legacy while balancing their desire to grow the business.

Since 2001, Merritt has formed partnerships with some of the world’s great woodworking artisans. Even as the business evolved and grew, Michael, CEO, remained steadfast to his father’s principles: Do good work, and do it on time.

Over its 50 years, Merritt hasn’t missed a deadline. This is partly because Merritt is involved in the construction process from the beginning, often taking on a de facto project management role. Michael recognizes Merritt’s success is tied directly to its employees. For example, the company is holding six events to celebrate its 50th anniversary, with three of those exclusively for employees.

Early on, Michael saw the need for competent, highly skilled and loyal workers. Talent coming out of U.S. trade schools favors mass manufacturing over custom millwork, so Michael has sourced labor from Germany and Austria. This has opened doors to new markets for growth, including woodwork on super yacht interiors.
Michael also established Merritt 2.0., an internal initiative to solve problems and build defined processes. The goal is to build a handbook of daily best practices with the input of Merritt employees.


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Vincent LoSchiavo
Antonio’s Pizza/LoSchiavo Restaurant Group

Nominated by: Meredith Rankin, Smart Business Magazine

Founded in 1967, Antonio’s Pizza is Northeast Ohio’s oldest family-owned pizzeria.
Vincent LoSchiavo, the third generation of LoSchiavo’s involved in the ownership of the restaurant, was working in real estate in the early 2000s when he found his grandfather’s restaurant was faltering.

In 2005, LoSchiavo and his brother bought out their uncle’s stores, and approached their father, who owned the other locations, about aligning the vision and mission of Antonio’s Pizza. He reached an agreement with his family and set out to revitalize the brand.

Among the early steps was returning the original four stores to profitability, which started by identifying each store’s weaknesses.

One restaurant, for example, had maintained the quality of the food but offered a lackluster customer experience. After giving the store the needed attention, marketing materials were distributed with the message, “Same family recipe, new management.” Within the year, the store greatly improved its sales.
With a firm handle on the operations of the original stores, LoSchiavo transitioned his focus to top-line growth and began identifying markets to add new stores. Antonio’s opened 14 locations in Cleveland and three in the Akron/Canton area.

LoSchiavo expanded the menu offerings beyond pizza, which allowed the company to add catering services.
He then transitioned to improving the bottom line. He implemented a customized point-of-sale system that provided real-time data to the corporate leadership team, allowing it to monitor key metrics for each store and compare current and historical data to evaluate store performance and trigger coupon mailings to select customers.

He also added a sourcing and distribution arm. Antonio’s could now directly source its raw materials and centrally produce certain nonperishables. As its owner, LoSchiavo has grown Antonio’s presence and sales while maintaining family control of all the restaurants.


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Retail & Consumer Products


Matt Kaulig
LeafFilter North, Inc.

Nominated by: Amanda Curry, LeafFilter North, Inc.

In 2005, CEO Matt Kaulig started LeafFilter North, Inc. from his basement. For the first few years, Kaulig was a one-man show, scheduling appointments, taking all sales calls on his personal cellphone and storing inventory in his garage.

From his hands-on experience, Kaulig built a business model that allowed him to expand. Fueling the company’s growth through his own profits, he opened three new offices a year for 10 years. This year, LeafFilter added its first offices in Canada.

After trying a dealer network business model that gave up too much control, today the company is the sole manufacturer, seller and installer of LeafFilter gutter guards, providing customer support from sales to installation.

Even after growing its employee count, Kaulig has remained the face of LeafFilter and is highly involved in every aspect of his business. Kaulig also connects with his employees with a weekly Skype video communicating site-specific and overall financial performance.

In 2016, he remodeled LeafFilter’s corporate headquarters. The Hudson headquarters includes a unique call center containing a green siren that rings with each new lead and an in-house digital marketing department that has played a lead role in LeafFilter’s fast-paced growth.

Due to his background playing football at the University of Akron, Kaulig thrives on competition and brought that mentality to his sales and workforce. One of his overriding mantras is TNT, today not tomorrow. His sales force not only returns the lead call the day it was placed, it sends a representative to the customer’s home and has an installer on standby ready to complete the order.

Kaulig brings the same passion and drive to his newest endeavor, NASCAR. In 2016, he created Kaulig Racing, a full-time American stock car racing team with LeafFilter as the primary sponsor.


