Younger generation making a mark on the corporate landscape.
by Jerry Davich
A handful of relatively young entrepreneurs is changing the corporate landscape in Northwest Indiana with ideas, inventions and out-of-box thinking. They're known for their innovative minds in an ever-evolving, technology-savvy business world. Here are their stories.
Since the age of 5, when he asked a stunned Santa for a set of stage spotlights and dry ice, Guy Rhodes set his sights on the behind-the-scenes craftwork of the visual arts industry. By eighth grade, he was charging his junior high school $20 to record assemblies with video gear that his mother dropped off during his lunch hour.
Today, at age 33, Guy Rhodes Productions is a multimedia company using instinctive insights, a keen eye and a masterful touch to capture the moment–any moment–through his visual disciplines. Photography, lighting design, video production, Rhodes is a jack of all trades with a portfolio to prove it. He earned his bachelor of arts degree in theater/lighting design at Columbia College in Chicago, using it as a passport to travel around the country and globe from his East Chicago home.
His most recent travels include serving as lighting designer for R&B singer Anthony Hamilton's “Home for the Holidays” national tour, as well as photographing the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics for USA Today Sports Images. Previous assignments allowed him to fly loops and hammerheads in an open-cockpit biplane, orchestrate a choreographed light show to a 2,000-seat musical performance, and frame the urbanized ruins of a landmark church.
“I always strive to offer my clients unique approaches to the various visual crafts I'm involved in,” he says. “On the lighting-design end for live performances, I enjoy thinking outside the box when it comes to fixture placement and type.”
For one dance performance Rhodes designed, he lit one piece with three fixtures built from cheap trash cans he found at Meijer. For another one, he used the wheeled bases from rolling wardrobe racks to quickly place groups of fixtures on the stage floor around the dancers. Within seconds, he could get rid of them.
“When you can offer a client lighting in a way that they've never seen it done, they'll remember it, and they'll remember you the next time they need a designer,” he says.
His biggest challenge regarding an artistic setting is bringing his clients' grand visions in line with what their budget will allow him to do.
“There are times on the other side of the coin where I'm the one with the grand vision that the client simply can't afford,” he admits.
His recent photography passion has been exploring the wet plate collodion process, which dates back to 1851. It was the format photographer Matthew Brady used to capture the Civil War.
“In the modern era, where everyone and their cousin is shooting on the same digital cameras using the same lenses and editing with the same canned lightroom filters, offering a client a one-of-a-kind image made by hand on location is immediately recognized as special. Everyone loves feeling special and clients remember this.”
Todd and Heather Henderlong
Going the extra mile is the company mantra at Extra Mile Fitness Co. in Valparaiso, owned by Todd and Heather Henderlong. The husband and wife relay team are avid supporters, advocates and participants of endurance sports, which can include the operation of a self-employed business.
“It was never a question of, ‘Can we get rich doing this?' but honestly a question of, ‘If we do this, can we still pay our bills?'” Todd says.
Not only are they both accomplished, competitive runners who continue to enjoy taking part in local running events, they are Level 1 USTAF-certified track and field coaches who have organized numerous running and triathlon events. The couple also owns and operates T&H Timing, tracking race results at dozens of races each year across the region.
“We operate the Extra Mile with the belief that with the right equipment and guidance, anyone can enjoy an active and healthy life,” Heather says.
Todd adds, “With the growing focus on fitness and the continuing evolution of endurance athletic specific footwear, clothing and gear, we founded the Extra Mile with the goal of making the best and most innovative endurance products available to Northwest Indiana.”
Heather and Todd each have more than 20 years of experience with races, triathlons and other endurance sports, where their faces are as familiar as finish lines.
The biggest challenge in their industry is helping customers understand the difference between the firsthand services they offer versus secondhand resources at a big box store or via the Internet. Running shoes are now an extremely specialized field with each model providing a different level of cushioning, structure and stability.
“Our biggest challenge is to help the consumer understand that they don't just need good equipment for fitness activities, they need the right equipment designed to meet their own individual needs,” Todd says.
Heather notes, “Buying just any pair of running shoes is like buying just any pair of eyeglasses. Without the proper guidance, just any pair of eyeglasses might not work for you and could even make your condition worse.”
Innovative evolution is key.
“With the help of our suppliers, industry experts and local medical professionals, we continually train our staff on the latest product innovations, training techniques and wellness trends,” Heather says. “We actively seek out ideas for new products and merchandise from our customers.”
Extra Mile's shoe-fitting process utilizes a state of the art video “gait analysis” system to make sure each customer is properly fitted. Similarly, the couple is properly fitted for this line of business.
“Every one of our ventures has started with the idea of supporting and promoting fitness activities, and in particular, the sport of running,” Todd says. “So far, it's been a great choice.”
Outsiders of the industrial safety industry may think it's a field where innovation doesn't come into play, but don't tell that to Jeremy Spurrier.
“Those people would be wrong,” says Spurrier, project manager for ADP Safety LLC in East Chicago. “Our first job for ArcelorMittal Steel is a fine example of that.”
When an employee must work on any piece of machinery, they first need to perform an energy control procedure, or “lock out,” to ensure there is no energy of any type operating in the equipment. “It sounds simple, but it's quite involved,” he says.
Every type of energy must be accounted for–electrical, hydraulic, pneumatic, gravity, radiation and so on–with every power source identified and locked out using a safety device. Some pieces of equipment could have 26 different points requiring a lock.
