E-Day winners find taking care of workers ultimately leads to positive business results
The 2020 E-Day honorees have something in common. Each entrepreneur has successfully responded to change.
The awards are given annually by the Indiana Small Business Development Center’s Northwest Indiana office. Lorri Feldt, regional director for the agency’s Northwest Indiana office, said she was impressed by this year’s winners.
Small Business Person of the Year
Dina and Damon Gasaway were working at Winn Machine, a machine shop in La Porte, about 30 years ago when they met and eventually married. Today the couple own the company.
Many parts they produce are used in the air compressor and food processing industries.
The industry has evolved along with technology, the Gasaways said. Now Winn Machine uses all CNC — computer numerical control — machines for greater precision in cutting and grinding.
“The part price doesn’t move a whole bunch” compared to years ago, Damon said, but machine prices have risen.
The Gasaways are involved in all levels of the operation. They’re often in the shop, talking with customers and involved in sales. Some machine shops struggle because the owners don’t do much on the floor to see what employees are going through, Damon said.
Dina said it’s important to value the input and opinions of the employees doing the work.
Treating them well includes more than just paying a good wage. It also means allowing them to explore other job options within the company, Damon said. Someone sweeping the floor can work their way up to other jobs.
Another way the company treats its employees well is providing free haircuts on the first Thursday of the month. That’s a safety issue, so the workers’ hair doesn’t get caught in machinery, but it also is a workplace benefit.
Damon’s dedication also sets the company apart, Dina said. “He never says no to a customer.”
When a customer asked one Friday afternoon for a specific part by Monday morning, it wasn’t possible because Winn Machine didn’t have the raw material it needed for the job. But the part was ready by Monday afternoon, Damon said.
“We run kind of lean on the shop side,” Damon said, so the shop tries to make enough parts in a run to last a year. It then warehouses the spare parts for when the customer needs them.
“We’re really responsive to our customers too,” he said.
Customers usually receive an answer by the end of the day, but they try to do so within an hour.
Family-Owned Business of the Year
Jonathan Kraft’s father, Conrad, started the family business, Kraft Auction Service, in 1976.
“Ever since I was itty-bitty, that’s all I’ve ever done was the auction business,” Jonathan Kraft said.
Running the Valparaiso-based business wasn’t his plan, though.
“I’ll do great things in the business world, but I’ll help you out,” he said.
Then, at age 18, he went to auction school for seven days to prepare for the auction exam.
“It kind of struck home then,” he said. “I’ve always looked at it from what my parents did.”
Then, from his dorm room at Purdue University, he transformed the business.
The company had picked up a pair of vases for a 30th anniversary sale that Kraft had posted online. When he saw a $2,000 bid for them, he knew something was up. Kraft did some research and found the vases were highly collectible. They were made in Boston in the 1850s. The vases sold for $18,700 for the pair.
“I just turned 20 at the time,” Kraft said. “Everyone there thought I was some type of genius.”
That auction sold $60,000 in merchandise. “We went out for steak dinners,” he said.
But that amount pales in comparison to auctions conducted by Kraft today.
In 2020, an eight-day auction brought in $5.1 million, Kraft said. A 2016 auction for a large farm sold $6.7 million worth of items.
The auction business is as fast paced as the auctioneer’s voice at a sale. The business ships out between 200 and 300 packages weekly.
“We ship a pretty fair amount to Australia,” Kraft said.
Kraft has a real estate branch and another for benefit auctions for special events.
The auction service most people think of deals with personal property of all kinds, including estate sales and business liquidations. Often, the auction house is seen as the bad guy, Kraft said. Someone in the family doesn’t want to see mom and dad’s possessions go, or a business owner is upset about failing and seeing all the hard work go down the drain.
The advantage, though, is that the auction house employees clean out the building quickly once the family takes the most sentimental items.
“They call us; we take care of everything,” Kraft said.
“We’ve never found a dead body,” he said, but there have been all sorts of surprises, “from the dirty and nasty to coins and gold.”
Repeat business is a rarity; however, referrals have built the business to what it is today.
“We sell literally everything,” Kraft said. “We sell history.”
Emerging Small Business of the Year
Joel and Amy Bender’s puzzles and games shop, Mind Benders, in downtown Whiting was presented with a puzzle of its own when the shop was shut down because of the pandemic.
Joel convinced the Lake County Health Department that the products were important to residents’ mental health. The challenge was how to safely get products to customers.