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G.B. Pillai
Wild Republic

Nominated by: Spencer Dieken, PNC Bank

G.B. Pillai started his own business in 1976 when he recognized a void in the market whereby zoos had limited scale of product in their gift shops and did not offer a vast product line that represented all of the species on hand at the zoo.

At first, Pillai continued his job as an electrical engineer, using his time on the weekends to market his sample products to zoos to try and establish relationships and obtain orders. In the early years, Pillai and his wife built the business together out of their home.

By 1979, Pillai decided to leave his lucrative career as an electrical engineer to pursue his passion full-time, incorporating his business under the name K&M Toys, named after the initials of his two children. Rebranding later resulted in the change of the business to its current name, Wild Republic.

The business started domestically in the U.S. and then by the 1990s, expanded internationally with facilities currently in Canada, China, Australia, Denmark, India and the U.A.E. Wild Republic started out by primarily marketing its plush animals to zoos. At the time, zoos were losing government funding and Pillai, the company’s CEO, was able to demonstrate to zoos that expanding their gift shop business would provide a crucial source of revenues.

The company is not just thinking about making a sale with its products, however. Wild Republic is known for having a wider range of species than any of its direct competitors. To foster children’s curiosity about nature, the company puts tags on its products with animal facts and references its website where full profiles and photos of the species reside.

It has also partnered with respected organizations such as the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University. These organizations understand Wild Republic’s mission to provide lifelike, education-focused product offerings in support of wildlife.


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Phillip Wachter
Jackie Wachter
Creative Director
Fount LLC

Nominated by: Mark Hall, PNC Bank

Husband and wife Phillip and Jackie Wachter, CEO and creative director of Fount LLC, started out of their apartment in 2014. The business has grown into an energetic fashion studio in downtown Cleveland that has added employees and a second location in Columbus.

The Wachters designed and created wallets and necklaces from quality leather in their spare time, eventually adding luxury leather totes and handbags.

In 2014, Country Living magazine requested they overnight three totes and schedule a phone interview for a story about eager new entrepreneurs. Staying up all night to create these bags, it was their first “big break.”

As their product and customer base grew, they quit their jobs and joined their skills of web development, styling, photography and design to focus on their passion for American-made, quality and timeless products.
Fount encourages quality over quantity, which allows the company to offer a lifetime warranty. For example, the Wachters sampled 80 different tanneries in Italy prior to choosing their supplier, placing fair business practices at the top of the list of deciding factors. They also donate their leather scraps, sell them to local small business owners or even trade them for small machinery.

In 2016, the television show “Cleveland Hustles” wanted to feature the Fount brand. The couple only planned to operate online, but the show wanted them to open a storefront and create stocked inventory. This investment and the show’s publicity proved to be a significant asset.

While the Wachters haven’t taken on investors, they attract interns from Kent State University’s fashion program, and partner with a local charity to bring in refugees to help hand stitch the leather straps. Most employees have never worked with leather or sewing, so the Wachters are building a training program. They also plan to add a day care facility to their studio.


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Financial Services


Ned Huffman
Deborah Rogan
Bellwether Enterprise and Real Estate Capital, LLC

Nominated by: Mallory Frantz, The Siegfried Group, LLC

Ned Huffman and Deborah Rogan, veterans of the commercial mortgage industry each with more than 30 years of experience, have worked together since they were both in the commercial mortgage division of Mellon Mortgage. When this division was sold, they began Capstone, a commercial mortgage company. Built from scratch, it was eventually bought by Provident Bank, which was acquired by National City.

Huffman and Rogan soon realized their vision didn’t align with that of a large, national bank. In 2008, they left Capstone and built Bellwether Enterprise Real Estate Capital, LLC from the ground up, using only their past working relationships, their personal finances and those of the investors that had come with them from Capstone.

Bellwether, a full-service commercial mortgage company specializing in multifamily and affordable housing, is headquartered in Cleveland and has 30 production offices across the country.

Huffman, company president, and Rogan, COO, used their complementing leadership styles to grow Bellwether into a national commercial mortgage-servicing platform. Their growth has been both organic and through the acquisition of two companies, which allowed them to expand into additional markets.

The company has an array of products from life insurance to commercial mortgage loans, along with licenses with government housing agencies. Bellwether originates these products, selling them and retaining the servicing of much of its portfolio.

Bellwether was launched during the financial crisis. The timing was fortuitous, allowing the partners to develop processes to set them apart. For example, while competitors focused on areas to scale back and reduce their workforces, Bellwether positioned itself to hire and focus on servicing.

