The willingness to take a chance, to step into uncharted territory, is the common denominator among the nine recipients of the 19th annual Entrepreneurship “E-Day” Excellence Awards presented by the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center.
Each has been willing to take a chance, and in the process created an opportunity in Northwest Indiana.
Guest speaker Tim Smithe of Walter E. Smithe Furniture in Chicago says the drive of each recipient is same as what's driven his family to become one of the premier furniture retailers and designers in Chicago. “Work hard,” says Smithe. “Opportunity is missed by most people because it's dressed in overalls and looks like hard work.”
LeAnn McCrum, interim executive director of the Northwest Indiana SBDC, praised the winners and says each demonstrates the courage, drive and initiative that fuels Northwest Indiana's economy.
Minority Small Business Person of the Year
Dr. Bridget Harrison, Innovation In Learning LLC
Bridget Harrison finds it difficult to picture herself as “a business person.” Even after receiving her award, Harrison struggles to put into words what it means.
“I had no idea how big a deal this was,” says Harrison. “I'm just a clinician. I feel like I don't deserve it.”
Innovations In Learning LLC is based in Merrillville and provides behavioral services and mental health counseling to adults, children and families. When Harrison started the business in 2004, it had two employees; today, it has 50.
“I always kind of knew my career direction,” says Harrison. “I knew I wanted to go into either psychology or psychiatry, although I thought briefly about becoming a veterinarian.”
Harrison wound up in Northwest Indiana after an internship at Southlake Center for Mental Health in Merrillville. She moved to the region planning to stay for a year or two. That was 13 years ago. One year ago, Innovation In Learning moved into a 12,000-square-foot office in Merrillville, quadrupling her office space.
In her nominating letter, Erica Passauer, senior vice president of lending for the Regional Development Co. in Valparaiso, calls Harrison “an excellent example of entrepreneurial spirit and success.”
“Her business has grown, in part, due to her keen ability to capitalize on state laws and mandates regarding the psychological health of developmentally disabled children and adults,” says Passauer. “In seven short years, she has progressed from working part-time out of her home to a staff of 53 and is in her second building expansion. Ninety-five percent of her employees are women and she supports them with a generous continuous-learning program, benefits and flexible scheduling within a family-friendly work environment.”
Jonathan Hildebrand, an assistant vice president of business banking at Centier Bank in Merrillville, describes Harrison as “passionate about her work.”
“She's more focused on the outcome of the patient than on her business, but she has the kind of personality that people like to follow,” says Hildebrand.
For the future, Harrison says her challenge is to make sure the business continues to provide top-notch clinical services. “I've been required to become a business person. I've become better at running the business, but I want to make sure we continue to serve our patients well.”
Small Business Person of the Year
Rick Rondinelli, In Touch Pharmaceuticals
The growth of Rick Rondinelli's business in just six years is phenomenal. In 2004, it began with five employees. Today, In Touch Pharmaceuticals in Valparaiso has 80.
It began with a simple idea – provide patient medication in individual-dose packages for hospitals, prisons, senior care homes and other facilities. It's a system that fits perfectly with provisions of the health care bill in which individual dose prescriptions are required for large institutions.
In nominating Rondinelli, Charles W. McGill, executive director of the Entech Innovation Center in Valparaiso, says, “Rick Rondinelli is an excellent entrepreneur and community leader. He has successfully grown his business, projected at $30 million in sales, and a sales territory which initially covered a 90-mile radius and now covers the entire state of Indiana.”
For George Carberry, an attorney with Burke Costanza & Cuppy of Valparaiso, working with Rondinelli has been a pleasure. “Success always starts with a vision. Rick knows the industry well. He doesn't expect from his employees any less than he's willing to do himself.”
Carberry said the law firm's decision to represent Rondinelli wasn't a sudden epiphany. “It was his knowledge of the business, his work ethic and his compassion and understanding for the people he serves.”
“I was surprised to be named Small Business Person of the Year,” says Rondinelli. “It's very humbling.”
Other finalists for the honor were Michael F. Dolder of American Industrial Machinery in Merrillville, and Mark Chamberlain and Tim Rice of Lakeside Wealth Management of Chesterton.
“We're a high-customer-service company,” says Rondinelli, who began his career as a pharmacist after graduating from Purdue University in 1980. “We work hard at maintaining our service and our reputation. It takes years to build a reputation but only days to lose it.”
The idea for his business evolved while working as a pharmacist where he realized it was difficult to dispense medication and provide customer service at the level he wanted.
