The 24th Annual Entrepreneurial Excellence Awards.
by Laurie Wink
The Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center (NWI-SBDC) honored ten outstanding regional business professionals at the Entrepreneurial Excellence Awards luncheon on Nov. 4 at the Star Plaza in Merrillville. The event marked the 24th year the organization has singled out entrepreneurs from its seven-county service area for special recognition.
A number of award recipients entered family businesses and continue to nurture a close-knit atmosphere among employees. And, whether they've been in business fewer than 10 years or more than 100, they credit their success to contributions made by their teams.
Breanne Stover, Our Text Tile Hive
Emerging Business of the Year
“Our Textile Hive” is the umbrella name for a honeycomb of businesses Breanne Stover has generated over ten years. The Griffith native graduated from Dominican University and took a job selling industrial tools and safety supplies to steel mills. Facing a layoff in 2005, Stover created BSE Industrial Services, a laundry business serving steel workers. Their flame-resistant uniforms are referred to as “greens” so Stover used the name “BB Greens” for a niche business that sells, rents and customizes uniforms. Soon afterwards, she developed “B Sparkly,” an enterprise that creates bedazzled attire for select customers. Never one to stand still, Stover recently added a showroom at her business location in a Griffith industrial park.
Stover's business has expanded through word-of-mouth and customer requests. “People just started asking, ‘Can you do this?' and when enough [people] asked, I decided I better start doing it.” As she grew from a one-woman operation to a staff of ten, Stover sought the services of the NWI-SBCD. Business advisor Cindy Bertram says, “I could tell her business savvy and energy have been keys to her success. She's resilient and always open to new angles and ideas.”
Glee Renick-May, Northwest Indiana Business Quarterly
Small Business Journalist of the Year
Glee Renick-May never forgot the phone call she got in 2009 from Eric Servaas, publisher of Indiana Business magazine, announcing he was closing the business after 52 years. Renick-May had created several niche magazines during her 22-year tenure with the publishing company. One of them was the Northwest Indiana Business Quarterly, launched in 1991 in partnership with Tom McDermott and John Davies (then with the Northwest Indiana Forum).
Renick-May–who passed away in January 2016 following a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer–was a consummate business professional with a 35-year career in broadcast and print media. Rather than see the Northwest Indiana Business Quarterly go under, she used her personal savings to become owner and publisher in 2009. As of this year, the publication is celebrating its 25th anniversary as the region's leading business magazine, covering a wide range of subjects that impact a 10-county area.
Renick-May's selection as the Small Business Journalist of the Year is a tribute to her efforts to advance the region's business community. In recent years, she launched Retirement Living, a magazine focusing on financial and lifestyle options for seniors.
In an interview before her passing, Renick-May credited her success to the support of her editorial and advisory boards and her team of employees, some of whom worked with her at Indiana Business magazine. Like other small business owners, she wore many hats and poured immeasurable energy into the venture, even as she dealt with the challenges of her cancer treatment.
“I'm extremely grateful for being able to work and keep the magazines afloat during multiple personal and business challenges,” Renick-May said, expressing continued optimism about the future of print publications in the digital age. “I truly believe there will always be room for quality niche publications targeting very specific audiences in the years to come.”
Renick-May's husband, Conrad May, has vowed to carry the magazine forward into the future, as a tribute to the memory of his wife, Glee, and her commitment to promoting prosperity across the northern part of Indiana.
Dushan Nikolovski, Center for Entrepreneurship Success, Purdue Hammond
Small Business Advocate of the Year
As director of Purdue University Calumet's Center for Entrepreneurship Success, Dushan Nikolovski encourages and supports budding business owners in Northwest Indiana and throughout the United States. And, as clinical assistant professor, he shares his professional expertise with Purdue Cal students.
Nikolovski's entrepreneurial career began at 18, when he started a young adult nightclub. He built a solid career in the food industry and has a first-hand understanding of the challenges in a competitive marketplace. Jane Mutchler, dean of the College of Business at Purdue Cal, says Nikolovski “goes far beyond his academic responsibilities to keep our region at the forefront of innovation.”
Five years ago, Nikolovski created “The Big Sell Entrepreneurship Competition,” a nationwide business idea competition that annually attracts a pool of would be entrepreneurs. Fifty candidates are invited to make two-minute pitches to a live audience and the favorites are selected by electronically votes. The field is winnowed to 10 finalists and a panel of judges selects the winners, who receive cash, prizes and a range of business services–legal, accounting, marketing and business planning–to boost the chances for success.
Nikolovski calls The Big Sell a cross between Shark Tank and American Idol. In fact, one of the first winners pitched his idea for an on-line registration system on Shark Tank and made a deal with millionaire-investor Mark Cuban. Another winner of The Big Sell developed a product that is now sold in Home Depot stores everywhere. The Big Sell is also a big win for Nikolovski's students, who work with the entrepreneurs. “The class gets a hands-on experience and they see the ups and downs,” he says.
