By J.D. Booth
June 27, 2013
Take a look at some of the region’s most innovative businesses and the people who start and run them, and it’s clear — Michigan is one special place in which to do business.
Indeed, in good times, bad times and in between-those periods of economic recovery during which we take a deep breath or two in hope-there remain standout businesses that almost can’t help themselves but be successful.
They’re the businesses that are running full throttle, gaining market share, serving customers in new and unique ways, and leaving their competition wondering just how it is that they’re doing so well, day after day, week after week.
These firms are among the most impressive examples of just how powerful a winning business strategy can be.
But it’s not just those companies that have caught our attention.
There’s another set of standouts that Corp! magazine is proud to recognize, the Entrepreneurs of Distinction who live and breathe risk taking, focus and unrelenting optimism and discipline, all with the knowledge that not only are things going to be better.
They’re going to be better because they made it so.
There’s little question from the perspective of Almetals CEO James Chain that the recovery and return of the automotive industry is among the key reasons for the firm’s success. “That was our best growth opportunity,” says Chain. “Plus, the fact that they are now using more aluminum in their vehicle design and production.” The company has built a strong Web presence to harness numerous new opportunities -¨as a distributor for industries such as stamping, roll forming, and tube producers. But Michigan is where the firm is poised to continue to succeed, something Chain credits state government for having achieved. “They understand manufacturing and what it means to be business friendly.”
American Lawn Corp.-¨
At American Lawn, a full-service landscape firm that’s called Michigan home since 1961, CEO Janice Ornsten admits there are challenges as well as rewards. “Every day there are five new landscapers, all of whom are cutting your price.” But it’s the ability to adapt-notably by pairing employees who know their customers-that keeps American Lawn competitive beyond simply price. They’re also versatile, with services that include landscaping, flower planting, trimming shrubs, or a complete yard. An in-writing guarantee on its work and attention at every step of the way are also reasons for the firm’s continued success. Even holiday time decorating around a client’s home is part of American Lawn’s repertoire-as are seasonal snow plowing, hand shoveling and salting services. In fact, those four seasons are among the qualities in Michigan that are helpful-each season bringing in added extras.
Sometimes being the best isn’t enough. People have to know who you are and why they should give you an opportunity to prove yourself. For Aristocat Transportation, owned by CEO Sue Jarvis, that came with its certification as a woman-owned firm. “This certification has opened many new opportunities for us,” says Jarvis of a firm that opened its doors in 1988. “We are able to reach out to new corporate groups, government contracting, and conference and trade show events.” Jarvis says Aristocat has also continued to work to build stronger relationships with existing clients. “A strong client base helps us to have a good foundation and potential recommendations.” The company has also reached out through various social media initiatives and management continues to attend more networking events that help connect with new corporate groups. Jarvis says she’s a big fan of Michigan and being able to promote firms that are her neighbors. Looking ahead, Jarvis says Artistocat will continue to expand and maintain its fleet, all the while relying on a great office team to get the job done.
When the economy goes through a rough patch-as it did for many companies, including Blackford Capital-sometimes the smart move is to invest inward. And that’s exactly what Blackford did, not only adding some 13 positions but buying a new office in downtown Grand Rapids to accommodate that growth. It also took the time and energy to enhance its internal processes, including improving on its customer relationship management software as well as looking for investment opportunities. By 2012, Blackford Capital had launched its Michigan Prosperity Fund, a key initiative that made its first purchase in Custom Profile, a 20-year-old plastics molder that serves the appliance, office furniture and marine industries. Blackford is looking ahead and it likes what it sees-as many as 2,000 companies in Michigan that fit its investment criteria, with 30-40 percent of those expected to see an ownership change in the next decade. That’s a lot of business opportunity available for Blackford Capital to chew on. Still, there are upcoming challenges, notably in the federal government’s Affordable Care Act and CEO Martin Stein says Blackford Capital expects to make changes, not only to its own health care program, but in those companies where it makes significant ownership investments.
Boasting that there’s no other agency that knows college students better than it does, Campus Commandos has been digging deep when it comes to making sure it continues to deliver the best methods for firms like HP to advertise to its clients. Headed by Adam Grant, Campus Commandos intends to be part of the “comeback” story for Detroit. As a member of the Dan Gilbert Group of companies, Campus Commandos has access to a wealth of resources, all designed to help drive business to its clients.
There may have been a day when technology was pretty straightforward. Those days are history, of course, but C/D/H, a consultancy that calls both the Metro Detroit and Grand Rapids area home, has embraced those changes with wide-open arms. Says lead partner Paul Hillman: “To truly differentiate ourselves, we rely on the proper and full application of our core values: Active Collaboration, Continuous Improvement, Genuine Commitment, and Unquestionable Fairness.” When those core values are presented to prospective clients, “they can decide if our company’s a good fit. And it’s okay either way. And we tell them that.” Being upfront with as much candor as possible has worked out well for C/D/H, says Hillman. “It’s helped us get better and more valued trusted relationships with our clients.” Coming through the economic recession of 2009 lead to the kind of question only a survivor can ask with confidence: “What have we learned from this downturn?” For C/D/H, the answer is improved systems, cutting back on non-strategic initiatives and a positioning that lead to back-to-back record revenue and profitability. “That was because of our re-tooling,” says Hillman. “We are now a stronger Michigan-based firm that is taking advantage of the economic resurgence.”
Clean Energy Coalition-¨
A strategy of “open book management” and revenue diversification over the past year has had a “tremendously positive and engaging effect” on the ability of Clean Energy Coalition to build general business literacy among its staff. So says Sean Reed, Clean Energy Coalition’s executive director. “We came to recognize the fact that we need to be working with a more diverse customer base,” says Reed. “Our efforts have yielded strong dividends for us and will make us a more economically resilient organization moving forward.” Having already received a high level of support for its initiatives, Reed says Michigan is “a tremendously exciting place for a young organization such as ours to start up and grow.” As an organization that does a high level of government contracting work, Reed adds that the uncertainty as far as government commitments to green energy makes diversification of its customer base “a wise move on our part.”