Through the use of automation, Rondinelli and his staff are able to quickly and accurately fill prescriptions giving them time to provide detailed information to each patient.
“When I graduated in 1980, this wasn't the kind of business I thought I'd be doing,” says Rondinelli. “My thought then was having a corner drugstore.”
Lifetime Achievement Award
Cliff Fleming, The Village of Burns Harbor
Cliff Fleming's training is as a lawyer, but his 40-year career in Northwest Indiana has centered on helping others and improving the region's quality of life. The Gary native and developer most recently created The Village of Burns Harbor, one of the first green residential neighborhoods in the nation.
He is a founding member of the Southlake YMCA, has been involved with the Crown Point Library, Opportunity Enterprises, the board of Centier Bank and the Visiting Nurses Association.
“The people who shaped my value system are to me why Northwest Indiana is a great place,” Fleming says. “You've got people who were born, grew up, lived and died in Northwest Indiana who brought a character and value system. I was shaped by those who shaped Gary so it was a matter of trickle-down.”
When Fleming learned of the Lifetime Achievement Award, he says his first thought was, “Why me? I'm a foot soldier just trying to do things. It was other people who gave me a push forward.”
Looking back, Fleming says his Catholic upbringing in Gary played a big role. “Any time you can make somebody else's life better, you should.”
The Village at Burns Harbor came about after he visited the town in 1995 to represent a client. Fleming became intrigued by the potential in the town that's bordered on the south by Interstate 94 and on the north by the sprawling ArcelorMittal Steel mill.
“I saw it had the potential to be a full-service community,” says Fleming. “I was told I was absolutely nuts, but something kept pulling on my shoulder, telling me to do it.” That's when his stubborn streak took over.
For the future, Fleming says, “What I hope to do is continue the trickle-down by getting the next generation involved and trying to provide opportunities for them so they can come back and stay.”
Northwest Indiana SBDC Client of the Year
Tracy and Jeffrey Freeze, HMS Midwest
When Tracy Freeze started her health care consulting business 15 years ago, she had no idea the company would become what it is today.
HMS Midwest is a full-service practice management consulting firm that works with health care professionals. In five years it has moved from a cramped office in her home to a large office in Chesterton. Today, she has six employees and in the past 12 months, HMS grew 52 percent. She has clients throughout Northwest Indiana, Michigan and the Chicago area.
“Receiving the award is certainly an honor,” says Freeze. “It recognizes the hard work we've put in for 15 years. It validates what we do.
In nominating Freeze, LeAnn McCrum, interim regional director for the Northwest Indiana SBDC, described HMS as “a classic example of small business success in our time. Tracy began the business from a home office – and developed it to the extent that it made sense for her husband, Jeff, to join her. They have grown the business exponentially ever since, moving into a commercial office space and adding customers and employees at a rate that is remarkable in this difficult economy.”
Before starting her business, Freeze was a practice manager for a health care business in Traverse City, Michigan. When she moved to Northwest Indiana for family reasons, her employer asked her to continue managing the firm via the Internet. She did and a thriving business was born.
A key innovation Freeze has developed is a program called Pay My Provider, which allows patients to pay their bills online, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The business consumes me every day,” says Freeze. “It's a phenomenal feeling knowing that other people have recognized what we're doing. I didn't think anyone else knew what we did.”
Women in Business Champion
Twila Kay Heiselman, Twila Kay Designs and Chicago Gift Basket Co.
Twila Kay Heiselman says she's most comfortable flying under the radar. So when she was honored as the Women in Business Champion, she was a bit uncomfortable in the spotlight.
“I'm not one to go out and toot my own horn,” says Heiselman, owner of Chicago Gift Basket Co. and Twila Kay Designs.
In nominating Heiselman, Shannon Becker, a former employee who has gone into business on her own, praised her generosity. “Twila Heiselman generously donates her time and energy to help other women business owners achieve success. It's her gracious and open spirit that makes her so deserving of this recognition.”
Heiselman got her start while she was involved in real estate. “I always did gift baskets for clients,” she says, adding that they became so popular that other people began asking her to create baskets for them.
It wasn't long before Heiselman told her husband she had found a niche where she wasn't going to have to work anymore. By that she meant she had found a business that was fun and exactly what she wanted to do.
Fifteen years ago when she started her business, Heiselman created a personal statement that she follows to this day: “Create, design and inspire for greater giving.”
