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2014 Top Young Entrepreneurs

Creating A Company From Childhood Dreams
Tomasz Tokarosyk and Artur Wagrodzski | Artur Express

 While growing up as neighbors in New York, Artur Wagrodzki and Tomasz Tokarczyk became acquainted with the transportation industry, firsthand and through their parents.  “During our teenage years we worked for a limo service,” says Wagrodzki. “We were moving people, not freight, but it was then that we began to learn the transportation business. We gained the knowledge of how to communicate with customers and drivers.”

In addition to the foundation established by working from the bottom up in the black car industry, Wagrodzki’s and Tokarczyk’s fathers were both drivers – Wagrodzki’s for a trucking company and Tokarczyk’s for a limo company. “We grew up in the transportation environment,” says Wagrodzki. “We would talk about the industry over the years, and we knew we didn’t want to be drivers. We loved the other side – creating and building from scratch – and we knew we could apply the driver point of view to it.”

So when Wagrodzki saw an opportunity to start a small trucking company in 1998, he went for it. “I grew it one truck at a time,” says Wagrodzki. “In 2001 I got together with Tom, and we took the company to another level. We began growing at a much faster pace.”

Knowing how to take care of both drivers and customers and provide great service, Artur Express continued to evolve and diversify. “From the beginning our company was contractor-based,” says Tokarczyk. “We don’t have any employees on the road. The drivers on the road are all owner/operators who contract with us. We have found this to be very beneficial to have one set operation without company trucks. We treat all drivers with the same freight. We distribute evenly amongst contractors. We view them as partners in what we do. We are approaching 400 contractors now. Within the company we have 35% growth each year over the last 16 years.”

Tokarczyk attributes their success to always remembering the lessons the partners learned during their first years in the industry. “Treat people with respect and share successes with them,” he says. “Being open with people gives employees a sense of ownership. We have profit-sharing programs to exercise this in every department. We don’t want employees at work counting the minutes. Whatever they do throughout the day, they will see the change in the numbers and impact their profits.”


Building His Business And Others Through Appreciation
John Ruhlin | The Ruhlin Group

While in college studying to be a doctor, John Ruhlin started a business working as an installer for Time Warner Cable to put himself through school. But after he fell off a ladder twice early on, Ruhlin decided that probably wasn’t the way to go. “I thought, ‘At this rate I will become a patient, not a doctor,’” he says.

He then took an internship offered to college students by Cutco. “I pitched my then-girlfriend’s dad, who was a prominent attorney, with the idea to engrave knives with his name and logo,” says Ruhlin. “It was originally going to be pocketknives, but it ended up being kitchen knives. He taught me the lesson to take care of spouses.”

From there, Ruhlin began to create a business based on leveraging unique gifts to build relationships. “The business came to fruition somewhat on accident,” says Ruhlin. “It certainly wasn’t my master plan. I always got good grades and thought I would become a doctor. But it turned out not to be my passion. This business was an opportunity to leverage my creativity and be my own boss.”

Since June 2000, The Ruhlin Group has gained 15 professional sports teams as clients as well as other national and international business, and it is a member of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. “We are small internally, but we are a minnow that gets to swim with whales,” he says. “We lead with speaking, teaching and consulting around appreciative leadership. We teach business owners how to show appreciation with notes and follow-up calls. Then we teach clients how to leverage their travel and marketing budgets toward gift giving.”

Six years ago Ruhlin took on a business partner to whom he sold half his company. “It made us way more profitable,” says Ruhlin. “Finding the right partner and not being afraid to give up some ownership was my best decision.”

More recently, Ruhlin and his team have become more focused on speaking and training. “We are looking to build our education platform even further,” he says. “We were part of a book that was a collaboration, and we are looking to have our next book, ‘The Appreciative Leader,’ out by the end of the year.”


 
Turning Doubters Into Believers
Rob Corley | The FantasTechs and Clayton Computer

Although Rob Corley was more into sports than technology as a kid, when he and a friend decided to build a computer his freshman year of college, his interest was sparked. Soon after, Corley learned of a Microsoft certification program being offered. Corley felt strongly that taking a break from college and entering the program was the right move for him. Telling his father was not as easy, however. “I decided to drop two bombs on my dad, who was then the principal of Brentwood High School,” says Corley, “The first was that I was dropping out of college. The second was that I need to borrow $7,000 for the program.”

Even though his dad’s response was no and no, Corley decided to take on the gamble himself. He put the program’s cost on a credit card, and it soon began to pay off. A few months after earning his certification, Corley had a job as a system administrator for Verizon.

