By J.D. Booth
August 6, 2009
There are employees. And there are entrepreneurs.
Clearly, it would seem, there are a lot more of the former than the latter, people who are not only content, but intent on working hard, enjoying life for a steady paycheck that doesn’t necessarily involve putting it all on the line for the risk that there might be (emphasis on “might”) something brighter down the road. Is that a problem? Of course not. Except for the entrepreneur. These exceptional individuals-some might even say “peculiar”- are all about putting it on the line. They can be cautious, but in large measure, they’ve thought about the risk long enough. And they know that “nothing ventured is nothing gained.”
And so it is that we celebrate our annual Entrepreneurs of Distinction in this issue of Corp! magazine, people whose passion for creating something special, for foreseeing and formulating a response to market demand, for building something, drives them on a daily basis.
Tom Beck has brought his experience and seasoned perspective as an Internet marketing professional to his role as president of Enlighten, a digital agency with a self-described “eclectic” roster of consumer brands, names that have included Hunter Douglas, Kao Brands (John Frieda, Jergens, Curel, Biore, and Ban), Richmond American Homes, Masco Corporation, MGA Entertainment, Audi of America, Car & Driver, Pulte Homes, Thornburg Mortgage, Comerica and Olympic Paint and Stain. Beck joined the firm in 2001, eventually assuming the role of president.
Booms Stone Co., Great Lakes Granite and Marble Co.
Not every young man listens to his father, but Richard Booms is an exception. “He told me, ‘As long as you work for someone else you will always have a person managing your financial success.'” Finally taking that wisdom to heart, the younger Booms was in his mid-20s before it finally dawned on him: “If I am going to give 110 percent why not do it for my family and myself instead of others?” The bonus? Booms wouldn’t have to deal with the corporate world and what he calls the “politicking, cosmetic efforts, plus the fact that sometimes looks, charm and connections carried more weight than effort and result.” Booms instead embraced change, something he continues to do and advocate. “The number one skill required today is to be dynamic and accept the fact that the business world has changed, and is changing as we speak. And it will continue to change at an ever increasing rate.” Second on his list of desirable skills is perseverance when it comes to the quest for quality and service. Booms says successful entrepreneurs will not only find a mentor but adopt the discipline to follow the advice given. A core piece of advice: “You are not always as smart as you may think you are.” Fully entrenched in an industry that’s been in existence since the beginning of time, Booms has seen his own set of changes, including explosive growth in machining and tooling technology as well as software manipulation programs. “It reduced cost, improved turnaround time and raised quality, all in a matter of 20 to 30 years.” Today he sees the biggest challenge from outside the industry, notably government intervention. “From taxes to regulation to litigation to bureaucracy, all are dampening a true free market. Government may not be directly responsible for each of these points but in the end they are the ones who can arrange the environment for the success or failure of these components in contributing to a free and strong market.”
John G. Brothers
Custom BioGenic Systems
When John Brothers founded Custom BioGenic Systems in 1987, it was to manufacture stainless steel racks for cryogenic freezers. Thirteen years later, the company had patented the first -196 degree C liquid nitrogen storage system capable of storing samples without direct contact with the cooling material. It’s a business that’s still breaking ground: with sales up 10 percent in 2009 and product development continuing, Brothers’ company has one patent for a human embryo freezer and applications for two more. Brothers says he’s optimistic the firm will continue to grow beyond the 38 staff currently in place. Custom BioGenic Systems also manufactures a full line of freezer racks and full inventory control systems for a wide range of mechanical and liquid nitrogen freezers and is certified to the ISO 13485 medical device quality standard.
Communicore Visual Communications
It was when a younger Jeff Carter was spinning records as a DJ that he first caught the entrepreneurial bug. “I was working as a radio DJ in Ann Arbor making $165 a week for 40-plus hours but I realized I could make $250 in one night at private parties. I decided I wanted to be self-employed.” Today Carter owns Communicore Visual Communications, which focuses on video production for clients such as Ford Motor Company (where he has a facility at the automaker’s world headquarters). Carter says while much of the technology has changed over the years, some skills learned remain important. One is the ability to attract quality people. “You need to recognize good people, especially those who share your value system.” Carter has also learned to be both persevering and patient. “Small business presents many challenges in good times and bad, so perseverance is a must. I personally believe that every challenge has a solution if you think long and hard enough about it. That’s where patience comes in.” Also important: integrity. “I’ve surrounded myself with people of integrity whom I trust. I expect them to operate with integrity and I rely on their counsel to make sure I’m maintaining integrity in the decisions I make.”