Continuity Programs Inc.-¨
Intelligent, systematic marketing. For Kirk King, those three words represent the key offerings of what was a struggling 40-year-old company he purchased in 2010. After King’s own implementation of technology, restructuring, and change in focus, Continuity Programs has experienced exponential sales growth. “We’ve changed the way we do business in many areas,” notes King. “By offering more options and flexibility for clients to customize our marketing systems with their branding, clients can design their own cross-media campaigns.” In essence, those clients rely on Continuity Programs to fulfill printed and e-mailed communications, delivering leads and tracking their customers. Today, Continuity Programs offerings include online and offline marketing solutions. Its growth in the last year has largely been with existing clients, strengthening relationships by becoming an even more valuable resource. “Our best success has been with growing our long-term clients and strengthening those partnerships,” says King. “They are also giving us more referrals than ever before.” Looking ahead, the challenge will come in the form of the kind of talent Continuity Programs needs to sustain its growth. “Being able to automate and streamline operations will allow us to pay a premium for sales talent, programmers and IT resources.”
When the recession slowed things down for Digerati, Joe Klecha, the firm’s chief technology officer, did what any good student of supply/demand economics would: he diversified. “We started taking on more short-term projects that we used as growth opportunities to deepen our bench and prepare us for the longer term engagements that we were used to,” notes Klecha. “We also began to focus on productizing several of our project-based technologies to capitalize on our own internal investments and domain specific knowledge.” The result? “It really smoothed the bumps in the road caused by the economic downturn,” says Klecha. Looking ahead, Digerati’s best growth opportunity in the near future is a short-term project that will force it to staff up. “This is a perfect example of meaningful work that allows us to hire and train new staff and get them acclimated to our environment over the course of the project.” When long-term projects open up, “we’ll be able to immediately shift experienced folks from short-term work into a more long-term position,” adds Klecha, who notes that even then staffing will remain a challenge. “We have more demand than we have capacity and we’ve had to get creative with how we grow that capacity.”
Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy
While few companies were unscathed by the recent recession, the effects of Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy not so much in the demand for its services but the ability of many of its patients to afford their specialty medications. For CEO Phil Hagerman, himself a pharmacist, the response was classic Diplomat: “We recognized this issue and stepped up our efforts to help patients find outside funding to ease their financial burden.” Adding staff, casting a wider net for funding, and working with patients to help with the application process was all part of the Diplomat commitment to service. “Our philosophy of ‘keeping patients first’ helps us win business that might have gone unfulfilled and it also shows both patients and health care providers how much we truly care here,” notes Hagerman. Reaching out in difficult economic times also created what he calls “raving fans” and helped develop relationships “that continue to grow at any accelerated rate now that the economy is improving.” Today the company continues to help clients through services outside Diplomat’s core dispensing business, notably specialty pharmacy support services for other retail and health system partners. And that has required not only more staff but technology as well. Indeed, the firm is in the final phase of a software upgrade to support the fast-growing initiative. One of the advantages Hagerman sees in being Michigan-based is simply having access to the staff Diplomat counts on for continuing success. “There aren’t that many states where businesses have access to educated talent with a strong Midwest work ethic and three research powerhouse universities,” he adds. “Even so, our biggest challenge will be to find and train staff to support our diverse and rapidly growing business streams.” Having its own in-house “Diplomat University” is also a key strategy and will be for some time. “The need to self-train will only get larger over the next year as we continue to grow,” says Hagerman.
Elzinga & Volkers
Not only surviving but thriving in a difficult economic cycle is something Elzinga & Volkers, a standout Michigan-based construction services firm based in Holland, has done, primarily by adapting. “We’ve been able to stay competitive and exceed expectations in a very aggressive marketplace,” notes CEO Mike Novakoski. From restructuring positions as a way to best use a multi-talented staff, to focusing on training and reducing long-term debt, the firm has also focused its efforts in niche markets, among them health care, food production and national retail. “That’s kept us out of the heavily commoditized market of ‘low bid’ construction,” adds Novakoski, noting that creating both a sustainable business and a sustainable base of work has served the company well over the years. “Over the last few years, these practices are now allowing us to thrive.” Even as the firm grows, it’s looking for new ways to serve its clients, including through a professional services group that has experienced 25 percent growth in the last year alone. That growth is sure to continue as Elzinga & Volkers benefits from demand for its services. “We have great companies in Michigan that are investing in growth, driving the demand for construction services,” notes Novakoski. The challenge is for the firm to be both strategic and selective when it comes to what projects it will take on. That leads to a two-pronged strategy: avoiding the tendency to over-commit and finding quality people for the positions the growth will generate.
Standing still is not an option for the team at ePrize, already acknowledged as one of the nation’s best-equipped and innovative promotions and loyalty firms. CEO Matt Wise and his group are continuously looking for ways to streamline the business, even as they provide more to their clients. Having acquired five companies in just two years (each with unique capabilities that complement its core business), ePrize is taking advantage of strides in mobile engagement. Says Wise: “We’re well positioned to create strategies that get brands in front of consumers, starting a permission-based relationship.” While ePrize has expanded with offices across the country, its Michigan roots run deep. “We have access to a great talent pool,” adds Wise. “That’s important to graduates who are looking for a cool place to work and who want to stay in their home state and grow their careers here.” Still, Wise acknowledges one of the company’s biggest ongoing challenges: getting enough staff. “We can’t hire fast enough.” That doesn’t mean ePrize is content to watch others overtake in its recruitment efforts. “We continue to participate in programs such as Challenge Detroit and have a robust summer program that draws students statewide, to elevate awareness of the creative and innovative work that is being done right in their backyards,” notes Wise, who adds that drawing talent from other states is part of the ePrize recruitment strategy.
Hard times? Like many business leaders faced with the need for diversification, Experi-Metal CEO Valiena Allison has seen it face-to-face. In her case, she’s proven that hard work and dedication is part of the recipe for success as she lead her team in that diversification effort-embracing aerospace, homeland security, military defense and alternative energy markets. That “outside-the-box” mentality allowed Allison to streamline operations while building teamwork. She also created and rolled out enhanced financial reporting systems, concentrated on employee development and training efforts, and even bought new equipment and software to further streamline operations and reduce operating costs. Plus a pay-for-performance system helped make sure everyone was rowing in the same direction. That included successfully entering the alternative energy market. Having employee development systems (including a successful mentorship program) has made Allison even more optimistic about the future of Experi-Metal and especially about the role the state has played in the company’s success. “Michigan is a national leader for talent, cost, low taxes, outstanding workforces and is also a hot market for advanced manufacturing, alternative energy and defense/homeland security,” she notes. The strategic management of the current growth stage is also top of mind. “We refuse to over-commit and under-deliver. Through a joint effort at all levels, our team will grow stronger and we will be able to bring forth creative solutions to the challenges that face us in the diverse marketplace in which we operate.”
