2014 Small Business Award Winners
by Julia Paulus Ogilvie
Bill Maher, Holley Maher Maher, Rosenheim, Comfort, & Tabash, LLC (MRCT)
After joining the insurance industry at the age of 21 in 1975 and spending four years learning the ins and outs of it, Bill Maher decided to launch his own business, Maher Insurance Services. After growing through mergers and building partnerships, Maher Insurance Services is now Maher, Rosenheim, Comfort & Tabash LLC (MRCT). “We came together with our backgrounds in life and health insurance,” says Bill. “Each of us was involved in group medical and group pension marketplaces.”
As the firm has the same focus today, its biggest change has come through the regulation of health insurance. “It has moved from defined benefits to defined contributions,” says Bill. “This is because employees didn’t understand how much their employers were paying in benefits. Now employers can say: ‘Here’s $300 for your health insurance. You make the decisions. We’re establishing a marketplace, and you choose the option you want. Then if there is any leftover money, it can go in an FSA or HSA.’”
To keep up with these major industry changes, MRCT developed SmartBenefits Marketplace, a multicarrier private exchange that offers employers and employees a flexible way to access a vast array of benefit options online. Holley Maher, Bill’s daughter, who joined MRCT 12 years ago, is leading SmartBenefits Marketplace as its president and a firm partner. “The launch of SmartBenefits was only possible because of the good partnerships we have built with providers,” says Holley. “We have had to hire 14 people to build out the exchange so it could be distributed throughout the state.”
MRCT looks forward to continued growth through its private exchange. “We are hiring technology and sales staff and expanding by 15 to 20 by April 1,” says Bill. “Driving most of this growth is the private exchange.”
As for the future of the firm, it’s filled with excitement and optimism, according to Bill. “There’s interest from agencies around the country in what we’re doing,” he says.
Ross Toohey/Joe Toohey, 2e Creative
After graduating with degrees in advertising, journalism and archaeology, Ross Toohey set his sights on newspaper journalism. “I was always fascinated with the storytelling component of journalism and saw how easily that played into the world of advertising and brand building,” says Toohey.
He took an internship as an advertising copywriter and never looked back. By 1999 he was ready to start his own firm. “2e Creative was founded on the simple idea that a company isn’t a machine – it’s a community with a cultural ecosystem,” he says. “We are a business that markets the ideas and personal energies of our team, and we’d seen too many agencies fail by creating cultures of mechanized monetization.”
Over the years Toohey and his team found confidence in their success. “In the beginning we were constantly striving to prove to ourselves that we knew what we were doing and that we were worth the value we projected to clients,” he says. “It’s a wonderful feeling being in demand now that we have an established reputation and proven track record.”
Since the founding of his company, Toohey has relied on a set of underlying principles that have guided 2e Creative’s culture and business decisions. “Things like unrelenting passion for growth and learning and the promise to never sacrifice reputation for short-term gain,” he says. “Earlier this year we pulled the entire team together to identify and celebrate these points and have actively worked them into our daily culture and recruiting efforts. We call it our 2e Genome.”
Strategic recruiting efforts have led Toohey to build a talented team of 30 whom he relies on to continue his business’s growth, which has averaged 13% a year.
His advice to others seeking success in business: Be quick to ask for help. “There’s an unimaginable wealth of knowledge and experience on tap in the people around you,” he says.
Joe Gadell, Tom Stemm, Nick Smarrelli | GadellNet
When Joe Gadell saw a big opportunity in 2003 to deliver IT services in a different way to small-business clients, he began to build GadellNet in a small, conservative way out of his home. While Gadell’s pragmatic way of leadership and growth helped keep the company independently funded, he sought partners who could strengthen the business through expertise.
Soon Tom Stemm and Nick Smarrelli joined the company, bringing their diverse backgrounds. “The three of us have very complementary skill sets, which allow us to easily work together and fill the various critical C-suite functions of the growing business,” says Smarrelli. “Tom and Joe had undergraduate degrees with a focus on technology, while my degree was in psychology and marketing.”
