By J.D. Booth
August 1, 2008
You own a business. For millions of Americans, it’s a dream that first takes root in the heart, grows in the mind, and branches out in all directions. It’s rarely a straightforward task – for some it is a process that can seem like a “one step forward, two steps back.” But no one said this was going to be easy. So when Corp! magazine set out to find our Entrepreneurs of Distinction, we deliberately set the bar high. You helped—by nominating those whose stamina, creative insight and perseverance gave hints of greatness. In the end, we were able to sift through many wonderful possibilities for our shortlist, 18 business builders who have truly earned the mantle: Entrepreneurs of Distinction. Congratulations to all!
President, DAS Professional Services
Sometimes boredom can be a good thing, especially when combined with a natural entrepreneurial spirit. Such is the case with Ren Carlton, who earned a Certified Public Accountant designation two years after graduating from Oakland University. By then, he admits, he was looking for something a little different. “It wasn’t overly challenging,” says Carlton, who also admits he saw the potential for earning more than he could as a recent graduate. Starting DAS Professional Services eight years ago, the company provides a broad range of chief financial officer and controller functions. The service, geared to companies in the $5-million to $50-million revenue range, appeals, Carlton says, to those firms who don’t need someone 40 hours a week. DAS also brings strategic planning and tax services—compliance and planning included—into the mix. Carlton is now moving toward taking the idea nationwide, an idea sparked by interest among existing clients beyond Michigan. “We’re still growing nicely here,” he adds. “Still, we think we have a niche that will work well out of market.” As if that doesn’t keep him busy enough, Carlton has a talk radio show—the Business Reality Network—heard Sundays, 10-11 a.m. on WDFN 1130 AM.
President, Daniel Brian & Associates
Growing up in a West Michigan family of entrepreneurs must have had its challenges—in the best sense. “I came from a family that had money but personally I never had a dime,” recalls Daniel Cobb, the CEO of the growing “entertainment-based marketing” agency, which was “officially” launched in 1992 (although he’d been doing work under his own name since the late 1980s). Having earned an advertising degree from Michigan State, Cobb worked at Campbell-Ewald before starting his own shop. “It was a heritage of ideas and philosophy that drove me to start the business.” Picking his first and middle names for the company was a bit of psychology in play. “I was 23, working out of my apartment and with a bunch of debt, I wanted a name that sounded much bigger than it was.” Cobb wears his spiritual values on his sleeve: “God is the source of all creativity and the only authority above a client” is the first of several principles on the corporate Web site. For Cobb, success also means finishing well. “I’ve seen people who have succeeded in spite of failure. Most people give up just short of the finish line; they just don’t know they’re there.”
While Don Coleman began his career as a professional football player (drafted by the NFL New Orleans Saints after earning a degree in journalism at the University of Michigan), it was advertising for which he gained lasting notoriety, first with Campbell-Ewald and Burrell Advertising, then his own “targeted” firm, now called GlobalHue. But Coleman admits that fear of failure is something no entrepreneur is likely to escape. “After a certain amount of time, fear becomes a constant companion,” says Coleman. “If you’re fearful, you’re pressing ahead, reinventing yourself. You embrace it.” Still, Coleman had his share of real stress, including getting caught with some $7 million in unreimbursed media payments with the meltdown of Kmart. And a lesson or two learned along the way. “It was about how to take fat out of the organization,” says Coleman, whose recovery plan took some two years to implement. “We’re more disciplined as a result.” More recently, Coleman has started a number of sister companies whose objective is reaching various ethnicities and lifestyle markets. He’s launching a proprietary research project intended to deliver insight into “hybridity,” the idea that a new audience is “more exposed to globalization and multiculturalism than at any other time in history.”
With his newly minted degree in electrical engineering and embedded systems engineering from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, David Dorner landed his “dream job”—working as an electronics engineer at a company that would eventually become GE Aviation. While Dorner did some teaching at his alma mater, he also began consulting on an individual basis; when demand exceeded the one-person supply, a business was born. Two years later, Dorner took on a partner and a year after that, he convinced his brother Jeff to join the business, which doubled within 12 months. “We needed someone who could manage the business,” he notes. One of the first results of the subsequent growth was the company’s own building. Shortly after, DornerWorks, which specializes in embedded systems engineering, added a second location but recently consolidated its space in much bigger quarters, where some 26 staffers work. Dorner admits he didn’t fully discover his entrepreneurial nature until ac-quiring the company’s first building. Today, the company continues to serve clients in the aerospace, medical and automotive fields and Dorner sees great potential for even more growth. “Developing safety critical systems is a niche we’ll continue to develop.”
