Annual awards honor drive, perseverance and innovation.
by Rick A. Richards
It might be going too far to describe entrepreneurs as gamblers, but they are risk takers. Bill Gregory, interim director of the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center, says there is something in their nature that pushes them to take risks.
“They all have a drive and perseverance,” says Gregory. “They are creative, energetic people.”
That's an apt description of each recipient of the 20th annual Entrepreneurial Excellence Awards. “The humility of the winners reflects the nature of the people we chose,” says Gregory. “It does my heart good to talk to people like those who won because they're special people.”
Gregory says they strengthen the region, they're engaged in their communities and they believe in community service. “It's been a struggle for small business to make it in these hard economic times, but these people made a difference. Quite clearly they are strong leaders, not only in their business, but in their communities.”
Following are stories of the honorees. Some information and quotes are reprinted from their nomination forms, with permission from the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center.
Rich Thiel, president
NWI SBDC Client of the Year
Rich Thiel was surprised when he found out his Cedar Lake company was being recognized because all Midwest PGM recycles its auto parts plastic, aluminum and other metals.
But in doing so, the company keeps thousands of pounds of material from landfills.
Cindy Bertam of the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center nominated Thiel. “When I first began working with Midwest PGM in 2008 I was thoroughly impressed with their passion for the recycling business.”
By continuing to work as a mechanic at a car dealership, Thiel says he's able to plow his salary back into the business. “Financing wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be. We had a lot of support from the family and the town.”
He credits partner Jorge Rangel with a big part of the company's success. He is at the business every day while Thiel is either meeting with potential customers or working his day job. “Jorge and I don't always agree; we don't hold anything back. That's a huge deal and I think that's why we're successful. If it was just me or him, I don't think we'd be where we are today. We're a team.”
Valpo Life/Portage Life
Small Business Journalist of the Year
After 20 years in the corporate world of marketing, analysis and finance, Chris Mahlmann went out on his own, starting Ideas in Motion, a business development company in 2006.
Mahlmann was nominated by Lesly Bailey, a freelance marketing professional, who says Mahlmann's online publications “embody the community journalism concept.” “While they are centered around Valparaiso and Portage, the connections created and the growth and development initiated can be felt throughout the region,” says Bailey.
Mahlmann's publications focus on positive news that he says is overlooked by mainstream media. “I never thought of doing community news,” he says.
After growing up in Chicago's northwest suburbs and graduating from Loyola University in Chicago in 1986, Mahlmann moved to the region five years ago. “I fell in love with Valparaiso. After being here awhile I realized there was a lot of good news happening that didn't make the daily newspaper.”
Mahlmann saw opportunity. “I also saw how the news media in general was slow to adapt to changes in the way news was being delivered.
“I was told good news doesn't sell, but I've found that good news can sell. I've never worked harder and never taken more risk than I am right now,” says Mahlmann, who adds he's also happier than he's ever been.
Woman-Owned Business of the Year
Theresa Valade is an entrepreneur, author, consultant, and life coach. The CEO and founder of Success Trek helps struggling individuals and companies improve themselves and their operations.
Bill Gregory, the interim director of the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center, nominated Valade. “The most accurate statement I can make about Theresa is that she is the quintessential colleague. I'm very glad we connected about four years ago. We've partnered on several projects, she has referred work to me and I've returned the favor.”
For her part, Valade says she was humbled by the E-Day honor. “I think what it demonstrates is that I've grown as a business.”
Valade says her business “helps people sort things out.” It's also helped her fine tune her business. “I've had to make some decisions on whether to stay the same or grow the company,” says Valade. “I'm going to grow. I want to become an organization with at least five team members and I want to hire independent contractors.”
As a third-generation entrepreneur, Valade says she feels she was destined to go into business for herself. She says that when she started she had no idea what direction this “entrepreneur thing” would take. “I now know there is no one problem I can't do,” she says.
Citizens Financial Bank
Small Business Financial Advocate of the Year
One of the most satisfying things about banking for Gregg Holley is helping others succeed. Holley has been with Citizens Financial Bank for six years.
He was nominated by LeAnn McCrum of InTouch Pharmaceuticals. “To help small businesses secure financing in tough economic times can be a true lifeline for any business. He is an invaluable resource for so many businesses in Northwest Indiana.”
Holley says he was surprised because there are other people who put in a lot of time and energy doing what he does. “I try to do as much as I can to make clients the best they can be. I also try to keep in touch with them over time.”
Holley says the key to building a relationship is to treat clients as he wants to be treated. “When you do that, you become a trusted advisor.”
