By J.D. Booth
August 6, 2009
Responsibility. Resolve. Resourcefulness.
The list of qualities the very best executives demonstrate goes on and on. But first and foremost is a keen sense of leadership. Of knowing what needs to be done and doing it, unflinchingly, taking a never-give-up attitude to its logical conclusion. This year’s crop of Corp! magazine’s Michigan Top Executives is no exception. Once nominated, the list of individuals are further scrutinized and screened. And what remains are those who any company would be proud to consider their own.
Larry C. Arreguin
Vice President, Government Affairs
When Larry Arreguin served as regional director for Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s Southeast Office, he’d already become familiar with work in the government sector, having worked for the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, specifically on several major municipal projects, including the planning and construction of Comerica Park, Ford Field, the midfield terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and the Wayne County’s Juvenile Justice Facility. At VisionIT, one of the biggest transitions was learning how to navigate government from the other side of the fence. What hadn’t changed was the need to develop and support a great team. “In order to get to that point, you need to assess the opportunity and identify those that can provide the best input and allow them the space to develop the best solution.” As vice president of Government Affairs, Arreguin leads the growing IT staffing, managed services, and vendor management firm’s efforts in cultivating stronger relationships with the public sector and the various communities that it serves. “Once I joined VisionIT I began to draw parallels between my previously roles in government and my new role. In both situations I shared our story with others and serve as a liaison between the organization and its stakeholders.” Arreguin says he’s proud of the relationships he’s been able to form in 20 years of working in politics and government. “It’s important to have a strong network you can call upon for support and advice. I have been fortunate enough to engage some very dynamic individuals that I interact with both professionally and personally. The relationships I have maintained have helped me to make a significant impact on advancing the mission of VisionIT.” Arreguin says insightful lessons from his parents taught him about the importance of being a hard worker. “They also encouraged me with their lead by example attitude.” He sees great opportunities for further growth ahead. “One way is by always looking for opportunities to learn something new. I have a firm belief that we become stronger leaders by appreciating that there are new and innovative approaches to what we do and we must learn to embrace them to become stronger individuals.”
President & CEO
Creative Breakthroughs, Inc.
With a leadership style that centers around passion, Steve Barone says it’s a characteristic that’s different than being aggressive. “Much of my passion is generated from a desire to compete and to win. Athletics have played a big role in my life and that translates into my career. The people we employ seem to share this competitive nature. At Creative Breakthroughs, Barone helps the technology company maintain current revenue streams while simultaneously identifying the next wave of technology, not always an easy task. “I have been successful doing this and, based on all the changes in the tech business, feel it is a significant accomplishment,” says Barone, who points to an endless list of companies that have failed. He also points to having successfully navigated the tech shift in the late 1990s as another win. “At that time we actually morphed from a company that facilitated work across the network to a company that specialized in keeping people out of the network. Needless to say, were out in front of things, not always an easy place to be.” Barone says he’s proud of being one of the most agile companies in the technology business. “This has enabled us to stay out ahead of many competitors and it also put us in a position to satisfy a number of customers over long periods of time.”
When John’s father, Joe, began what became a family venture in 1975, it was the purchase of two former Vescio’s Foods stores in Clinton and Saline. John Busch is one of three brothers (Doug and Tim are the others) that took over the enterprise when their father retired in 1986. The stores employ some 1,500 associates and Busch’s is recognized as an industry leader by Store Equipment and Design Magazine.
Oneida Solutions Group
John Green says being able to build Oneida Solutions Group, a Native American enterprise, as a solid, high quality minority company is its own reward. A relocation services company, Oneida achieved revenues of more than $1 million last year, but Green says support of family and colleagues is the reason. “With a growing company, my team and I have managed to maintain excellent quality to our accounts and vendors.” At the same time, Green works hard to maintain high integrity with employees and accounts. Green credits his brother-in-law Dave Morse (president of Morse Moving & Storage) and his wife Joy as among those he considers mentors.