Complicating matters even more was Mind Benders’ longstanding practice of product demonstrations to show people how their games were played.
Joel turned himself into a store exhibit, demonstrating games in the shop window so people could safely observe.
Sales went online but not the way you might think. Joel would text the customer four or five photos, then have a table in the doorway of the store with a Square card reader to limit physical contact.
“Give me a call when you’re half a block away,” he would say to customers, and he would bring the merchandise out and put it in their back seat or trunk.
“Joel is literally running bags down the street,” Amy said. “We work with the customers and how they want to be handled.”
Curbside delivery is far from the only way Mind Benders goes outside the store to reach potential customers.
Whether it’s at the lakefront park or a school literacy night, Mind Benders is out in the community. Game night at the Mascot Hall of Fame was a hit too.
A hopscotch event in front of downtown businesses this year proved popular as well.
“When you give back to the community, the community gives back to you,” Joel said.
He advises shoppers to check out local Little League or football fields to see who advertises. Those are the businesses putting money back into the community not big online stores, he said.
Mind Benders’ target customers run the gamut from children to the elderly.
Marketing to older adults came when Joel and Amy realized children’s parents wanted the grandparents to remain sharp. The store carries a selection of jigsaw puzzles with larger pieces for consumers with dementia.
Succeeding in business requires a lot of time. “You’ve got to market yourself,” Amy said. And because you’re spending so much time at work, “you’ve got to have passion about what you do,” Amy said.
Listen to your customers too. Talking with them helps you understand what they’re thinking, the couple said.
At Mind Benders, part of the sales process is giving shoppers a hands-on experience with products, which is difficult to do virtually.
Putting brain riddles on Facebook really has helped the store keep shoppers’ attention, though, Joel said.
Business owners should do their own work online too, including taking advantage of the resources for small businesses.
“Boy, did we sit down and talk through every angle of inventory and marketing and everything,” Amy said, to be better prepared the day the store opened.
Women-Owned Business of the Year
Sandra Smith has operated SAN Corp., a trucking business serving the construction industry for 24 years.
The Crown Point-based company began with just two trucks and now has a fleet of 15 vehicles and brokers additional trucks as needed to serve the Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois areas.
To help her in the “very competitive” industry, she gained certification as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise and Women’s Business Enterprise.
“It’s really a man’s world,” she said. “You have to really make sure your rates are good.”
Smith would rather her trucks travel safely than fast. Paperwork, however, should zoom.
“I’m a big stickler on paperwork,” she said. Her drivers know that. The advantage is that by invoicing the customer quickly, she’s able to quickly pay brokers.
“My turnaround is quick,” Smith said. “We email a lot more. Thank goodness for technology.”
People might think roadwork would be a problem for truckers, but not for SAN Corp. Construction is what keeps the company’s trucks moving.
Besides moving materials, the company has flatbed trucks to transport equipment.
Smith finds keeping drivers happy means treating them well. This means having cookouts and occasionally serving them mostaccioli.
Believe in yourself, she advised. Set high expectations and never settle.
Small Business Advocate of the Year
Northwest Indiana Forum President and CEO Heather Ennis carries a torch for the small business community.
Specifically, she makes sure the organization’s Ignite the Region program is working as it should.
The program focuses on business development and marketing, entrepreneurship and innovation, infrastructure, talent and place making. Economic development partners throughout Lake, Porter, La Porte, Starke, Newton, Jasper and Pulaski counties collaborate on the initiative.
Ennis is responsible for ensuring everyone completes assigned tasks for the plan so it can go from strategy in development to implementation.
“It’s sometimes challenging to get everybody on the same page,” Ennis said.
However, it seems to be working. Ignite the Region is a five-year plan, begun two years ago. She said about 88% of the plan is either completed or in progress.
“It’s helping the ecosystem for business to grow and flourish,” Ennis said. “This has been a strong playbook.”
One of the lessons Ennis has learned is the power of collaboration.
“We can go faster alone, but we can certainly go further together,” she said.
It is important to listen to critics with valid concerns to best determine how to overcome hurdles, Ennis said.
For Ignite the Region, she wanted everyone in the community to have a seat at the table — organizations that have been in the same family for generations and startups as well. Small, entrepreneurial businesses should be represented alongside larger businesses. All of these affect some aspect of business, Ennis said.