Daniel C. Estrada
D.C. Estrada, LLC
Daniel Estrada helps successful litigators and corporate clients create smart, defensible e-discovery strategies to lower litigation costs, reduce risk, and protect their reputations. “I’ve been working in the technology field for over 11 years, helping small and large organizations effectively implement technology. In that time, I’ve had the opportunity to provide training and give presentations on a number of IT topics, both nationally and abroad, including American and European information security regulations, regulatory compliance, electronic discovery, litigation preparedness, security, and social engineering.” As Estrada’s Web site states, some 97 percent of information originates electronically. “What you don’t know can hurt you.”
Donald E. Fitzsimmons
Royal Transportation Company
Don Fitzsimmons’ first experience with empowerment came from his father, who he says “inspired me to see the tree in the forest.” Perhaps literally. “At our summer home in the Irish Hills area of Michigan, he would assign me weekly projects to improve and make the several acres of property better, sharing his vision of the project with me, then leaving me to the task and details. Throughout each project, I was inspired to complete the next project better than the last.” Today Fitzsimmons sees balance in leadership abilities as being key. “The balance of family leadership, business knowledge and leadership, and community commitment and leadership are the big three personal qualities necessary to open and sustain a small business enterprise.” Since launching Royal Transportation, Fitzsimmons says he expected to reinvent a level of service in a category that had deteriorated. “Setting and achieving the higher standards of services offered improved the level of competition and integrity of our industry,” he notes. He also says new challenges that include sustainability and diversification are key to future success. “We must do more with less, especially when traditional bank lending for small business start up or continuation is greatly reduced, and the start up expense, including insurance, taxes, labor and material product costs have continued to increase.” Fitzsimmons says having a network of non-traditional lenders including, family members and private investors is important, but so is a focus on strong and respected integrity, and work ethics as well as focus. “As my father taught me, stay focused, ‘see the tree in the forest,’ and always search for the practical solutions.”
Eric Hardy’s foray into the world of the entrepreneur came after working for his share of mid-size companies. “I quickly realized that I could not reach my full potential unless I was given significant freedom to do so.” Along the way, Hardy says having family and business partners who understand it will take risks to be successful has helped. But Hardy says the most important skill for business owners today is creativity. “There will always be problems, issues and concerns as you operationally run the business. The key is having enough patience and creative thought process to find the solution and implement it.” Also critical is the ability to reinvent the organization when necessary. “W3r is on its third version,” says Hardy. “We believe in keeping the message fresh and adapting to our customers’ current day needs.” For Hardy’s company, necessity has been part of when and how to change. “It has been easy to reinvent ourselves because it has always corresponded to a growth and maturation phase. This has become an important tool to keep the organization dynamic and interesting while hitting growth goals and expectations.” An ability to diversify from both from both a market and geographic perspective has allowed w3r to maintain consistency in bad economic times. “It’s the single biggest factor for positioning w3r in the future.”
Two of the most important words in Michael Kelly’s vocabulary are focus and fun. “Having a strong team around you and having a lead-by-example management style is key,” says Kelly, whose firm provides eco-friendly ultraviolet-based industrial protective coatings. “We work with successful people in very different industries, where we have the opportunity to ask a lot of questions and listen to the answers.” It’s all part of Kelly’s commitment to focus. “Always have a plan and work off that plan,” he says. “You need to execute or be executed.” Which is not to say there aren’t challenges. “With the recent economic issues impacting U.S. manufacturing, ranging from foreign competition to a significant decrease in market demand, we were faced with how to implement new technology into this mature marketplace.” Something worked: Allied refined its business model and has experienced over 65 percent annual growth in the last two years. Kelly says those experiencing challenges need to focus on what will ultimately hold together the firm through tough times. “Make sure you have fun,” he says. At Allied PhotoChemical that includes having a company barbeque every week. The firm also maintains excellent benefits and conducts internal and vendor training over a provided lunch.
