By Joseph Cabadas
It’s no secret that the recession has been especially rough on Michigan, but a number of businesses have found a roadmap to success and are thriving and growing. These companies are being honored with Corp! magazine’s annual Michigan Economic Bright Spots Awards.
The winners range from small businesses to multinational corporations, from companies employing less than 10 people to others with several thousand employees. They include software firms, alternative energy companies, machinery manufacturers, business consulting and law firms, a car dealership group and vehicle component manufacturers.
According to our editorial research, these companies seem to share some common traits - a willingness to innovate and look for new opportunities even in a down market, an effort to diversify and adapt their business models even while cutting costs, and a love and desire to do business in Michigan even while recognizing the state’s flaws, such as a tax structure that penalizes businesses when compared with the top-performing states in the nation. Some of the winners were founded since 2000, but others are more than 40 years old and have survived multiple recessions.
“Michigan needs to hang out an ‘open for business’ sign,” says Tim Ross, president of Royal Oak-based Ross Mortgage, which represents tenants in commercial real estate deals. “However, it will not attract new business until a new and competitive business tax structure is put in place that ensures long-term economic growth. Tax credits for carpetbagging filmmakers is representative of the kind of shortsighted, unintelligent thinking that must be eliminated in Lansing.”
In fact, many of the responses from the business leaders for this story pointed at the state’s tax structure as being an anchor on growth. John R. Kendall, president of DK Security, a Kentwood-based provider of investigative and security services in Michigan, Ohio and Arizona, emphasized that the Michigan Business Tax and state surcharges are job killers, but adds, “We need to recognize and promote our state and stop the continued criticism of its shortcomings. If we don’t act as cheerleaders for Michigan, who will?”
Agreeing with the need to change the state’s tax structure, John G. Labrie, president of Ann Arbor-based Con-way Freight, a North American trucking company, says, “The fundamental problem the state has in attracting business is that generally we’re less competitive from a taxation and incentive perspective than other parts of the country, compared to what other states are willing to offer businesses to bring their operations there. Our state needs to be more aggressive and creative in the incentives they develop to attract new business.”
In business since 1934, during the slow time of recovery from the depths of the Great Depression, Burkard Industries, Inc. established an excellent reputation for high quality and customer satisfaction, notes CEO Jay Burkard. The company grew its customer base beyond automotive to supply the aerospace, alternative energy, medical and defense industries.
“There needs to be an improvement in the legislative process so Michigan is not a follower,” Burkard says. “The state passed the Renewable Portfolio Standard behind more than 20 other states that took the lead in wind power. Currently we need an offshore wind-power policy and streamlined zoning and permitting for projects that will create Michigan jobs and improve our position in power self-reliance.”
Michigan is in the middle of a transition away from automotive manufacturing as the primary economic engine, and as a result there are many changes to the Michigan work force, notes Paul Hillman, president of Grand Rapids-based C/D/H, an information consulting firm. “However, here at C/D/H we see life as half full and look for ways to take advantage of changes in the economy,” he says.
“We definitely need to get people back to work,” adds Daniel Lichocki, vice president of A-Line Staffing Solutions, which provides staffing professionals for the health care industry. “People need to reinvent their skills and realize that the old ways of the automotive industry are the past. Michigan needs a better tax structure to cultivate entrepreneurship. Small businesses will be the future and survival of Michigan.”
There are opportunities for businesses to succeed if they are small, flexible and can respond and adapt quickly to changing market conditions and client needs, says Mark Dykstra, president of Cincinnati Time Systems. “I am a big believer that we must become less dependent on the manufacturing segment,” he says. “We’re now in a world economy; we’re competing with others around the globe. I believe we should concentrate on education, teaching our kids how to design and engineer products.”
Chip McClure, ArvinMeritor chairman, CEO and president, encouraged the state to adopt a unified strategy to build upon the technical strengths and capabilities that were developed in the automotive sector for new areas of the economy.
“But we must not lose sight of the significance of the automotive sector and therefore must be creative in its approaches to retain, grow and revitalize the industry,” McClure says.
When the Lean Learning Center of Novi started, Michigan was the industrialized center of America and it concentrated on teaching lean manufacturing skills, says company co-founder James W. Flinchbaugh. “Our focus, training and consulting practice has grown from lean manufacturing to lean systems development, creating the capability to serve any industry and any function within a company,” he says. “We remain in Michigan because we have built both a reputation and a brand that has become associated with Michigan.”
“In a time when competitors were closing up shop, we were building new expertise in the areas of design, engineering services and information technology,” says Jim Cowper, senior vice president of Advantage Technical Resourcing, a staffing and professional services company in Bloomfield Hills. “In 40 years, we built a great reputation as a company that cares about its people and its customers by providing resume writing assistance, conducting mock interviews and mentoring college grads and displaced workers. The bottom line is you don’t last 40 years in a cutthroat business by keeping the status quo. You must grow, and Advantage Technical has done that.”
The 2010 Economic Bright Spots winners are:
Celebrating 17 years in business, Achatz Handmade Pie Co. of Chersterfield was named to the 2009 “Michigan 50 Companies to Watch” list as it grew by 25 percent in 2008 and 2009. Its recipe for growth, according to Wendy Achatz, co-owner, includes sponsoring special events, increasing marketing and working closely with suppliers, while cutting costs without reducing product integrity and employee morale. “We were very selective in our choice of outsourced and professional services,” Achatz says. “We went to our suppliers and asked for help in reducing our cost, which enabled us to lower our prices. This in turn helped our customers to continue to purchase our products and enabled us to purchase more raw materials that then helped our suppliers.” With 85 employees, the company supplies fresh pies to six Achatz pie shops in Macomb and Oakland counties, along with some 100 grocers and upscale restaurants in southeast Michigan and Chicago. Last year the company created a new line of frozen ready-to-bake pies for the Whole Foods Market chain.
In business for more than 40 years, Advantage Technical Resourcing traditionally provided staffing and professional services to automotive companies. It expanded its footprint during the past year by becoming a service provider to defense companies and government agencies while working with existing clients to reduce costs. “Many of our clients have been with us for 10-plus years,” notes Senior Vice President Jim Cowper. “Companies still need technical, supplemental staffing and work force solutions, and people need jobs.” In addition to its Bloomfield Hills headquarters, the company has offices in Dearborn, Flint and Troy. It has a staff of 50 employees and more than 1,200 contractors who have been with the firm for an average of seven or more years. Knowledge and commitment are key attributes that Advantage’s customers desire, Cowper says, adding, “We select the best people who are typically retained long term and become a critical asset at the client companies they work.” The company’s Design and Engineering Service departments are flexible enough to handle the needs of existing customers like BAE and Oshkosh and potential customers including Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM), General Dynamics and Northrop-Grumman. The company also expects to see continuous growth in the financial and health care sectors.
Founded in 2004, A-Line Staffing Solutions of Warren is a staffing supplier that provides qualified and reliable professionals on a temporary, direct hire, travel and on-call basis to the health care industry. Continuing to push for new business during the recession, the company also offers top-notch service to all customers, big and small, notes A-Line Staffing Solutions Vice President Daniel Lichocki. “Our industry is based on response time and service level; as long as we focus on those areas, I am confident we will continue to grow,” he says. “I’m not sure how the health-reform legislation will impact us, but I think with millions of more people having access to health care, there should be a greater demand for our service.” When competitors lowered prices, A-Line found new ways to trim operating costs without sacrificing quality. It kept its salespeople motivated by holding sales contests with vacation trips as prizes. The company plans on opening new offices in other states.
Allied PhotoChemical Inc. of Kimball manufactures ultraviolet light-curable inks, coatings and paints that help its customers reduce energy costs, cut carbon dioxide emissions and eliminate the release of volatile organic compounds and hazardous pollutants into the environment while improving quality. With 10 employees, the firm has a culture of continuous innovation based on green technology, teamwork and care for its customers, says CEO Michael Kelly. It maintains its growth by carefully looking at accounts and eliminating unprofitable waste. When customers didn’t see value in its technical resources program, it initiated a new development program with support tools that now brings in an average of $1,200 per day. To boost employee morale, Allied has weekly company lunches, providing updates to staff on internal and external issues, such as the lack of capital available to small companies. “One of our greatest challenges is that no capital is available in the market while Lansing and Washington continue to give the issue lip service,” Kelly says. Kettering University’s co-op program aided the company’s growth during the past year.
Advising clients on the intricacies of mergers and acquisitions since 1994, Amherst Partners of Birmingham also provides turnaround consulting and restructuring services. “As a result, we were very busy over the past several years,” notes Scott Eisenberg, partner. “In fact, 2009 was our best year ever. However, this success is the result of many years of hard work developing the skill sets while building the team and the brand recognition in the turnaround market.” During the past year, Amherst Partners moved up-market in terms of the type and size of clients it serves. It has about 20 employees in three locations. “Measured growth has kept us from getting out ahead of ourselves,” Eisenberg says. “As we grow, we put in the proper systems and processes to properly manage and develop our people.” Amherst Partners serves public and private companies within the middle-market segment, with transaction value typically ranging from $10 million to $100 million. Its clients include firms in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. Michigan needs to increase the culture of entrepreneurship by rewarding and recognizing the people who are building businesses, Eisenberg says, adding the state should benchmark itself against the best of the country.