Fitness Therapy Unlimited-¨
Rather than building a large network of multiple studios for its premier fitness therapy services (including massage, land and aquatic fitness therapy), Fitness Therapy Unlimited has adopted a strategy that has helped it survive the recession. “We’ve expanded our footprint beyond Metro Detroit, but a key initiative has been to reduce therapy expenses by traveling to the client’s home or local community and using those fitness facilities,” says CEO Greg Kirk Jr., a former physical education instructor and personal trainer who once worked with individuals with spinal cord injuries through the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan. In fact, by being able to build an organization around Michigan’s unique no-fault auto insurance system, the company remains the only company of its kind in the nation, says Kirk. “We’re the fitness therapy provider of choice for auto no-fault and workers’ compensation injuries in Michigan,” he adds. “FTU picks up where physical therapy leaves off, focusing on rehabilitation of the whole body, not just the injured area, in order to reach treatment goals.” Kirk’s biggest challenge relates to a potential cap on claims that he says will do more harm than good. “If this bill is passed, it will force the most defenseless victims onto Medicaid and will pass the financial responsibility to the taxpayers instead of insurance companies.”
Fullerton Tool Company Inc.-¨
As a family owned company since 1942, Fullerton Tool is now in its third generation of ownership. Not all of those 70 years have been smooth sailing, notes current CEO Patrick Curry, who took the reins of the firm in 2008. But rather than merely fighting for survival, Curry began challenging his team, even as he focused on a series of principles that have proven to make a difference. By aligning profit sharing initiatives with those principles, Fullerton has experienced a turnaround that many would envy. Among its best opportunities seized is a system that gives automotive customers a regrind service as close to new condition as possible. Curry and his team intend on maintaining an advantage they already see in being in a state known for its manufacturing prowess. “We want to make sure we are ahead of the game and always current with the needs of our customers,” he notes. “We always have our eyes open and our ears ready to make quality decisions that will not only benefit our company, but more importantly our customers.”
As a Michigan-based energy and environmental, construction, technology and security firm, FutureNet Group CEO Perry Mehta knows what it takes to provide infrastructure improvement and protection through innovative technologies. By pooling the company’s resources to generate cost efficiencies and add value to every contract, FutureNet Group is able to exceed client expectations. Last year’s acquisition of Smith & Wesson Security Solutions added a manufacturing facility in Franklin, Tenn., and more than 80 employees to the company’s roster. The corporate addition means the firm will continue to engineer and build the most competitive perimeter security products in the world. Together with its subsidiary, FutureNet Group has more than 200 employees and associates, both nationally and internationally, which include Detroit, New Orleans, Washington, D.C.; Fort Jackson, S.C.; and Huntsville, Ala.; Dallas; Haiti and Saudi Arabia.
Genisys Credit Union
Connecting with its member customers is something Genisys Credit Union takes seriously, especially when it comes to those who choose to do so through their smartphones, either on the iOS or Android platforms. But one of the biggest outreach strategies may be opening up membership to virtually anyone that lives or works in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, a move that resulted in nearly 7 percent more members in 2012 alone. The financial institution, the result of a 2008 merger between T&C Federal Credit Union and USA Credit Union, is also making more loans (and hiring people to manage that business) and now offers its own VISA Platinum card, which speeds up the application process and brings more flexibility to members. As the economy improves, Genisys CEO Jackie Buchanan sees a greater need for business services and business loans emerging. “We’ve also seen a significant increase in demand for auto loans for both new and used vehicles and with the housing market starting to pick up in Michigan, we’ve seen tremendous growth in our mortgage department.” On the challenge side of the business equation, Genisys sees the need for more training of its employees as rules and regulations for credit unions continue to change. “A big challenge for Genisys Credit Union will be to adapt to these new rules and regulations while still offering quality service to members,” adds Buchanan.
As the largest family owned and operated security company in North America, Guardian Alarm boasts one of the most technologically advanced monitoring stations in the country. Power outage? No problem: the firm’s equipment automatically and seamlessly switches over to two natural gas generators as well as a diesel generator to keep its monitoring service online. Plus it has backup phone systems. “We’re committed to providing a prompt and courteous experience every time we serve our customers,” notes CEO David Goldstein. With staff who undergo a rigorous certification program and a criminal background check, Guardian Alarm has made it a point to exceed customer expectations. “Our response time for life threatening and property intrustion alarms is less than 15 seconds on average,” says the firm’s website.
One word might best describe the landscape ImageSoft Inc. sees, both in the recent past and the foreseeable future. Growth. Having been actively recruiting and hiring staff for quite some time, CEO Scott Bade says he has no plans to let up on the push to hire. “We need to be able to fully meet the needs and expectations of our customers and to do so in a timely fashion,” says Bade. With a large percentage of ImageSoft customers being in the courts and law enforcement sector, the company’s suite of products that provide dramatic processing efficiencies continues to be of interest, especially with the approval by Michigan’s State Court Administrative Office of the company’s electronic filing solution. “The end result will be improved efficiencies in the courts and law enforcement agencies, reduced costs, increased public safety, enhanced transparency and improved citizen service,” says Bade. The challenge, of course, is making sure the firm continues to have the technical and support staff needed to keep pace with the growth in demand. “Getting the right people in the right seats in our organization is key to our success.”
Staying ahead of the curve in an industry that was, quite literally, born out of innovation remains a challenge in any economy, but IPexpert is arguably among the leaders when it comes to doing just that, focusing on training on Cisco Systems products. With its state-of-the-art training solutions that offer real time, high definition, fully interactive instruction anywhere in the world, the firm speaks the language of customers who want to save money. Being able to stay local reduces the hard costs of travel but also minimizes time lost from being away from the office. “We believe it will become the standard for instructor-led training and the choice for busy professionals around the world,” says company founder Wayne Lawson II. Part of staying ahead of the curve, of course, is continuing to differentiate from the competition, something IPexpert is doing. “We’re creating the best training material in the Cisco training space.”