It also encouraged Huffman and Rogan to be more conservative. To prepare for the next downturn, Bellwether is growing its servicing portfolio to offer steadier revenue streams. With its national expansion, the partners are working to ensure the company’s future.


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Kelly Price
National Automotive Experts/NWAN

Nominated by: Jake Pease, Oswald Companies

Kelly Price began her career as a salesperson at a car dealership and was quickly identified by management as someone with a thirst for knowledge and a drive to succeed. She was asked to take over the dealer’s finance department where she was forced to teach herself the intricacies of auto insurance, a highly regulated and complex field. With little formal training in finance or insurance, Price not only taught herself best practices, she also became the corporate trainer for the dealership’s finance department.

In that role, she identified several industry challenges: the slow timing of claims, the poor details around captive insurance companies and the general risk structure of automotive insurance. These problems caused both frustration and uncertainty for the dealership. Fortunately, Price had a solution in mind. She recognized the need for a more accurate, transparent and timely reporting model, which became a core competency for National Automotive Experts/NWAN. Price founded NAE in 1996 and has built it into a multi-million dollar business.

Price has a common saying during company meetings: “Just because that is how it works today, it doesn’t mean it’s the best way. How can we make it better tomorrow?” As an example of this emphasis on continuous improvement, NAE recently formed a captive insurance company for the purpose of assisting its current client base and expanding its business offerings outside the automotive industry.

Price, who serves as president, values her company’s role as a partner in helping others maximize their potential. Instead of prioritizing volume by accepting contracts with any agent who would marginally increase revenue, NAE employees are trained to build relationships and help agents grow their business. As a result, Price has agents approaching her in hopes of doing business with her company. She has demonstrated a commitment to building a profitable and sustainable relationship with agents that has positioned NAE for continued growth.


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Dave O’Brien
Chairman of the Board
Risk International Services, Inc.

Nominated by: Ryan White, INSIGHT2PROFIT

Unlike most insurance brokers who drive insurance sales based on the compensation provided to them by insurance companies, Dave O’Brien guided Risk International Services, Inc. to take an innovative approach. He wanted to focus on aligning clients with the best insurance provider for their needs. This unbiased approach, although less profitable upfront, allows Risk International to be completely aligned to client interests and independent of the insurance industry.

O’Brien came to Risk International, where he now serves as chairman of the board, by way of Oswald Cos. As that company’s president, he instituted growth strategies that invigorated the company and drove innovative change throughout the more than 100-year-old insurance brokerage. With that success, he took a leap of faith and left Oswald to purchase a sizable portion of Risk International. At the time, Risk was a middle-market outsourced risk management provider on the verge of losing nearly one-third of its revenue because of client acquisition.

Despite the uncertainty, O’Brien was impressed with the company’s business model and felt it had vast, untapped potential that could benefit from his experience and insight. Over the next five years, he led Risk from a small, outsourced risk management firm to a global leader through his strategic vision and emphasis on culture.

O’Brien relies on frequent and transparent communication to build an open culture for leaders and employees. When he first joined Risk, he felt the senior management team was equipped and capable of leading the necessary change. However, communication to lower levels was insufficient to drive the change forward. O’Brien and his team continually strive to share the company’s strategy to all levels of the organization in order to bring alignment and buy-in to the goal of reducing the total cost of client risk. By following the same principles himself, O’Brien has created a culture in which employees embrace their roles.

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IT Software & Services


Brett Lindsey
President and CEO

Nominated by: Meredith Rankin, Smart Business Magazine

Brett Lindsey was a prominent leader in the development of Everstream, a fiber-based network solutions provider serving businesses located and operating in Northeast Ohio and throughout Michigan, leading the company through the investment process.

The company’s growth model is focused on expanding sales of its current product offerings, which include ethernet, internet, dark fiber, data center, cloud backup and recovery, and engineering and construction solutions, rather than focusing on differentiation. The differentiation strategies of many of its competitors have left them vulnerable to losses in individual markets, while offering specific growth opportunities for Everstream.

Lindsey, the company’s president and CEO, led Everstream through a roadshow in 2014, which secured debt financing to support the creation of the company as a 100 percent for-profit subsidiary of OneCommunity.
Once preliminary financing approval had been obtained, Everstream was notified that tax-exempt bonds previously issued by OneCommunity would be required to be paid back.