Red Level Networks
David King’s first class in “Entrepreneurship 101” came from watching his self-employed father operate his own business while growing up. “I watched him grow his business tremendously and then have it turned upside down by factors he could not control. I saw how hard he had to work and the time that was required to run it. It grounded me and helped me realize that good things take a lot of work.” Even so, it wasn’t until later in life that the lessons took hold. When a former employer told him the department wasn’t earning enough to keep it open, King thought he might be able to do better. Five years later and with nearly 300 clients, he’s been proven right. King says a key skill for today’s entrepreneur is being able to make quick and sound decisions while understanding their full impact. “Efficient use of time is just as good as money,” he adds. So is the ability to be a natural negotiator. “The ability to close a deal is just as important as finding it.” As a former naval officer, King says he looked to “some top caliber commanding officers who inspired me to look at things beyond what was originally presented.” Today, he says, that has become the ability to see something that others don’t see and turn adversity into opportunity. He also credits a sales manager at his last employer whose mentoring developed his interest and passion in technology far beyond the bits and bytes. “Taking that interest with the opportunity to create a business made this exciting and ultimately successful.”
Biznet Internet Solutions
While acknowledging that for the first four years of running Biznet, Kevin Krason was tethered to his corporate job, today he says the steady paycheck still had its shortcomings. “I never felt the personal satisfaction I get today from leading my own team toward success.” Even so, that road had its own set of bumps. “There were many times when I felt like giving up. Fortunately, the feelings were temporary and I kept pressing forward. I would not be here today if I had not stuck with things through the rough times.” And times of change. “The current state of the economy and world affairs require that one identify changes in trends and be able to position themselves to take advantage of these changes. This is particularly important in my business where new technology offerings provide new opportunities at an ever increasing pace.” Krason credits his parents, neither of whom were self-employed, for instilling a basic set of beliefs. “They showed me the value of a strong work ethic. They also taught me to live life by the golden rule, to treat others as I would like to be treated. This has been infinitely valuable in establishing trusting relationships with partners, customers and peers.” As far as changing direction, Krason has done that as well, having started Biznet as a Web design company and local Internet service provider to today’s role as a provider of Internet marketing services, which now accounts for 40 percent of revenue (from less than 5 percent two years ago).
As a college graduate in the 1960s, Margery Krevsky gravitated toward one of the few career starting points where women held top positions–the fashion industry. “I know it seems old fashioned now, but it did exist!” notes Krevsky, now head of her own talent management agency. “I realized I had an independent spirit, I was frustrated with people who were not totally focused and knew I was happiest when I could independently take a project and make it a success.” Krevsky also knew she had what it took to do better. “I was doing ‘out of the box’ thinking long before it became a business buzz word.” Even so, what she experienced was the promotion of other people. “I began to see that my ideas would work, but management would not always agree to my creative ways. I also saw that my compensation could escalate if I would take the risk to be an entrepreneur.” Krevsky says having the power to sell and persuade and the power to lead are among the skills today’s entrepreneur will need. Also on her list: being able to read financials and the ability to see the big picture. Krevsky also points to having a “gut instinct” about people and being a good delegator. An entrepreneur also becomes the visionary. “I don’t get involved in the day to day running of my company,” she notes. “But I have a natural instinct for people and what needs to be done. The specifics are left to the experts. I am open to new ideas and encourage open discussions, think tanks, and strategy sessions.” What she does bring is encouragement and a positive environment. “Any people in my company who are negative will not be there long. I like being surrounded by upbeat, yet realistic people. I speak weekly to top clients, I create a working and sometimes personal relationship. I build relationships.” Krevsky admits that starting out was no picnic. “No one would give a loan. I financed it all on credit cards and working as a part time writer.”