Staying in a posture that both anticipates customer growth and is able to respond to new opportunities is at the heart of the thinking behind Kyyba Inc. The firm, a 300-strong IT and engineering staff company, was formed in 1997 after its founder, engineer Tel K. Ganesan left the comfort of an automaker to go out on his own. Today Ganesan acknowledges that Kyyba’s growth is one based on diversification as well as that sense of anticipation. “When a major customer experienced significant growth, we were able to capitalize on that and provide the necessary requirements to take on this new lead.” While Ganesan is a native of India (where Kyyba has offices in addition to its Farmington Hills headquarters), he says Michigan’s “on the rise” business climate is good for his company. “Kyyba is on a high-growth path and to accelerate that growth we need more advanced management who have the capabilities to handle these new set of challenges and expectations,” says Ganesan. His strategy? “We are constantly seeking out talent and are providing the right culture and work environment to attract those types of workers.”
Litho Printing Service-¨
With more than 40 years of service, Litho Printing has grown its business into one that’s at the forefront of an increasingly competitive industry. Indeed, today the firm has grown well beyond its Metro Detroit roots, accepting nationwide print and design orders and the ability to ship anywhere in the world. Now run by Dale Heid, the firm began in the basement of Walt Heid’s Eastpointe home. Even today, the younger Heid upholds the high quality standards of his father. Litho Printing customers range from schools, government agencies, non-profit organizations, hospitals and clinics, as well as other printers and publishers, individuals, small businesses and corporations. “We offer an affordable and innovative custom printing solution that not only saves money, but also time,” notes Dale Heid. “Our printing service solutions include fast accurate quotes, in-house graphic design services and an array of printing services to fulfill your ordering needs.” The competitive advantage is clear. “We are better than our competitors because we have the experience to do it right the first time. Our prices are second to none because we know the best and least expensive way to do the job.”
Talk to Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, and the word “flexibility” will surely come to mind. It might have just a little something to do with its mission-ending human suffering in the world as it relates to technology-but one gets the feeling it’s more than that. For starters, even the way it brings people into its team is different, with about half those who work at the Ann Arbor firm consisting of subcontractors. That gives Menlo the flexibility to meet the demands of any given project, producing software for all walks of industry from health care, to scientific equipment, to high-fashion ecommerce, to diesel motor vehicle diagnostics, and more. But one of the key ways the firm demonstrates flexibility is in its pricing models, including a “leveraged play” option that forgoes lower revenue for an equity position in a product it designs and develops. “This also increases the investment of Menlo’s team in the outcome of the project,” notes Sheridan. Even as other firms have contracted, Menlo has grown. And people have taken notice. Menlo hosts more than 2,000 “tourists” in any given year, people who want to take a look at the firm’s culture up close. Today, Menlo, which hosts a startup business, has every intention of remaining in the state, collaborating with the University of Michigan Center for Entrepreneurship in an effort to grow young firms.
Michigan First Credit Union-¨
Being able to reach every single resident in the state of Michigan as a potential credit union member is no small feat. Indeed, for Michigan First Credit Union, a successful application for a statewide field of membership was-in keeping with its name-a first. From the perspective of CEO Michael Poulos, an improved business climate is due in large part to a number of factors, including governmental encouragement and support, a well-educated workforce, a strong middle class, world-class educational medical and educational institutions and a fast-paced culture. The organization is also maintaining its focus on high levels of personal service, backed up by a solid commitment to ongoing staff development and training, launching an organizational reinvention process that will result in significant service level and improvements in electronic access. Even with the improvements, Poulos says challenges remain, notably what he calls excessive government regulation. “It has become overly burdensome and there is no let up in sight.” While he adds that Michigan First will continue to adapt, “the costs of excessive regulation always get passed to the consumers and we feel bad that our individual members will bear the burden that Washington, D.C., puts upon us.”
As far as Dr. Jeffrey Miller is concerned, specialization is key to the success of his Miller Vein practice. “This allows us to not only stay current with what is available in technology but allows us to develop new approaches.” One of those is VeinErase, a trademarked method for treating spider veins that Miller says is both painless and affordable. It’s also created great word-of-mouth interest, adds Miller, a native of the state who plans to stay put. “I love the change in seasons, the beautiful scenery and most importantly the people.” At the same time, Miller has concerns about how various provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the so-called Obamacare legislation) will affect his practice. “On the business front, we have noticed an increase in our premiums and are unsure how much higher they will go. We have also noticed that insurance carriers are requiring more and more paperwork,” says Miller. “With the bill being over 2,700 pages and many new rules and regulations, I can’t really imagine nor predict what will happen. For our part, we plan to keep providing the absolute best customer service while supporting our employees with the most enjoyable work environment.”
Mindscape at Hanon McKendry-¨
It was back in 2007 that Pete Brand and Paul Ferrier moved their office from Muskegon to Grand Rapids, a decision that ultimately put it on the radar of Hanon McKendry, a multi-platform branding agency. A year later, Mindscape sold a minority share of the business to the larger company, a move both Brand and Ferrier credit for much of Mindscape’s growth since. In 2010, the acquisition of Venux, a custom application development agency allowed further expansion in the mobile and custom application area. And a year ago, the firm opened a Detroit office, giving it broader access to an even deeper talent pool and becoming in the process an emerging force in the national market. The firm’s challenges include simply staying competitive in an industry with a low barrier entry for new businesses. Today, with its own programming framework for Web development, Mindscape at Hanon McKendry has been able to create a residual income stream and the development of digital marketing partnerships.
Online Tech’s leadership-Yan Ness and Mike Klein-have no qualms in crediting, at least in part, “good, old-fashioned work and sacrifice” for being able to get through the most recent recession. They also narrowed the focus of its technology and product offerings, the combined strategy leading to a 30 percent annual growth through some tough economic times. Today its focus on three specific vertical markets-health care, banking and finance, and retail and commerce-has lead to a set of solutions that Online Tech expects to continue that growth. And the firm has already differentiated itself by becoming “much more serious” about security and compliance than other data centers. That kind of thinking extends to its private cloud strategy, a technology that appeals to companies that want to move to the cloud but remain concerned about the security implications. Co-CEOs Ness and Klein continue to see Michigan as being an ideal environment to grow its robust data centers, notably due to a lack of natural disasters-the lowest number in the contiguous United States-and a low average temperature that reduces the cost of cooling, a significant line item on any data center’s profit and loss report. “We draw cold air from outside when the temperature warrants,” the co-CEOs note. “It’s greener and cheaper and we have no other major competitors in Michigan, which has allowed us to grow beneath the radar screen of major data competitors in the United States.”