Lindsey and the Everstream management team had to go back to the investors and request additional funds to support the payoff of the tax-exempt bonds, which were required to be paid prior to obtaining the new funds. The delay in financing and cash availability restrictions led to significant increases in the company’s trade payable accounts. Lindsey worked directly with key vendors to ensure the company’s operations continued until the new funds were available.

Everstream is an employee-centric business. Lindsey understands his and the company’s success is dependent on the level of talent around him and the trust he and his management team foster throughout the organization. Local and regional newspapers and business ranking agencies have repeatedly named Everstream a “Best Place to Work.”

The company expects to grow through acquisitions and Lindsey sees significant opportunities in the future as demand for Everstream’s product continues to be strong.


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Daniel Anstandig
Futuri Media

Nominated by: Ron Boynar, Oswald Companies

At 9 years old, Daniel Anstandig began broadcasting children’s programming out of his parents’ house. His self-built, 15-watt transmitter began interfering with Cleveland’s Fox 8, and his broadcast was shut down. When John Carroll University heard his story, the 12-year-old was offered a job at their college radio station.

Anstandig created his own streaming audio company at age 14, splitting his time between high school and visiting buyers and companies. After three years, he sold his company to Microsoft and started working for ClearChannel’s CEO. He would turn around recently purchased radio stations, helping enhance their business, sales and programming strategy.

At age 24, Anstandig sought startup investment to launch Futuri Media with his “crowdcasting” song-request program, Listener Driven Radio. LDR enables listeners to take over their favorite radio stations by voting on the songs they want to hear.

When Futuri started in 2009, many stations didn’t have the ability to pay upfront. The CEO and his team created a network syndication model, where stations gave Futuri airtime in return for their LDR product and Futuri then sold that airtime to advertisers.

Futuri now holds 11 published or pending patents. Its platforms are used at more than 1,000 TV and radio stations in 20 countries, reaching more than 100 million consumers monthly. In order to shape the future of media, it’s important to stay ahead of the changes. Anstandig believes a forward-thinking mindset starts with the company culture.

Futuri is consistently rated among the best places to work in Northeast Ohio. Having more than doubled its staff in just over two years, Futuri made executive development and strategic recruitment top priorities. The company regularly hosts workshops and continuing education, such as bringing in a veteran astronaut to discuss problem solving and software development processes and a former FBI counterintelligence agent to talk about building rapport and negotiation.


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Fred Ode
CEO, Chairman and Founder
Foundation Software

Nominated by: David Ferguson, Merrill Corporation

Foundation Software delivers job cost accounting, project management and mobile applications, along with industry education and bookkeeping services, to help companies run the business side of construction.

In 1983, Fred Ode, the company’s CEO, chairman and founder, was recruited away from his job by a software firm that offered him increased leadership and supervision responsibilities. After several months with this organization, Ode asked to be promoted to department head. He was told no. The refusal caused Ode to take a step back and consider what he wanted.

After several months of self-reflection and a close friend’s advice, Ode took a leap of faith and reached out to a former client. After several serious phone conversations regarding their satisfaction with their current project management system, Ode met with several key decision-makers at the company and pitched a proposal for a new construction accounting software program. When they accepted the offer, Foundation Software was born.
Ode views innovation as the willingness to penetrate into existing markets and do what is best for his current and prospective clients. This has allowed Foundation Software to come up with its innovative contract summary page.

To Ode, it is the value of knowledge that he brings to his clients that creates value more than the product. He has turned away prospective clients when he believed their current competitor’s systems were adequate.
Foundation Software has successfully attracted and retained employees because of the company’s fun, laid-back environment and open-door policy where all voices are heard and appreciated. Employees are given help to juggle both work and life through the corporate concierge program they can use to run personal errands.
Ode set Foundation Software up to be not just a construction accounting software company, but also to be a brand that will generate opportunities well into the future.

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Community Impact


Ken Babby
Owner and CEO
Akron RubberDucks

Nominated by: Meredith Rankin, Smart Business Magazine

After 14 years with the Washington Post, Ken Babby decided it was time to pursue his dream. As a child, Babby spent countless hours with his father, who was general counsel for the Baltimore Orioles, at Camden Yards. When he learned that the Akron Aeros, a Class AA Eastern League baseball team, was potentially for sale, he packed his car and spent the summer in Akron attending games, observing the experience and formulating his strategy.
In 2012, Babby put forth all his available assets and acquired the team.

Fan attendance was low and the game-day experience was focused primarily on baseball with little emphasis on the overall fan experience. He knew a pivot was needed to transition the business away from the traditional baseball model to one that emphasized affordable, family fun.