Serving more than 7,000 patients and their family members annually across seven counties in southeastern Michigan, Arbor Hospice’s mission for 26 years has been to provide high-quality hospice care. It is a community-based, independent nonprofit hospice provider. “Hospice is an underutilized benefit; only 40 percent of eligible patients use the service,” says CEO Gloria D. Brooks. “We provide education and end-of-life care to ensure that everyone facing the end-of-life journey has the compassionate support they need from our team of experienced clinicians.” The organization has been responsive to the needs of its patients and their families. For example, in December Arbor Hospice reduced the room and board rate at its inpatient facility to help ease the financial burden on families wanting to access inpatient hospice care. Seeing an increase in uninsured and underinsured patients, Arbor Hospice developed funding priorities so donors can help support the care these patients need. “The final challenge we have faced this year is declining Medicare reimbursements, with more planned on the horizon in the next five years. We are addressing this by utilizing technology to complement our quality hands-on care and make our work as efficient as possible,” Brooks adds. The agency has reached its quarter-century milestone due to the hard work and commitment of thousands of individuals, who contribute about 23,000 volunteer hours annually.
Vehicle component supplier ArvinMeritor, a more than 100-year-old company with a work force of 15,400 employees in 102 locations globally, saw a more than 50 percent drop in its revenues at the beginning of 2009, marking one of the worst economic downturns in its history. Yet the company is now seeing the fruits of the rebounding economy thanks to the foundation it laid several years ago to concentrate on commercial vehicle systems. Says Chip McClure, ArvinMeritor chairman, CEO and president: “We strengthened our financial position to ensure ArvinMeritor is here for the long haul, including reducing our overall costs, improving our cash liquidity and improving our balance sheet. Although we saw our markets around the world dramatically drop off last year as much as 60 to 75 percent, we never stopped investing in our future.” The company upgraded facilities in North America, Mexico, Europe, Brazil and China while providing its customers with technologies to boost fuel efficiency, safety and durability that lower the cost of ownership to consumers. Its cost-reduction program boosted revenues, which is reflected in its stock price. Once at $10.50, the company’s stock has rebounded to more than $15 a share.
B.A. Maze Inc. markets products to the elderly that are designed to help them maintain their quality of life and independence even when faced with issues such as arthritis, memory loss from dementia or the daily pains of aging. “Our recipe of success includes our promotional products, with product placement in Bed Bath & Beyond stores, and working with the SmartStart program of TechTown,” notes President Robert Mazur. SmartStart is a business development process offered by Wayne State University’s TechTown center providing entrepreneurs with up to 24 months of coaching, mentoring and workshops to connect with investors and partners. For the upcoming year, Mazur says his company will focus on creating advanced solutions to address the pains of aging baby boomers. “Financing is our biggest obstacle, but this summer we will work on raising $500,000 in funds,” he adds.
A family-owned business that was founded in 1934 during the Great Depression, Burkard Industries Inc. employs 100 people at its Clinton Township facility and supplies commercial coatings for corrosion protection and decorative surface finishings for military, automotive and industrial customers. In January 2008, Burkard Industries’ market was primarily automotive. It overcame the decline of the car industry by undertaking a major market diversification initiative balanced with the needs for cost reductions and boosting employee morale. Today the company serves the automotive and military markets equally. During the diversification process the company worked closely with the Macomb PTAC (Procurement Technical Assistance Centers) office as well as the Michigan Economic Development Corp. “Both of those agencies played an instrumental role in guiding us through the process of establishing Burkard’s name for government work,” notes Jay Burkard, co-CEO with Dona Burkard. Burkard Industries attended the state’s Diversification Summits and received funding to support training into new markets. Additionally, the company focused on training employees, cascading new market information down to all workers while maintaining a high level of customer satisfaction.
Burke E. Porter Machinery Co. of Grand Rapids is an international supplier of vehicle testing systems including dynamometers, tire and wheel assembly systems, and brake testing, alignment and other specialty equipment. Since its founding in 1953 as a woodworking equipment supplier - until it moved into the automotive field in the early 1970s - Burke E. Porter Machinery has adapted to many market changes. “We have made up for declines in our core automotive test-equipment business by applying our testing technology directly to niche areas in the utility-scale wind turbine industry,” says Scott Bohr, sales engineering manager. “Similarly, we leveraged our global manufacturing capabilities and supply chain to build custom-designed machines along with providing serial-contract manufacturing services to other companies’ designs.” When bidding on U.S. government and European OEM business, the company fights against the misconceptions that German engineering and low-cost-labor countries provide superior products by demonstrating its leading-edge technology and competitive pricing to government and European executives. About half of the company’s 200 employees are located in Michigan.
To survive the tough times when revenue declined 35 percent, information technology consulting firm C/D/H of Grand Rapids stood by its employees and clients instead of reaching for quick-fix solutions. “We displayed our core value of ‘Genuine Commitment’ by not abandoning clients, and we kept everyone employed internally even though it would have been easier to cut staffing to get through the recession,” says President Paul Hillman. “We did work at discounted levels, found alternative funding or even performed work for free knowing that when the economy rebounds, our clients will remember who stuck with them through the tough times.” Now as C/D/H is experiencing growth again, it doesn’t need to go through the expense of hiring and training new workers; employee-loyalty levels have jumped. C/D/H, which has two locations and 22 employees, started a program called “Contingency Fee Consulting” where it guarantees clients savings equal to three times the cost of its fees or the project is free. The program opened the door to other client conversations. Another core value, “Active Collaboration,” means C/D/H’s employees work as a team to tackle issues; this has lowered individual anxiety and boosted morale.
The recession had no noticeable impact on CenturyNovelty.com’s growth because the company sells its party supplies online, attracting customers who are in regions less affected by the economic slowdown, notes Ian McDonald, company vice president and general manager. “Our party supplies are inexpensive, so while consumers may cut back on vacations or going out to eat, they still have birthday and other parties,” he says. “We’ve seen upticks in certain party themes that lead us to believe that when times are tough, people use partying as a stress-relieving outlet.” Founded nearly 50 years ago, Century Novelty has been a resource for Michigan party and event planners, with an extensive selection of party favors, supplies and decorations for nearly every occasion. Located in Livonia with 25 employees, the company is looking to expand into a larger facility. Michigan is well-suited, geographically speaking, as a distribution center to quickly ship products to customers on the East and West coasts. The challenges ahead for the company are the ever-increasing cost of online advertising and changes in government safety standards.
ChemicoMays of Chesterfield began as a supplier to automotive parts manufacturers. As Michigan’s economy stalled, the firm sought business opportunities in different markets and regions where it could use the knowledge, talents and skills of its 120 employees, says Leon C. Richardson, president and CEO. “We have faced depressed volumes and decreased access to capital,” he continues. “Yet Michigan has very progressive and academically challenging colleges and universities that turn out excellent technical and business professionals along with an experienced, trained and hardworking work force. The state needs to closely look at incentives to encourage or entice businesses to remain or set up in Michigan while revamping the tax code.” ChemicoMays was formed in 2006 as a 50/50 joint venture between Mays Chemical Co. and Chemico Systems, an automotive supplier that does industrial paint stripping. It has 10 locations. Utilizing its automotive chemical management skills, it now does work for federal government agencies, biotechnology firms and academia. Environmental sustainability is one of its corporate goals.
Founded in 2000, Chimovitz Industries of Ferndale provides small- and in-home office computer solutions, including server, desktop and laptop support. The firm’s recipe for success during the recession is providing great customer service. “While many companies offer computer services, we communicate to our clients what we’ve done, what needs to be done and how it will save them money and time,” says CEO Jared Chimovitz. “Our top challenge is increasing the number of client referrals. We’ve addressed this by asking our customers for referrals to a specific person, job title, company and industry. The second challenge was hiring a second technician. Many clients felt comfortable with the same technician coming on site to administer and repair their networks, PCs and servers. We looked long and hard to find the right technician with knowledge and experience to provide the best support for our customers.”
Cincinnati Time Systems, which started in a Cincinnati doctor’s basement in 1896, is now privately held by Mark Dykstra, who purchased the Michigan office of Amano-Cincinnati Inc. in 1993. An expert in providing time-and-attendance, parking, access control and video surveillance equipment, Cincinnati Time Systems’ people “work hard and are highly passionate about delivering the best-quality products and services we can,” Dykstra says. “I give clients my personal guarantee that they’ll enjoy our products and will be happy with their decisions. If there’s anything they ever need, I am one of the easiest people to get a hold of.” To survive the recession, the company cut costs and focused on areas outside of manufacturing. For time-and-attendance products, many clients have turned to CTS’ Web-hosted software-as-a-service (SaaS) products because they have a lower upfront cash outlay. Instead of buying their own software and loading it locally to their computers, they are billed monthly by CTS. “We’re responsible for the hardware and conduct all updates automatically. Our clients only need to maintain an Internet connection to use the software,” Dykstra explains.