Fast-forward a few years and Corley, who was 22, was earning a comfortable salary and benefits while doing only six to seven hours of work a week. “Despite realizing that I would have once thought this was the dream, I decided to leave because I had no control over my own destiny and wasn’t being challenged,” says Corley. “Before leaving the corporate world, though, I met with my cousin, Dennis Barnes, who was then running Marketing Direct. He said, ‘Meet with an accountant and put together a business plan.’”

Following the advice of his cousin, Corley met with David Pritchard, owner of what was then the accounting firm Pritchard Osborne. From Pritchard, Corley received much more than the financial planning advice he was seeking. “I became their technology director with the plan that after six months I would exit the business to become a vendor for their business while earning more clients. With David’s help, my business was incubated.”

Today Corley’s company has two divisions, The FantasTechs, which provides technology support and resources to schools, and Clayton Computer, which provides the same services but to business and residential customers. Corley’s business has grown at least 30% each year and now employs 18 people, one of whom is his father, who Corley says is integral in working with the schools his business supports.



Innovation In Education
Michael Palmer | Code Red Education

While teaching alternative education for 10 years, Michael Palmer was confronted with a problem. Despite his and his fellow teachers’ best efforts, Palmer saw that the students were not only two years behind in credits but also five years behind with their reading and math skills. “Students needed something to respond to in the classroom,” he says. “It wasn’t about getting these students to college. The question was, ‘How do we engage our students and prepare them for jobs?’”

That’s when Palmer, who is a self-taught coder, connected the boom of the technology industry and availability of jobs in the field to his classroom. He started teaching HTML and web design while teaching his students their curriculum.

Soon Palmer saw that he could create a program that would allow other teachers to replicate in their own classrooms what he was doing in his. Today that program is Palmer’s company, Code Red Education, which distributes a curriculum that teaches computer language and computer coding skills to students in grades one through 12. “We went through a pilot program at three schools where we showed the teachers the ropes,” says Palmer. “Then we won an Arch Grant in 2013. That capital injection helped to move us forward on a larger scale. An organization like Arch Grants was what we needed to open entryways.”

Despite receiving grants, Code Red has never taken on an investor. “It has allowed us to remain an autonomous organization,” says Palmer. “It’s hard, especially in our space. But we don’t want to be pushed to places we don’t want to go. Maintaining control always allows us to focus on our products and customers and not focus on investors.”

Right now that focus is on expansion in St. Louis for student users and new markets in metro areas that reflect St. Louis. Palmer’s company has also gone through an evolution to support students in the area after graduation. “We are paired with Extra Help Inc. for IT and HR placement,” he says. “We tell our students, ‘We have you from 6 to 55 now.’”



Taking His Career Full Circle
Terry Keeven | St. Louis Print Co
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When Terry Keeven dropped out of high school and took a job at a printing company, little did he know it would not only turn into a career but also lead him to owning a business. Although he started at the bottom operating a press, by age 19 Keeven was the supervisor of the company. “I left to work for a larger company to work as its general manager at 21,” he says.

It was then that Keeven began to contemplate going out on his own. “I wanted to start my own print shop at 21, but I couldn’t get the funding,” he says. “I went to the SBA and to SCORE counseling, but without any equity, I couldn’t get a loan.”

That’s when Keeven was told about an area in St. Louis where property values were skyrocketing. “If I bought in that area, I could take the equity out of my home and start my business,” he says. “Within two years, I took $32,000 of equity out in February 2007. This was right before the bubble burst, so the timing couldn’t have been better.”

At 23, Keeven was able to fulfill his goal of owning a print company, St. Louis Print Co. “By February 2007 I had the funds to do my own production and began working out of a small warehouse with two employees,” he says. “Today we are in a 10,000-square-foot space and I have 35 employees.”

He started out selling T-shirts, promotional products and signage, but as Keeven’s company grew, he adjusted its products and services. He now sells screen printing services in place of products. “I have become the contractor that I used to hire,” he says.  

Keeven has also come full circle by becoming a SCORE counselor. “Through [SCORE] I get to work with and help small businesspeople often. It’s interesting because I started out going to SCORE for advice. Eventually I want to sell a portion of the company to my brother and get into consulting.”




From Childhood Passion To Career
Joe Gadell| GadellNet

 For as long as Joe Gadell can remember, he has been drawn to technology and business. After being given his first computer at just 7 years old, Gadell took immediate interest in learning how to use it and how to break it so he could watch and learn how his dad would fix it. “I proceeded to help run our grade school labs and taught myself enough BASIC, C and eventually C++ programming so that I could write small utilities and software plug-ins for a popular modem dial-up Bulletin Board System called TriBBS,” says Gadell. “During high school and college I had unique opportunities to practice what I knew and expand my skill set professionally while working for several local small businesses.”