As the partners focused on Gadell’s original vision to be an exceptional IT resource and help guide small businesses through technology decisions, they looked to employ people with the same focus in order to fulfill that mission. “The company had only four employees in 2010, and it was only then that the leadership team decided to pursue growth avenues through regional expansion and growth in the St. Louis market,” says Smarrelli.
Today the company has 31 employees and an average of 40% year-over-year growth since 2009. One of the team’s greatest accomplishments has been the recognition as an Inc. 5000 business. “It was a goal of ours in 2010 when we decided to pursue growth, and in just three short years, we were named the 11th-fastest-growing company in the entire state of Missouri,” says Smarrelli. “This represents a few key successes – retention of great employees, a 99% client retention rate and prudent financial decision making.”
The next step is regional growth for the partners, with at least two new branch offices in the next 12 months. “We are building up the competency and skill sets of our entire team with a focused development planning effort,” says Smarrelli.
Nathan Stooke| Wisper ISP, Inc.
When Nathan Stooke’s neighbor two miles down the road needed Internet, Stooke began to seek out a solution. Stooke, who was then working as an IT consultant, soon realized he could do wireless if only he could get the necessary equipment. “I told my wife this, and she agreed to put $36,000 on three credit cards to buy our first batch of equipment,” he says.
That’s when Stooke’s company, Wisper ISP Inc., was born in 2003. An entrepreneur at heart, despite having a newborn and no paycheck, Stooke didn’t let worry take over. He knew he would succeed. “I worked a ton in the beginning, as many entrepreneurs do,” he says. “It was not until last year when I hired a financial controller that I began only wearing the CEO hat.”
Stooke believes hiring a financial controller and gaining the freedom to truly take on the role of CEO was one of the best moves he has made for Wisper to date. “We have always had strong employees on the technology side,” he says. “Bringing in a person who was dedicated to the financials and knew the controller position allowed us to reach the growth we wanted.”
Wisper successfully grew over the years and has doubled in size since 2012. “We are now a $4 million business,” says Stooke. “We always used credit cards. But at the end of 2012, we received an SBA loan. That’s what kick-started our growth again.”
Stooke’s goal for the future is to cover a 150-mile radius around St. Louis, and with St. Louis customers willing to give small local businesses a try, Stooke and his team are making progress toward their goal. “We are doing this one town, one water tower at a time, and it’s working well for us,” he says.
Brian Chapman/Kandi Chapman, MBI Worldwide
When Brian Chapman, an undercover drug task force officer, and his wife, Kandi, took a trip to San Antonio, where he would attend an industry conference, he didn’t think he would come away with a new business idea. But that’s just what happened. “Brian heard a speaker discussing how landlords can avoid renting to drug dealers,” says Kandi. “We ended up discussing it the entire 14-hour drive home. My husband said we should do that – provide background checks to landlords.”
As soon as they were back in St. Louis, the Chapmans went to the bank for a $1,000 personal loan for a computer, multipurpose fax machine and desk. “We set up the office, and I got to work,” says Kandi.
Since its founding in 1999, MBI Worldwide Inc. has grown to 20 employees and expanded to Atlanta, and it now provides all-inclusive services ranging from drug screening and fingerprinting to searches of national databases. “In the beginning we thought we would be doing background checks for landlords primarily, but we soon saw a market with employers,” says Kandi.
With the addition of the Internet and evolving technology, the industry has changed drastically and information can be more easily compiled, according to Kandi. “We even integrate our services with large companies now,” she says. We have made huge investments in software to do so.
Knowing the importance of customer loyalty and referrals, the Chapmans dedicate themselves to their customers by making sure they are in legal compliance with ever-changing governmental regulations and with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as well as with federal and state laws impacting their companies’ hiring policies. “I am a board member of our national association, and several of our staff are active in multiple committees in our association,” says Brian Chapman. “We are very active and current on any government and legislative changes across the country.”
For the future, the Chapmans look forward to continued growth through acquisitions like that of their Atlanta location. “This enabled us to build on their history and clientele,” says Kandi.
Melinda Barbaglia-Skaggs/Teresa Barbaglia-Pippen, C & B Lift Truck Service, Inc.