At the same time, Holley is helping the bank. “By helping small businesses, I'm helping the bank spread its risk and be more profitable. I want to foster relationships. I want to see them all succeed and grow in the community.”
In this difficult economy, Holley says he's learned a lot. “I've helped a lot of businesses survive by having them take steps they wouldn't have otherwise taken. We've learned a lot together and we'll be stronger in the future because of it.”
Frances (Pat) and Linda Holmes
Pediatric, Infant & Family Home Health Care Services
Minority-Owned Business of the Year
Fourteen years ago, sisters Frances and Linda Holmes saw a need for home health care in Gary and began providing it. Today, the two nurses have a clinic, nursing services, home health aides and occupational therapists.
They recently bought a building on Burr Street that's home for PIF's 80 employees.
Dan Duncan of Peoples Bank nominated the sisters. “Pat and Linda's efforts to grow their business have provided additional employment opportunities in Northwest Indiana.”
Pat Holmes was delighted with the E-Day honor. “I was elated to see that someone else recognized the things we do.”
In working with Peoples Bank, Holmes says the relationship with Duncan “blossomed.”
“It has been very challenging in this economy, but we think we're on the right path,” says Holmes.
Pat and Linda's daughters are following their footsteps as registered nurses and helping at PIF. “What gives me the most satisfaction is seeing the patients and families in the community,” says Holmes. “When you're out in the community and you see someone who is now back on their own feet, it gives me a great feeling.”
Above the Tracks LTD.
Emerging Business of the Year
Steve Arndt is a blue collar guy, so the plunge into running his own safety consulting business surprised even him. Still, Arndt has built a reputation that has companies large and small calling for help to assess their safety protocols.
“I wasn't sure what an entrepreneur was. I had never received a nomination for anything before, but I was honored,” Arndt says from his Michigan City office.
He started the company in 2006. Arndt says safety is an integral part of any operation and he's pleased clients allow him to offer safety solutions to make their business more efficient.
Rene Martin of Citizens Financial Bank nominated Arndt. “Steve Arndt is the epitome of a small business entrepreneur. He saw an underserved need in the market and formed his company to service this niche.”
Arndt says nearly all of his consulting work has been with the steel industry, not only in Northwest Indiana but around the country. He's also done work at power plants and refineries.
Arndt says, “At the rate we're growing, I see us being one of the top companies in our field in the country.” Within five year he hopes his company has between 150 and 200 employees. “That is the goal. I want to take this company to the next level.”
Daniel J. and Laurie Rohder
Rohder Machine and Tool Inc.
Family-Owned Small Business of the Year
When Daniel and Laurie Rohder bought the family business in 2005, it was a big step. He wanted to make sure he continued the reputation his father had built since he started the Crown Point company in 1968.
Jack Esala of Centier Bank nominated the Rohders. “Dan and Laurie were obvious candidates in my mind. Since taking over for Dan's parents, the Rohders have continued to be successful with managed growth. Even in a down economy they did not suffer like many small businesses.”
Since taking over six years ago, the company has grown by 40 percent. The Rohders say they couldn't have moved forward without the help of Dan's brother, Dave, who is quality control manager, and their son, Matt, who is operations manager. The company has 14 employees.
Dan says a key to success is making sure growth is manageable. “We made sure we didn't extend ourselves,” he says.
Another key is communication with his banker. “You have to keep the banker informed of what you're doing. And you have to know how to market yourself. It is hard to get started, but once you get established, you can focus on your customers by giving them good, quality work.”
Laurie adds that as an entrepreneur, you can't be afraid of the future. “Sometimes you have to take a risk to move ahead.
“It's a real honor for us to receive the award,” says Dan. “Mom and dad flew in from Florida for this. He was very proud of what we've done.”
Revolutionary Technology Company of the Year
Its unique research to find a cure for cancer has created a buzz about IVDiagnostics, owned by Frank Szczepanski in Valparaiso. Its high-tech focus is changing the way Northwest Indiana is viewed by those outside the region.
“I believe in companies with a focus on technology,” says Szczepanski. “But I think the research we're doing has the chance to change the world.”
Charlie McGill of Elevate Ventures LLC, and the former director of Entech Innovation Center, nominated IVDiagnostics. “IVDiagnostics is one of the most exciting new ventures in the state of Indiana. They have been developing a biomedical application for monitoring and diagnosing cancer cells that is truly unique and will make a significant impact on the medical community and patient care once fully commercialized.”
For Szczepanski being an entrepreneur is part of his DNA. He has been involved with nine start-up companies over 20 years. In recent weeks, he has visited both coasts to talk about IVDiagnostics. “People are starting to recognize Northwest Indiana for more than steel,” he says.