Minority Small Business Person of the Year
Paulette Hill, president and CEO of Hobart-based Professional Information Systems, said when she went to college at age 18 to pursue a computer science degree, it took her a while to notice she was one of the few women in the class.
In 1992, she opened Professional Information Services as a sole proprietorship operating from a small desk in her dining room. Now she has five employees in Hobart.
“Our goal is to continually expand our knowledge base and stay on top of new market trends,” Hill said.
Getting the right certifications adds tools to her toolbox, she said.
So does focusing on what she calls the three T’s: truth, transparency and trust.
She says honesty eventually yields dividends.
“Tell them everything; you earn their trust,” Hill said. “You lose that, you lose their business.”
There also are times clients are told what they don’t want to hear, especially when asking for something that cannot be done.
However, being honest and effectively laying out why a request cannot be fulfilled can soften the blow, Hill said. This can sometimes lead to gaining a loyal customer.
“Failure isn’t an option with us,” she said. “We always try to find a path going forward.”
Entrepreneurial Success Award
Job-Site Safety began as a company focusing on safety services to the rail industry. Now the Michigan City-based company offers a broader range of services to additional industries, including the power industry.
President Steve Arndt said the company deals with safety for overhead transmission lines.
Arndt attributes the company’s success to hiring the right people for the job.
A proprietary recruiting and hiring process, using videoconferencing years before the pandemic made it essential for other businesses, has helped with the screening. Interviews of the top four or five finalists are routinely done via Skype or Zoom.
For the past five years, new office employees have been trained virtually. That enables quality training while reducing the costs to execute and track progress, Arndt said.
During the pandemic, the company began offering temperature checks and monitoring customers’ sites to ensure safe practices in the COVID-19 era. Job-Site Safety hired extra employees to do so.
“Be flexible in your business,” Arndt said. Job-Site Safety has done so multiple times, expanding to include additional locations as well as additional services.
Small Business Journalist
James Muhammad, president and CEO of Lakeshore Public Media in Merrillville, has faced challenges and achieved successes since he joined the PBS affiliate in 2013.
Among them has been restructuring the organization — right-sizing, he called it — to focus on developing stories about the Region in a memorable way. “Throwaway” content that people won’t remember for long has been jettisoned, he said.
“On a television side, we’re watched by all of Chicagoland,” Muhammad said. Lakeshore Public Media tells stories about Northwest Indiana to residents, but it also acts as a Region ambassador to the entire Chicago metro area.
The stories tell how Northwest Indiana is distinct from the rest of Chicago, giving a sense of place, but also about the quality of people here.
It is important for viewers to recognize the breadth of experiences individuals, businesses and organizations in Northwest Indiana offer, Muhammad said.
Most people view the Region as the home of blue-collar workers and steel mills, but there is so much more to the story, he said.
Creating relevant content that gets shared broadly is good for the Region’s reputation. The content has gotten attention. PBS, WTTW and the PBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., have all shared content from Lakeshore.
“We want people wherever they may be to find quality stories from our Region,” Muhammad said.
A show about Paul Henry’s Art Gallery in Hammond was shared on social media by someone in Ohio who commented about the cross-generational collaboration.
“You know you’re great, but it does mean something” when others notice it, Muhammad said.
The “Eye on the Arts” program has drawn attention too. It was nominated in the fall for a Chicago/Midwest Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement for Arts/Entertainment Programming. The half-hour program highlights a diverse range of local artists, arts organizations, events and stories.
Lakeshore also operates a radio station, which offers local shows, including “Let’s Eat With Chef Nick.” That show gets around to a variety of restaurants in the Region, giving them valuable exposure on the air.
In 2019, the TV station launched a new series called “Friends & Neighbors,” focusing on people, places and things to do in the Region. Videos ranging between three and six minutes include historical segments, lifestyle segments, profiles of nonprofits, good Samaritans, local businesses and area landmarks.
Muhammad has learned a lot from it. He did not realize how much Valparaiso University’s Chapel of the Resurrection had served the community or how popular shows on family farms would be.
Developing appropriate content takes effort.
“The first thing we focus on is a great story,” Muhammad said. But production quality counts too. “We’re competing in the third largest production market in the country.”
Muhammad praised Lakeshore’s partners. “I never accept (awards) solely on behalf of Lakeshore,” he said. “We couldn’t do anything we’re doing without those partnerships here in the community.”
Early in Muhammad’s career, he said, a mentor told him, “You can achieve mediocrity solely by yourself, or you can achieve greatness with the collaboration of others.”