As her business has grown, so has her involvement with promoting women in business. She founded Professional Referral Organization of America, an organization of professionals who build business relationships.
She has been president of the Northwest Indiana Region Chapter of the Women's Networking Alliance, and has created a gift basket line called “All Things Pink,” which helps raise breast cancer awareness. “One of the things I've learned in business is that it's important to do what you love and not just love what you do.”
Small Business Advocate
Tim Gropp, executive director, Greater LaPorte Economic Development Corp.
Tim Gropp grew up in LaPorte and wants to see his community grow and prosper. As the person in charge of the Greater LaPorte Economic Development Corp., he's had a hand in doing just that.
“Economic development is such a broad term; it means different things to different people,” says Gropp. “What I think it means is creating an atmosphere where you can fix conflict before it happens.”
When Gropp learned he was to be honored by the Northwest Indiana SBDC, he says he was “humbled.”
In nominating Gropp, Jay Pouzar, senior associate broker at CB Richard Ellis in South Bend, said, “Tim is always ready to help whether you are a very large or a very small business. Tim Gropp is truly a ‘one-stop shop' for locating a new business in LaPorte or expanding a current business.”
Gropp says that when he travels around the region he reminds those he meets that LaPorte is a part of Northwest Indiana. “Sometimes people forget LaPorte is a part of the region. The focus a lot of times is on Lake and Porter counties, but LaPorte is a valuable part of the mix, too.”
A graduate of Purdue University North Central, Gropp has been involved in the region through the Regional Development Corp., the LaPorte Chamber of Commerce and the Northwest Indiana Economic Development District.
“I don't think anyone in high school plans on going into the economic development business. For me, it just happened,” says Gropp. “I really enjoy doing it. It's my opportunity to give back to the community. This is where I live.”
Denna Fyock, Aberdeen Manor/Affairs To Remember Inc.
For 15 years, Denna Fyock and her husband, Jim, have been making dreams happen for Northwest Indiana brides.
“I've been doing weddings since I was 16,” says Fyock. “This is something my mother and I talked about doing.” Fyock owns Aberdeen Manor and Affairs To Remember Inc., the reception and banquet hall where the dreams she brings to life are held.
When she started the business, her only thought was, “How can we be the best at what we do?”
For years, she planned weddings at a variety of locations, but in 2007, a non-denominational chapel was built at Aberdeen, just south of Valparaiso. Besides her husband, Fyock's daughter, Megan, and her husband, Trey, have joined the business. In all, it has 35 employees and hosts more than 100 events a year.
She said the E-Day honor has meant “a great deal. It gave us an opportunity to give our employees a pat on the back. This is as much their award as it is ours.”
In nominating Fyock, Rene Martin, first vice president of Citizens Financial Bank, said, “Denna exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit. She saw a need in the market, developed a plan and executed it. Denna met with her banker, Dale Clapp, executive vice president with Citizens Financial Bank, and formulated a plan with the RDC. As her business grew she used the RDC two additional times to finance her expansion. Whether it is a small meeting or a lavish wedding, Denna provides the same superior service, quality food and attention to detail to each client.”
Fyock says she strives for perfection every time. “You're messing with someone's once-in-a-lifetime day,” she says. “You've got to get it done right the first time. You don't have a second chance.”
Small Business Journalist of the Year
Rick Richards, editor, Northwest Indiana Business Quarterly
For the past three decades, Rick Richards has been telling stories about Northwest Indiana's small businesses.
“Whenever the opportunity arises to discuss what I do with business executives, I take it,” says Richards. “I think it's important that business leaders understand they have important stories to tell and they ought to be willing to tell them.”
Getting executives to overcome their reluctance to talk is sometimes a challenge. “Usually small business owners are reluctant because they don't want to look like they're bragging about what they do. I turn that idea on its head, telling them it's not bragging. Instead, what they are doing is providing a valuable lesson to a new generation of business leaders and future business leaders.”
In nominating Richards, Glee F. Renick-May, publisher of Northwest Indiana Business Quarterly magazine, said, “He deserves to be recognized for his many years of regional news reporting, dedication and multiple contributions to our business magazine. He is conscientious and approaches each assignment with passion and importance. He has developed a very unique journalistic style that readers are paying attention to.”
Richards says writing about small business reminds him of the effort his father put in as owner of a small weekly newspaper in east-central Indiana. “After watching my father, I'm especially aware of the struggles and difficulties that face any small business owner trying to get established.”