If innovation is one of your favorite words, you have something in common with OST-short for Open Systems Technologies. Indeed, the company has experienced more innovation in the last two years than in the previous 13 combined, notes CEO Dan Behm. While building structure may seem constraining for a company that relies on innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, the balance offered between maturity through structure and creativity through innovation seems to be key. “It’s bolstered employee loyalty and confidence in our ability to continue to be thought leaders in our industry,” says Behm, who, along with Chief Innovation Officer Jim VanderMey founded the company in 1997. Since 2002, the firm has been owned by its employees and averaged nearly 30 percent compounded annual revenue growth in the past nine years. Maintaining that growth by attracting top technical talent remains OST’s biggest foreseeable challenge, although the company has something of a headstart with low turnover (3 percent compared with a 20 percent industry average). Chances are that OST, with its strong, family oriented culture, will do just fine, thank you very much.-¨
It’s one of those firms that has clearly succeeded by embracing technological innovation on behalf of its customers. Consider the fact that Plex Systems opened its doors nearly 20 years ago, a time when “cloud” meant those white, fluffy things we gazed at while laying dreamily on our backs. Today, the Plex Manufacturing Cloud helps manufacturers cut costs, streamline operations, improve profitability and, yes, thrive in the post-recession manufacturing environment. For CEO Jason Blessing, it’s “all of the above” when it comes to driving future opportunities. “We’ve launched innovative functionalities that make our products even more useful for current and potential users,” he notes. One of those, IntelliPlex, is integrated into existing products. Another-SmartPlex-brings extended functionality to mobile devices. Blessing, while acknowledging “you can build a successful software company just about anywhere,” says “there’s something special about the skill sets and spirits of Michigan workers.” Blessing says a combination of world-class manufacturing expertise, exceptional technology skills and “an unmatched work ethic” means even deeper roots for Plex Systems as a Michigan-based firm. That future also includes expanding into new vertical markets, notably food and beverage, aerospace and defense, and electronics/high-tech. “We’ve embraced a two-tier approach that gives us the flexibility to either serve as a manufacturer’s comprehensive, central ERP (enterprise resource planning) solution or link back to an existing ERP infrastructure,” adds Blessing.
Premium Event Services-¨
How does a company do more business with its clients? If your name is Premium Event Services, a good place to start is to ask. Indeed, CEO Michelle Yurcak says growth of more than 30 percent from 2011 to 2012 came largely by identifying what services its core clients needed. “While some clients previously came to us for single date events, those same clients are looking to us to solve more of their logistic needs, including transportation, team building and development of meeting content.” At the same time, Yurcak and her team have been able to streamline the firm’s internal processes, ensuring that best practices in a consistent environment continue to set Premium Event Services apart from the competition. Yurcak says the depth of talent available in the Metro Detroit area makes it an ideal place from a business standpoint. “Michigan is a forgotten gem and when we get businesses coming here, they soon realize there is so much opportunity to work with the best talent and resources.” On the challenge side of the ledger, Yurcak counts lingering uncertainty in the economy as well as rising fuel prices and the impact of changes to health care as key going forward.
Rapid Global Business Solutions Inc.-¨
Two of the biggest words in the vocabulary of RGBSI CEO Nanua Singh begin with the letter “E”-expertise and experience. And both are leveraged as the company builds the kind of comprehensive tools it needs to manage its hiring lifecycle, something that becomes even more important in situations where RGBSI serves as a “master services provider”-in effect the single point of contact for multiple vendors. Indeed, Singh says having developed the technology and, in the process, being able to cut costs for its customers, is one of the firm’s best opportunities. Still, he hasn’t stopped looking for ways to further improve the way RGBSI does business. “There is always a need to streamline the hiring process,” he adds. As far as calling Michigan home, Singh says being here is the very reason RGBSI has grown and succeeded. “We were able to grow and expand in many countries because of the global presence of our automotive clients. And while we’ve experienced the ups and downs of the Michigan economy, we now get to leverage being part of one of the most competitive states when it comes to job creation and economic development.”
Service Express Inc.-¨
CEO Ron Alvesteffer would admit the secret of his company’s success is hardly something that’s hush-hush. “We’re big on empowering employees and on teaching them our business so they can make decisions on their own,” he says, referring to innovative practices that include building models, measurements and predictive analytics. “When we get that into the hands of people in the field, it allows them to see where they have an impact on the company.” Even in tough times, Service Express remained successful, notably by focusing on how the firm contributed value to its customers. “People still have money to spend if you show them a return,” notes Alvesteffer. “Our challenge is to make sure they know that and to provide the service they need.” Service Express, he adds, is a high growth company with the need for a small company feel. “We want to make sure everyone here has a feel for the business and knows that we’re in it together.” That means facing challenges like health care head on. “We invest in our company and health care is definitely going to be a challenge going forward. But we have to figure it out and do what’s best for our employees. When you surround yourself with the right people, they’ll help us figure it out.”
Solucient Security Systems-¨
Staying safe. That’s at the heart of what Solucient Security offers its clients and a promise to help is something its CEO, Mike Wanstreet, takes seriously. “Focusing on new home and business automation technologies is something we have really tried to focus on,” he says. With systems that give homeowners the ability to remotely arm/disarm their home security system, control lighting, thermostat and even door locks from anywhere, the firm is well placed to help a growing list of customers. A 200 percent growth in its sales force in the last five months alone demonstrates just how serious Wanstreet and his team are in achieving that mission. “The hardest part of being successful in any business is finding the right people for the job,” he adds. “But we’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by a number of world-class universities that produce highly educated and motivated employees.” At another level, education is the one that Wanstreet says is needed: “Continuing to educate Michiganders about the importance of using a security system company that is monitored locally. We’ve spent more than 70 years building relationships with local police and fire departments to ensure that we are a trusted partner and we’ve dedicated ourselves to being a staple in Michigan communities, making sure that a call from Solucient will not go unanswered.”
Stout Risius Ross Inc.
For Stout Risius Ross, a global financial advisory firm that has a significant presence in Michigan, the last recession presented an opportunity for diversification, not only through advancements in technology but in new markets. Today, its range of clients includes Fortune 500 corporations and privately held firms, all with a broad geographic reach. With the 2012 acquisition of HFBE, a Texas-based valuation and investment-banking firm-along with all its employees and clients-Stout Risius Ross found itself well positioned for even more growth. But it’s in Michigan that the firm sees great potential. “Detroit Metro has the 14th highest GDP in the U.S., with a strong manufacturing base, moderate cost of living and short commutes,” notes Michael Kern, president and chief operating officer. The firm’s biggest challenge, he acknowledges, will be sustaining its 10 percent annual growth. “We can achieve this by gaining a foothold in our newer offices and continuing to market ourselves as a national firm, while leveraging the expertise of our experts in mature offices like Michigan.”