“Only after this is done, and the machinery is tested to ensure it is completely de-energized, may work begin,” Spurrier says.
Such highly-detailed lockout procedures are generally kept in a book, which can get lost, dirty or destroyed, creating a potentially disastrous situation.
“So we helped them institute a new program by digitizing their lockouts,” Spurrier says. “We loaded these onto a PDF, then into a database on ArcelorMittal's server network. The manual I wrote to use this system is still the manual that ArcelorMittal uses to train new employees to use the system,” Spurrier says proudly.
This is just one example of innovation in progress at ADP Safety, founded in 2008 by Carl Spurrier (Jeremy's father), the former safety chairman for United Steelworkers Union Local 1011 at ArcelorMittal. Along with co-founder David Whitworth and a few investors, they found a niche in the industrial safety industry.
Jeremy came on board for his computer savvy, obvious people skills and ability to sell most anything, from greeting cards and credit cards to cleaners and chemicals. “Growing up, I was always sure that I didn't want to do this type of safety work,” he says.
His company's biggest challenge is the wrongful notion that safety is expendable and, as such, is often the first budget cut for companies looking to cut corners. The other challenge is workers who take shortcuts on the job and endanger their coworkers.
“The first thing I do is compare the cost of required safety for a year with the cost of one accident,” Spurrier says. “If there is an accident, everything stops.”
Unlike Spurrier, whose modernization improvements are making a name for himself in the industry. “When ADP started, the owners were told it was impossible to compete in this area with larger, more established companies,” he says. “There is nothing more satisfying than being able to say you did the impossible.”
Think quick: What do you know about solar energy, solar PV installers and photovoltaic solar panels? This is what 35-year-old T.J. Kanczuzewski is up against when courting new customers looking to modernize their energy source and distribution systems.
As president of Inovateus Solar LLC, Kanczuzewski's South Bend-based company provides solar integrated systems for firms around the globe, including locations in Mexico, Chile and the Caribbean. However, the company's “backyard”–defined by a 500-mile radius of Northwest Indiana–is still its main priority.
“Solar energy is still a new concept for many of our customers,” says Kanczuzewski, whose father, Tom, started the company in 2006.
It all started with a passion for environmental sustainability and concepts revolving around green building and renewable energy. And later, a life-changing meeting with University of Notre Dame professor George Howard, who had just finished writing a biography on renewable energy pioneer Stan Ovshinsky. With Kanczuzewski's grandfather on board as an initial investor, the firm's big-bang moment arrived.
“We started with three people, and we now have 30 employees,” says Kanczuzewski, who spent six months writing the initial business plan as a distribution company.
He soon learned to adapt his business model to expand its services, products and expertise, prompted by clients' demands and an evolving industry. After his father died in 2011, Kanczuzewski became president, and he has since made some tough decisions, mostly involving personnel decisions. His first piece of advice to other, younger business owners is to hire the right staff members. “Our staff is the reason for our success, not my business plan or our initial investors,” he says.
Solar energy can be met with hesitance by new customers, who have been conditioned for decades to pay monthly for their electricity needs. Other companies see the potential in harnessing the sun's power. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago is one of the firm's more notable clients, with a rooftop installation consisting of 913 photovoltaic solar panels on top of the aquarium's marine mammal pavilion.
In college, Kanczuzewski majored in music, where he learned how to improvise. He parlayed that acumen into what he calls “strategic improvisation” with Inovateus Solar.
“Never expect what you think will happen the next day,” he says. “I've learned this lesson firsthand. You must be able to go with the flow, and innovation is key. On most days, it's fun, it's challenging and it's a blast.”
Lindsay and Alec Sammann
The future is so bright at Peepers, its sibling owners have to wear shades.
“We are a four-generation, family-run business, so we've had some practice in this industry,” says Alec Sammann, president and CEO of Peepers by PeeperSpecs, located in Michigan City.
“Our customers value trends and fashion,” says his sister, Lindsay Sammann-Van Putten, the firm's creative director.
The Sammann Co. was founded in 1890 as an import/export company. By 1985, its focus shifted to eyewear and, after the siblings' mother refused to wear “ugly” reading glasses, she convinced her husband to order a few fashionable styles.
By 1997, Peepers hit its first $1 million in sales and, a decade later, Lindsay and Alec joined the family business, infusing their creative and technological expertise. In 2012, the siblings purchased the company from their father, who passed along the torch to the young, enthusiastic innovators. “This is definitely our baby,” Alec says.
Today, they run PeeperSpecs, a leading designer and marketer of innovative, expressive reading glasses and sunglasses, featured in 2014 on Good Housekeeping's September “Good List.” Their products can be found at thousands of retailers across the country, from gift shops and bookstores to optical goods stores and premium retail outlets under the brands of Peepers, SpecSee and PeeperSpecs.
“Reading glasses are by far the fastest-growing segment of our industry,” says Alec says, citing rising laser procedures and the graying of America. “It's certainly driving our growth.”
Roughly 55 percent of the firm's client base is comprised of returning customers, meeting them at the intersection of style and functionality. Peepers launches new collections twice a year, featuring new styles and technologies, proving that eyewear is more than just a utilitarian tool sitting on someone's nose.
“With our clients, eyeglasses are considered a necessary accessory,” Lindsay says.