CEO, Detroit Popcorn Company
Two years after selling the 10-store vitamin chain he’d developed, David Farber was suffering from terminal boredom. “I was making myself neurotic,” says Farber, now owner of the Detroit Popcorn Company, a firm that was then on the verge of bankruptcy. “It was a turnaround in every respect,” says Farber, who admits he probably wouldn’t have bought the company “had I known then what I know now.” Still, his efforts to rebuild infrastructure, modernize the business, and improve quality as well as availability paid off. “We were often 30 to 40 percent out of stock,” he recalls. Today, with a larger facility (in Redford Township) and a much-expanded line of product, Detroit Popcorn is attracting new customers and seeing previously unhappy ones return to the fold. It was a three-year journey to profitability, says Farber, but the results speak for themselves. “It’s fun showing other people how to have fun,” he adds. “People come in on Monday morning and we hear about how great their event went.” Today, Farber is focused on spreading the word. “We continue to put out a quality product and we’ve got a lot to offer customers who might not have realized what we can provide.”
CEO, Employee Health Insurance Management
It was the death of Mindi Fynke’s grandfather, a physician, who succumbed to cancer that helped provide focus for her professional life, a life that would see quality health care as one of the key areas she could serve. When a friend introduced her to someone who was spending his Saturdays reviewing his employees’ prescription receipts and reimbursing them for their deductible, Fynke saw something where she could step in and make a difference. That was the birth of Employee Health Insurance Management as a third party administrator which would save employers time and money. Two years later, Fynke expanded the business to offer customized prescription programs that took advantage of EHIM’s ability to negotiate with pharmacy chains such as Perry Drugs (now Rite Aid). It’s a business Fynke loves, largely due to the fact that she’s able to add real value to people’s lives. “I love taking care of people,” she notes, adding that staff development is key to EHIM’s success. “It’s amazing to be able to see what happens to employees when they’re given the opportunity. And I love the fact that we’ve come up with innovative ways of reducing costs in the health care field.”
CEO, Design Incentives
Barbara Hendrickson never really had a burning desire to run her own company. But while working for an incentives company, she had her own ideas of how customers should be taken care of—but no support for doing that. When an opportunity came up to expand the geographic presence of Design Incentives, originally based in the Benton Harbor area, Hendrickson jumped at the chance, some nine years later taking over the business from her retiring partner. Today the full service incentives company has offices in Livonia and St. Joseph, although Hendrickson admits the firm has had to make its adjustments, notably scaling back operations when Design Incentives lost a major contract due to automotive cutbacks. Hendrickson made the tough changes necessary, including reducing warehousing and office space. “I’m a strong believer in expecting the best but preparing for the worst,” she says. Part of that strategy is making sure any commitments made are based on the length of a contract. “We’re not locked into anything.” Design Incentives continues to offer a wide range of programs to increase sales, including the development of consumer offers and sales incentives, promotional products, employee rewards, and ways to manage customer relationships.
CEO, Summit Sports
With eight Internet sites (and soon to be nine), Steve Kopitz’ Summit Sports is a moving target—with online revenues now exceeding the brick and mortar stores the Detroit native has on the go. Launching the business in 1990, having realized “corporate” life wasn’t for him (he left American Express where he was a divisional vice president), Kopitz found his niche in the sporting world. A self-described ski nut who says he married on condition his wife would at least attempt to learn to ski, Kopitz ended up in retail sporting goods. Still, his background (aside from the stint with American Express) has been decidedly entrepreneurial. “I’d been part owner of a restaurant, had a builder’s license and real estate license.” The verdict? Working for himself is where it’s at. “Even in bad times, I’d rather be in my own company.” Today the operation includes Web sites such as skis.com, wateroutfitters.com, snowboardfusion.com, skateaggressive.com, as well as summitonline.com. Deciding to embrace the Internet as early as 1997 may not have been prescient, but it’s definitely kept the business alive. “In retrospect, it was a vital decision. We wouldn’t have survived otherwise,” says Kopitz of a business that’s intensely weather dependent. “When we don’t get snow, other places typically do.”