By 1976, Charles Barbaglia had become an expert in the forklift industry, and he began to contemplate why he was working for someone else. “One day he came home and told my mom: ‘I quit. I want to do something for myself,’” says Melinda Barbaglia-Skaggs, Charles’ daughter. “And he did.”
Charles promptly started C & B Lift Truck, which specializes in servicing forklifts and related warehouse equipment as well as material handling issues. “He started as the mechanic in the business, while my mom did the paperwork and billing,” says Melinda. “Her office was in their bedroom with a desk next to the bed. They slowly grew, adding mechanics, then a service manager. My dad always wanted it to be a small, family-owned business.”
The business was always part of life for Melinda and her sister, Teresa Barbaglia-Pippin. “We worked there in the summers and on our days off,” says Melinda. “I didn’t always know that I would make it my career. I wanted something else at first. I received my master’s, and my sister received her bachelor’s degree. But one day I came down to work there full time and have been here for over 20 years.”
Similarly, Teresa joined the business 15 years ago, making it the family business Charles sought. He retired in 2005, but Linda – Charles’ wife – and their two daughters still run C & B Lift Truck with a team of 12 and an emphasis on customers – the same emphasis the business had in 1976. “We are small-business, family-owned,” says Melinda. “We give outstanding customer service. And because we are small, we offer competitive-priced services and products.
“There are three words that represent us: respect, trust and pride. We have it in our business, in ourselves and for our customers. Everyone needs those qualities to stay in business. We try hard.”
Melinda and Teresa look to keep growing their family business in order to keep it going for their own daughters. “The business would be a legacy to give them,” says Melinda. “It would be wonderful to pass on to them if they want it. We hope to give them that option.”
Trish Frank | Just 4 Us Childcare
After 15 years of working for a Fortune 500 company in St. Louis, Trish Frank realized she had hit the proverbial glass ceiling. “I noticed that there were no female vice presidents or regional vice presidents,” she says. “Women were department managers.”
Contemplating what she could do, she determined that she didn’t want another person dictating her career path while she earned a 3% raise year after year. So she took action based on what she did want. “I didn’t want to be tied down,” says Frank. “I wanted to do something community-based and interact with people. This led me to day care.”
In 2000 Frank founded Just 4 Us Childcare, which she began by offering traditional services with extended hours, finding her niche by staying open until 12 a.m.
“In today’s environments, parents may work a full-time job until 5 p.m. and then go to a part-time job, work full time and then go to night school, or work a 12-hour shift,” she says. “Days don’t end at 5 p.m., so there is a need for quality licensed child care past then.”
Furthering the quality of her child care, Frank made sure to progress with technology and trends in her industry, offering tablets for learning and interactive experiences as well as the ability to check in on children via the Internet anytime, anywhere. “Now we have an app that allows parents or grandparents to see their children from anywhere, even if they are out of state.”
In addition to services, Frank has a focus on health. “Missouri recommended us as an Eat Smart center,” she says. “We hired a nutritionist and changed our menu to include more fruits and vegetables and whole grain. We don’t serve juice because it’s high in sugar. We were the first and only day care in St. Charles County with this certification when we earned it. We are ranked No. 17 out of a possible 3,000 in the state.”
Today Just 4 Us Childcare has three centers, with hopes for a fourth in the near future.
Jeff Buckner | Plancorp, LLC
While working in finance and retirement planning and earning a master’s degree in night school, Jeff Buckner began to develop a deeper interest in financial planning. He started doing research on the industry and where it was going.
“This was in 1981,” he says. “I looked at different models and came to the conclusion that the fee-only movement was best. When working for a client, you are only paid for the services you provide. You don’t take a commission.”
Settling on this model, Buckner went home and told his wife he was quitting his job despite the fact that they had just bought a house and their second child was on the way. He founded Plancorp LLC in 1983 and hasn’t looked back since. “The biggest change was in the early years,” says Buckner. “At first we were financial planning only. As the mutual fund world exploded, I filed with the SEC to do asset management along with financial planning in 1989.”
Doing so set Plancorp on a growth path. “Our bread and butter is still total wealth management, financial planning and asset management for the wealthy,” says Buckner, whose firm has various other smaller divisions.