Lambert, Edwards & Associates
A one-time veterinarian student turned public relations entrepreneur, Jeffery Lambert quickly discovered that creativity was the spark that led him into his career. “I think my entrepreneurial tendencies were first evidenced in my favorite games as a child - Risk and Pitfall (Atari).” And speaking of risk: “Entrepreneurs must possess a high tolerance for risk formed through a mix of self confidence and a strong passion for what you’re pursuing. Without the belief in yourself-that failure is not an option-caution sets in and can stifle creativity and aggressiveness. Without passion, you won’t fight hard enough when the difficult times come, you won’t enjoy the ride along the way, and you’ll be the boss, but not the charismatic leader that people want to follow.” Lambert credits his parents, who he says “refined my God-given gift of competitiveness by encouraging hard work, celebrating fun and curiosity, and instilling the importance of character, faith and using what I have to help others.” Yet growing a business from entrepreneurial roots is often a new kind of challenge, one Lambert says he might have missed. “Ironically, my biggest reinvention or ‘change challenge’ was moving LE&A from an entrepreneurial organization to a more mature business with processes, budgets and growth goals. For many years, I defended our lack of structure and process under the guise of being entrepreneurial. Yet, as we continued to grow and attract more seasoned talent, the expectations increased. People wanted a career path, performance reviews and to understand the vision for the firm - the one I had in my head, but never wrote down lest it limit the scope.” Today, the firm is a better one, says Lambert, although not without the continuing challenge other entrepreneurs are likely to face. “I have surrounded myself with smart people, but if I’m not willing to let them lead and get out of their way, I limit their enthusiasm and our potential as a firm.”
Apex Digital Solutions, Inc.
While Jason Lambiris acknowledges it may have been his father that planted the seeds of entrepreneurism, it was his first foray into working for a technology and service company that watered it. “During my time there I was involved in many different roles involving hand-on technical work, strategy and innovation and sales and marketing,” says Lambiris. “Over a short period of time, we were able to significantly increase the amount of revenue being generated and grow the organization.” The skills required by today’s entrepreneur? One is knowing when to rely on others. “Whether it is dealing with financials, marketing, sales or technology, you come to a point when you realize you can’t do it all. You need to realize that to continue on you need to let go of certain things and trust in the people you have hired.” Another key one is reaching out to others. “I guarantee that you are not the first person to face some of the challenges that will come up. Seeking out advice from professionals and mentors goes a long way. There are plenty of people out there willing to share their past experiences and lessons learned with you and it’s usually simply a matter of just asking.” Lambiris says he’s come to understand the value of reinvention and innovation. “Both are key factors to organizational success. Many things can change rapidly such as the economy, process, and industry trends to name a few.” At Apex Digital, Lambiris and his team have transformed the traditional IT provider to one which offers managed services, the result being an organization that generates double the revenue with 60 percent of the staff it had four years ago.
Encryption Security Solutions/Pure Entropy Technologies
Asked how he discovered his entrepreneurial leanings, Kevin Lasser doesn’t hesitate to credit the one person who’s known him longest. “It was through my mom,” says Lasser. “She was an antique dealer that could sell ice to an Eskimo. Any room she walked into she would immediately take it over.” Today, Lasser says today’s successful entrepreneur depends on having vision. And then some. “You need to believe in your vision and share it with everyone all the time. An unyielding commitment to your vision will yield success.” A finance graduate from the University of Michigan, Lasser began realizing the role security would have in information technology, ultimately partnering with “a brilliant inventor/scientist type” to form the firm he now heads. Lasser, who believes someone is either born entrepreneurial or isn’t, is nonetheless faced with the same kinds of challenges that all entrepreneurs meet. “It is very difficult to bring a new idea or technology to the marketplace, especially in these tough economic times. But we passionately believed in our technology from the very beginning. We stayed the course and are now enjoying the beginning successes of it.”
American Laser Centers
Prioritization. It’s one of the best skills Rich Morgan says today’s entrepreneur should have. Add focus and the ability to identify the right people and the result should be a team of individuals who are trustworthy and willing to learn. “I have found I can identify and act on items that are most important to the organization’s success and delegate the remaining tasks to my teams,” says Morgan, who founded American Laser Centers. “I like to help good employees to develop into strong employees by delegating a task, meeting with them to provide guidance and then letting them carry it out on their own. There is no way I would be able to focus on growing this business without having the right people working with me.” Although Morgan sold his interest in American Laser Centers about a year ago, he’s back consulting with the company, helping with a restructuring sparked by the current economic conditions. It’s here that Morgan says he can make a difference. “Today’s economic climate demands more passion and determination than ever before.”