Szczepanski is trying to find a more efficient way of diagnosing and treating cancer. “We're dealing with nanotechnology, things smaller than a micron in size. What we need to do now is get hospitals to focus on this technology. We need to educate students and professors about what we're doing and enhance partnership and collaboration in this field.”
Retro-Tech Systems Inc.
Entrepreneurial Success of the Year
For 18 years, Kurt Minko has led Retro-Tech Systems into one of the nation's leaders in lighting. Minko's companies provide clients with lighting that enhances the work place and is energy efficient.
“I'll be honest, I didn't know if I deserved this honor,” says Minko. “We just kind of plug along here, so it was a surprise.”
Donald McCormick of First Midwest Bank, nominated Minko. “Under the leadership of Kurt Minko, Retro-Tech Systems strives to deliver the highest value and quality customer service to every client on every project. They are truly a great company.”
For several years, the company was based in Illinois, but in 2010 moved to Valparaiso. It has 150 employees.
One of the most satisfying things Minko and his staff do is save clients money. “I like the fact that we save our customers money. And we're helping reduce the nation's carbon footprint.”
Minko has worked for large corporations but says he wasn't cut out for that lifestyle. He likes a smaller operation where there is more of a team concept. “We do a lot of work with existing buildings and it's really satisfying to make them more efficient for our clients.”
George S. Kucka
Small Business Person of the Year
George S. Kucka admits he was surprised when he learned his company was receiving an E-Day award. “I was humbled. I wondered if they had gotten the right guy.”
Brian Rusin of Peoples Bank was sure. He nominated Kucka. “George Kucka has a history in the pharmaceutical and home health care industry for over 40 years. He is a good business person and is very knowledgeable about his operations and passionate about the pharmaceutical and home health care industry.”
Kucka, a pharmacist by training, has been president and CEO since 2001. Fairmeadows has 35 employees who serve as consultants to area industries and provide equipment to retailers.
“I always wanted to own my own business,” says Kucka, who started his first business in 1985 and sold it to Walgreens. Five years ago, he joined Fairmeadows.
Kucka says the best part of business is “the people we work with and the people we serve. We believe the answer to the nation's health care problem is to keep people at home where they want to be.”
For that to become the norm, Kucka does a lot of explaining to legislators that effective health care can be provided just as well at home as in a hospital.
Five years from now, Kucka says he hopes his company is still around. “There are huge legislative issues out there that could eliminate 80 percent to 90 percent of providers like us.”
Kucka said his business requires unique people. “We're very compassionate. The feedback we get is that people and families love what we do. That's very satisfying.”
Lifetime Achievement Award
John Barney is a career restaurant entrepreneur. He started with Burger Chef in central Indiana and later developed Rax Roast Beef restaurants. His entrepreneurial drive has led him into student housing in Indiana and Kentucky, heater manufacturing, a surgery center and an imaging center.
Mark Maassel of the Northwest Indiana Forum, nominated Barney. “John is a superb business leader with a long track record of success who is deeply committed to sharing his skills with the community.”
Barney admits he was humbled by the award. “I know there are many people who won it.”
Barney's father operated Circle Leasing in Indianapolis, which operated some 700 Burger Chef restaurants. While he was at Indiana University, Barney says all he wanted to do was run a Burger Chef franchise.
He got his chance in Marion in 1967. Eventually he had 12 restaurants, some of which were in Northwest Indiana, which is how he wound up in the region. Eventually Burger Chef was sold to Hardee's. That's when Barney got involved with Rax Roast Beef.
As the business grew, Barney brought family members, including his daughter, into the business. “I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have my daughter working with me,” he says. “Each business is different and that's why I find it challenging.”
Hoeppner, Wagner & Evans
Garry Bradley Business Advocate of the Year
For as long as anyone can remember, Valparaiso lawyer Jim Jorgensen has been involved with the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center, mostly behind the scenes.
When he was announced as the Garry Bradley Business Advocate of the Year, Jorgensen said there had to be someone else more deserving.
Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas disagrees. “Starting with the day I was elected mayor in 2003, I have called on Jim Jorgensen regularly for sound, practical advice. He has helped me to better understand what government can do to help foster a business environment that helps small businesses form and prosper.”
Jorgensen specializes in labor, employment, banking and business law. “The award is a tremendous honor. I was very flattered by the recognition, especially the comments of Mayor Costas.”
Jorgensen says what he does for small business is solve problems. “At the very least, I try to move things ahead for them.”
Jorgensen says Northwest Indiana has always been fertile ground for entrepreneurs. “For me, it's the people I meet. There is an energy, a can-do spirit. There is a boldness. They have a vision. That's what keeps you coming back day after day.”