Spotlight on ‘hidden gems’ • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Spotlight on ‘hidden gems’

2023 E-Day Awards winners all faced adversity but kept their sights on future

2023 E-Day
The 2023 E-Day class was honored during a luncheon Nov. 9 at Avalon Manor in Merrillville. (Photo provided by NW-ISBDC / Norman Turner Photography)

This year’s E-Day honorees are a diverse crop, but they all have some things in common.

The Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center has sponsored the Entrepreneurial Excellence Awards for 30 years to honor business advocates and entrepreneurs.

Lorri Feldt, regional director of the NW-ISBDC, said candidates were asked: “How did you experience adversity and get through it?”

“This year’s group didn’t have any trouble answering that question,” Feldt said.

The pandemic, still fresh in everyone’s mind, offered plenty of adversity.

“One of the things that stood out as I was reading each of the stories is the entrepreneurial journey isn‘t easy. Everybody thinks it‘s like that straight line, but it isn’t,” Feldt said. “Each of these business owners has really dealt with some hard stuff and dealt with it in a strategic and very human way.”

The honorees were chosen by a committee of judges. There was strong competition, Feldt said.

“There’s always not fistfights, but they always do debate around certain categories because we’ll have a couple of particularly strong nominees and how do you choose?” she said.

“It was a good group,” Feldt said. “I know the committee was really pleased. I know that we were.”

2023 E-Day
Lorri Feldt, regional director of the NW-ISBDC, spoke during the 2023 E-Day Awards. (By Heather Pfundstein)

In reviewing the nominees, the judges look for “those hidden gems,” stories that probably most folks weren’t aware of, she said.

That includes Munster Steel’s unplanned relocation of its industrial plant because of the overpass construction at Calumet Avenue and 45th Street. Or Precision Maintenance Solutions hiring up, then not only keeping employees on the payroll during the pandemic but also investing in their training.

“I feel like that’s a perfect example of how this group, this class, faced adversity, and then not just got through it but chose to handle it with the long-term view in mind,” Feldt said.

The honorees received their awards at a Nov. 9 luncheon at Avalon Manor in Merrillville.

Cynthia Roberts, dean of the School of Business and Economics at Indiana University Northwest, was on the event’s steering committee. “It’s one of the highlights of my year,” she said.

“I like the diversity of the honorees and the inspiring and creative ideas they have,” Roberts said. “It’s a good problem to have when you have so many good candidates.”

Lifetime Achievement: Linda Hough

Linda Hough (By Rick Bella)
Lifetime Achievement: Linda Hough (Photo by Rick Bella)

Hough is notable not just because of her success in breaking glass ceilings but also because she is eager to help other women.

When Hough earned her accounting degree, she was a nontraditional student — married with two small children. She graduated in 1985 from Indiana University South Bend.

“I don’t think I would be happy in any other profession,” she said.

Hough enjoys helping small business people achieve their goals.

“When you love something, you just naturally want to succeed at it.”

Hough started out with a small CPA firm in Michigan City, then a larger firm, then with a private client, then joined a new firm with just three CPAs — including her — and an administrative assistant in 1997. Now it has 40 employees.

Partners Bob Lange and John Craighead joined her to form CLH, the name derived from their initials. “We’re not going to be a law firm where everybody’s name has to go on it,” she said.

Hough occasionally goes to the Michigan City office, where she still has a desk. Although she’s nominally retired, she gets called in for special projects. Because she was busy elsewhere, not everyone in the Michigan City office knows her. When someone asks who she is, a veteran employee gleefully introduces her: “This is Linda. She’s the H.”

As CLH’s female partner, Hough took over responsibility for things like human resources and quality control.

“My passion has to be on the HR side of things,” she said. “I love to mentor people.”

Hough hired and named the next two female partners. She mentored them and is proud of them.

Hough has been involved in several charitable organizations. She’s known for mentoring women so they can follow her lead in becoming successful in business and life in general.

“I don’t believe in quitting or giving up,” Hough said.

She also doesn’t believe in flying solo.

“Nobody does it alone,” she said. “You’ve always got someone behind you, pushing you from behind.”

She was surprised by the latest push.