Halpin Design and Proud Mary Prosthetics
With a leadership style that “has always been to challenge others to reach inside to find their value” Sean Halpin believes rewards come from “the amount of value we add to others’ lives.” Acknowledging that his company has always been relatively small (no more than 10 employees), Halpin says that has been deliberate. “Employees have all been selected for a reason and they know what their purpose and value is. We all know certain things that are valuable to the company. By combining great input we can add value in ways we never imagined.” Two years ago, when Halpin’s parents both died (within 90 days of each other), it was one of the largest challenges he had faced. “I realized how important it was to have surrounded myself with great people. While I was distracted from my customers’ needs my employees stepped up and filled the holes.” Today, Halpin is transitioning from an automotive deliverable to a cancer survivor deliverable (through Proud Mary Prosthetics). Halpin, while clearly providing the leadership to his team, is most proud of finding time to run the enterprise while coaching a girls hockey team, even at a time when “work and home balance was impossible at this time in my life.” Halpin says he’s motivated by opportunity. “Due to economic conditions I have never been more challenged than I am now to create new products in alternative markets. I am trying to be more open-minded than ever before. I am trying to be patient while exploring new industries and relationships. I am evolving as a father a husband and boss. God is my boss. I will continue to follow his guidance. I am sure peace will prevail.”
Plante & Moran
Clearly, Bill Hermann is a leader. But what kind? “It’s always been important for me to be a leader who is both decisive and inclusive,” says. “That combination insures that you are gathering the best thinking in your organization to get the best ideas in order to reach the best decisions, while still moving the organization forward.” One of his biggest roles at Plante & Moran is in the development and mentoring of future leaders. “I wake up every day looking for a way to make Plante & Moran a better place for our clients and staff.” In an organization that continues to value (and receive kudos for) work/life balance, Hermann says he values his own ability to “walk the talk.” He also works hard to maintain Plante & Moran’s culture, even in a time of growth, the firm having tripled its size in the last 10 years. “I am most proud of leading a firm that has kept true to its culture, served its clients and helped them thrive.” Add to that the fact that Plante & Moran has, for the last 11 consecutive years, been on Fortune Magazine’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work For” and it’s clear that Bill Hermann is one exceptional leader.
Very much a hands-on member of the team, Donald Hicks says leading is simply one of his added responsibilities. “In our field, the most critical determinants for success are intellectual honesty-facing reality, creative thinking, stubborn commitment to success, and selflessness or treating other’s needs as attentively as one treat’s one’s own.” As a member of the team, “I need to exhibit these winning characteristics by performing my job well, and communicating about the teaching points when they are useful for others.” Having already guided DNA Software through what he calls a “wrenching transition” to become a growing and healthy organization, Hicks says how an executive handles problems is among the most important aspects of leading. “When things are going wrong at a company, they are usually going wrong in multiple dimensions-financial, marketing, legal, HR.” He credits his team with giving their best effort in a time of turmoil. On a personal note, he sees one of the biggest challenges he faced being to establish a long-term sustainable life-work balance. “Organizations are not well served by CEOs who try to offer ‘super-human’ effort, then flame out. I’ve had to find a balance that would let me perform at a high level in my job over a long-term sustained effort.” His advice to others? Be real. “There is no double life, there is just your life, and it’s all the same thing. Be who you are for your employees, your family, your friends, your co-workers, don’t be someone different for each.”
President and CEO
HealthPlus of Michigan
Just named CEO of HealthPlus, a Flint-based Health Maintenance Organization, (after serving as interim CEO for six months), Bruce Hill has spent nearly half his 46 years as a health care executive, including time in the Pacific Northwest and Chicago areas before moving to Michigan. Over that time, he has established a track record as an action-oriented professional keenly sensitive to market needs. “While these are challenging times in Michigan, I have no doubt that we will not only succeed but thrive in the future,” says Hill, a native of Michigan who has both a bachelor’s (economics) and a master’s degree (health services administration) from the University of Michigan.
