Entrepreneurs of Distinction, Top Execs Celebrate, Learn From Each Other

Corp! magazine honored the entrepreneurs and executives who are moving the Michigan economy forward with innovative thinking and exceptional leadership at a celebration featuring high-powered networking, a panel discussion and awards ceremony at Michigan State University’s Management Education Center on Aug. 25, 2009.

The Entrepreneurs of Distinction and Michigan’s Top Executives event featured a panel discussion with award winners who shared their personal stories of accomplishment and what it takes to be successful. Panel moderator was Jennifer Kluge, Corp! publisher. Corp! magazine’s Entrepreneurs of Distinction and Michigan’s Top Executives event was sponsored by Phimation.

Panelists included: Dave Haviland, principal of Phimation; Jason Lambiris, CEO of Apex Digital Solutions; Patrick O’Keefe, managing director of O’Keefe and Associates; and Lisa Toenniges, president of Innovative Learning Group.

When asked, ‘What attributes are needed to start a business in tough times and good times and what does it take to flourish,’ David Haviland responded with: Change. “Change has always been rewarded,” he explains. “We’re in a time when not changing will be punished. At Phimation it means keeping a positive attitude.”

Keep a watchful eye on financials, advises Jason Lambiris. “In good times, a lot of us tend to hit the ‘snooze’ button. In a tough economy, it can still be a good time to grow and set the stage.”

“Most businesses fail because they are undercapitalized,” says Patrick O’Keefe. “We believe you shouldn’t spend more than you take in.”

For Lisa Toenniges, flourishing has been about paying attention to customers. “Look at and see what each customer values.”

And how can business owners adapt to ‘new’ client needs in this economy? “The driving force today is risk aversion,” says Haviland. “Customers are buying things in smaller chunks. Take your services and chunk them up so people can buy in smaller ways.”

Giving customers a predictable cost model has been a successful strategy for Apex Digital’s Lambiris. Good business models work equally well in bad times, observed O’Keefe. “Leaders in middle market companies often need a resource to talk to about what’s going on and how to sort it out,” says O’Keefe, who adds that his firm’s receptionist is called the ‘director of first impressions.’

“Returning a phone call within a few hours is just basic,” says Toenniges. So is flexibility. “Give clients options and alternatives.”

Because entrepreneurs often meet resistance or failure along the path to success, panelists were asked to share ‘one proud failure’ and what they learned from it.

“Being a smaller firm, we have to grapple with the perception that ‘bigger is better,'” says O’Keefe, adding that “you have to set aside your ego to get the company to grow.”

When asked about which areas he sees for business growth, Haviland responds, “There is a separation between manufacturing and engineering -“ the manufacturing sector is being repurposed to high value sectors. We’re developing an entrepreneur culture that we got away from. All unemployed people are entrepreneurs [but] they may not know it yet.”

The panel wrapped up with two key issues for all entrepreneurs and busy executives: 1) keeping their team motivated and 2) work-life balance.

“We work in an open environment. I share everything that’s going on with my staff,” says Toenniges. “Personally -¦ take care of yourself all day and every day.”

“Nobody goes to their grave wishing they worked harder,” says O’Keefe. “You can’t sweat everything. A happy, healthy life makes a more productive workplace.”

Sharing opportunities and exciting developments with the team as they happen is one strategy that Lambiris uses. “Tell people why it’s important to customers and to them. Personally spend time with your family, exercise, force yourself to take a vacation.”

Communication is important for Phimation’s Haviland, who is posting positive news stories on his blog and calling the current economic time, The Great Progression.

Corp! Publisher Jennifer Kluge congratulated all the winners and concluded by adding, “It’s all about celebrating the small successes along the way.”

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