A grain elevator company based in Vermontville, Citizens LLC was incorporated in 1995 and now has 43 employees and five locations. However, its founding company, Citizens Elevator, dates to 1921. “We have diversified into areas that give us access to international markets,” says President Robert C. Mansfield. “At the same time, we use good business practices to serve our traditional customers and markets. We have always operated in a lean mode while providing a high level of service to our customers.” One of Michigan’s advantages, he notes, is its farming climate, which allows state farmers to produce the highest-quality tofu soybeans in the world. State government needs to foster at-will employment because state and federal government subsidies create mediocrity, Mansfield says, adding, “A motivated work force is the engine of prosperity. Motivation is the result of necessity.”
Con-way Freight of Ann Arbor is a North American trucking firm with 365 locations nationwide. It can trace its roots to Consolidated Freightways, which started about 80 years ago along the West Coast. “We’ve been here 26 years - one of our predecessor companies, Con-way Central Express, was founded in Ann Arbor,” says John G. Labrie, Con-way Freight president. There has been excess capacity in the trucking industry and it has put pressure on Con-way’s margins, making it hard to earn an acceptable profit and reinvest funds back into the company. Cost control has been high on the company’s to-do list as it listens to customers to make its operations more efficient. “We’ve focused all our capabilities on providing customers with shipping solutions that really resonate with them,” Labrie adds. “We’ve implemented Lean Six Sigma throughout the company and are working to get more efficient, improve our operations and take out waste.”
Providing computer, Web development, Internet applications, e-commerce solutions, e-mail marketing and website hosting services, Core 3 Solutions of Birmingham grew by retaining many of its long-term customers, who have been with the firm for more than 10 years, while receiving customer referrals to new clients. “In light of the economy, companies have less cash on hand and watch their budgets closely; we’ve had to look internally to find efficiencies in everything we do to keep our costs down,” notes company CEO and co-founder Paul Chambers. “Our customers’ needs changed, so we changed the way we provide solutions. We are learning to do more with less - less people, less cash and less space.” Nevertheless, Michigan has a number of opportunities. Businesses can follow Core 3 Solutions’ example by reinventing themselves and finding new markets. Founded in 1996, the company has 21 employees.
Corporate Fleet Services of Highland Park is a partly owned subsidiary of the Snethkamp Automotive Group that was formed in 1963. “We have prospered because there are opportunities in the Detroit area,” says CEO Michael Stevens. “It is a great city with great people and continues to offer our families great opportunity.” CFS tailors its products and services to its clients’ requirements. The company also is in process of a culture change. “CFS must adapt how we provide services, serve our clients and differentiate our company from the competition. If the plan works, we will continue to attract new business, add to our staff and grow,” Stevens says. A key to this change is that employees at different levels will have the ability to accept delegated responsibilities and perform those tasks for customers without failing.
Founded in 2001, Digerati Inc. of Detroit is an information technology supplier for a wide range of companies. It evaluates business processes, human resources and technology systems then creates streamlined operations that drive tangible returns for customers. “While we felt the effects of last year’s severe recession, as a small company we were able to quickly react to the changing economic landscape and target different revenue streams,” says Joseph Klecha, chief technology officer. “Technology can make our customers’ organizations more profitable by lowering costs while boosting efficiency, quality and revenue. We show our clients how to thrive and grow even in the midst of a recession. In turn, we were able to thrive and grow ourselves.” Digerati focused its sales efforts on industries that were more insulated from the weak economy and took on smaller projects that could be quickly implemented. To improve its own internal processes, Digerati treated its internal operations as if they were a client instead of a side project. This approach kept company priorities visible and moving forward. Digerati has 15 employees and one office. “To a person, our company’s leadership is very passionate about the Metro Detroit region and Michigan in general,” Klecha adds. “We are fully committed to the success of our region and state.”
Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy of Swartz Creek is the nation’s largest privately held specialty pharmacy company, with 403 employees and seven locations. It experienced a 900 percent growth rate during the past three years yet maintained personal service to its customers. Its motto is to always put patients’ needs first. “We are lucky to be in the specialty pharmacy segment, which is experiencing explosive growth and is expected to grow 15 percent to 20 percent per year over the next 10 years,” says Phil Hagerman, CEO. “It is a dynamic and constantly evolving industry; in fact, three of the top 10 drugs we provide today were not on the market five years ago.” It has been challenging to keep up with changing technology while developing, designing and implementing the best high-tech advancements in the most cost-effective way possible. All three owners - Hagerman, Jeff Rowe and Steve Chaffee - are trained pharmacists deeply rooted in Michigan and Genesee County. “Our only obstacle is ourselves,” Hagerman adds. “We need to think as an entrepreneurial company as we grow and remain committed to delivering outstanding patient services. We can’t get comfortable in our position as the nation’s largest privately held specialty pharmacy.”
Formed in 2007, Diversified Restaurant Holdings Inc. is the holding company of AMC Group Inc., a franchisee of Buffalo Wild Wings. The company operates 11 Buffalo Wild Wings in Michigan and five in Florida. In 2008, Diversified Restaurant Holdings also launched Bagger Dave’s Legendary Burgers and Fries, which has locations in Berkley, Ann Arbor and Novi. The company has two new locations under construction and employs 1,100 people. The recipe for its success is “staying engaged with our people,” notes CEO T. Michael Ansley. “In our business, our employees interact with guests every day, so a happy employee translates into having a happy guest.” When the economy deteriorated, the company faced aggressive discounting from its competition. Instead of joining the discount war, it remained focused on offering guests an exciting dining experience - especially at its Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants - while upgrading its facilities. “We operate moderately priced restaurants with a high entertainment value,” Ansley continues. “Michigan has regulatory issues and tax burdens that could be eased, but overall not a bad state for us to do business.”
One of the fastest-growing security firms in the United States is DK Security, located in Kentwood, a suburb of Grand Rapids. It is licensed to provide investigative and security services in Michigan, Ohio and Arizona. Founded in 1994 by John R. Kendall, a retired U.S. marshal, and Robert C. DuHadway, a retired FBI supervisory agent, the firm now has 790 employees and generates nearly $7 million in annual gross revenue. “Our industry overall has not been negatively impacted as great as others during this recession,” Kendall says. Some clients laid off employees and closed plants, so DK Security responded to their needs by adding or reducing services as needed. “We work very closely in the planning stages as companies reduce their work forces and close plants,” Kendall says. “Solid planning and adequate security staffing has prevented violence or other business disruptions.” The firm’s services include event security, crowd management, K-9 detection, retail loss investigations, undercover detectives, executive protection, pre-employment screening, a DK-owned anonymous-tip line for client use, crisis management planning and security audits. The company employs professionals with years of experience in the fields of forensic accounting, forensic psychology, asset tracing, electronic countermeasures, fraud examination, security services, undercover investigations, surveillance and security technology.
Dynamic Computer Corp. of Farmington Hills succeeded during the recession by relying on its own resources. “We are a debt-free company and were not squeezed by the capital crunch,” observes President and CEO Farida Ali. “We enhanced our relationships with our current customers and uncovered new opportunities for them without spending heavily on marketing or waiting for an uptick in sales to develop brand-new business.” The overall sour mood made customers leery of investing in new technologies; many have limited budgets and are basically trying to keep current systems working. Old mind-sets had to change because no one can assume a given amount of business just because it was always there. “We compete every day for each opportunity,” Ali says. “Personal relationships matter to some extent, but new business opportunities come more and more from how good your work is rather than who you know or are connected to.” DCC has 21 employees and one location.
Founded in 2006 by three Michigan entrepreneurs, Encryption Security Solutions/Pure Entropy provides encryption security software to the U.S. government for military applications; programs to defense industries; and security software to businesses and consumers. Located in Orion with seven employees, the company was recognized as one of the 2010 “Michigan 50 Companies to Watch.” The company has grown by focusing on homeland security, medical cybersecurity and compliance training, says CEO Kevin B. Lasser, who is also chairman of the Michigan Homeland Security Consortium. “Many companies and organizations have called us to work with them - this is attributed to news of our early successes,” he says. “Our business will continue to grow and thrive as cybersecurity issues get more prevalent.” The state needs to create a much more aggressive tax structure to attract more businesses to the state, Lasser says, adding, “We simply ignore all the negative press regarding Michigan and move forward. It’s a very bad economy, but we have hired people at more aggressive wages.”
When eTitle Agency Inc. of Troy was founded in 2000, the average turn time in a home closing was three to four weeks. The company vastly improved the title business for customers by introducing title time lines, online document retrieval, tailored closings to suit the customer’s needs (any location, nights and weekends), one-person point of contact, automatic title-status updates and accelerated closings. Today, eTitle’s average turn times are two or three days and, if necessary, 24-hour closings are available within the metro Detroit area. “Most of our competitors have sent their operations work offshore to take advantage of lower labor costs,” notes CEO Linda Orlans. “This led to layoffs for thousands of workers in the industry. eTitle believes that jobs need to stay in America, and we are committed to keeping them here. We are continuously looking at ways to make our operations and processes more efficient by 25 percent each year.” Also, in the down economic climate, eTitle has incorporated Lean and Six Sigma quality-assurance guidelines into its operations to be faster and more responsive to client demands. eTitle has 150 employees and two locations.