The Charter Group-¨
It’s perhaps little surprise that the market for mergers and acquisitions-the bread and butter for The Charter Group-dried up during the most recent recession. The response of managing director John Kerschen was a process of reinvention that shifted from helping business owners sell their firms to helping them buy others. “In the process, we established a system of partnering with clients to help them grow through ongoing, planned acquisitions,” notes Kerschen. One example: helping Grand Rapids-based Crystal Flash Energy acquire some five companies. Today, Kerschen and his team-now double what it was a year ago-continue to work with Crystal Flash Energy. At the same time, The Charter Group has been able to introduce new ways to help raise capital and is one of a very few firms with the regulated authority to help with a variety of securities. Being in Michigan is also a key strength, says Kerschen. “The entrepreneurial spirit in Michigan remains high and since Michigan has a relatively low cost of doing business, national and international companies understand the value of basing their headquarters here.” Notwithstanding that, challenges remain, especially those that have to do with taxes and regulations. “Unforeseen changes can become a big obstacle to a successful transition,” notes Kerschen. “But leveraging our expertise, our clients can anticipate and prepare for potential changes when the time comes for a business transition.”
Trivalent Group Inc.-¨
A combination of acquisitions and “organic” growth over the psast decade has made Trivalent Group one of the foremost technology service providers in Michigan. So says Larry Andrus, the firm’s CEO, who points to a double-quadrupling in annual sales ($3 million to $24 million) along with more than four times the employees (75 now, 18 then). At least as important: the firm has been profitable for the last 96 months. “That’s a testament to our sustainability in this economy,” says Andrus. “We attribute our sustainability and continued growth to our ability to provide clients with innovative business solutions that allow them to capitalize on technology investments and focus on their core business and not their technology.” Andrus says growth through Trivalent’s integrated data center and cloud services has been key. “‘Big data’ will be a catalyst for growth in both cloud and premise-based services,” he adds. As far as being in Michigan, Andrus says a keen sense of community has lead to a strong collaborative spirit. “Business in Michigan is based on relationships and we believe that trusted relationships are integral to success in business and in life.” Through a combination of developing employees and hiring qualified candidates, Trivalent Group expects to continue to succeed.
The importance of a phenomenon known as “big data”-gathering and analyzing mammoth collections of information at a scale never before imagined-is one of the factors at the heart of a firm like Trubiquity, quite literally one that’s giving its customers the tools needed to build a future that runs on information. CEO Stephen Koons says scalability is key to the firm’s success. “We have continued to maintain the scalability of our data exchange, file transfer and process automation products.” That level of flexibility has continued to benefit Trubiquity customers, especially those who need robust ways of collaborating within a secure environment that demands high regulatory compliance. As defense and aerospace sectors grow, Trubiquity sees itself as well positioned to meet the demands for managing data in ever complex environments. Why Michigan? Koons is unabashed in pointing to the accessibility to talent as being the reason. “One of the key advantages of doing business in Michigan is the talent associated with individuals in the automotive, defense, and information technology industries. The strong work ethic and innovative nature of the professionals in the Michigan market have served us well in meeting and exceeding our customers’ IT needs.” While challenges remain-a widening variety of devices operating in secure environment-Koons is confident Trubiquity will continue to stand out among its competition. “This issue will be much more of an issue for other companies. We will offer cloud-based (in addition to on-premise and hybrid) solutions that afford users within a global enterprise and their extended supply chain a highly secure means to exchange data and collaborate.”
TTi Global asks the pointed question on its website: “Can a business partner offer the world if they only operate on half of it?” Clearly, the question is rhetorical given TTi Global’s expansion in the last decade. Says CEO Lori Blaker of the reasoning: “Our global expansion has been critical to our growth in that it has shielded us from downturns in a particular market.” It’s also a strategy that has become one of TTi Global’s great service attributes. “We’re able to support larger global customers with our worldwide footprint,” says Blaker, who points to a 2010 acquisition as being pivotal. “It allowed us to grow and expand much faster than organic growth would have allowed for.” Blaker says being Michigan based gives TTi Global an decided edge. “We see and learn about new technology much earlier than companies in other markets or locations. We can then transfer that knowledge into training opportunities and staffing situations, both here and around the world.” Even more important, then, is the company’s investment in building the infrastructure needed to exceed its customers’ expectations. “Keeping pace with new trends in learning and in training is key for us.”
Having built the organization into one of the world’s largest providers of automotive data, Urban Science has its sights set on even more growth, says CEO Jim Anderson, who points to two new products-Shared Sales and Dealer Business Intelligence-as being key to the firm’s future. Being able to provide clients with the financial reporting, analysis and forecasting tools needed to make critical decisions is part of that strategy. So is increasing the global footprint for Urban Science, which now has offices in Brazil and India. “The notion of leveraging our global products and our global footprint to deliver enhanced efficiency is one example of how we’ve changed our thinking,” adds Anderson. Its Michigan base is a key to making Urban Science a continued success and being centered in downtown Detroit “is an advantage in itself,” he says. “Ultimately, it is location, location, location-access to high quality people, university faculty and research efforts, the proximity to downtown and its revival and to three major automotive manufacturers.” As far as the future is concerned, Anderson says being able to leverage software investments across the Urban Science global footprint will be key. “From a cultural perspective, we have become more transparent and collaboration between offices around the world has increased. Now we’re rebuilding our software to make it far more efficient to deploy.”
When Wellco CEO Scott Foster realized that if he couldn’t live “doctor and medical bill free” then most other companies couldn’t either. Today, corporate wellness is a $2-billion industry but while 90 percent of U.S. companies offer some type of wellness program, half of those have tried to measure the success of those efforts. And fewer than 7 percent are effective enough to make a difference, according to Foster. He’s out to change that, with evaluation systems designed to accurately benchmark success over time. Foster points to the amount of attention the Affordable Care Act has brought to evidence-based wellness programs and the need to evaluate and improve ineffective wellness programs. “Companies don’t like to be trailblazers,” says Foster. “But they do need to know what is proven to make a difference in their bottom line.” Which, he says, is where Wellco excels. His challenge? Balancing and accommodating growth in other states. “We’re adapting by expanding and growing systems that can be used without excessively diluting staffing and physical resources,” he says.