“I don’t necessarily like the spotlight,” Hough said. “This award just blew me away.”

She didn’t know she was nominated until she was invited to do a Zoom call: “Linda, we need your opinion on something,” she was told. On the call, she learned of the award. “I started crying. I had to shut my computer so they wouldn’t see me crying.”

Small Business Person: John Vode

Small Business Person: John Vode
Small Business Person: John Vode

John Vode, founder of Chesterton-based Precision Maintenance Solutions, worked for a few big contractors in area mills and refineries, gaining some skills while he attended college.

“There’s so many crazy stories along the voyage of 30 years,” Vode said while reflecting on his career.

The newly minted college graduate was hired as operations engineer for a manufacturer in Chicago. He lasted four days, not happy with the bureaucracy and boredom.

Vode went back to the contractor world, then borrowed $1,500 from his mother to buy a welding machine and paid her back right away.

He learned the hard way that running a business isn’t about skills but managing people and dealing with customers.

As he hired employees, he found ones who shared his values.

Sam Walton’s book, “Made in America,” inspired him to invest in his employees, giving them the resources to be successful. That includes everything from tools, equipment and training to just support.

“We spend more time with our coworkers than we do our family,” Vode said.

He said he tries to live a humble life.

“I don’t like to toot my horn because I know I would be nothing without the people around me,” he said.

“We’re a reliability engineering company,” Vode said. That means going to plants, identifying dysfunctions and inefficiencies, and helping them manage assets — people, buildings and equipment.

“We’re embedded in the manufacturing sector all over Chicagoland,” Vode said. “There’s hundreds of manufacturers in Northwest Indiana, and we need to take care of them.”

He takes care of the community, too.

Vode coaches high school football and teaches data analytics and business intelligence at PNW.

“I’ve always done this under the radar, intentionally,” he said.

Vode doesn’t want to be head coach but wants to help people. Coaches and other people in his life were influential in who he is today.

“Everybody’s got this greed-driven thing,” he said, but you’ll feel better if you go into it with a mindset of serving others.

Entrepreneurial Success: Allen Kent

Entrepreneurial Success: Allen Kent
Entrepreneurial Success: Allen Kent

Allen Kent wasn’t planning to follow in his father’s footsteps at Valparaiso-based Kent Heating & Air Conditioning. His children won’t follow, either.

Kent recently completed the paperwork to sell the business to two of his upper-level managers.

“The company is going to be in very capable hands. They’re not going to miss a beat,” he said.

“It’s still going to be family owned since 1954,” just not by the Kent family.

Kent learned the value of hard work early.

“Growing up in it, Dad made us work. His thing was, you don’t work, you don’t eat.” At age 6 or 7, Kent was cleaning the office. In high school, he became an installation technician. That cut down on his social life.

“Sometimes when you grow up in that environment, you feel like you’re getting cheated,” he said. Later, he learned how important it was.

“I’ve always liked working for Dad. I’ve always had an interest in mechanical things,” Kent said.

His father urged him to get a job in the real world to gain experience — varied experience, it turns out.

Kent worked for the wood preservative industry, producing products like utility poles and pressure-treated lumber. Then he became a financial planner.

In fall 1989, his father invited him to work as general manager of the HVAC firm. In 1991, Kent bought the company on a 15-year buyout. “He didn’t sell cheap,” Kent said.

“We had a unique situation because he became my employee,” he said.

“When you buy a business from your dad, you’re also buying his employees,” Kent said. He had to build a team that shared his values.

“We’ve got a pretty tight group there, and they care. If you take a short cut, they’re going to call you out on it,” he said.

Along the way, Kent faced challenges, including balancing God, family and job.

“You have to have those things in order to succeed. Sometimes the job seems like it’s taken over family,” he said. “In the long run, your family is going to mean so much.”

Family-Owned Business: Jeanne Robbins

Family-Owned Business: Jeanne Robbins
Family-Owned Business: Jeanne Robbins (Photo by Joel Alderson)

Jeanne Robbins’ grandfather started OCR Steel in 1957. It was incorporated as Munster Steel in 1958.

Munster Steel is now in Hammond. It was forced to move because of the overpass construction at Calumet Avenue and 45th Street.