Even with the growth of Plancorp, which manages $2.7 billion in assets for 750 families, Buckner’s greatest accomplishment has been building an organization that provides opportunity for jobs. “We provide really good salaries and benefits to our employees and the opportunity to grow professionally and financially,” he says.
Buckner and his partners have even embarked on an internal succession plan to make sure their company is set up for long-term success and to properly take care of clients. “We have sold 50% of the business to key employees so far,” says Buckner. “My other two partners and I are all the same age. We have an emphasis now on leadership training, building human capital and the strength of the team.”
Vicki LaRose | Civil Design Inc.
After Vicki LaRose received her degree in civil engineering and worked for what is now Jacobs Engineering for 10 years, she saw a definite need for a qualified disadvantaged business enterprise in her field. “If anyone uses federal dollars, they have set aside for disadvantaged engineers,” she says. “I saw a market and need for quality-based engineering services, and I thought, ‘I can do that.’ I had big-company experience. I learned about company culture in addition to how to work in the engineering field.”
In 1996 LaRose founded Civil Design Inc., beginning by finding jobs in the transportation field and then adding services including site development, water resources, surveying and GIS. “We are still working on diversification,” says LaRose.
Civil Design is now an established company, currently employing a team of 32 and grossing more than $4 million a year, but LaRose is still able to capitalize on her disadvantaged status. “I saw a flier for MoDOT offering free services to DBEs,” she says. “It was for two hours of free coaching. Eighteen months later we are still working with Greg Tucker from Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Centers. He has helped us with strategic planning, creating an advisory board and generally making us a smarter business.”
As she has worked on strengthening her business, LaRose has also made it become more flexible to support its expansion. “We had one employee who wanted to move home to Effingham,” she says. “We opened an office there. It has made us less scared to branch out, and we are looking to open a third office in Louisville, Kentucky.”
For the future, LaRose will continue to look for ways in which she can add value to the community, not just earn jobs. “I hope our small firm rubs off on the profession,” she says. “Many firms just look at earning projects, not what they’re doing for the community and city. Civil engineering is the backbone of everything. Without it we wouldn’t even have roads or water.”
Dave Heuman | CTS Technology Solutions, Inc.
While employed at General Telephone & Electronics in a technical position, Dave Heuman witnessed the deregulation of the communications industry and with it saw an opportunity for a business of his own. “I opened a storefront business and developed a sales plan to educate business clients of their options due to the deregulation,” he says.
Over the past 30 years, CTS Technology Solutions, Inc. has grown organically while keeping up with the many changes in the industry that have occurred since 1984. “We are now a totally converged technology company offering VoIP telephony services, IT, video, structured cabling, plus hosted solutions for our business clients,” says Heuman.
With three decades of business growth under his belt, Heuman’s greatest accomplishment happened 13 years ago when he changed how CTS offered solutions to its business clients. “We offer our technology hardware, software and services in a very unique plan for a fixed cost for five years and keep it updated during that time,” he says. “We did this to remove the concern of obsolescence and cost concerns for our clients. This program has totally improved our relationships with our clients. There is no additional cost when they contact us for any service need, questions, training or programming changes regarding those services.”
Heuman says programs like this have made him successful, and so has his team of 40’s ability to deliver the services within those programs with passion and ability. Heuman and his team have grown CTS to more than $6.5 million in annual revenue, and they look to continue on the same path. “We have the team to grow 15% annually for the next three years,” he says. “We keep our eyes open every year to continue planning three years out.”
Cody Wilson/Richard Steinbaum, The Cornerstone Insurance Group
After honing their expertise in the insurance industry, Cody Wilson and Richard Steinbaum decided to merge their firms, Wilson and Associates and Corporate Benefit Consultants, in 2005 to better serve clients through their new business, Cornerstone Insurance Group LLC, an employee benefits and risk management consulting firm. Since then, they have grown their capabilities and been able to adapt to a rapidly changing industry.