CEO and owner
Jim Hiller says consensus is not the same as making a decision. “My business philosophy is take your first loss; if you make a mistake, fix it.” Originally a lawyer, Hiller says the transition from the legal profession to a career in business was among his biggest challenges. “The style of action is so different-even though the training was effective.” Once in business, Hiller began to see how much a business was like a life itself. “They begin in a period of infancy then move to childhood, adolescence and adulthood and eventually move on into dotage. The key in a family business is to prolong for as many years as you can that period of adulthood.” One way to ensure that, he says, is the same way humans do. “Try not to fall into the trap of sameness. People who live a long, fruitful, happy life are those people who are willing to embrace change and embrace the difficulties they face. Show me a happy old person and I’ll show you a person who has lived with life’s travails and dealt with changes. It’s the same way with a business. If you insist that a business must fit the same cookie cutter shape eternally, without change or evolution, you are destined to have a short run. The person who runs the company must willingly embrace change, almost seek it.” Today, Hiller says success has meant he can make philanthropy his main goal in life. Still, he cautions himself against getting too smug. One way to do that? “By never congratulating myself on my accomplishments, by always questioning everything that I do in light of all the new things that I’ve learned and all the changes that have taken place around me. The other thing that drives me very hard is the strong sense of responsibility for the people who not only work for me but who take care of me. It’s the people that make me different- if you constantly strive to do the right thing and put yourself essentially at the same level as the people who take care of you and work for you, and you can build a relationship with them that is honest and authentic and one that is driven by a sense of mutual respect, then you stand a chance of continuing and growing as a leader, despite failing faculties with age.”
President and CEO
The WW Group, LLC
Describing herself as “a leader who strongly believes in the power of a great team,” Florine Mark has surrounded herself with people she trusts enough to let them do their jobs. She’s also a giver with a clear idea of what drives her. “Good leaders have to have a fire in their belly, a creative edge and integrity because those are the things that can really determine how a effective you will be at leading.” Mark remembers how difficult it was to get started, especially as a woman. “When I bought my first franchise I was told that I would have to have my husband sign for the business loan.” Not the answer she was willing to take. “I went right back to Weight Watchers and asked them would they front me the money to get started. They agreed.” Another challenge was franchising Weight Watchers in Mexico. “At first it was tough; I moved my family there for a year to really get hands on, and from there I hired a team of people who lived there and really understand what it took to really target the population with marketing and everything else.” Mark says her mother, grandmother and “really my entire family” are among those that have served as mentors. “The people that care about you the most can be the greatest inspiration, because they believe in you and want you to be as successful as you can be.” Even now, Mark says her greatest accomplishment is being a mother of five children. “Although I love the work I do and all the recognition I have received, having my family to share it with is what really counts.”
President and CEO
Full Spectrum Solutions, Inc.
When Michael Nevins and his wife, Diane, moved to Michigan from Colorado, they missed the bright sunshine found in their former home during the winter months. That was the genesis of Full Spectrum Solutions, founded in 1995, the idea being to counter what he calls the “high price, poor quality products” then available on the market. Today, Full Spectrum sells under the Paralite, UltraLux and BlueMax brands. The company has quickly grown into the leading manufacturer of full spectrum task lamp and light therapy fixtures as well as a total of eight full lines of full spectrum solutions for home and office environments. Indeed, the company is completing a new 70,000-square-foot facility that will house the main corporate offices and greatly expand its manufacturing capabilities. It’s also a LEED-certified structure, meaning it has met stringent resource usage criteria established by the U.S. Green Building Council, among them solar panels to power heating and air conditioning, recycled energy-efficient window glass and a rooftop rainwater capture system to supplement city water. Other unique green features include geothermal heating and cooling, solar/wind hybrid parking lot lighting, and skylights that track the sun as it travels across the Michigan sky and integrate with daylight sensors to dim the lighting.
Founder, Managing Member
O’Keefe & Associates
Patrick O’Keefe sees passion in business as being contagious. “Generally people like positive attitudes. If you ask someone in our firm how they are doing they’ll respond ‘never better’ or ‘living the dream.’ It catches people off guard. I used to say ‘extraordinary bordering on spectacular.’ You have to change it up a bit, but it exudes a positive attitude and most people don’t think that way. It is very powerful. It makes people want to do what you’re doing if you feel that way.” O’Keefe says he tries to adopt best practices from a variety of sources, the intention being to create a working environment for individuals to thrive and prosper. “I try to look for highly motivated self starters who share my vision, passion and commitment to excellence.” He prides himself on helping to create an environment where people aren’t held back. “They have at their disposal all the tools and resources to achieve whatever greatness they want to pursue.” One strategy O’Keefe holds onto may be the most simple: responsiveness. “It is such a simple competitive advantage. I can’t tell you how many assignments we have picked up just because we are responsive.”