Principal, Cornerstone Group
With a background in public accounting and a master’s degree in tax, Mark Manquen is the kind of guy a business owner would like to know. Or a municipal official. That’s because Manquen and the firm he joined in 2003, Cornerstone Group, manages the recovery of 28 percent subsidies available under the federal Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003. The dollars go to groups—municipalities included—that offer prescription benefit programs. As an example, Cornerstone’s first big client—Wayne County—got $3 million in subsidies the first year they signed up for the service. Now Cornerstone does the same for a growing number of towns and cities—almost 30 and counting. “It quickly became the largest part of our business growth,” says Manquen. “We walk in and make sure they maintain the subsidy and compliance requirements. Even if they could apply on their own, the time required to do it makes our service worthwhile.” Manquen credits a willingness to “get out of the comfort zone” of traditional CPA work to develop this health care niche. The offering is now a separate part of Cornertone—Cornerstone Municipal Advisory Group—which Manquen sees as having great potential even beyond Michigan. “It’s become a business on
CEO, Mosher and Associates
It’s not every 17-year-old that spends the lunch hour starting a business, but then again, not everyone is Matt Mosher, who likely got at least part of his entrepreneurial bent from his father, Doyle Mosher, co-founder of developer Mosher Dolan (now Mosher, Dolan, Cataldo & Kelly). “I took a few pictures of a backyard that I had landscaped and got a few jobs from it. The rest is history.” While Mosher started his business doing primarily landscape and construction work, the 26-year-old is diversifying—notably into technologies that can save a building owner (residential or commercial) money by cutting energy costs. “We can typically save an owner 60 to 70 percent of their energy costs through a financing program that has them spending no out of pocket costs,” says Mosher, who first got hooked on the idea when asked to install a green roof. “We found out there’s more of an opportunity and impact through getting into the mechanical equipment. That’s our primary concentration right now.” Mosher expects his Detroit Green Technologies to generate 2008 sales of at least $1 million—and that’s on top of the $4.5 million the landscaping venture will realize. Not bad for a lunchtime idea.
LTI Information Technology
Not everyone has to strike out completely on their own to scratch that “itch” common with entrepreneurs. Such was the case with Kevin Phillips, who found his path by managing the computer systems at LimnoTech, an environmental science and engineering company founded by Paul Freedman. With “doing cool things with computers” at the top of Freedman’s vision, Phillips’ role was pretty important, but after about 18 months on the job, Phillips had pretty much done what he set out to do. “I became bored,” admits Phillips, who began setting course for work as a consultant, outside LTI. That’s when the opportunity to spin off a company was presented, with Phillips at the helm and LimnoTech a partner. While the former parent has since cut its corporate apron strings, Phillips says the opportunity was a great one, especially given the fact that he had a built-in client (LimnoTech) from the get-go. But he’s also helped create a place where technicians can thrive. “Looking at computer logs all day can be tough,” he says. At LTI IT, being able to seek out projects that are not only good for the client and the company, but the technicians is something Phillips relishes.
CEO, HTC Global Services
It may not be the classic “garage” startup, but Madhava Reddy did begin his HTC Global Services venture, an Inc. 500 Hall of Fame company, in his apartment. That was 1990 and Reddy, having arrived from India with a bachelor’s degree just seven years earlier, was already on a path to success—earning an MBA in accounting while family members provided financial support. Reddy subsequently earned his Certified Public Accounting designation before launching HTC, something he admits was at the urging of his older brother, a physician. But the journey wasn’t all smooth sailing; Reddy, now 51, says it took hard work and a vision for success, plus a determination not to give up in the face of adversity. “Sometimes you might feel overwhelmed when you first start out,” he says. “You want to quit. But that’s the time when you want to keep trying, to go the extra mile.” In his case, the struggles were very real indeed. His advice? “Don’t start something because of the money. Be prepared to work hard and give it your all. And be sincere to yourself.” The company is based in Troy, but with far-flung international offices in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and India, where it has a base for offshore project and production work.
CEO, Educational Data Systems
Kevin Schnieders was working as a television producer for Detroit’s Channel 7 when he got the idea of adding another service to his father’s company, a training firm started in 1979. The concept: have EDSI help unemployed workers dislocated from the ailing steel mills of Pittsburgh find work. The younger Schnieders, a high school teacher by training, would help write the curriculum. With a goal of one new office per year in hand, they went to work. Fifteen years later EDSI has 21 offices and some 420 employees but Schnieders says it was getting ISO certification, an unusual feat for a service company, that propelled the company forward. “We’ve been able to demonstrate the same results placing people in urban and rural settings,” he notes of the program, a four-to-six week session that helps with mock interviews, résumé building and portfolio development. While the company continues to offer skills analysis and customized training services, it’s the so-called welfare to work part of the business that has generated “90 percent of the business and all of the growth,” says Kevin Schnieders. Today Bob Schnieders is chair of the board and his son’s closest advisor. “He’s been phenomenal.”