With Wilson at the helm of the firm’s property casualty division, Steinbaum has been reacting to the many changes caused by health care reform. “It caused mass confusion in the industry,” says Steinbaum. “We began to regularly consult with clients to make sure they were keeping up the rules, requirements and laws. We changed our services so that we are more consultative and have become more of a one-stop shop offering services like payroll, HR services, etc.”
Wilson also sees employers needing more and more help operating their businesses and staying out of legal trouble. “We have concentrated on value-added services for clients,” he says. “We have been reinvesting in our company to do so.”
One arm of this reinvestment was the acquisition of a firm in Kansas City, bringing the firm’s employment to 90. Another has been the formation of a professional employer organization (PEO) to better serve clients. “We are going to launch it in the fourth quarter of this year,” says Steinbaum. “We are uniquely positioned to offer small clients benefits with the look and feel of those of a large company.”
Cornerstone Employer Solutions, the company’s PEO, will bring regularly outsourced services under one roof for small companies. The partners view Cornerstone’s ability to grow and offer new services to clients as a major accomplishment, especially considering the atmosphere of their industry of late. “With trying times in the industry, it has been an accomplishment to continue growing, not lay off anyone, and invest with entrepreneurial spirit by building a new organization,” says Steinbaum. “We are funding it ourselves, and we’re proud of that.
Rick Duree | BOOK-X-CHANGE
Rick Duree grew up in poverty.
He was one of seven kids, and their 1,000-square-foot house was on the auction block more than once. Early on, he made the decision to do his best to be entrepreneurially successful. “I had to balance that drive to succeed with a desire to help take care of people,” says Duree.
When he founded BOOK-X-CHANGE, a college textbook provider, in 2005, he kept that goal in mind. BOOK-X-CHANGE supports not only its student customers but also its student employees. “Our motto is ‘Run by students, for students,’” Duree says. “It’s not about maximizing profits for us. It’s about maximizing customer satisfaction. We do this by thinking entrepreneurially. Not just me but all employees. They know as much as I do about the business. Because of this, the average tenure of our employees is four years. For college students, that doesn’t happen.”
Duree has also been able to swiftly adjust to big changes in the book industry over the last five years.
“Making the change to renting is how we satisfied our customers’ needs,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of our inventory is now rental.”
In addition, Duree came up with a pilot program, In-Tuition, to keep exceeding customer expectations. “All books, codes, e-books, etc. are built into the student tuition,” he says. “It’s all bagged and ready at the beginning of the semester and returned by the student at the end. Students get into line, show us their ID and then walk out with their bag of books. On the busiest day of the year, this takes 60 seconds. There is no longer a two-hour wait, and the stress of the surprise cost is gone.”
With In-Tuition, students no longer go to different stores or Amazon to find the least expensive option, and everyone has books the first day of class. “The result is retention,” says Duree. “In spring 2013 Missouri Valley had a 2.7% withdraw from classes. This is almost always because of bad grades. This year this number went down to 0.3%.”
Today BOOK-X-CHANGE is opening its fifth location in its fourth state. “We have $5 million revenue now,” says Duree. “With In-Tuition we will drop our prices but increase our market penetration. We hope to grow from $5 to $10 million in a few years. If we live the principles, putting the customer first and making profits last, we can do it.”
Joe Lunt | Rockwood Bank
After earning a graduate degree from Louisiana State University’s Graduate School of Banking, Joseph Lunt spent nearly 20 years in the banking industry. Seventeen of those years were with Eureka Bank (formerly Jefferson Bank), beginning as a management trainee and ending as an executive vice president.
At that point Lunt was approached by a number of businessmen in Eureka who felt the traditional banking needs of the community were not being promptly and efficiently met. “We felt that mergers, acquisitions and expansions of the St. Louis banking community created an impersonal attitude at numerous banks and that cost-cutting efforts caused the centralization of decision making and authority to be transferred to main offices in Clayton and downtown St. Louis rather than at the bank level,” says Lunt.
That’s when Lunt had to take a big risk. “I chose to leave a secure job at Jefferson Bank in order to work full time on raising the necessary funds to open our bank, with no guarantee of success,” he says. “It was up to me to make everything work, and it took a lot of time and effort to get it all started.”