“You can’t move a steel facility overnight,” Robbins said. It took 10 years to move, with six or seven years to find an appropriate site and three years to build the facility and move into it.

Munster Steel has been at the new location, where Columbia Avenue dead-ends at the Indiana Toll Road, almost 10 years. “It’s incredibly quiet. When I leave here, I see deer walking,” she said.

The facility is about 123,000 square feet.

“We are a structural steel fabricator, and we fabricate buildings and bridges,” Robbins said.

Want to see some of its work? Go to Chicago. “A lot of our steel is in those bridges.”

One example is the Wells Street bascule bridge, a lift bridge, with a train on top and vehicles below. More than 100 of those bridges are in Chicago. They’re protected and can’t be changed, she said, but they can be repaired. Munster Steel is repairing steel that was last replaced 50 years ago, Robbins said.

“The other great thing about steel is it’s recyclable,” almost 100%, Robbins said. That gives steel an edge over concrete, one of Munster Steel’s biggest competitors.

Robbins attributes the company’s success to hard work and a team effort. “The staff here is exceptional. They work very hard and are committed to Munster Steel.” The company strives to deliver quality products to customers while providing a safe and environmentally sound workplace, she said.

Robbins is in her 31st year at Munster Steel. “I’m hoping that I have at least 15 or 20 more years.”

“I would always come visit my father, but to be perfectly honest, I never thought that I would work here,” she said. Robbins earned a business degree but didn’t study engineering. Her father, Ronald Robbins, taught her engineering after she became an employee.

“I just fell in love with the business.”

In 1993, she started working as project manager and estimator. Two years later, she added purchasing duties; two years after that, she became vice president of procurement. In January 2002, she was promoted to president — the third Robbins generation to hold that title.

Woman-Owned Business: Ann Coglianese

Woman-Owned Business: Ann Coglianese
Woman-Owned Business: Ann Coglianese

Ann Coglianese, founder and CEO of Highland-based Region ATA Academy, got into martial arts when her son Nathaniel was in first grade.

Now the 26-year-old is her business partner.

Nathaniel brought home from school a flier for martial arts classes at a Hammond church.

“As a mom, I was sitting there watching the entire time,” Coglianese said. He was a brown belt when she decided to start taking classes.

“It was quite intimidating at first,” she said. “The physical part wasn’t hard for me; it was the mental.”

The more she learned martial arts, the smarter, more physical she became. She got to the level where she could teach. “That’s when I truly understood what my goal in life was.”

Coglianese found the American Taekwondo Association in 2013. That’s what organized, structured martial arts are supposed to be, she said.

Students learn forms and techniques, the structure and true benefits of training with a licensed, patented form of martial arts.

The E-Day award wasn’t expected. “We’re just walking around doing what we do, and someone wants to praise you for your greatness.”

That’s not to say that awards and competitions are rare. “Nathaniel is five-times world champion,” Coglianese said. “I’ve come in second in the world.”

“We’re always competing in regional tournaments, and I think people are inspired by that,” she said.

Coglianese enjoys working with children. “We want their children to be hyperactive. We want them to be running around and energetic.”

The pandemic convinced her to open an e-learning center and a new location.

“We’re going from 2,000 square feet to 7,800 square feet. It is our dream building,” she said. The previous building on Spring Street was a warehouse with front offices and smelled awful.

“I’m looking into the back door now, and it is just magnificent,” she said.

“We have a lot of families who are just out there working at gas stations, grocery stores, doctor’s offices,” Coglianese said, so she opened an e-learning center for families who have been in martial arts.

“It was a way that we could be of service in a way that we never imagined,” Coglianese said.

Minority-Owned Business: Cory Armand

Minority-Owned Business: Cory Armand
Minority-Owned Business: Cory Armand

Cory Armand, CEO of Gary-based Armand Investment Group, got his start rehabbing houses for a real estate investor. Now he’s doing his own investing.

His main source of income is rental properties, 90% of them in Gary. “We buy them, we fix them up, we rent them out,” he said.

Most of the buildings need a lot of work, but that brings down the initial investment. Gary properties don’t cost as much as those in surrounding cities, a big plus for investors just getting started.