A supplier of prototype and low-volume metal stampings, trim moldings, specialty items, subassemblies and aftermarket sheet metal, Experi-Metal, Inc. of Sterling Heights has maintained revenue and profitability by diversifying into the aerospace, homeland security and other nonautomotive sectors. “We are a cutting-edge global entity competing in prototype automotive, aftermarket, military, alternative energy and other market niches,” notes President and CEO Valiena A. Allison. “Our services range from tooling, assembly, metal forming, fabrications, as well as design and engineering. We have talented, creative and dedicated employees who strive for excellence on a daily basis.” Founded in 1959 and employing 100 people, Experi-Metal faced a significant drop in revenues during the past year. In addition to diversifying into new markets, the company streamlined all tasks and job descriptions. To handle skyrocketing health care costs, Experi-Metal set a very aggressive budget and started an employee committee to make all decisions regarding health insurance for the company for 2010.
Fluency Media of Ann Arbor develops Internet marketing campaigns for midsize to large companies and institutions. Founded in 2003 by Tim Schaden and his wife, Preeti Schaden, the firm has grown to 15 employees. “Our focus is on metrics-driven marketing for our clients,” Tim Schaden says. “There is an overabundance of online data without insights. We help clients get control of the data and work to improve their search engine, social media and e-mail marketing.” In dealing with the uncertain economy, Fluency Media doubled down on the strategic investments and diversified its client base. “We are on pace to significantly grow the company over the next 12 to 18 months,” Schaden adds. “We made additional investments that will improve results for clients while reducing our costs. Specifically, we improved our client analytics platform that powers all of our programs while developing new e-mail marketing software to drive custom, high-impact e-mail marketing at an extremely low cost.”
Fox Run Village Inc. of Novi is a community of 757 independent-living apartments and 132 assisted-living/skilled-care beds with space to grow when the economic picture improves. It employs 600 people. “Word-of-mouth is our biggest marketing tool; happy residents tell their friends about the unparalleled lifestyle they enjoy at Fox Run,” comments Executive Director Michael McCormick on Fox Run’s success. “We tightened our belt on the expense side but redoubled our focus on the ‘wow’ experiences for our customers. We did not compromise on service quality. In our annual resident satisfaction survey, Fox Run showed an increase. As a result, friends keep selling Fox Run to their friends.” One challenge facing Fox Run is that potential customers are finding it hard to sell their homes because of the fall of home values in the state. Another problem is misconceptions about Fox Run Village. The community’s developer only recently emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but it is a separate entity from Fox Run. So, Fox Run’s staff must continuously educate potential residents that their refundable entrance deposits are safe, notes McCormick.
During the economic downturn, many banks made it difficult for consumers to obtain loans, but Genisys Credit Union maintained its lending activities and communicated to its members and potential members that it had money to lend. “Lending responsibly is a key to our success and has helped our members,” says Jackie Buchanan, who became the credit union’s CEO in April. With $1.2 billion in assets, $1 billion in deposits and net loans and mortgages that total $747 million, according to its 2009 financial statement, the credit union has 117,000 members, 360 employees and 25 locations - including two new Michigan branches that opened in Commerce and Shelby townships in 2009. Genisys expanded its charter in 2009 to serve members in Genesee County, Michigan, and Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and has a five-star rating from Bauer Financial. “Genisys has remained very strong throughout the downturn and today has a 11.84 percent capital ratio,” Buchanan notes. “A credit union with 7 percent capital is considered well capitalized. During 2009, regulatory changes came fast and furious, so we educated our members about these changes and modified our systems where necessary.” Genisys Credit Union was formed in 2008 through the merger of T&C Federal Credit Union and USA Credit Union. Its predecessor institutions have served Michigan members since 1936.
Globe Technologies Corp. of Standish is a manufacturer of high-quality fusible links for the fire-protection industry. Its devices are used as thermal release mechanisms in many applications, including the actuation of fire-extinguishing systems for restaurant cooking areas, industrial fire-protection systems, fire doors, fire dampers and roof-fire smoke vents. Incorporated as a family business in 1976, Globe employs 45 people. “At the end of 2006, we recognized that the economy was on the verge of a recession,” notes owner Norm Van Wormer. “We had stagnated and needed to reinvent the company.” Creating a five-year plan, management was unwavering in executing a complete restructuring. Recruiting top managers from other industries, implementing professional management tools and efficiency programs, and adhering to a value-added approach with customers while supplying quality products have been keys to the business’s recent success. Top management walked into the shop to answer employees’ questions and educated them that change was not an option, but a necessity. Employees also provided input for the restructuring plan.
Green Works Inc. is the first stand-alone free-enterprise venture of Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit. It offers cost-saving, environmentally friendly asset-recovery services to DTE Energy. Green Works began officially operating on Jan. 4, 2010, in a 94,000-square-foot building on Detroit’s east side. Its earnings go back to Goodwill Industries to support its mission to educate and train Metro Detroiters who face employment challenges and to help those individuals earn job opportunities. Green Works President Kathy Laird notes, “Our recipe for success has two ingredients. First, engage all employees; keep them informed about issues within the company, and have them help solve them. Second, we find out what our customers require and then deliver it.” Goodwill Industries began an asset-recovery operation for Detroit Edison in 1942. Until the establishment of Green Works, this service was part of Goodwill Industries’ Industrial Operations division. That asset-recovery program could not expand because of Public Service Commission restrictions regarding the use of utility company assets. “Now that we are an independent business venture, we must support ourselves by providing similar services to other utilities, municipalities and manufacturing companies,” Laird says.
HealthCall of Detroit is a locally owned and operated private-duty nursing agency. Headquartered in Southfield with 160 employees, it provides nurses, home health aides, therapists and other medical professionals for homebound patients and health care institutions. It specializes in helping patients with spinal cord injuries, who are ventilator dependent, quadriplegic or have closed-head injuries. By diversifying its business and reducing costs through investments in information technology, HealthCall dramatically improved its efficiency, record keeping and communications capabilities, notes President Sanford Szirtes. “Our IT investments allowed us to provide the highest level of care for our clients,” he says. “Our top three challenges have been an increase in the number of underinsured and uninsured individuals, rising costs of health care delivery and cuts in government programs.” Health care is a strong industry in Michigan, and HealthCall’s management believes it is one of the state’s economic bright spots. “We want to be a part of that future growth and develop the state as a model for the delivery of premium health care services,” Szirtes adds.
HealthMedia Inc., a Johnson & Johnson company, was founded in 1998 by Dr. Vic Strecher, who had more than 20 years of research experience at the University of Michigan’s Health Media Research Laboratory (HMRL). HMRL provides ongoing research for HealthMedia, notes Strecher, who adds, “We have benefited from our ongoing relationship with U of M by being able to tap a rich pool of local talent, but also by attracting and recruiting talented individuals from all over the country.” One of the company’s keys to success is the combination of advanced technology with behavioral science, which allows it to offer scalable, personalized digital health-coaching solutions to patients that can be delivered at a fraction of the cost of traditional coaching and counseling services. There is a growing demand for HealthMedia’s digital health-coaching services, so the company is carefully looking at where it can make new product investments to provide the most benefit for its customers. “In order to thrive, we need to continue building on our strengths while adapting when new opportunities present themselves,” Strecher says. “Health care reform is an opportunity for us to redefine our approach to the industry and identify cost-effective, personalized solutions that shift the focus toward prevention and lowering health risks rather than waiting for individuals to become sick.”
After opening the world’s first biomass power plant at a Michigan farm, Heat Transfer International sees a bright future for alternative energy in the state. Headquartered in Kentwood, the company helped create a power plant with The Right Place of Grand Rapids. Heat Transfer designs biomass gasification and electric power-generation systems that convert solid and semisolid biomass - such as animal manures, agricultural waste, solid waste from landfills, wastewater treatment sludge, sewer sludge and hazardous waste material - into a combustible syngas that fuels power generators, dryers, heaters and cooling equipment. The gas and electricity produced is considered carbon neutral and thus environmentally green. “The biggest challenge we see (for alternative energy producers) is the wild fluctuations of conventional natural gas and electricity pricing,” says Dave Prouty, president of Heat Transfer. “The prices are not high enough for sustained periods of time to cause the majority of people to want to invest and change from the easy-to-use fossil fuels.” Despite these challenges, the new Heat Transfer plant currently being commissioned at Sietsema Farm Feeds, just south of Howard City, will convert turkey manure into electrical energy while excess waste heat is used to make steam used in the process to refine raw corn into pig and turkey feed.
Henry Ford Hospital has been a part of Detroit since 1915, when it was founded by auto pioneer Henry Ford. The hospital is the hub of Henry Ford Health System’s research, education, transplant, trauma and other critical programs. Recently the hospital completed a $310 million renovation and expansion of its Detroit facility. HFHS has a total of six hospitals, 12 health centers, 26 medical centers and 23,000 employees. “Despite the economic challenges in southeast Michigan, we continue to have a positive financial position by controlling our labor and supply costs,” notes CEO Nancy Schlichting. During the past decade, Henry Ford Health System doubled its revenues. In the past five years its market share rose 37 percent. For example, admissions to Henry Ford hospitals rose from 90,709 in 2008 to 97,253 last year, the highest of any hospital system in southeast Michigan. In 2009, it opened a $360 million hospital in West Bloomfield, creating more than 1,470 new jobs, even while funding its employee pension plan. As a sign of its financial stability, the health system issued more than $100 million in new tax-exempt debt. “We anticipate increased demand for uncompensated care and will continue to work to find creative ways to offset those costs,” Schlichting adds. “In the past decade, we strengthened our financial viability. Last year, Moody’s Investors Service reaffirmed our A1 bond rating and stable outlook.”
