Northern Indiana companies with great results and lots of promise.
by Steve Kaelble
The biggest success stories start small. Among the six Northern Indiana organizations on the 2015 Indiana's Companies to Watch list are firms that started in garages and kitchen tables, companies created from scratch that have grown organically. They make wood pallets and architectural woodwork, provide architectural and environmental services, sell insurance, and even keep track and field athletes safe and soaring to new heights.
Indiana's Companies to Watch were chosen by experts convened by the Office of Small Business and Entrepreneurship and its Indiana Small Business Development Center, along with the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and the Edward Lowe Foundation. There are 20 privately owned companies on the 2015 list, all beyond startup and all demonstrating strong, sustainable growth. As a group, they increased revenue by an average of 25 percent a year between 2011 and 2014, and grew their total employee count by 14 percent a year on average. They believe their 2015 results will close out with similar growth. If so, they will have generated about $820 million in revenues over five years, and together will have created 761 new jobs.
Read on to learn more about the Companies to Watch from the northern tier of the state.
Creek Run LLC Environmental Engineering
It's a typical small-business tale–Creek Run Environmental Engineering's first location was R. Jason Lenz's kitchen table in Montpelier. It was 1993, and Lenz–a Ph.D. whose company title is COO–worked on the environmental issues faced by gas station owners closing out underground storage tanks. The first expansion involved a move to a nearby pole barn-style building and the hiring of the first employee, and it's been growth ever since.
As the company evolved into the business of completing contaminant investigations at stations and developing and implementing remedial solutions, Creek Run grew its payroll to more than 40 employees working from offices in Montpelier, Indianapolis and LaPorte. “Our services range from basic site inspections to design and implementation of engineered remediation systems to risk-based closure strategies within a variety of regulatory programs,” says Lenz. “Our goal is to achieve closure of impacted sites in the quickest, most cost effective manner by combining the best people with the appropriate technology.”
Over the past three years, Lenz says, Creek Run has recorded 12 percent average sales growth and staff increases of 8 to 10 percent. It's a relationship business, he says, which means that “marketing is about building relationships; these relationships have allowed us to reach our current level of growth. Future growth then becomes a reflection of the relationships that you have built and maintained.”
Hiring well-qualified people makes a big difference, too, he says. More than two-thirds of the company's employees have at least a bachelor's degree, and more than a third have earned an advanced degree or industry-related accreditation. “We seek out talent that will allow for growth, hiring primarily college graduates with no experience. We teach, train, and build our future with this young talent, and then promote from within.”
Big things are developing in Fort Wayne, and that translates into big growth opportunities for Design Collaborative, a downtown-based firm providing architectural, mechanical and electrical engineering, and interior design services. The firm has had a hand in a number of prominent local projects, including Parkview Field, where the minor league TinCaps play baseball.
That's among the many things happening for the company's clients in such fields as higher education, health care and other corporate areas. In the past three years, revenue has grown by about 50 percent.
The firm had its beginnings in 1992, and one of the three founding partners was Pat Pasterick, who serves as president and architect. “Our keys to success are simple: improve people's worlds, maintain a collegial culture and work collaboratively,” he says. “Our entire staff wants to make a difference.”
The company maintains an open and transparent working environment, “which allows us to work collaboratively where everyone's voice is heard and valued. It doesn't matter at what level you are within the company. Some of the coolest stuff is coming from our younger associates,” Pasterick says.
As the company adds employees, it's looking well beyond Fort Wayne, and there are team members from three different continents among its roughly four dozen employees. “We have a great environment and cool projects; the trick is to get people to consider coming to Northeast Indiana,” Pasterick says. “Once they're here, it gets easier.”
Gibson, a South Bend-based insurance broker and risk management services firm, always has its eye on the future. To be sure, its veterans have played a key role in propelling the kind of growth that landed Gibson on this year's Companies to Watch list, but today's company leaders know that Gibson's future depends upon growing tomorrow's leaders.
“We have significant presence and recruiting from three colleges with strong insurance and risk management programs,” says Tim Leman, chairman and CEO of the employee-owned company. “Every year we're able to land a couple of ‘No. 1 draft picks.'”
Recruiting top talent is just the beginning, he says. “We embed these recent college grads into our veteran teams. The teams have shared compensation models that require a collective effort and drive collective success. Since we implemented this teaming model, our organic growth has been at an all-time high.”