From the time Rockwood Bank was founded in 1990 through 2008, its growth was as good as or better than that of most of the banks in the St. Louis region, according to Lunt. “Our assets grew to a peak of approximately $400 million, and we employed about 75 people,” he says. “But, along with everyone else, we struggled through the downturn in the economy and shrank on purpose to keep our ratios in line. Our bank is now about $250 million in assets with four locations in Eureka, Fenton, High Ridge and Wildwood.”
Despite taking hits from the economy, Lunt and his now 62 employees have never faltered in helping people, and it’s what Lunt views as his greatest accomplishment. “I’ve helped to create good jobs for a lot of people, many of whom have worked for me since the beginning,” he says. “I’ve also helped many people start their businesses and buy their first home. At the end of the day, it’s what we can do to serve others that makes our business so special.”
Steve Sanders | Williams Venker & Sanders LLC
When co-workers Tom Orris, Steve Sanders, Paul Venker and Ted Williams all reached the point where they felt it was time to use their many years of experience at a big downtown law firm toward their own operation without the bureaucracy of a large firm, they took action. “We wanted the autonomy to decide what rates to charge clients,” says Sanders, a founder and partner at Williams Venker & Sanders LLC. “At large firms they usually charge much higher rates. With a smaller firm, there is less overhead and more flexibility with rates because of it. Our hope was to please our current clients that came with us and attract more clients.”
Over the past 13 years, the partners of WVS and their 68 employees have done just that. “Since the beginning we have continued to expand our client base within each industry we work and the types of work we did in each industry,” says Sanders. “For example, we do medical malpractice work and defense work for insurance companies. We expanded from medical malpractice to nonmedical malpractice by representing asbestos victims. And we expanded beyond the borders of St. Louis by becoming regional counsel to a Fortune 500 and a Fortune 100. We expanded geographically that way. This also led us to business litigation and product liability work.”
Although the firm didn’t have growth during the recession years, the partners made the decision not to lay off any employees in an industry where layoffs and firm closure were common. “Our employees received the same raises and bonuses even if it meant the equity partners taking cuts,” says Sanders.
For the past three years the firm has been back on a growth path and preparing the next generation to take the lead. “We are focused on the fact that retirement is in the foreseeable future for Williams and I,” says Sanders. “We started to transition the next generation of partners into management because of this. Every partner in our practice is still working as a lawyer, and some have management duties. With our founders passing on management duties, we can use our time to increase marketing and client relationships.”
Todd Sivia | Sivia Business & Legal Services, P.C.
While growing up in Alton, Todd Sivia watched how his dad ran his small business, learning from him every step of the way. When his dad decided to buy out his partners 15 years ago, Sivia was enamored with the process. “They had one attorney, Jim Sinclair from Alton, mediating, dealing with the claims from both parties and eventually bringing both sides into agreement,” he says. “I learned from him that there are still good attorneys out there who are noble and aren’t ambulance chasers. I saw that there were attorneys who resolve issues for small-business owners.”
Sivia decided on his career path and attended law school at Saint Louis University. “I worked for a small firm for one year,” he says. “While I learned from my father the trials and tribulations of ownership, I also saw the excitement and the ability to achieve work-life balance and control your own destiny.”
In June 2006 Sivia opened his firm, Sivia Business & Legal Services PC, in a one-room, 300-square-foot office. “It was lonely, and I knew I needed to expand to work with others and grow the business,” he says. “We moved to our current location in 2008, but we moved twice previous to that in the beginning. We had rapid growth up front.”
Today Sivia has a team of nine as well as subcontractors. “Last year we had a huge expansion,” he says. “In 2013 we added Brighton, Illinois, as a satellite office, which has staff. We are also co-owners of a title company that has five offices on the Illinois side where we can meet clients and one in St. Louis. Originally I took whatever it took to pay the bills, but my true love is business real estate and estate planning. Over the years, as we gained more business, we narrowed our focus to that.”
Sivia looks forward to adding services by thinking from his clients’ perspectives. For instance, he is launching a new arm of his business to counsel clients on management issues associated with running a business.
“You don’t need an MBA to own a business, but you may need help,” he says. “We plan to coach clients on how to resolve certain issues, how to expand, how to sell and more.”