Feras Musleh, Anytime Fitness
Young Entrepreneur of the Year
Franchise owner Feras Musleh, 30, opened his first Anytime Fitness two years ago in La Porte and now has three more, with plans for further expansion. His brother, Mohammade, is co-partner in the business and his father, Naser, is the financial consultant. Brian Rusin, of Peoples Bank, says Musleh's successful strategy is “investing in people and play.”
Musleh received an MBA from Indiana University Northwest and entered the corporate world before becoming a franchisee with Anytime Fitness. He's found that each new location presents different challenges. “You never know what you're getting into when you start construction. You can't tell how the community will accept you.”
Musleh isn't a fitness fanatic but recognizes the benefits of physical activity for him and family members, many of whom have diabetes and high blood pressure. And he enjoys seeing Anytime Fitness members get results.
Hiring the right people is important, Musleh says. “It's the people around me that help me keep going. At every new location, staff from other locations are there helping. We're our own family.”
Todd Cannon, APACKS Inc.
Exporter of the Year-Manufacturing
Todd Cannon started APACKS in 2003, drawing on his sales background and expertise in utility systems gained in the Air Force. The company designs, builds, tests and installs customized packaging systems for all kinds of liquid products–such as foods, soaps and chemicals–produced by companies of all sizes.
He's a committed problem solver. “We've built machines that didn't exist yet,” he says. “We engineer the solutions.” The company's reputation is built on a basic business principal, Cannon says. “Once we develop a customer base, we keep serving them and they always come back for more.”
Horizon Bank's Michael Riehle gives Cannon kudos for developing a top-notch manufacturing company that is earning a national and international reputation. APACKS currently exports its liquid packaging systems to customers in Canada, Mexico, Peru, Romania and Saudi Arabia, to name a few. And it's successfully competing with well-established European firms that have dominated the market. “Exporting not only increases revenues but can also stabilize some sales cycles that we face,” says Cannon, who expects to double his workforce of 30 during 2016.
Cannon says being named the Exporter of the Year in Manufacturing is a win for his entire company. “It's an affirmation that our hard work is paying off.”
Robert E. Johnson III, Cimcor Inc.
Exporter of the Year-Technology
Robert Johnson III grew up in Gary as a bit of a computer software prodigy. At 12, he formed his own consulting company, “Futuristic Systems.” At 15, he wrote educational software for a local preschool and was featured in a Post-Tribune article. Being a computer geek was “a little tough” at the time, Johnson says, because of limited resources. “So many exciting things have happened since then.”
Johnson earned a bachelor's degree in computer information systems and an MBA, both from Purdue Calumet. He launched Cimcor Inc. in 1997. The Merrillville-based company initially offered software that enhanced manufacturing system efficiency. Cimcor is now at the forefront of global corporate, government and military initiatives to protect critical IT infrastructures. Its premier software product, CimTrak, detects unexpected IT systems changes, pinpoints how they're being made, identifies the source and takes steps to safeguard security. Cimcor serves customers in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Malaysia, the United Kingdom and other countries. Opportunities to develop new software products are unlimited, Johnson says. “We'll never be done because hackers are never done.”
The Exporter of the Year award is an accolade for the entire company, Johnson says. “My team is so great. They're dedicated, loyal and innovative. They're executing and helping take this vision I have and expand it globally.”
Chad and Larry Sams, Able Paper & Janitorial Supply
Family-Owned Business of the Year
Larry Sams started Able Paper & Janitorial Supply Inc. 35 years ago with Frank Martisovic, his brother-in-law. The enterprise has evolved from a cash-and-carry business to a wholesale distribution operation that employs 20 and serves customers within a 25 miles radius of Merrillville, where the company has a 28,000-square-foot warehouse.
As the scope of Able Paper & Janitorial Supply has expanded, the company has kept up with needs of customers, including manufacturers, hospitals and small organizations. Timely delivery has been vital to economic success in a relatively small market.
The company's accountant, Tom Rowland of Treehouse Financial, says the company started with “$770 in gross sales from the back of a pickup truck.” Rowland sees a continued bright future as leadership transitions to the next generation. Chad Sams, Larry's son, joined the company 15 years ago and is vice president. Larry plans to serve as company president for several more years. He says the entire company is proud of receiving the Family-Owned Business of the Year award. “I appreciate all the efforts of all the people we've worked with for the last 44 years,” he says. “A lot of really good people have come through the doors. We try to make sure to do the right thing and make good decisions.”
John Hamstra, Leeps Supply Co.