Born in 1931 and raised on Chicago’s southwest side - in the Hell’s Kitchen, Kedzie/Maxwell Street area - Herb David seemingly had music in his blood. He grew up around great blues musicians. After moving to Michigan, in 1962 he founded the Herb David Guitar Studio, which was originally located in a small room in the basement of a bookstore on State Street in Ann Arbor. After 48 years in business, the guitar studio is still jamming strong, with 36 employees selling music, teaching new musicians and repairing instruments. “Our ingredients to success are great customer service and a great staff to provide it,” David says. “We are involved, responsive, responsible, caring, proactive, honest, trustworthy - both staff and management.” Michigan is home, and the guitar studio survives in spite of the many negative tax and employment challenges created by state government, which makes it difficult to be profitable, he notes. The company has recently hired three new members as it broadens its inventory with new products and services while continually re-evaluating what it provides.
Despite the struggling economy, Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC reported a profitable year, which was due to great leadership, group synergy and serving clients with immediacy and cost-effectiveness, notes CEO Mark Davis. Clients have faced unforeseen challenges; Howard & Howard responded with timely counsel. “Our strategic advantage is our business acumen - more than one-third of our lawyers had business careers before they became lawyers, which gives us a perspective that’s valuable to our clients,” Davis adds. The law firm offers flexible billing arrangements with an eye toward improving a client’s bottom line. Founded in 1869 above a blacksmith shop, the law firm is now headquartered in Royal Oak and has 234 employees at six locations. Last year, 15 of its attorneys were named Michigan Super Lawyers and Michigan Rising Stars as a result of a survey by Law & Politics Media Inc. Building on its momentum, the firm expects further growth in Michigan and plans to open an office in the Chicago area.
Success builds upon success, so i3Logic of Pontiac creates performance-based learning programs for its clients’ employees that are designed to enhance skills and reinforce change initiatives while building learners’ confidence levels. The firm was not immune to the challenges of 2009, but its team came together to fight for growth. “Our entire staff made sacrifices for a short period of time to make positive things happen,” notes company president Rom Lapointe. “We aggressively created new products and secured new business while many competitors took a wait-and-see approach.” When many clients delayed making decisions, i3Logic used the opportunity to work on additional innovations, marketing and cultivating new clients. In the meantime, it provided extended payment plans, cut costs and used cash reserves. The firm is set for more growth in the year ahead as it launches into new directions. “We have added and will add some more key people,” Lapointe says. “We are inventing and collaborating (with our clients and partners) in new ways to work in our industry.” Founded in 2004, i3Logic has 25 employees and operates two offices.
The developer of a number of urban streetscape lighting systems - including Detroit’s Woodward Corridor and the Detroit River waterfront experience, plus light, sound, special effects and entertainment systems for Detroit’s Campus Martius, Comerica Park’s water fountain and Greenfield Village in Dearborn - Illuminating Concepts offers a diverse range of products for its clients. With 43 employees, the Farmington Hills-based company saw business growth in 2009 but fewer opportunities in 2010. “We very reluctantly trimmed a few employees while the rest of our staff is working as efficiently as possible to make 2010 a profitable year,” notes Ron Harwood, president. “We have turned on the steam inside our technology and invention division to move some of our intellectual products, such as software and hardware, to the front burner in order to generate business in the green market segment. This seems to be helping to produce more market opportunities as well as engaging a new group of buyers to our brand.” The company has found a new market helping the U.S. military. Taking the experience it’s had working with major corporate clients including Disney, Nike, Universal and MGM, IC’s new Intellistreets systems bring the same form of entertainment values to the streets outside of stadiums and all throughout urban environments. “Adding Homeland Security aspects to an already robust digital network, we stand at the forefront of urban technology,” Harwood says. “This is our shining light in an otherwise bleak economy.”
Despite being based in Michigan - among the states hardest hit by the recession and burdened with the nation’s highest unemployment rate - ImageSoft Inc. of Southfield saw its revenue grow by 11 percent during the past year. Moreover, it added 19 new employees and established a new office in Portland, Ore. “Without a question our success is attributable to the caliber of our people,” says Scott Bade, president. “This holds true for businesses like ours whose product quality is directly related to the quality of its people. In 2009, our people responded to the economic challenge with resolve, creativity and new solutions. We also attracted some of the industry’s most experienced people to our team.” The company is looking for a suitable new headquarters in a central location. Founded in 1996, ImageSoft uses advanced document management software to create a direct and effortless connection among its clients, their colleagues and their documents to simplify daily business activities. It now has 54 employees as it transitions from a small entrepreneurial firm to a growing second-stage company.
Industrial Control Repair (ICR) is a global provider of industrial electronic and mechanical repair services. Organized in 1992, ICR is a certified minority-owned business, registered to the ISO 9001:2000 standard and an authorized OEM service center. The company has adjusted its costs to cope with reduced order volumes from its automotive customers due to the recession. To survive and thrive, the company used a lean management approach to control costs while seeking new work from the government and the renewable-energy market, notes CEO Paul Gutierrez. “The automotive industry is still our core business, and the center of the automotive industry is Michigan,” he says. “Our roots run deep in Michigan from an employee skill level. The technical competencies required for success are still found here.” ICR will continue to diversify into new markets to attract new customers. The challenges ahead include finding the personnel with the required skill sets for new business and providing the proper training. Based in Warren, the company employs 112 people at three locations.
Innovative Learning Group of Royal Oak has continued on a path of stable growth by supplying its clients with practical, smart learning solutions designed to improve their business results, notes founder and President Lisa Toenniges. ILG offers Six Sigma and compliance training, human-performance technology, project management, graphics development, translation services and other learning and performance-support solutions. “I attribute ILG’s success to hard work and taking a practical, hands-on approach to running the business,” Toenniges says. “I set very clear expectations and surround myself with talented people. It’s about having a viable mission and vision, creating a strategy that aligns with the mission and vision and hiring the right people and treating them well.” This year, the company conservatively forecasts 20 percent growth and is on track to achieve that goal. Toenniges plans to expand her staff - currently 10 employees - while boosting marketing and IT capabilities plus implementing project-related work tools to serve clients more effectively.
Founded in 2000 by managing partners and co-CEOs Gary Lutz and Leo Reap to provide the finest, most comprehensive and cost-effective information technology solutions for customers, IT Resource of Coopersville has grown dramatically since its beginning and now has a total of 15 employees at two offices in western Michigan. It serves customers throughout the state and the Midwest. IT Resource offers on-site, remote and hosting solutions for companies across the U.S. and in Europe. “I think the key thing that has helped us to thrive and grow in this economy is working harder to understand our customers’ business and financial condition,” Lutz says. “We’ve really tried to be empathetic with customers who are having financial difficulties, and make sure that every dollar they spend on technology is the best dollar they spent.” The biggest challenge IT Resource has faced during the past year is slow payments because the company’s clients’ customers have also been forced to slowly pay their bills. “We’ve tried to work very closely with our customers to understand their financial status and do everything we can to help them through this tough economy,” notes Reap. “Customers call us because they’ve got a technology problem that affects their bottom line. We’ve always tried to be a calming voice on the supplier side of the business relationship.”
James E. Logan & Associates Ltd., founded in 1994, provides settlement-consulting services throughout the country. The company, which has a main office in West Bloomfield and a service facility in Florida, has seven employees and three independent contractors. Company CEO James E. Logan says the company operates on a lean budget. “To retain viability of our company, we have maintained fiscal responsibility by not spending more than we could afford,” he says. The company has also learned the value of diversification, Logan says. “Most settlement-consulting firms only offer structured settlement services. We have gone beyond that and offer several services including methods to comply with the protection of Medicare when settlements are made, damage analysis and negotiation support, to name but a few.” Instead of downsizing to contain costs, JEL&A assisted with the development of a new sister company, American Settlement Centers Inc. ASC is an alternative dispute resolution business that provides Michigan corporations and insurers with approaches to avoid costly litigation. ACS will ultimately contract with 20 to 30 neutrals who will help parties resolve their disputes as early as possible, Logan says. “The concept of creating a location specially designed as ‘neutral turf’ with a variety of tools, including advanced electronics, video conferencing, recording capability and even a private courtroom, greatly enhances the opportunity for success,” Logan says. “To my knowledge, nothing like it exists in the Midwest and perhaps beyond.” ASC plans to open two or three additional Michigan settlement centers within the next two years, he says.
Founded in 1909, the John E. Green Co. of Highland Park is one of the largest and most diversified mechanical contractors; its 600 professionals have installed advanced mechanical systems all over the country. The company can fabricate, install and test advanced mechanical systems, notes CEO Peter Green. Working directly with owners and subcontractors, it provides design-build services for mechanical and fire-suppression systems; preconstruction evaluations and participation in team concept-building programs; and value engineering reviews to keep clients’ costs within budget.