“It gives people like me and other investors opportunities to buy up real estate and put them back on the tax rolls,” he said.

His latest project is AIG Business Venture, a coworking space near 37th and Broadway for entrepreneurs who don’t have their own brick-and-mortar location. Two tenants are there, including the King’s Wings and Things restaurant in front.

Armand bought the 2,000-square-foot building for his own office and had so much left over he decided to share it. “And I utilize every inch of the building,” he said.

The building includes a kitchenette and conference room. A mailbox system serves people who don’t want to use a post office box or their home address for business purposes.

In addition to the tenants, another six entrepreneurs have memberships for access to the building’s amenities.

Indiana University Northwest business school dean Cynthia Roberts nominated Armand, an alumnus. “I still go back to the university and speak and give presentations to the classes,” he said.

Armand also gives back to the community through a male mentorship program for ages 7 to 18. The group meets Saturdays during summer.

“They work beside me and work behind my other guys,” he said, learning construction trades, contracts and assessing properties.

Consistency, resilience and the ability to look past the blight and current condition of buildings and situations is key to his success, he said. “Not see what it is but see what it could become.”

“Pursue your passion, and your money and success will truly follow,” Armand added.

Business Advocates: Lisa Dan and Mary Perren

Business Advocates: Lisa Dan and Mary Perren
Business Advocates: Lisa Dan and Mary Perren

Lisa Dan and Mary Perren, winners of the Business Advocates award, are no strangers to competition. Together, they created the Starke Tank contest to nurture business growth.

Dan, executive director of Starke County Economic Development Foundation, and Perren, its executive assistant, created the competition four years ago.

Like the TV show “Shark Tank,” the contestants on “Starke Tank” must pitch their product or service to a panel of judges. The best pitch wins.

Originally, the competition was limited to North Judson. But the contest required enough work to expand it countywide.

“It exploded. We had 10 contestants, more prize money than we ever had before,” Perren said.

Colleagues in Elkhart and Marshall counties have expressed interest in creating similar pitch competitions.

“We’re more than happy to share our template for doing this,” Perren said.

Starke Tank is a free community event. Although no admission is charged, food pantry donations are encouraged. This year, 94 pounds of food and $20 in cash were collected.

To keep spectators’ interest, door prizes are distributed between pitches. That allows time for the next team to get set up.

Small businesses that can’t afford a full sponsorship can contribute a door prize. Contestants also can contribute but that doesn’t influence their chances of winning. It does, however, allow them a chance to promote their business.

Contestants have to enter well in advance, about two months or more, Dan said.

Among the requirements is a one-on-one talk with an ISBDC adviser. “Their services are free, and this is just a wonderful organization,” Perren said.

“We want to attract good candidates, good businesses, to take part,” she said.

Even if they lose the competition, contestants can emerge as winners. A pizza firm that was a runner-up is catering events because of the exposure from Starke Tank.

“It makes us proud to see all these businesses working together like that,” Perren said. “It’s just about promoting what we’ve got here and keeping it in the community.”

“We could go on all day about how great this is for a community this size,” she said.

Young Entrepreneur: Aylin Cornejo

Young Entrepreneur: Aylin Cornejo
Young Entrepreneur: Aylin Cornejo

Aylin Cornejo, founder of Whimsy Do’s in Schererville, offers haircuts to kids in a fun setting.

Instead of sitting on a standard salon chair, children can ride in a Power Wheels car.

“I really just enjoy working with kids,” she said, including children with special needs, sensory issues or just plain reluctance.

“We get a lot of screaming and crying kids, and the other kids just love it,” she said.

“I just really like making people feel good about their look.”

Cornejo saw a need for a kids salon in that part of Lake County.

Planning for Whimsy Do’s began during the COVID-19 lockdown. Jim Hubbard, a volunteer with the Service Corps of Retired Executives, helped Cornejo with the planning.

The launch didn’t take long, just three months. Cornejo funded it herself. “I’ve been saving since I was 15,” she said.

The salon offers family-focused fun in a family-run business.

Special events help the salon, and its customers help the community. A monthlong food drive supported the local food bank. A fund drive aided a regular client diagnosed with a brain tumor at 3 years old.