Lifetime Achievement Award
Michael Schrage, chairman and CEO of Merrillville-based Centier Bank, has served personal and business banking customers for decades. Along the way, the privately owned bank has expanded its footprint across a broad swath of Indiana.
“There have been several challenges over my career,” Schrage said. In the 1980s, the economic downturn especially hit hard in Northwest Indiana, with the steel industry restructuring and shedding thousands of employees in the process.
During the 1990s, he had a health scare. And 2020 saw the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression almost a century ago.
“What kind of downturn will occur from this particular carnage on the overall economy and world?” he asked.
That remains to be seen.
But this year did accelerate growth in the banking industry’s balance sheets, he said. The Payroll Protection Program added $330 million to the balance sheet on the loan side, and much of it ended up on the deposit side, he said.
The pandemic accelerated the shift to digital banking practices, Schrage said.
He didn’t foresee that happening early in his career, but he had other issues to focus on then.
Schrage’s great-great grandfather Henry Schrage started the bank, then known as Bank of Whiting, in 1895. Mike Schrage was the heir apparent when he joined the bank in 1972.
“My younger life was always marked by that,” Schrage said. “It made it extraordinarily difficult to prove myself in the banking business community, (and) it was a constant cloud over me in my early career to prove myself.”
In the early 1970s, the banking business was all about size. “How big is your bank?” people would ask each other.
Schrage said his goal in the 1970s was to become the biggest bank in Lake County. That was an audacious goal at the time, because the Gary banks were 10 times the size of what is now known as Centier.
Today Centier has 64 offices, serving the Northwest Indiana, Michiana, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis markets. It is the largest privately held bank in Indiana.
In 1973, the Whiting bank began a growth campaign to new communities. The board of directors decided to change the name to United Bank of whatever community it served, including United Bank of Whiting.
“I didn’t care for it, but I wasn’t in a position to change anything at that point,” Schrage said.
Later, a new board member asked during his second meeting, “Have you ever thought of changing the name of the bank?” “Yes,” Schrage recalled responding.
The bank went through an identification firm and came up with Centier Bank.
With the bank approaching its first century, century and premier were merged to create Centier. The name also pays tribute to Center Street, the bank’s first location, Schrage said.
“It was an interesting experience to launch it,” Schrage said. The bank announced the name change in print ads. The first day, people were pronouncing it CENT-EE-AY, like Cartier, instead of CEN-TEER, he said.
That quickly was addressed with radio ads.
Schrage suggested business leaders surround themselves with as many talented people as possible.
When just starting out, an entrepreneur does everything. He said it is difficult to break that habit, but it is strategically important.
Recognize your strengths and identify areas where you can use help to complement your strengths, Schrage said.
“I think that’s where a lot of small businesses fall down and fail,” he said.
His next suggestion runs counter to what he believed when his career began.
“Growth isn’t everything,” Schrage said.
He said it is important to not outrun your resources by trying to take advantage of every opportunity and realize your journey isn’t a straight line.
Develop a three- to five-year plan but realize it’s a rough outline, Schrage said.
“You’re going to be adjusting like a sailboat,” he said. “You tack one way, and you take the other because the wind shifts,” Schrage said.
Schrage advises business leaders to consider differentiation. Banking, especially today, is a commodity, he said. It is important to distinguish your company with a recognizable difference.
For Centier, that means the customer experience.
Centier treats employees well and instructs them to do the same for customers.
“We’re a lot smaller, more nimble” than big national banks, Schrage said.
Centier chooses employees based on how they would fit in with the company’s culture.
“We can teach them most of the banking skills out there, but we can’t undo their personality,” he said.
As a private bank, Centier doesn’t have to run its operations based on Wall Street whims.
“Here, our maximization is in the culture,” Schrage said.
The company continues to hammer home the message that it is family owned and operated, and not for sale. Publicly owned banks cannot say that.
The shift to a customer-centric culture stems from his health crisis in the 1990s, he said. He realized how important it was to treat people well, both customers and employees.
“My legacy will not be helping the bank grow, but the culture inculcated within everyone in the organization,” he said. “It’s not a one-man show. You’ll hit peaks and valleys, but that’s to be expected. Anyone’s business or personal life is not a straight line.”
The E-Day Class of 2020 was honored Nov. 12 at Avalon Manor in Hobart. The event has taken place for more than 25 years and attracts top business leaders throughout the Region.