LaFontaine Automotive Group’s recipe for success includes striving to be a leader in the automotive retail sector. Looking toward the future, the dealership group also remembers its customers and home communities. Headquartered in Highland, LaFontaine has six dealerships and 650 employees. “One of the top challenges that we have faced in the automotive business is leasing vs. buying,” says Ryan LaFontaine, president. “In 2008, 80 percent of our customers leased their cars, but the reverse was true in 2009 when 80 percent purchased their cars. We are proud of the fact that under those circumstances, we lead the nation in Buick, Pontiac, GMC and Cadillac sales.” It’s been difficult to get customers financed, but LaFontaine tries to find the right solutions for car buyers. The uncertainty affecting car manufacturers brought the dealership group many challenges to overcome. “We were very fortunate to only have lost the Pontiac brand. Don’t get me wrong - after 25 years of being a Pontiac dealer, we were devastated. But we dealt with it by rising to the challenge and keeping a positive attitude,” LaFontaine says. Showing commitment to the community, LaFontaine built a 63,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, gold LEED-certified facility in Highland.
LaVida Massage of Commerce Township promotes whole-family health and wellness by providing therapeutic massage services. “Health and wellness is a booming industry, with growing awareness of the long-term health benefits of regular massage,” says John Hoose, president. “The fact that our well-executed health-and-wellness-based business concept enjoys cross-generational and multigender appeal is indicative of broader societal trends that bode well for the industry.” Health and wellness services are an important component of a comprehensive long-term healthy lifestyle. Rising health care costs only drive this point home even more emphatically. “Even the health insurance industry is coming around to the value of preventative care, with some providers offering billable codes for health and wellness services once considered to be experimental or luxury items,” Hoose notes. One of the top challenges faced by the company is recruiting new franchisees, who face a tough time securing loans. Also, there is a negative social stigma to overcome regarding massage centers. A number of communities have outdated zoning rules. Yet, city governments are willing to alter these laws after they learn about the positive benefits of massage centers. LaVida Massage has a number of franchise stores and plans to open several more locations across metropolitan Detroit.
The Lean Learning Center of Novi helps its clients learn the art of transforming their corporate cultures into efficient, productive and profitable operations. With support from its consulting partner, Achievement Dynamics, the Lean Learning Center facilitates kaizen workshops, which help to form lean teams that will tackle processes from the shop floor to administrative offices. “There are probably four things that have led to our success,” notes co-founder Angelo J. Carlino. “The loyalty of clients in good and difficult times. References and repeat business from our clients. Our unique experiential training center in Novi. And we firmly believe there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to lean implementation, so we developed approaches that specifically address the issues and concerns of different businesses in a recessionary market.” One challenge has been convincing companies that it is an investment to spend money on a lean transformation and not an expense, adds co-founder James W. Flinchbaugh. At the same time, The Lean Learning Center practices what it preaches by investigating every business expense to look for opportunities to reduce costs without sacrificing the quality of its services and products. Founded in 2001, the company has nine employees and two locations.
Litho Printing Service Inc. of Eastpointe has provided document design, printing and bindery work to businesses throughout southeastern Michigan since 1966. “I give my customers personal service and guaranteed satisfaction,” says Dale Heid, president, adding that he expects his business to grow in 2010. “The obstacles I face are completing my jobs in a more efficient manner.” When customers needed their orders quicker, Litho Printing purchased state-of-the-art equipment that is faster. To combat the rising cost of materials, it bought supplies in larger volume. And to weather the poor economy, the company found new business based on its solid reputation. Litho Printing is active in its community, belonging to the Eastpointe Chamber of Commerce, the Macomb County Chamber of Commerce and Printing Industries of Michigan. Reaching out to customers, it has a Facebook page and provides updates via Twitter.
Marketplace Homes of Novi purchased or leased hundreds of homes in 2007 and 2008 while generating more than $18 million in new construction sales for local and national builders. Since its founding in 2002, it has offered creative real estate solutions such as a long-term lease program and rent-to-own models for would-be homebuyers. “We found a successful niche because of the economic downturn, not in spite of it,” says Mike Kalis, managing partner. “We give clients a guaranteed six-year lease if they purchase a new-construction home with our company. We have sold more than 10 percent of all new construction in Metro Detroit last year because we took to solving people’s real problems.” The company also places rental offers at the rate of 130 homes per month. Since the beginning of the year, Marketplace Homes expanded into three new major metropolitan markets. The challenging real estate market in Michigan has given the company many opportunities to help buyers solve their problems. The firm has 13 employees.
Merit Network Inc. of Ann Arbor is a nonprofit, member-owned organization that started in 1966 to design and implement a computer network among Michigan’s public universities. With 68 employees, it operates high-performance networking and Internet services for research and education communities in Michigan and beyond. “Our vision is to be a strategic asset to our members,” observes Donald J. Welch, president. “By adjusting to meet their needs, we helped them cope with reduced funding by delivering value.” Many of its members - schools, colleges, universities, libraries, etc. - cut their information technology staffs due to severe funding restrictions, so Merit Network began offering additional IT, communication, infrastructure training and community-building services. “We also obtained $41.6 million in federal stimulus funding to install a 955-mile fiber optic network project,” Welch says. “To do this we partnered with four commercial service providers. In fact, our project was the model for the second round of funding criteria.”
MetroPCS-Michigan offers unlimited cellular phone service to Flint, Lansing, Saginaw and Bay City in addition to the metro Detroit region. MetroPCS-Michigan customers pay by the month - not by the minute - with no signed contracts. Headquartered in Livonia, it is part of Dallas-based MetroPCS Communications Inc., which is the fifth largest facilities-based wireless carrier in the United States. As of the end of 2009, MetroPCS had more than 6.6 million subscribers.
Michigan First Credit Union has more than 75,000 members and businesses in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Based in Lathrup Village with a total of eight locations and 225 employees, the full-service financial institution was formed in 1926 and has more than $525 million in assets. “Our strategy to achieving success has been simple - continue investing in our organization, team members (employees), credit union members and the community in which we serve,” notes Michael D. Poulos, president and CEO. “We improved our technology; trained our team members; provided new services and new locations for our members; and donated more than $100,000 to community organizations over the past year.” Michigan First has faced many of the same challenges as other financial institutions, including rising foreclosures and bankruptcies resulting in loan losses. More regulations on banks and credit unions increased compliance costs. “Our final challenge continues to be educating the public and businesses on the benefits of being a credit union member as well increasing public awareness about Michigan First and our membership-eligibility requirements,” Poulos says. “Addressing these challenges, we closely monitor our real estate lending and remain conservative when making longer-term loans. Michigan First is fortunate to be in a much better situation than many area financial institutions because we have consistently been conservative and avoided getting caught in the subprime-mortgage mess that entrapped many other financial institutions.”
Michigan Solar Solutions sees a bright future for alternative-energy producers. Specializing in the design, sale and installation of solar and wind energy-producing systems for residential, commercial, municipal and school uses, the company installs Michigan-made products using Michigan labor wherever possible. The state is poised for a rapid expansion of solar products because it averages 4.2 hours of peak sunlight per day each year, while Florida - the “Sunshine State” - in actuality has only a slight advantage, about five hours of peak light, notes Mark Hagerty, president. Solar panels also produce more power in cooler weather. “It is clear that manufacturing of renewable-energy systems could be Michigan’s way into a bright future,” Hagerty says. “Early on we decided against importing cheap solar panels from China. Instead we met with several Michigan manufacturers, trying to get them to produce solar-array-system components.” Utility companies have helped, too. For example, DTE Energy’s Solar Currents program makes solar energy more affordable by partially reimbursing customers for installing solar systems on their homes or businesses. Additional federal tax credits and local incentives are available. Facing banks that were reluctant to loan money, the 3-year-old company relied on its own resources for growth. For projects like one at Michigan International Speedway, MSS paid for parts up front and then waited to receive payment.
Specializing in providing custom fixture, product-enhancing elements and furniture for retail programs and commercial interiors, Moda 360 of Farmington Hills has thrived by delivering unique products and solutions to its customers as promised. “The business climate affected our clients’ cash flow, so by ensuring that we maintain effective processes and systems, we’ve maximized our efficiency and reduced costs,” says Wael Berrached, founder. “Implementing value engineering techniques, we’ve optimized design and shipping costs to make things more affordable to our clients. By making certain design enhancements, we’ve also overcome material-durability issues.” Founded in Michigan in 2006, Moda 360 has five employees. “We expect that the economy will continue to present challenges,” Berrached notes. “Our goal is to continue to diversify our business across various industries and geographically. We will strive to secure more national rollout programs and hope that we will continue to grow and add employees.”
MRA (Mobility Resource Associates Inc.) is a supplier of mobile event-marketing exhibits and services including leasing programs; vehicle design, modifications engineering, fabrication and outfitting; event design; staffing; and real-time event reporting using MyMobileTour.com. Founded in 1989, MRA is headquartered in St. Clair Shores, and its main service and engineering center is located near Detroit Metro Airport. With a total of 45 employees, MRA also has satellite sales and account management offices in New York City; Winston-Salem, N.C.; San Diego; Los Angeles; and Portland, Ore. “The key ingredient to any successful business is its people; we recruit talent with a great deal of thought and care,” says Harry Kurtz, president. To retain current clients who have faced economic challenges, MRA adopted flexible payment terms. “As a dedicated partner to all of our clients, we’re in it for the long haul and doing what’s necessary to help them succeed,” Kurtz explained. “We are also exploring innovative ways to increase our revenues while decreasing our expenses.”