Babby re-branded the team as the Akron RubberDucks and invested $3.5 million in capital improvements that included several family hang-out areas, a play zone, fun promotions every night and creative and affordable food items.

Now the game-day experience includes a low-cost ticket price to open the park to families, free parking and an enhanced experience. The improvements have led to a 28 percent attendance increase over two seasons.
Babby is at every game, working the stands with his team. Every customer and family has his staff’s full attention. As owner and CEO, Babby continues to demonstrate the originality and innovation he’s had since he first took ownership. His rebranding, renovations, new promotions, enhanced menu and giveaways have been a resounding success with attendees.

Recently, Babby purchased the Jacksonville Suns, another Class AA baseball team, which he renamed the Jumbo Shrimp. Both teams operate under the Fast Forward Sports Group, wholly owned by Babby.
His vision is to deliver the affordable family fun experience to 1 million people annually.


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Brian Zimmerman
Cleveland Metroparks

Nominated by: Neil Quinn, Oswald Companies

From the day he started, Brian Zimmerman, CEO of the Cleveland Metroparks since 2012, has brought a level of private-company zeal to the organization.

Taking the helm of a political subdivision responsible for 23,000-plus acres of parkland in Cuyahoga County, including 456 buildings, eight golf courses, five beaches, two marinas and a zoo, was a change for Zimmerman. When he first arrived, the organization’s processes and functions were outdated and its organizational structure was impaired.

With his background running for-profit golf courses, he began to change the mindset of the organization from that of a political entity to one with a shared responsibility both to its employees and to the public. He installed metrics and systems as well as SWOT reviews and merit-based pay. Zimmerman also instilled a sense of loyalty and empowered his employees to make decisions.

To enact change, Zimmerman and his team had to work within the rigid structure of governmental politics. One example is the Metroparks’ effort to obtain control of five lakefront beaches from the state of Ohio. The multiyear effort required numerous attempts to convince the state Senate, two different governor’s offices, five different heads of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Cleveland’s mayor that it was the right thing to do.

Throughout the process, Zimmerman encouraged his team to stay true to the message that the move was in the best interest of the community. Once all the approvals had been obtained, the Metroparks began a significant effort to immediately reshape these properties, resulting in improved facilities and grounds. Amenities were added such as a new restaurant and water taxi service. It was only through extreme persistence that the team was able to accomplish its goal.

Under Zimmerman’s leadership, the Metroparks has embraced the idea of “disrupt before being disrupted.”


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Joe Matejka, Jr.
Custom Fundraising Solutions, LLC

Nominated by: Timothy Holmes, PNC Bank

Custom Fundraising Solutions, LLC started as a combination of work experiences from two of CEO Joe Matejka, Jr.’s careers: fundraising and model home furniture sales. His first job out of college was in fundraising, which had him working closely with local sports teams and band programs. However, he realized that the products did not add value to the consumer.

His second career was as the owner of a business that furnished model homes. When the model home was sold, Matejka would sell the furniture. The business was profitable but limited. He could only do business where model homes were located and furniture often came in damaged, which was frustrating for consumers.
Matejka realized there was a way to incorporate his model home furniture business and fundraising into one concept.

He focused solely on mattress sales because they were rarely damaged, students understood the product, and it was a fundraiser that high school students could promote. Additionally, Matejka identified that there is a larger market for mattresses than the product offered in traditional fundraising events.
The first event sold 42 mattresses, raising more than $4,000 for a local high school football team. Matejka’s new business was born.

Customer Fundraising Solutions’ success relates to its ability to control two of the three cost centers in the mattress business, allowing for minimal overhead and lower prices to the customer so more money can be raised during fundraising.

The business evolved in Cleveland for several years before expanding to Buffalo, New York, and Cincinnati in 2008, which was both challenging and expensive. The business broke even for the first five years, but the effort proved worth the risk. In just one year, Customer Fundraising Solutions has collectively raised nearly $10 million for schools and has provided a livelihood for more than 100 families across the country.


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Judging Panel

Debbie Donley



Lisa Gavales
Chairman and CEO
Things Remembered



Michael Gibbons*
Senior Managing Director
Brown Gibbons Lang & Company



John Lanigan
Director, Center for Innovation & Growth
Baldwin Wallace University



Jim Pshock*
Founder, President and CEO
Bravo Wellness



Brad Sacks*
More Than Gourmet



*EOY Alumni