CEO & Founder-¨
When it comes to inspiration, sometimes the simplest things become the most powerful over time. So it is with Mario Apruzzese, whose company, Employees Only, is built on a powerful value proposition that includes letting his customers do what they love to do without getting bogged down in the administrative and regulatory headaches. For Apruzzese, that kind of thinking permeates his life. “Treating others like they want to be treated is part of it. So is being consistent. There’s a difference between right and wrong and wrong always comes back to bite you.” Apruzzese has always been someone who wanted to own his own business, and control his destiny. Today, through Employees Only, he has that opportunity on a daily basis. And yes, not all days are the same, but he’s clearly having fun even as he makes a difference in the lives of those in his team and for his customers. He’s also a big fan of simplicity. “We’re dealing with unfunded mandates all the time, but the key message I’d deliver is this: ‘keep it simple, senator.’ If every decision you make means having to talk with your attorney, something’s not right.”
Founder & CEO-¨
Certainly, Angela Barbash sees herself as a change agent. But not just for the clients her company serves. “As a financial adviser who survived the 2008 crash, it became readily apparent in the five years since that our community’s needs going forward will be drastically different than they were before the crash.” With these insights she set out to form Reconsider, a center for thought leadership serving as an information and connectivity hub for advancing the new economy. Over the years, Barbash has learned not to underestimate the amount of energy it takes to create something from scratch. “You need to gather community support, find the right talent, and secure the appropriate capital to seed the idea. And then double or triple the amount of energy and time it will take for any one of these components.” Staying motivated is no problem for Barbash. “Our incredible talent and the overflowing demand from the public keep me motivated every single day. I consider this work to be akin to statesmanship from our early days as Americans; this is mission-driven public service.”
Co-founder & CEO-¨
When Ryan Blair was looking for a way to make a difference in the quality of life of people with whom he connected, he realized being an entrepreneur was key. “It was my only option,” he says, referring to the creation of ViSalus, a business designed to help people transform through a 90-day weight and fitness challenge. Staying motivated, says Blair, has never been an issue. “If you love what you do, ‘day in and day out’ will never be a problem. Every day you have a new challenge or opportunity to address. And if you have the right people on your team, you can focus on those items that suit your strengths and keep you at your highest productivity.” Part of that winning system is being able to say no. “Focus is the number one challenge for all entrepreneurs,” he says. “By our nature, we are creative and the more creative you are, the more projects you want to engage in.” Getting policymakers on board is, Blair adds, a matter of education. “If we start teaching the subject early in school we would groom a whole new generation of entrepreneurs. We could win this category of education in America if we create it and create it correctly.”
Studio 9 Salon
Entrepreneurs are resourceful people. Just ask Verna Borsuck who, realizing she was near the home of the Chevrolet Volt, GM’s plug-in electrical vehicle, decided to put an electrical recharging outlet just outside her Sterling Heights salon. While as yet the facility hasn’t had much use, being there has attracted some media attention, something that’s ultimately good for business. And the Sterling Heights city manager has commended Borsuck for her “entrepreneurial spirit.” With an estimated 40 million plug-in electric vehicles predicted to be in use by 2030, she may be just slightly ahead of her time. But that’s part of what entrepreneurs do.
All About Technology Inc.
For Willie E. Brake, being an award winning, certified computer professional was never enough. Certainly, he’s proven himself: with more than 12 years in increasingly responsible positions in the automobile, consulting, education and manufacturing industries at several Fortune 500 companies. But it’s his relentless move forward that is making a difference. Brake is giving back to a next generation in a number of ways, notably as an adjunct faculty member at The University of Phoenix and Wayne State University, serving as the technology expert on 107.5 FM, and through several community organizations, including Big Brothers and Big Sisters and the Boy Scouts of America. He began All About Technology when he realized the computer market wasn’t being properly served. “All About Technology’s strategy is not about products, services, or distribution models. It is about customer satisfaction. That is our top corporate priority, and everything we do-from how we design our services to how we do business with the customer-is focused on enhancing our ability to respond to their needs, and to meet and exceed their expectations.
FunPak Premium Packaging-¨
Like many entrepreneurs before him, finding a better way is at the heart of what Rich Daniels has done with what is now FunPak Premium Packaging. “What I was looking for was a more environmentally friendly packaging material, one that wouldn’t be toxic to pets and wouldn’t fill up our landfills with foam, plastic air pouches or bubble wrap. And I knew I could create a more socially responsible void fill product that companies would embrace and consumers would enjoy.” Daniels, whose veteran-owned, Michigan-based company distributes the product on behalf of some 1,600 retailers nationwide, says he’s learned the power of networking. “You never know who is going to write the next chapter on your journey to success.” Daniels says his family continues to motivate him. “As I watch my children grow, I knew that this invention has the ability to make a significant positive impact on the planet they will inherit.” At the top of Daniels’ “policymaker” wish list? More access to capital for startups. “We often read of the company receiving $30 million in grant money only to fail months later and layoff all their employees. But what if we provided 60 companies with $500,000 each in startup capital? What if half those companies made it and those that did hired six employees each? They would have a greater impact in their communities and a greater percentage of success.”
Global Business Solutions & Associates LLC
If there’s such a thing as an “entrepreneurial gene,” Joan Epperson says she was born with it. “My father and mother were entrepreneurs. Even when I was an employee, I worked like an entrepreneur. It’s always been my dream.” That dream is alive at Global Business Solutions & Associates, where Epperson lives by a code she repeats daily: “Success is the only option.” Sometimes she hears herself repeat that up to five times a day. “I will never do anything illegal, immoral or unethical, but I will work smarter, harder and then some.” Epperson calls being an entrepreneur “the hardest thing you ever want to love.”
As a professional with more than a quarter century of experience in contract furniture sales, Kathie Fuce-Hobohm directs the overall operation of the business, develops and oversees the implementation of the strategic goals and growth initiatives. A graduate of Central Michigan University, Fuce-Hobohm has served on the boards of the Midland Business Incubator, the Bay County Women’s Center, Midland Noon Rotary Club, CBM Services, and the Midland Area Chamber of Commerce. She is currently serving on the boards of Chemical Bank and Trust, Midland Tomorrow and most recently the Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM). In 2004, she joined the executive board of the Lake Huron Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
Phimation Strategy Group-¨
For Dave Haviland, being a “stage 2” business consultant has a lot to do with clarity and discipline. “We’ve become more disciplined in making investments and better at managing a portfolio of new opportunities in new areas of our markets,” he notes. “We’ve also gotten better at using the many new tools that are available for marketing.” Whether the opportunity has been geographically focused or a set of customers in niches to Phimation’s core customer base, Haviland has approached those with that same sense of deliberation he brings to his clients. “It’s usually taking something we already have and adding to it so that it meets a new need that customers have developed.” Haviland recognizes that several challenges will remain in play. One is the uncertainty that has made everyone cautious. “That’s a challenge by itself, but it will put pressure on companies that have been putting off investments or waiting for others to make investments.” Haviland also sees an ongoing challenge related to managing and developing talent, but is confident that taking the time to plan new programs and then committing to those programs will succeed in the end.