NEX Solutions is a privately held company based in Lichfield that was formed in 2004. With 72 employees, it has consistently grown each year - even during difficult economic times - and serves a diverse customer base in the agricultural equipment, defense and aerospace, material handling, pool and spa, recreational vehicle, and specialty truck and vehicle markets. “We strategically added capabilities in fabricating, assembly and for painting large, heavy steel parts and assemblies to gain a unique advantage over the competition,” notes Kevin Grossman, general manager. “We find solutions when others back away. Our management team created a customer-driven culture where each employee’s responsibility is to identify all internal and external customers. This attitude helped us to maintain a competitive advantage. Although steel fabrication is traditionally thought of as a low-tech industry, our commitment to innovation and creative use of technology is changing that perception with our customers.” NEX Solutions uses lean business practices to increase efficiency and become more responsive to customer needs. It is the sole manufacturing company to partner with South Central Michigan Works, Kellogg Community College, Jackson Community College and the Jackson Area Manufacturers Association to create an advanced, turnkey welding-education program.
Oakland Christian Schools has a unique approach to education and the way it values its students and their families. Several years ago, OCS identified four areas that are referred to as the OCS “Latte Factors” - People, Christian Diversity, Academics and Culture. “We value the people who make up the OCS community because they are our lifeline,” says Randy Speck, superintendent. “We appreciate our Christian diversity because this is our foundation. We innovate in academics because this is our future, and we celebrate our culture because it is now. Our emphasis on these factors has kept our goals consistent with our mission and allowed the school to experience new levels of growth.” Founded in 1968, OHC has two campuses - one in Auburn Hills and the other in Clarkston - and employs 105 people. With many people in Michigan suffering from job losses or facing severely reduced incomes, the school system “focused on providing excellent customer service - all of the time” to retain as many tuition-paying families as possible, Speck adds. From answering the phone to returning e-mails, to holding frequent and regular parent/teacher conferences, OCH wants its families to know they are important - and it has paid off. During the past five years, OCS grew 40 percent and has added resources to its art, music, drama and academic programs while establishing new extracurricular programs.
O’Keefe & Associates, a Bloomfield Hills-based financial advisory firm, assists financially distressed companies and has seen demand boom. “Sometimes our credibility with outside stakeholders is all we have to get the necessary time to implement a turnaround plan to help a client survive in this tough Michigan economy,” notes Patrick O’Keefe, founder and managing member. “We have professionals who are team-oriented and driven to achieve the best results for our clients.” There is little to no capital available for small- to medium-size businesses. Consequently, they must implement internally generated growth, but today’s horizon for business solutions is short term. “As a team we must be more resourceful than ever before to our clients and do so on a shorter time line,” O’Keefe says. “Because it is harder to execute buy- or sell-side transactions because of the low values attributed to business and the lack of capital to finance acquisitions, we have retooled and partnered with capital sources to provide solutions to healthy companies with growth prospects.” This year the firm announced it had a committed fund of $100 million from its partners to assist growth prospects for auto suppliers. It also is arranging additional financial partners to meet the needs of clients outside of the auto industry. Founded in 2001, the firm has 40 employees at two locations.
In 2000, the digital marketing firm Oneupweb opened with seven employees in a small Traverse City office. By 2007, it had moved into a 30,000-square-foot facility and expanded to 43 employees. Now it has more new job openings. “As an innovator in digital marketing for more than a decade, we create integrated online marketing plans that incorporate natural search engine optimization, paid search marketing, social media marketing, digital public relations, display advertising, analytics, creative services, mobile marketing, website design, audio/video/podcasting and more,” notes CEO Lisa Wehr, who has been recognized as an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. “Innovation drives our industry, but Oneupweb has always been known for staying ahead of the curve. We’re not afraid to try new things. And we know the value of hard work.” Growth has come with expanding its service offerings to clients, especially by recognizing new trends such as social media. In the coming year, Oneupweb plans to further develop its experience in augmented reality, social media and iPhone applications while still focusing on its core business - search marketing.
Online Tech Inc. of Ann Arbor owns and manages secure, reliable multitenant data centers in Michigan while offering a full range of colocation and managed dedicated-server offerings. According to Mike Klein, president and chief operating officer, Online Tech has been able to grow through the recession by clearly articulating its value proposition to customers and focusing only on the products and services that supported that value proposition. “Our value proposition is pretty straightforward - by outsourcing IT services to managed data centers, our customers can cut costs, reduce risks and receive a higher level of operational excellence than their IT departments can achieve by running their own data center,” he says. Online Tech provides everything, including server hardware. Its primary customers are small and midsize businesses - ranging from $20 million to $5 billion in revenue. Several of its automotive clients went out of business during 2009, so Online Tech expanded its customer base to include financial services, insurance companies, franchisers and software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers. Fortunately, there are many companies looking to reduce their IT expenditures, and its data centers offered clients a significant cost savings. The company has three locations and 20 employees and hopes to add another one or two data centers in the Midwest during the next 12 months.
OST USA (Open Systems Technologies) specializes in IT and business-process services for health care, manufacturing, distribution, finance and insurance business sectors. With offices in Grand Rapids and Minneapolis, the company has logged 30 percent compounded growth in revenue and increased its staff since 2003. In 2007, 2008 and 2009, OST was recognized as one of America’s fastest-growing companies by Inc. magazine. “When the recession began, our No. 1 goal was keep all of our people,” says Dan Behm, president. “We were completely transparent in sharing our goal with our employees. The next step was to provide weekly reports with our actual results. Our people responded in extraordinary ways, stepping out of their comfort levels and working extra hours to overachieve. As a result, 2009 was the best revenue year and second-best net profit year in the history of our company.” The company is poised to grow in 2010 and plans to add more jobs in Michigan while taking its niche-specialized IT solutions and marketing them across the U.S. The firm has 56 employees and 44 contractors.
Plante Moran CRESA of Southfield is a fully integrated commercial real estate service company. Its success during the past year is due to its staff’s ability to make smart real estate decisions. The firm, which has 30 employees, represents only tenants - never landlords or developers. Thus, it gains the best real estate transactions for its clients. A decade ago, it diversified its business into the health care, advanced manufacturing, education and government sectors, where it has seen growth. “The automotive industry underwent a painful restructuring but is poised for a recovery, coupled with a diversification of industries quietly happening throughout the state,” notes CEO Bill Lichwalla. “Michigan’s engineering and technical work force is the most advanced in the world and will still be a global force for many years to come as the economy recovers. Plante Moran CRESA continues to invest in the state and is pleased to be involved on the front lines with organizations doing the same.” The firm is affiliated with one of the nation’s largest accounting and business advisory firms, Plante & Moran, which has given it access to extensive resources to help its clients’ businesses thrive.
Plex Systems of Auburn Hills is the developer of Plex Online, a fully integrated software program that delivers a “shop floor to top floor” view of a manufacturer’s operations, enabling management to run its business at maximum efficiency. Founded in 1995 and employing 132 people at two locations, the company initially offered traditional software systems, but its developers knew that manufacturing suppliers required extensive flexibility to interlink with their plants all over the world. “The continuing mergers, closures and business challenges in automotive manufacturing have been challenging,” observes CEO Mark Symonds. While Plex Online began as a solution in the automotive industry, the company diversified into the aerospace/defense, industrial, medical devices and food/beverage industries. “This evolution coincided with the economic recession, driving improvements in industries that were being hit the hardest, and bringing to them the precise benefits they have needed to combat the effects of the recession. This has been our recipe for success,” Symonds says. The company added various features to Plex Online such as a user-friendly customization tool, a subscription-only pricing structure, industry-leading disaster-recovery capabilities and more that meets the challenges of today’s economic and business environment. In April 2010, it opened a 20,000-square-foot facility in Auburn Hills. It plans to invest $3.9 million during the next several years that will create a total of 298 new direct jobs and 488 spin-off jobs - including 40 this year alone. “We have begun hiring additional staff with expertise in the areas in which we are growing, having grown our work force by 40 percent over the last three years,” Symonds adds.
In 1949, a mortgage bank opened in Michigan with a clear mission - to treat every customer with honesty, integrity and in a friendly and caring way. That corporation evolved to become Ross Mortgage of Royal Oak, independently owned by father and son, Chairman Hugh Ross and President Tim Ross. From a single branch in 1983, it now has 17 locations and 160 employees in the Detroit, Washtenaw and Kalamazoo regions. “Our recipe for success is to earn and maintain a reputation for delivering superior service and exceeding customer expectations over a long period of time,” notes Tim Ross. “We attract and retain the best team members in the industry, ensuring that they are - and continue to be - well-trained.” New government regulations are challenging, but Ross Mortgage endeavors to be in conformity with any rule changes at or before the date of required compliance. In 2009 it dedicated significant time and effort to establishing new banking relationships to ensure an uninterrupted flow of credit to finance its operations. “We are constantly training and communicating with our team, vendors, sources of referral and investors as to the changes associated with the delivery of our product and service to our customers,” Ross adds.