“We just do things like that to help around the community,” Cornejo said.

Emerging Business: Brandi and Jamaal Smith

Emerging Business: Brandi Smith
Emerging Business: Brandi Smith

Brandi and Jamaal Smith own and operate Merrillville-based All Pieces Fit, which works with kids and adults with autism and other special needs.

“We’ve taught children who were diagnosed as nonverbal to be able to speak and communicate their needs and wants,” Clinical Director and CEO Brandi Smith said.

“Social skills are really a big deal,” she said. “Communication is a huge deal. Some are verbal, some are nonverbal.”

“We also work on problematic behavior” and how to attain appropriate behavior, Smith said.

Most services are done at the clinic, so the client can focus and learn. Being in the clinic removes distractions to focus on what’s happening, why it’s happening and how to fix it.

“It’s kind of hard to have someone come into your home and tell you what to do and how to do it,” Smith said.

She was in college when she saw a job posting for a group home, checked it out and enjoyed being with “the ones that people typically didn’t want to be around.”

“I fell in love immediately” with working with kids with autism, Smith said.

All Pieces Fit opened in 2017. Maintaining quality employees, especially during the pandemic, was a challenge, she said.

Smith has master’s degrees in special education and business.

Connecting with the families is important to Smith.

“We put a lot of time and energy into our families, and we really do care about them,” she said.

One joy is when families see changes in their children they never thought possible. Another is “seeing my therapists just as excited as I would be when they hit a breakthrough with a client.”

Advocate for Youth Entrepreneurship: Krissy LaFlech

Advocate for Youth Entrepreneurship: Krissy LaFlech
Advocate for Youth Entrepreneurship: Krissy LaFlech

Munster High School’s Krissy LaFlech isn’t a typical teacher.

She was a district manager in Chicago when she left Starbucks after 13 years. She and her husband moved to Northwest Indiana, and she wanted to do something different.

Her best friend, a teacher in Lowell, said her school district was looking for a business teacher.

“It was completely off the radar, but it worked,” LaFlech said. She got a workplace specialist license. Two years after she began teaching at Lowell, she was hit by a drunk driver and couldn’t make that 40-minute commute anymore.

LaFlech’s teacher friend at Lowell was interviewing for a chemistry teacher job in Munster and asked if they had a position for a business teacher. LaFlech was hired.

When she became a teacher, LaFlech had to quickly figure out lesson plans.

As a new teacher, “I was about 15 minutes ahead of the students about to walk into my classroom,” she said.

“I have to flex a different muscle than other teachers who have an SAT as their final product,” LaFlech said. “Their end goal is can we get a patent created?” They must figure out how to get funding, whatever soapbox they need to get on to promote their product.

“I have to talk about my life experiences, so they have learning from that,” she said. Everything in class is trial-and-error, pivot from mistakes and failures. “That is driving our conversation more than anything else.”

“I push my kids probably harder than they’ve ever been pushed,” she said. “They get so excited on the first day of class when I tell them they have no tests. But the next day I tell them they have about 15 presentations to make to the class.”

Her students have had success in the Innovate WithIN student pitch competition. The students develop a product or service, come up with a business plan and try to get funding to launch their business.

One team stands out for her.

“They’re in the air freshener market. They’ve created scents that match people’s cultures.” Feeling homesick? The scent can take a person born elsewhere back to that time and place. The team is creating candles now to see what scents would be most popular.

Some businesses take off, including Munster High School students who are interviewing postsecondary graduate-level students for intern positions at their business, using startup money from a grant they won.

That kind of thinking is what makes the event and the E-Day awards program so special. They are meant to inspire everyone as well as honor achievers.

“Part of the purpose of this, and you always have to think about it, is how we want to feel when we leave this event,” Feldt said.

This year’s class certainly brought that “uplifting feeling” to the awards ceremony, she said.

Feldt said the energy evident in the large, packed banquet room showed the value of hosting the annual event.

She wasn’t the only one excited about this year’s honorees.

“I am blown away by the winners here today,” Hough said. “Northwest Indiana is lucky to have all of you.”

Read more stories from the current issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.


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