Jeff McWherter & Amelia Marschall-Miller
Partners & Directors
Gravity Works Design & Development-¨
Starting a business in the midst of a recession may not seem like one of the more strategic moves, but in the case of Jeff McWherter and Amelia Marschall-Miller, their passion for detail-focused design and sound development practices may just have trumped any “let’s wait a bit and think about this” hesitation. Oh yeah, they also saw an opportunity to focus on emerging technologies that were still in demand during the recession. Think mobile application development. Being able to adapt with technology rather than stay overly focused on a single idea (that could become outdated) was also key to the partners. And that hasn’t changed. “Innovation without losing quality is something we frequently talk about at Gravity Works,” they say. Also on the list of frequent subjects is the need to stay current in what are, after all, the latest technologies. “Many of our team members are finding themselves the speakers at industry conferences, not just attendees.”
Admittedly running a company that’s still less than a year old (it launched in October 2012), Bob Marsh is no beginner in the business. With 18 years in sales and management, Marsh joined ePrize in 2000, quickly becoming a top sales producer. And then came LevelEleven, born out of a need among the ePrize sales team to build more functionality into the SalesForce.com, itself an online customer relationship management tool. Spinning out of ePrize is what put Marsh into his current orbit. “We saw an opportunity to establish ourselves as a leader in motivating sales and call center reps in the growing but under-developed enterprise ‘gamification’ space,” notes Marsh. “And we ran with it.” Since launching the company, LevelEleven has increased its funding and grown its customer base from 25 to more than 80. Looking ahead, Marsh wants to be sure to maintain the culture and passion of a startup company, even as LevelEleven continues to expand. “Keeping workers involved will be a challenge as we build our business, but we’re confident we can tackle that-because that’s what we do for our clients.”
Having a passionate, entrepreneurial mind is among the qualities Matt Mosher says are requisite to his success as co-founder of HiredMyWay.com. An early career as a landscape installer (his own business, naturally) turned the firm into one that generated several million dollars in revenue by the time he was 25. Adding estate maintenance boosted the revenue, but today he’s putting his energy into helping solve the nation’s employment crisis. Calling HiredMyWay the only results-driven job board in existence, Mosher says he can think of no better way to put more than 12 years’ of experience in business to work. “I’ve owned three companies and I’ve built all of them from the ground up.”
Avalon International Breads
Being an inspiration to others is what Ann Perrault had in mind for Avalon International Breads. The co-owner of the firm says having done that, the tables are turned. “Now our customers, our employees and the community are inspiring us as we find new ways of fulfilling Avalon’s mission: ‘Eat Well. Do Good.'” Along the way, she’s discovered that you don’t have to be huge to have a positive impact. “You can start off with a mission and a purpose and stay true to that as your business grows,” adds Perrault, who calls Avalon International Breads a “right livelihood business” defining that as one where the earth, the community and the wellbeing of employees influences every aspect of the business. “We benefit from the opportunity to live a life bigger than ourselves.” Understanding the challenges that go with the territory is also part of that opportunity. “Organization and funding are two of the things that are challenges to entrepreneurs,” says Perrault. “Without a lot of both, it’s difficult to sustain yourself. Finding great partners and building relationships before you actually need to call on them is a way to overcome the challenges of both.”
Passion is a powerful thing. Just ask Mark Powers, who 10 years ago started building 118id into what it is today: a global leader in developing technology that matters to people. Powers calls himself a serial entrepreneur who enjoys the challenges that come from owning a business. “I’m passionate about technology that matters to people and bringing innovative ideas to fruition. Some consider me a weekend warrior because I enjoy the thrill of adventure,” he adds. Being constantly driven to succeed, Powers is also driven by the act of giving back and inspiring change. In other words, he has a passion for helping others. He’s also someone who’s not afraid to fail. “I realize that we’re all likely to fail,” says Powers. “I’ve always been told by successful entrepreneurs that you must learn how to fail fast and apply your learning quickly. My lesson learned is that we must all listen carefully, think strategically, and execute with great power while always focusing on measurable ROIs.” He’s also not afraid of a good challenge thrown into the mix. “As entrepreneurs we need to broaden our focus by inspiring change across our organizations, communities, and beyond. Solving any entrepreneurial challenges takes work. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be challenges.” What he’d like to have policymakers know and understand? “They need to listen and take positive action for change.”
As the head of an IT services and solutions provider specializing in SAP software implementation projects, Bala Rajaraman understands just how daunting the life of an entrepreneur can be. “The ability to take risks, tackle challenges and emerge as a winner inspired me to start this business,” he notes. And it was time. “After years of working as a technology consultant, I saw the opportunities.” Even so, he is determined to never stop reinventing himself. “Once the business is established, many entrepreneurs shy away from taking major risks to avoid pitfalls,” notes Rajaraman. Admittedly, he began Marvel Technologies just before the recession hit. Which meant he needed to switch gears and do so quickly. “We used the downtime to develop software products and those efforts have been adding to our revenue ever since.” A lesson learned: “Never wait for change to happen. A leader has to be the change that they desire.”
Sometimes technology isn’t quite enough, even when the company is a software development and staffing company. In the case of Stout Systems, it’s human intelligence that makes the difference and John Stout, the firm’s president, is where that comes into play. When this entrepreneur looked around at what his friends were doing, it was clear to him that they knew more than a little something about how to build a business. “I saw they were able to build successful companies around groups of people who worked well toward common goals, including a desired work environment and lifestyle.” And so he followed in their steps. In doing so, he also learned some key lessons, one being that an entrepreneur either has to be ready to be personally responsible for every function of the business, or be willing to hire others and completely delegate the work. Stout says managing growth is one of the biggest challenges faced by his firm. “An entrepreneur has to understand that if one is to be successful, one must be prepared to face up to and handle the many facets of company expansion. And still be prepared to be surprised.”