SHW Group LLC is an interdisciplinary team of architects, engineers, planners and educators. Long before Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification existed, SHW designers knew that good design was sustainable design, says Marjorie K. Simmons, managing principal and chairman. “We understand that green spaces are learning laboratories and foster a respect for the environment,” she says. “While LEED is a yardstick, clients have many ways to meet sustainability goals. Green design is an environmentally respectful integrated approach to solve the challenges that every project presents.” There are opportunities in Michigan. SHW found an abundance of talented, creative professionals and during the past few months increased its staff by 15 percent, growing despite the economic downturn. “Staying lean and focusing on cost-effective, continuous improvement during the boom times was also a strategic decision to position our firm well for future downturns,” Simmons says. “Due to the transformation of our economy from a manufacturing base to a knowledge base, as well as the increasing demand in nearly every health-related profession, we have established a research and benchmarking program, where we bring best practices to our clients but also continuously learn lessons from other national and international state-of-the-art facilities.” The firm employs 71 people at its Berkley headquarters and a total of 332 nationwide.
Storage Opportunity Partners LLC is headquartered in Farmington Hills and has operations in Newton Highlands, Mass. The firm specializes in the acquisition, development, management and disposition of self-storage facilities. Founded in early 2007, it owns 13 properties totaling more than 767,000 square feet of rentable space including 6,500 storage units and more than 975 outdoor parking spaces for rent. StorageOp’s primary focus is the acquisition and repositioning of existing self-storage facilities with value-add opportunities to improve facility operations and their physical condition. It creates new self-storage facilities on a highly selective basis, limited to exceptional high-traffic locations. The first such development opened for business in late 2008 on Telegraph Road in Southfield.
Stout Risius Ross Inc. of Southfield is a financial advisory firm that specializes in investment banking, valuation and financial opinions, and dispute advisory and forensic services. SRR’s clients range from Fortune 500 corporations to privately held companies in numerous industries around the world. “Something we focus on, in good times and bad, is continually listening to the needs of the marketplace and responding with relevant services that exceed our clients’ expectations,” says Michael L. Kern III, president and COO. “For instance, our experts help companies with asset-impairment testing and property tax appeals. Further, we pursue new-service offerings when we believe there is a demand that hasn’t been satisfied, such as our recently introduced litigation data-hosting service.” SRR’s investment banking unit felt the pinch during the recession, but the firm continuously looks for ways to keep employees engaged and enthusiastic. During the past year it has seen an increase of its “days sales outstanding” - the number of accounts slipping into severely delinquent status - and clients declaring bankruptcy. The firm responded by getting retainer payments before starting projects, improving bill monitoring and reaching out to troubled clients. Founded in 1991, SSR has 169 employees in five locations: Southfield, Chicago, Cleveland, Tysons Corner, Va., and New York.
Strategic Staffing Solutions of Detroit, also known as S3, was founded in 1990 by President and CEO Cynthia J. Pasky. S3 is a provider of IT consulting, staff augmentation, vendor-management programs, executive-search services and more to customers throughout the U.S. and Europe. With sales hitting $169 million in 2009, it is one of Michigan’s largest women-owned companies. Ernst and Young named Pasky as one of its Entrepreneurs of the Year. “We put our consultants and customers at the top of our corporate structure, and our company’s decisions stem from that,” Pasky says. “We listen to the front line of our operations, and we devise tailored solutions that address our customers’ needs to make them successful in their market. Our key decision-makers are also at the front line, with our branch managers and consultants, listening to our customers and their challenges and helping our team pinpoint effective solutions.” In late 2008 and early 2009, the company entered five new markets with a $20 million acquisition and affiliated with an English company to create the S3-Gibbs Partnership. S3 employs 1,821 people at 20 locations serving the U.S. and Europe.
Superior Design Concepts of Sterling Heights is an engineering prototype shop that manufactures components and assemblies for fixtures and tooling for the defense, automotive, industrial and medical industries. Such items could run from a few prototype pieces to larger production runs of thousands of pieces. The firm also assembles and tests mechanical, hydraulic and pneumatic components. “Business is growing for us,” notes Jerry Czubatyj, president. “Manufacturing is not what it has been in the past. Everything in this business is changing, and we need to stay current with the latest technologies. The major obstacle we face is identifying what new ideas can be brought to the market, but we are learning how to manage and grow in the new up-and-coming economy.” Diversification - without heavily investing in one sector of the economy - has been the cornerstone of the firm’s success. “We are open to new ideas and products that allow us to take calculated risks and potentially bring new products to the market,” Czubatyj says. “One advantage is Michigan’s skilled work force. We are able to reduce assembly and manufacturing time and make the product more competitive on the global market.” Founded in 2007, the company has six employees.
Symplicity Communications Inc. was founded in 2006 by Catherine Lazarock, its president, with the goal of making telecommunications “symple” for clients. It organizes local, long-distance and Internet/data telephone services; monitors cellular services to catch errors and incorrect billing charges; provides consulting services to make the process of selecting new phone systems easier; and provides assessments of networks and makes recommendations. “Doing the right thing for the customer creates long-term loyalty and relationships,” Lazarock says. “In my industry, representatives tend to sell products that pay large commissions, even if it is not the right product for the customer. Symplicity also has a value-add approach to telecommunications. Symplicity makes the process of navigating the confusing world of telecom easier by not only being able to make the best carrier recommendation, but we project-manage the implementation process and further manage the bill-review process.” Symplicity is active in the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs, Inforum and CEED. The firm employs six people and operates two locations.
Trivalent Group of Grandville was established in 1991 to assist companies with data and network issues and merged with the IT consulting firm Remex in 2003, which became one of several strategic mergers. Today, Trivalent Group’s business solutions allow clients to capitalize on their IT investments to improve their businesses. “We believe that our business will change in the coming year - probably more dramatically than in years past,” notes CEO Larry Andrus. “Shifting our staffing models, combining some of our divisions and maximizing our efficiencies through closer team integration are all tactics outlined in our annual business plans. We do not see recovery coming soon for our clients, therefore, we plan ways to be more efficient and do more with what we have. We need to continue to reward our team for their ideas and activities that contain costs, grow revenues and leverage automation and efficiencies to provide greater service to our clients.” Trivalent has 62 employees.
Unified Business Technologies Inc. of Troy, a provider of professional, technical and scientific services, follows the motto of “Never go with the flow.” Five years ago when many businesses in Michigan pursued automotive work, UBT decided to become a full-service government contractor. The initial years were difficult, but Michelle D’Souza, UBT’s CEO, took a pay cut so that no employee had to be laid off. The risk paid off when the company won several large federal government contracts. Recently, it expanded into the health care sector. UBT and D’Souza have won numerous awards, including being named a Minority Small Business of the Year by the Small Business Administration, Enterprising Woman of the Year by Enterprising Women Magazine and Top Diversity Owned Business in Michigan by DiversityBusiness.com. The company was founded in 1997 and employs 85 people at three locations.
Urbane Apartments of Royal Oak operates 14 locations that offer renters modern design features and boutique-style amenities including hardwood floors, loft-style rolling doors, black-on-black appliances, a choice of wall colors and carpeting, and materials including ceramics, metals and granites. “We undertook an effort to crush expenses while enhancing our resident experience at each of our locations,” notes President Eric Brown about his firm’s success. “We’ve also embraced the use of social media to grow our community. With a presence on sites like Facebook and Twitter and a lifestyle blog covering our communities daily at Urbane Life, we reach out to our residents, share in a conversation and, hopefully, make their stay with us a unique and valued experience.” Its top challenge has been to protect available operating capital by looking at more ways to trim expenses. Founded in 2003, Urbane Apartments has seven employees.
Warner Norcross & Judd LLP is a full-service law firm based in Grand Rapids with 443 employees at six locations. “We were well-positioned to weather economic ups and downs,” observes Douglas E. Wagner, managing partner. “When one area slows down, such as commercial lending work, another practice area inevitably increases, such as litigation and bankruptcy.” The firm does not penalize attorneys when things slow down in their field, which ensures they remain motivated and loyal over the long term. “Increasingly, our clients are asking us for more flexible fee arrangements,” Wagner says. “For many years we have been a leader in developing alternative fee arrangements that focus less on billable hours and more on results. During the coming years, we anticipate that this will accelerate, which has prompted us to examine and change the way we do business.” Technological changes have had a major impact on the 79-year-old firm’s operations, and it works to make sure it has the tools for sharing information, managing projects, telecommuting, etc.
For more than a decade, WorkForce Software of Livonia has focused on two areas - providing outstanding customer service and products, notes Kevin Choksi, president and CEO. “As we continue to grow, we invest more into R&D and proactively meeting changes in state and federal laws,” he says. “Our customers are our No. 1 priority. We have an active client board of directors that we engage at least four times a year. We listen to what our customers need and incorporate their requests into future product development and service offerings.” In today’s hard times, the company offers work force management technology that helps boost its customers’ bottom lines. Its EmpCenter software streamlines and automates labor processes, which in turn saves money while ensuring compliance with labor law regulations, thus minimizing or eliminating costly fines and a tarnished reputation. “As a work force management software supplier, we continuously watch for federal regulation changes to see how they impact the way employees are paid and the associated information that must be documented and maintained,” he adds. The firm employs 160 people in three locations.