Time, Tools, Talent, LLC
Fred Pieplow learned early on (more than three decades ago, he’ll tell you) that customers “do not just send you the money” when it is due. “That is when I realized that customer intimacy is needed at every level of the organization,” says Pieplow, whose company provides financial, planning, operations and sales advice to its clients. “My work is with owners of companies that I encourage to understand their customers’ problems and solve them,” says Pieplow, who adds that having an understanding of costs and constraints is key. “Their team must know what is important to make good decisions at every level, and work with a sense of urgency. Add to that the ability to watch their competitors, keep up with changing technologies, and lead employees.” While he acknowledges that business plans, job descriptions and mission statements help communicate what is important, “the real test is that the owners’ actions reflect the direction they say they want the organization to move.” For Pieplow, life has taken him in a new direction, having gone through several business transitions, the most recent being Time, Tools, Talents, formed to bring the combined skills of Pieplow and two other partners to market. He’s also a cancer survivor, having recently gone through the removal of a cancerous kidney. Now, he’s looking forward, even in the midst of current economic challenges. “The economy is the big story,” notes Pieplow. “Sales volume is down in almost every market and banks have raised the bar on lending qualifications. To face these challenges I am teaming up with great people, focusing on core competencies while looking for new ways to apply them, listening to the customer, keeping up with technology and best practices, under promising and over delivering and praying for wisdom and guidance.”
National Anesthesia Services, Inc.
When Stephen Read first entered the workforce, he discovered he was a “small cog in a very, very big wheel.” He also discovered it wasn’t to his liking. “In many respects my advancement was beyond my control and I didn’t like not being in control of my own professional destiny.” Today Read recognizes some of the skills needed by a modern entrepreneur aren’t necessarily always there immediately. “We can rely on others for those skills,” he says. “But the most important skills we cannot lack are the passion and the perseverance to take your idea and turn it into a successful business. You also have to have the knowledge and belief in yourself to know that sooner or later you will achieve your goal. Once I entered the business world, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be successful no matter how difficult my current circumstances were at the time.” Today, Read is taking a serious look at acquiring other firms or expansion and diversification.
Crypton Super Fabrics
When Randy Rubin found herself a divorced stay-at-home mother of two small children, she admits it was a shock. “I was unprepared and vulnerable.” But she took the wake-up call in stride. “I truly think that I was determined from that point on that I would always stay in control of my destiny,” says Rubin, who tried to find a job albeit with difficulty. “I found it so difficult, that after finding a great job, it occurred to me that other women found themselves in the same position that I had been.” She created a special training course to help women learn how to find a better job. Eventually the course expanded to the point where Chevrolet sponsored the initiative under the name Strategies for Success. Today Rubin calls herself “the definition of reinvention,” having gone from teacher to homemaker to paralegal as well as a conference planner and spokesperson. She’s also consulted to JC Penney, Kmart and MCI, and now to her own company. “I reinvented myself out of survival, out of the need to do something different and creative, and the need to do something challenging.” With Crypton Super Fabric, Rubin’s company has 14 global patents, and some 70 million yards installed. “More than 92 percent of designers in hospitality, health care, restaurant, education and other institutions know about Crypton.” Today Rubin has extended the brand, developing the technology for leather, mattress fabric, wall fabric, fabric treatments and now carpeting. Rubin believes today’s entrepreneur needs total determination and focus to protect the business (it may even mean downsizing it) while still building on all the potential and strength the business has stood for. “More than ever, you need to focus on the numbers, the profitability, the bank covenants and keeping people you employ as upbeat as possible. I live my life and run my business on the philosophy of never just wringing my hands. I stay nimble. This is the ideal time to promote. Clever and creative are what I tell my people to be-focus on products that make it look like customers spent big dollars when in reality they spent very little.”
A Certified Public Accountant, Margie Simmons leads SHW Group’s firm’s higher education practice, bringing her experience in financial, business and marketing circles to the architectural firm. Simmons founded the firm’s Michigan office, having previously taught college classes. “Margie holds a strong belief that buildings, products, systems and processes must be well designed to be truly successful,” says Kyle Bacon, COO of SHW Group.
Atlas Oil Company
Simon learned at an early age how the simple things could build on one another to positive benefit. “From my first job when I was nine years old, delivering newspapers, the more I hustled, and gave the best service; the more I took care of my customers, the happier they were and as a result, the better they tipped me. That’s when I learned service truly mattered.” Working at his father’s gas station, honesty, quality, extra service, all paid off. At his own company, Atlas Oil, Simon continued that emphasis. “I promised myself that we would take care of each and every customer as if they were our only customer. The more I honestly cared, the happier I was to help, the happier the customer was and one customer became two; then 15 and 20, and on it grew.” Today’s entrepreneur, he adds, should “never be comfortable and never be satisfied. Always be hungry. Keep focused. Continue to change the game and hire the best people.” And when it comes to problems? “You must manage crisis well. You must reinvent yourself. Look ahead but keep your eyes on the day-to-day business too. When you see danger, have a strategy on how to maneuver it. With a great team and everyone focused you can get it done. There will always be problems, but there are always solutions. In the bad economy we have now, we have found opportunities and made them a success.”