Upon graduating from Saint Louis University, Gadell took a job with Enterprise’s corporate office and continued to do side projects in the evenings. Having watched his dad and a close friend run their own business, he decided to take the leap just six months later. Today GadellNet provides IT solutions including help desk support, network engineering, business technology consulting and application development. “From a service perspective, we are unique in that we have highly skilled systems engineers and software developers that work very closely together to develop solutions, an on-site dedicated help desk and an ownership team that has a deep skill set around business technology,” he says. “GadellNet today is a more mature version of what it was in the beginning when it was just me. However, we still have the same core service offering as we did the day things started and try very hard to maintain our tightly knit feel with our customers when I was the one doing every task.”

GadellNet has grown to just under 30 employees, five of whom are located in Indianapolis. “In late 2012 we made the strategic decision to expand into the Indy market,” says Gadell. “Nick Smarrelli lives there and helps manage the daily operations of our office there. In 2013 we were named No. 1,421 on the Inc. 5,000 fastest-growing private companies list (No. 11 in Missouri).”

Gadell now looks to keep maturing his business and is planning for a new building and investing heavily in his staff to ensure they are ready for growth. “We are excited to continue to bring on new customers, meet new people and hopefully make friends and longtime partners along the way,” he says.


 


Achieving Big-Picture Goals
Bailye and Brynne Stansberry | TwoAlity

While in high school, twin sisters Bailye and Brynne Stansberry were involved in a competition for the marketing organization DECA. For their project, the sisters decided to solve a problem they saw in women’s rain boots by making them more versatile. The Stansberrys developed TwoAlity, a clear boot with interchangeable linings. “We were winning our competitions junior and senior year,” say Brynne. “Our adviser told us we should take our idea seriously. That’s when we began the patent process. We received our patent at age 19 and began to learn as much as we could about the other aspects of business.”

One way the sisters have built their business savvy is by taking cues from their father and uncle, who own a business together. “We watched our dad and uncle’s relationship and modeled ours off theirs,” says Bailye. “They have different strengths and weaknesses and take on different roles accordingly. They make major decisions together. This has helped us balance being twins and business partners.”

After incorporating their business in 2011, the twins successfully set up production so that their products would be made 100% in the United States. They launched their website in May 2013. After appearing on the “Today” show and experiencing a large spike in sales, the Stansberrys are preparing for next year’s sales of their boots and additional products. “We are trying to maintain the growth of our boots and brand while developing two other lines: a kid line and a tote line,” says Brynne. “Since we learned about supply chain and went through it once, it is easier to develop cool new products. It’s less overwhelming now.”

The overall launch of their business and first product line was at times overwhelming to the twins, and they suggest that all entrepreneurs who are just starting out break down goals to make them more manageable. “We can always see the big picture, but it becomes unmanageable unless we break it down into smaller goals,” says Brynne.


 

Setting And Exceeding Customer Service Goals
Jon Lauer | Professional Irrigation Systems

 For Jon Lauer and his family, entrepreneurship is in the genes. “For my family, it has always been small business,” he says. “My siblings and my parents are small-business owners.”

So after Lauer took a summer job in the irrigation industry his freshman year of college and saw an opportunity to fulfill an increasing demand for irrigation by starting his own business, it wasn’t too surprising that he did just that, starting Professional Irrigation Systems. “I started my company that year, getting work through homebuilders in the St. Louis market,” he says. “Homebuilding was a growing market in St. Louis at the time in 2001.”

Like most entrepreneurs, Lauer can look back and say there are a handful of things he would change. Lucky for him, he was able to lean on his family of experienced entrepreneurs, who helped him find a focus. “My business was primarily service-based,” he says. “We started out focused on a customer service goal then, and we still do that today.”

By concentrating on providing top-notch service, Lauer has been able to grow Professional Irrigation Systems organically and strategically. “I started with two employees targeting homebuilders and owners,” he says. “We grew organically through 2011. In 2012 we acquired Water Tech Irrigation. We are now the biggest irrigation-only company in the St. Louis market and are able to go after high-profile projects like sports fields. We have done well with this with Missouri universities and high schools. We have built a superior résumé for the area.”

Today, Lauer’s company, which is half install and construction and half service, has 35 employees, and it has had double-digit growth each year. Even with growth and success, Lauer never loses sight of relationships his company already has in place. “St. Louis is a small town,” he says. “Customer service and offering great products is so important for that reason. We continually do this, and it pays dividends.”



Growing With Guidance
Ashley Raineri | Raineri Construction

 Although Ashley Raineri now plays an integral role in running Raineri Construction, joining the construction industry was totally an accident for her. With a mind for business and finance, Raineri started her career in the title insurance industry. After she met her husband, who was in the construction field, the idea struck them to combine their talents and start a construction company together. “Our skills were very complementary – he knew the building and operations side, and I was prepared to handle the legal and financial side of the business,” she says.