Chief Information Officer
As someone familiar with change, Steven Robert has embraced the concept. Indeed, when it comes to reinvention, it’s an annual exercise. “Each year-end, I create a formal list of personal and professional goals,” says Robert, who, rather than finding the idea restrictive, leans into the idea. “It helps to ensure I work toward them as the year unfolds.” Robert’s evolution as an entrepreneur has included at least one defining moment. “Early in our business’ growth, when we had maybe five employees, there were questions, problems (or challenges rather) that surfaced regularly; as a small business we often didn’t have protocol to follow, the issues needed resolution today and there was nobody further up the ladder I could call upon. I realized quickly, I had to develop a process for making tough decisions and living with the results, as the buck stops here.” The goal-setting process that resulted has helped. “I’m able to regularly step back from the business and think about challenges on the horizon and how they may affect my role, ideally giving me ample time to prepare. While there’s no crystal ball, regular reinventing can help to provide tools necessary to maximize opportunities.” Robert’s advice to budding entrepreneurs? “Resourcefulness and creativity are often a good place to start, but today’s entrepreneurs will need a lot more to sustain growth. Time management is crucial, you need to stay out of the weeds and implement a process for strategic risk management.”
Ken Rogers has taken a legacy of entrepreneurism to public service as executive director of Automation Alley, a technology business association based in Southeast Michigan. “I had a variety of jobs before starting my own company, but I always kept a positive attitude and have enjoyed learning about new opportunities and overcoming difficult challenges.” His advice for today’s entrepreneur? “Have a positive attitude. Be willing to work hard, understand there is no easy road on the way to success and that there is a price to pay for success. You must also possess a commitment to your work, continue to think of new strategies and continue to sharpen your skills.” Rogers finds it difficult to credit just one person for his development as an executive. Attitude, he says, is key. “The most important lesson that I learned very early on in my career is the importance of a positive attitude. If you think you can, you can and if you think you can’t then you can’t.” Clearly, Rogers has helped take Automation Alley to new heights as a result of his past experiences. “It’s also enabled me to continue to challenge myself. I have always felt that the worst thing that could happen to me is if I were to die and not know the person I could have become.” As far as any financial challenges faced by the modern entrepreneur, Rogers again points to the importance of attitude. “Entrepreneurs must keep positive, leave old and tired ways of doing business behind and continue to find new markets and new business associates to partner with. They need to understand the importance of budgeting and managing finances and hire good people. Most importantly, never lose faith in yourself.”
Rex E. Schlaybaugh Jr.
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
So you think you have challenges? How about convincing a 100-year-old organization that it needed to embrace change. That’s what Rex Schlaybaugh Jr. faced at Dykema, a legendary law firm steeped in tradition. “Organizations that have been as successful as ours for as long as we have been around tend to be resistant to change,” he notes, referring to raising the level of performance expectations to meet increasing levels of competition. Schlaybaugh’s ability to help build a firm that was principally focused in the Michigan market to one that now has a national presence has included a fundamental understanding: “That you lead by example and that you become most effective by helping other people succeed.”
Communications Professionals, Inc.
Enjoying what he does while having a positive outlook on life are among Andrew Wallace’s keys to success. “I believe when you have a positive outlook at life, in general, you often find yourself surrounded by positive people which coincidentally has a very positive relationship to business success.” In a company with very little turnover, Wallace says he has created a family model within the IT business that brings out the absolute best in the crew. As corporate budgets shrink, Wallace has transitioned from a products based company to one that’s service based, even as the majority of clients he had in 1992 remain today. What Wallace has done is shift at least some of his focus to work outside the automotive sector. “We made a very hard transition to the Federal market as well as a commitment to corporate. Today, many of our corporate clients are looking for cheaper, greener, and more efficient solutions to battle their shrinking budgets.” Wallace says he’s most proud “of building a business that I can pass on to my sons, free from any encumbrances, and honestly saying that I stepped on no one’s head in order to get here. Integrity is a big part of who I am and what I hope I project to my family, friends, employees, clients, and any random individual that I’m blessed to meet.”