Plex Systems, Inc.
Working his way through college, Mark Symonds found he had to be resourceful, which included putting ads in the local paper for yard work, landscaping and house painting. Even in graduate school, he worked. But beyond hard work, Symonds says today’s entrepreneur needs vision-the ability to see opportunity and know how to pursue it. “Because not everyone can see with the same vision, an entrepreneur also needs commitment and persistence, plus the ability to press on when others are doubting.” He also sees experience as being key. “Many successful people have failed one or more times before getting it right,” he says. “I, for one, learn more from my failures than my successes.” At Plex Systems, reinvention has been repeated more than once in its 14 years, including 2001, where it changed from making custom, on-premise software to an on-demand, standard product. When the company founder stepped down, Symonds began the task of running a fully operational, scalable company. An even more jarring change was the recent transition in pricing from perpetual (upfront) licenses to subscription (pay-as-you-go) pricing. “While we took a huge hit to revenue and cash in 2007, we now have stable, growing, recurring revenue. Our customers love the ability to improve their businesses without a huge cash outflow.” Symonds sees a focus on automotive (which accounts for 45 percent of revenue) as a positive. “We are helping to usher in the new era in the automotive industry that will be much leaner and way more agile.”
Innovative Learning Group, Inc.
When her former employer shuttered the doors in 2004, Lisa Toenniges admits she was pushed into being an entrepreneur. “A group of us needed jobs, I knew the business model worked, so I started a new company within days.” Five years later, they have more than 30 clients with an average growth of 25 percent per year. Her advice today? “The most important skill is the ability to assess your own skills, and have a clear picture of what you are good at and like to do and where you are weak or don’t enjoy the task. Then surround yourself by people that complement that profile.” Toenniges says no one is good at everything. “As a business owner I am always looking ahead and ‘driving’ whatever is next, whether it’s a marketing tactic, an infrastructure improvement, or a new business process. Given that we are in the performance improvement field as a business, I am fortunate to be able to apply the same principles to running our business as I do when we consult with clients.” Still think running a business is glamorous? Not Toenniges. “Much of being an entrepreneur is more like getting on the treadmill every day-¦ quoting work, following up on aged receivables, and emptying the trash-¦ the things that keep revenue coming in the door and provide a great place for employees to come to every day and do their best work.” Success is about building on strengths and relying on skills that enable entrepreneurs to thrive in good times. “Things like being nimble, being responsive and accountable, keeping a close eye on the financials, and providing a great client experience are the same things that enable them to survive in tough times.”
Ryan A. Vartoogian
Spartan Internet Consulting Corporation
Way back in ancient history-1997-Ryan Vartoogian was just a sophomore at Michigan State University. But he saw a unique opportunity that would combine two of his professional interests: business and technology. Remember when there was no high-speed Internet? At the time, East Lansing was only one of two cities in the country pilot-testing the service and Vartoogian wanted to be part of that future. Today, he employs 30-plus employees in four different cities: Lansing, Mich. (headquarters), Metro Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. For Vartoogian, ethics are as much a part of his life and business as technology. “When we work with clients we are given a heavy responsibility to get to know them, understand the inner workings of their organization, and to help steer them on a strategic path over the next decade. I believe in being honest with clients, even if it means telling them something they don’t really want to hear.” At Spartan Internet Consulting, treating people with respect and providing opportunities to grow personally is key. Vartoogian’s entrepreneurial drive, combined with his interest in cutting edge Internet technology, is the cornerstone of the company’s culture. Growing up, Vartoogian credits his father Don with being a great role model. “He showed me how business was done,” says Vartoogian, who worked for his dad in a small manufacturing company in Detroit. “Having that opportunity provided me with a mindset that starting a business was not a daunting or impossible thing, but rather an achievable personal and professional goal. It was something that anyone with an idea and determination could bring about and make it a reality. It was also a way to see first hand how to manage a team and how to serve customers with integrity. He inspired and encouraged new ideas and new innovative ways of doing business.” Vartoogian says innovation is an ongoing process. “Spartan Internet Consulting Corporation is continually evolving as the importance of the Internet for business evolves. Surviving our current economic crisis is on the minds of business owners right now and now more than ever the Internet is used as part of the research process for individuals and organizations. The problem is that most organizations have a Web site, but few properly maintain and measure it over time. We are constantly analyzing our clients’ industries and identifying emerging patterns and trends involving the Internet.”