Despite their complementary skill sets and experience, Raineri says she didn’t realize the full extent of what she was getting herself into when launching her business in 2003. “I was 20 years old when we registered as a limited liability company and 22 when I actually quit my job to focus on the company full time,” she says.

Recognizing the benefits they could receive from those with more experience, Raineri and her husband sought out the right business advisers to guide them toward success. “So much of what I learned in the early years of business came from the guidance of our accountant, banker and attorney,” she says.

With advisers and their own vision for a midsized firm, Raineri Construction is a balanced firm today. “We are in a great place because we have the capability to take on some pretty large-scale projects that other smaller contractors cannot tackle but that may be too small for the really big guys to mess with,” she says. “We’ve evolved into this position by being flexible. We don’t really focus on one particular niche but have ridden the tide of the market and kept our attention on what’s happening at the moment.”

With this flexibility, Raineri has built a great core group of employees. “In addition to our project management and office staff, we have our own in-house carpentry and concrete crews, and with each new growth cycle, we’ve definitely had our fair share of good and not-so-good employees,” she says. “We do actually have a couple of employees that have been with us since pretty much the beginning, so we are all celebrating our 10-year anniversary this year. The employees are the ones out there on the front lines of the company every day, actually performing the work, so without them we definitely would not be where we are today.”




Building Leading Businesses
Josh Turner | LinkedSelling

 By most standards, Josh Turner had secured a very comfortable position very early in his career while working as the CFO of a $23 million construction and manufacturing company. Despite his quick rise to success, Turner had an urge to work on his own and left the company to work full time as a freelance CFO for small businesses in 2010.

Quickly, Turner’s work was getting notice from his clients, and it wasn’t just his financial guidance. “I worked a solid year doing nothing but working as an outsourced CFO,” says Turner. “The clients I was working for as a part-time CFO noticed what I was doing on LinkedIn to grow my business and began asking me to do the same for them. In mid-2011 I began helping clients with LinkedIn and then built a website to do so. The business took off from there.”

Today Turner’s company, LinkedSelling, is a leading company in leveraging LinkedIn to grow clients’ businesses. “We have clients in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Asia now,” he says. “They hire us to run campaigns for them. In the summer of 2012 we began Linked University, an online training tool through which we’ve served tens of thousands.

LinkedIn is just one tool we use. We help B2B clients with Facebook and Twitter. We help with outbound email marketing to generate leads for sales teams. We also use webinars.”

Turner’s ability to help clients leverage webinars has been so effective that he and his team of nine have developed a third arm of his business, Webinarli.com. “Many clients of ours saw webinars as something that made sense for their business but never did it or, because it had so many moving parts, never got it done,” says Turner. “We generated thousands of leads by doing it for our business. We do the same for clients now with Webinarli in our new division. It’s consistent lead generation through webinars.”

Turner’s focus for the future is on continuing to help clients grow their businesses substantially through these systems while building his company into a viable place for people to work long term.



Achieving Your Long-Term Goals
Kohl Fitzmaurice | KL Landscapes

When Kohl Fitzmaurice was 16, his grandpa offered to buy him a commercial mower if he would mow his grass for free. “I thought to myself, ‘How can I make some money at this?’”

Having watched his dad run his business since he was young – visiting the business daily and asking questions – Fitzmaurice began to make his own business plans, viewing his commercial mower as an opportunity. “I began recruiting family and friends to let me mow their grass,” he says. “Quickly I realized that I love owning my own business. I started to learn and do more landscape projects within the first year.”

With his father’s mentorship and a degree in marketing from Lindenwood University, Fitzmaurice has grown his business, KL Landscapes, to be a landscape design/build company that offers many services for commercial and residential customers. To grow a healthy business, Fitzmaurice concentrated on hiring for his weaknesses. “Four years ago I hired a landscape architect straight out of college,” says Fitzmaurice. “Immediately I realized that we worked really well together. Within the first year the business went to new levels and we were able to design and produce a lot of bigger and better projects. I also realized that I had to entrust parts of my business to other employees in order not to be overwhelmed. Another very important aspect to my growth is hiring a great group of project managers that know and understand the quality that we want to uphold and where the future of this company is going.”

In addition to building an internal team Fitzmaurice can count on, he has surrounded himself with experienced business owners who are willing to share their expertise and guidance for the future. “Organize your business now for what you are planning in the future,” says Fitzmaurice. “It is much more stressful to catch up on the organizational part of your business rather than to be proactive. Don’t give up; keep your goals in mind so that you don’t get buried and feel trapped.”

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