Entrepreneurial Success of the Year
John Hamstra has worked his way up to president during a 34-year career with Leeps Supply Co. Inc. Hamstra's father-in-law, Nick Leep, and sons Dave and Allen Leep started the plumbing supply company. Four Leep grandchildren now work in the business, including Hamstra's son, Josh, a vice president.
Headquartered in Merrillville, Leeps Supply has ten locations in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. On a typical workday, Hamstra leaves his Highland home at 7 a.m. and stops at three Leeps locations before getting to his office at 8:30 a.m. He enjoys visiting stores and meeting customers, including builders, homeowners and plumbers.
“Our major customer is still the plumber,” Hamstra says. “They want parts that the Big Box stores don't have. They're extremely busy and they can come in and out (of our stores) in five minutes. And we have knowledgeable people at the counters.”
The plumbing business is quite different from when Hamstra started at Leeps. He notes, “Things have changed so much. You used to have a chrome faucet and white tub. Now everything has gone high-tech. If you're not on that cutting edge, you're going to be swept away.”
John Freyek, First Merchants Bank, recommended Hamstra for the Entrepreneurial Success of the Year award because, “The company and the work they do provide much more than products. They provide a life for 85 families.” Hamstra says, “I was very fortunate to have a good foundation to grow on. We feel that the Lord has blessed our company. It's based on Christian principles. We have a bunch of people who share a common vision for the future.”
Harry Hruska, Precision Turbo & Engine
Small Business Person of the Year
Harry Hruska has engineered a winning team of nearly 70 employees at Precision Turbo and Engine dedicated to staying ahead of the competition in the international racing world. That track record earned him this year's Small Business Person of the Year award.
Bill Winterhaler, of Centier Bank, says Hruska's team can compete with companies throughout the world. The Hebron-based manufacturer is among the foremost suppliers of high performance, aftermarket turbochargers. The company designs, tests and manufactures record-setting, championship winning turbochargers for all racing organizations.
Hruska's a “race car guy” who started the company to support his racing habit while working full-time as a field service representative for Garrett Engine Boosting Systems, now a division of Honeywell. After honing skills in sales, customer service and engineering, he left the corporate job after 22 years.
Hruska says Precision Turbo & Engine is “a big small company” that keeps pace with giants such as Honeywell and BorgWarner because of first-hand knowledge of customer needs. “We're like Macy's,” Hruska says. “If we don't have it, we'll tell you where to get it. We want people to spend less and race more. In the racing community, a lot of people have something on their bucket list, whether they're 25 or 75. Our job is to make sure they do it. We want to make sure they only spend money once and do it right the first time.”
The Small Business Person of the Year award recognizes the hard work of everyone in the company, Hruska says. “I'm so very lucky to have such great people working with me.”
David Bochnowski, Peoples Bank/Northwest Indiana Bancorp
Lifetime Achievement Award
John Bochnowski, a Polish immigrant and saloon owner, established Peoples Bank in 1910 when he started stowing customers' cash in the saloon safe. John's son Ben helped expand the family banking business. His grandson David almost went in a different direction. As a young man, David Bochnowski was interested in foreign services but, after serving in Viet Nam, went to law school instead. He was legal counsel for Peoples Bank from 1976 to 1981 before becoming Chairman and CEO.
If his grandfather John was here today, Bochnowski says, “He would be pleased that the bank has had an impact on the economy in Northwest Indiana and helped so many businesses and individuals succeed.”
Bochnowski's tenure in the banking business has been marked by economic ups and downs. Northwest Indiana was hard hit by massive steel industry layoffs in the early '80s. While other banks were struggling and collapsing, Bochnowski raised $3 million to take Peoples Bank public in 1984. It is now Peoples Bank/NorthWest Indiana Bancorp and has about 200 employees at 16 locations throughout Northwest Indiana. For ten straight years, Peoples Bank has been named one of the top 200 U.S. community banks by U.S. Banker Magazine.
Bochnowski is not quite ready to retire, but he and the senior management team have begun turning the reins over to a new generation of bankers. One of them is his son Ben, who became president and chief operating officer five years ago.
The 2015 E-Day committee singled Bochnowski out for the Lifetime Achievement award, calling him “a true Renaissance Man” who has made significant contributions in business, government, civic leadership and philanthropy. Bochnowski sees the E-Day award as an outgrowth of a team effort. “Life is a team sport, and the team we've had here have made it possible (for me) to achieve at a really high level.”
Sponsors for the 2015 E-Day awards program include: NIPSCO, Northwest Indiana Business Quarterly, The Times Media Co., WeCreate Media, Wintrust Commercial Bank, BMO Harris Bank, Centier, Peoples Bank, Purdue University Calumet College of Business, First Merchants Bank, First Financial Bank, 1st Source Bank, First Midwest Bank, Chester Inc., Hoeppner Wagner & Evans LLP, Purdue Research Park, Indiana University School of Business and Economics, Regional Development Company, and Via Marketing.