Gibson was founded in 1933 and now has locations in South Bend, Plymouth, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis. It landed on the Companies to Watch list with revenues that have grown by more than 50 percent since 2011, along with healthy growth in the number of employees.
Leman says Gibson's growth has everything to do with its people, and creating opportunities for them to engage and mentor. “Some of that is accomplished through our young professional group at Gibson–they go by the name GibGab–as well as our Gibson Leadership Academy,” he says.
“I think it helps, too, that we are able to reward our organizational success through our employee stock ownership plan. All of our people participate in our ESOP as employee owners,” he adds. “Principal Financial Group actually named us one of the 10 best companies in the country to work at for employee financial security in 2014. I'm proud of that.”
The Great Recession was a bleak time for most companies, including Hudec Woodworking in Griffith, an architectural woodworking firm. President John Hudec says gross revenues plunged 56 percent from 2007 to 2009. What does it take to survive that kind of blow and end up one of the 2015 Companies to Watch?
It helped to have a solid foundation, Hudec says. “The company culture is to run very lean and conservatively, and work well within our means on all financial fronts,” he explains. “All unnecessary spending was completely eliminated and wages held stagnant for several years. Every person, every family at Hudec Woodworking was affected by this business cycle, and yet we had 100 percent retention of our very loyal employees, who never stopped believing in this company.”
The company started in 1987, and its first shop was the garage at Hudec's parent's house. Hudec Woodworking specializes in commercial woodwork, metalwork, stone and glass, primarily for the restaurant industry. Hudec says the company's customer base of mid to high-end restaurants turned out to be a good one as the economy rebounded. “I believe our industry was a bit ahead of the recovery in the U.S. economy and gave us a head start in recovering from the 2008 recession. This provided us the opportunity to step up early and keep up with our customers' rapid demand for our services over the last five years.”
That demand has fueled healthy revenue growth of 15 percent last year, with 16 percent growth expected this year. The workforce was up about 17 percent last year. “Together we have built an incredible team that knows this business, its customers and has never wavered from our mission of creating ‘The Wow' for our customers in service and product quality,” Hudec says.
You just never know where the next opportunity awaits, but it often springs from something you've already been doing. That's one of the realities driving the success of Pioneer Packaging in Portland, launched in 2003 by Susan and Wade Kohler. The primary business is making pallets, but that has morphed into a variety of secondary businesses that have added significantly to the revenue picture.
The company does roughly $17 million in sales, says Wade Kohler. “Of the $17 million, probably $10 million to $12 million is the pallet business, but we have developed into other things,” he says. Second-largest is wholesale lumber. Pallet construction requires buying lumber in huge volumes, and Pioneer resells a fair amount of the lumber it acquires to other industrial users, generating about $3 million in annual revenues.
Next is an innovative sideline that also grew out of the main business. “When you're really big in the pallet business, you generate a large amount of scrap that you have to do something with,” Kohler says. The company discovered that the wood scrap, when ground up, has a valuable second life. “About three years ago we started a livestock bedding business. There are a lot of confined-feeding operations in our area, so there is a high need for bedding.” That innovation has helped Pioneer Packaging unload tens of millions of pounds of scrap annually, and it landed the company on the cover of Pallet Enterprise magazine.
Pioneer also does a variety of secondary operations for other manufacturers on a contract basis, and also generates revenues by warehousing various things for other companies, including manufacturers that need to have components handy but don't have enough of their own warehouse space. And, Kohler adds, semi-trailer rentals bring in additional revenues, too.
Put it all together, and you have a recipe for healthy growth–in revenues and in jobs. Seeing the company grow and prosper provides a lot of satisfaction for the Kohlers, because as Wade points out, it wasn't all that long ago that none of it existed. “Everything we've done is through hard work, sweat and determination, because we started from zero.”
You could say that the people of Richey Athletics in Frankfort are always reaching for new heights. Their business is track and field equipment, particularly pole vault and high jump standards and pits.
It's a family-owned business that delivered its first pole vault standards in 1962, to Hobart High School. Its co-owners know the business because they've been track athletes, and the company ensures quality by cutting its own fabrics, welding its own steel and gluing all of the foam.
The company was founded by Max Richey, and ownership of the company was passed a few years ago to grandsons Michael, Stephen and David Griffy. Michael Griffy serves as president. Growth is measured and steady, with about 20 on the payroll now.