CEO, Acro Service Corporation
A Ford Motor employee entering the recession of 1982, Ron Shahani may have shared some of the industry’s bleak thoughts, but a combination of his bachelor’s degree (earned in his native India), an MBA from the University of Detroit and life experience also taught him that success is sometimes what you make it. For Shahani, reducing the numbers of salaried workers also meant there was an opportunity—to provide “just in time” labor that would reduce those fixed costs to Ford and others. Starting Acro may have been inevitable for Shahani. “I’d always wanted to have my own business,” he says. “But I also thought it would be nice to make a difference in society, to have control over my destiny.” Choosing Michigan as a place to begin that journey (Shahani left India in 1975) may have been largely happenstance. “Information wasn’t that readily available but I had a handbook that listed one page per university and there was scholarship money available here. I thought ‘hey, if I do well, I can get some of that.’” Shahani has made it his strategy at Acro to continue to diversify into other industries. “So that we can weather the ups and downs of the auto industry.”
CEO, Youngsoft Inc.
As a 26-year-old software consultant from India, Rupesh Srivastava came to the U.S. for the opportunity. Some 15 years later, it’s still that promise that drives his business, which he founded in 1996, its primary business then being technology staffing. Now a $15 million consultancy that is morphing into the product development company Srivastava envisoned, one of Youngsoft’s key areas for growth potential is health care. The firm’s electronic prescription writing software is one such product; so is an oncology management system, the development of both being underwritten solely by Srivastava. “We’re proud to be one of the only companies from Michigan that’s developed these products,” he says. Besides the traditional software consulting work, Youngsoft has also developed an e-learning management tool that helps clients evaluate an employee’s skill set, experience, qualification, physical capability and compliance. Youngsoft has maintained its staffing services, something Strivastava says is important in the overall positioning of the company. “Our reach in the market for talented resources is unparalleled. We are known for our ability to fill positions quickly, effectively, and we have consistently stayed below the average market attrition rate, which is primarily due to our loyalty to our employees and their loyalty back to us.”
CEO, Walker-Miller Energy Services
A civil engineer by training, Carla Walker-Miller spent the first 19 years of her career selling large power transformers, circuit breakers and meters—the kind of equipment utilities shop for every day. When her employer, Westinghouse, was taken over by ABB, she began calling on Detroit Edison, which at the time was looking for a way to expand its supplier diversity program. Walker-Miller’s gender and ethnicity—she’s African-American—gave her the start, but her Walker-Miller Energy Services has raised the bar from a business development perspective. Today the company is not only specializing in helping companies become more energy efficient, conducting energy audits and installing upgrades to electrical service, Walker-Miller is heading up development of a biodiesel plant that will produce 5 million gallons of fuel from discarded restaurant vegetable oil. “We’re starting to embrace the newer technologies,” she notes. “People now have a choice.” Walker-Miller admits the move is gutsy. “There’s nothing like having a check, making sure you’re going to get paid.” On the other hand, there are few certainties in the modern world. “The year after I started working, there were layoffs for the first time in my industry. People were shell-shocked because it had never happened before.”
Let’s see: Marketing. Web design. Raising sled dogs in Alaska. There’s no question that Lisa Wehr’s résumé might be one to raise a few eyebrows if she were hunting for a job (which she is not). The owner of OneUpWeb, a Traverse City firm that specializes in a variety of integrated online marketing services, including search engine optimization, usability, analytics, social media marketing and podcasting as well as media placement, Wehr employs about 40 in the $10 million company she started in 1996, shortly after leaving Alaska. An entrepreneur by way of genetics, Wehr helped her parents open up three Subway restaurants in the Charlevoix area before heading north. She’d already started her first business (car detailing) by the time she was 16 and has worked as a freelance photographer and a sheriff’s deputy (as a forensic photographer). Looking out the windows of a brand new building facing Grand Traverse Bay can’t be too much of a letdown from her Alaska address, the town of Willow, 80 miles north of Anchorage where a dog sled trail was just steps from her back door. Today, she’s looking to add even more services to OneUpWeb. “We’ve become more of a digital agency.”
Founder, Total Door
It’s not many that can claim their innovations continue to set the standard in any industry. Count Leon Yulkowski among the few; his design of the first American mortise lock specifically designed for levered doors is still in use today. And while his first venture—General Lock—was sold to Schlage, it didn’t keep Yulkowski from thinking about how a door “system” might improve the quality of construction and how he might be ahead of the curve. “Complete systems were beginning to simplify not just the construction industry, which was much in need of a single source solution to its door and hardware problems,” says Yulkowski. With a single paired opening having as many as 15 different manufacturers, and multiple components often assembled in the field, he could see the problems that resulted. “Doors and hardware account for only 1-1.5 percent of construction dollars, but a full 20 percent of owner problems.” Yulkowski founded Total Door to tackle those problems, incrementally adding various improvements to the point where “we have just about everything you need to fill a hole in the wall.” Ten years ago, Yulkowski, now 79, passed operational reins to his daughter Patricia, but he continues to serve in a research and development capacity.