Aaron Vronko admits he’s an inquisitive sort. “I always questioned how everything worked in the world around me.” But for a reason. “It often led to thinking about how something could be improved or something made to solve a problem. Usually these early theoretical exercises would extend to include me ‘inventing that’ and selling them.” After high school, Vronko worked full-time in IT for a Fortune 500 corporation but was still “free-thinking,” constantly questioning rules and procedures “that didn’t seem to have any practical basis in reality for my position, group, or division.” Vronko says he yearned to be part of a more dynamic organization that would allow him to dream up his own ideas and see them to fruition. His prescription for today’s entrepreneur? “Persistence, adaptability, and passion.” As Vronko explains, business environments change quickly, but small businesses don’t have the market power to help shape demand. “Instead they have the dynamic ability to adapt to markets at the speed of change, but only if their leader does too. Even with the ability to adapt, you still won’t always pick a winner. You need to have the courage to make the next big change, even when the last didn’t work out.” Having the passion to make something happen is perhaps the most intangible requisite. “If you can’t get up in the morning and be excited about making something happen for your business, you’re in the wrong place.” Vronko credits his parents (“for putting up with the question ‘why?’ a million or so times”) as well as his business partner Ben Levy, “who helped me demystify the entrepreneurial process.”
With both her parents already entrepreneurs, Lisa Wehr says she grew into the role naturally. “In high school I had my own car detailing business. Later in life I had a travel business that involved leading people on sled dog trips through the Alaska wilderness.” From there, Wehr began a Web site design business that eventually became Oneupweb. Wehr says humility, honesty and professionalism are the most important characteristics for a successful entrepreneur. “Being an entrepreneur also requires the ability to be responsible,” she adds. “I feel a huge sense of responsibility toward my staff, our clients and our continued success. And I’m driven to work hard, stay creative and really apply myself on a daily basis.” She’s in the business of reinvention. “Online marketing is a constantly changing field,” says Wehr. “That means new opportunities and important trends popping up at warp speed. We need to not only be able to change with it, but to anticipate what’s coming next to stay ahead of the curve, something we’ve consistently been able to do at Oneupweb.” While growth is good, growing too fast, or without proper planning can be detrimental, she adds. “We’ve made a commitment, and stuck to it, that we would continue to offer our clients the same level of service they expected before the growth. My challenge is for my company to continue to change with it-staying ahead of trends and offering the latest in services and technology to our clients.”
Donald C. Williams
Opti Temp Inc.
It was 22 years ago that Don Williams, faced with a layoff from a public company vowed never to put himself in that position. Even with other offers in hand, he launched Opti Temp, which specializes in the design and manufacture of innovative heat transfer solutions for a wide range of commercial, industrial, military and laboratory applications. Essentially, Williams reinvented himself as an entrepreneur. He calls it “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.” But the reinvention part wasn’t quite complete; a year after opening the doors, a minority partner left and with him, the company’s sales operation. “We had to expand our product line, obtain new sales outlets, change our marketing strategy, and also enter other markets.” Williams sees the role of entrepreneur as “coach,” directing the team in the game of business. And what’s needed to succeed? “First and foremost, today’s entrepreneur must have people skills, and the capability to select capable people that will fit into the culture of the company,” says Williams. “It is absolutely necessary to select and retain good people. The entrepreneur must also have planning skills both in marketing and sales, and in operations. Marketing is aiming the gun, and sales is the action of pulling the trigger.” Among the challenges Williams sees today are dealing with the short lifecycle of products. “We constantly look for new features and new products that we can introduce to keep ahead of the competition.” He’s also been around long enough to recognize that economic downturns are a way of life. “They occur about every four to eight years. I think it is necessary to recognize this and plan accordingly. It is also necessary to identify industries that are not as susceptible to these downturns and market to these industries. We constantly try to find these industries and avoid those most susceptible to downturns.”