Dave Candelario, Spectrum eCycle Solutions
Dave Candelario started working in traditional IT roles in 1986, and he always gravitated toward leadership roles in which he made decisions and grew a team or department. In 2010 he saw an opportunity to take the next step and start a technology business from the ground up.
“My work with technology hardware posed a challenge with disposing of retired IT equipment,” he says. “I saw this challenge as a business opportunity. I believed that small to medium companies needed an IT asset disposition provider that understood the challenges.”
Candelario began researching the IT specialty of asset disposition and recycling and found it to be a growing area of IT. With this knowledge and his confidence that his experience would be helpful in getting his business off the ground, Candelario founded Spectrum eCycle Solutions in 2011.
He began by reaching out to his local network of IT professionals who primarily worked in IT sales and support. “It was a natural fit to help those providers complete the life cycle management of IT equipment,” he says. “They sold and maintained the equipment for their customers, and when it was time to retire the equipment, my company would come in and take care of the disposition of the equipment in a secure and responsible manner.”
While Candelario has found an unexpectedly strong market for usable, refurbished IT equipment, another strategic aspect of his business is its partnerships with other St. Louis organizations. “We are very deliberate in our desire to partner with nonprofits and other charitable organizations,” he says. “We pursue these partnerships to obtain employees and also in partnerships that are directly related to refurbishing and recycling electronic equipment. One example is our partnership with the St. Patrick Center. We work together by placing qualified workers that have reached out to them for assistance and employing them at my company. Another example is how we help the Salvation Army by accepting all the electronic equipment donated to them that they cannot sell in their Family Stores.”
Candelario hopes to pursue more partnerships with nonprofits and IT providers and to continue to nurture existing partnerships.
Matt Merrifield/Dan Merrifield, Lakeside Exteriors
After co-owning a home improvement business, Matt Merrifield enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, and upon honorable discharge in 1997, he knew just what he wanted to do. He founded Lakeside Exteriors, which provides installation services including siding, windows, doors, room additions, soffit/fascia, gutters/gutter protection, decks and exterior trim/accessories.
In 2000, Matt invited his brother Dan Merrifield to join the venture. At that point the brothers decided to make some changes to the company’s direction. “We used to do a lot of vinyl siding and inexpensive products,” says Dan. “Since 2002 we have been committed to providing the best products on the market. Our customers are looking for the best products and the best installation. We carefully train our employees to make sure we can provide our clients with long-term warranties.”
In addition to creating a company focused on giving customers top-of-the-line services and products, the Merrifields concentrate on providing the best to their employees. “Matt and I wanted to create a good place to work,” says Dan. “We work hard, but we have fun too. Our employees love coming into work. We turn that energy into making our customers happy. We take care of our employees, and they take care of our customers and help the company grow in turn.”
Today the Merrifields have grown their team from three to 35 employees and are estimating $5 million in revenue for 2014. They attribute their success in business to their goal of exceeding the expectations of their customers 100% of the time and the dedication to their carefully developed company culture. “We teach our employees that if you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves,” says Dan. “We do what we say we are going to do. We train our employees on how to handle every situation with customers from the first customer visit to how to act on the job site. When problems occur, which they can with all the variables in our industry, we hit them right away before they turn into big problems.”
For the future, the brothers look to maintain profitability while expanding geographically. “We would like to have three to five offices in a 300-mile radius – Kansas City to Peoria,” says Dan.
Mike Landau/Brad Goldenberg, Blayzer
Already entrepreneurs and business partners as the owners of the recording studio Phat Buddha Productions back in 1998, Mike Landau and Brad Goldenberg saw an opportunity to branch out and further support clients. They went for it, founding a second company, Blayzer. “We decided to start up a multimedia company so that we could offer more than just recording and production services for our clients,” says Goldenberg.
As Internet really took over in the 2000s, Goldenberg and Landau started focusing more on the web and carving out a niche with content management systems and custom development, which became the core of their business. As technology progressed, so did their focus. “As the web became more and more about marketing and content in addition to the technology side, we decided to make the leap into offering online marketing services, and then the same thing sort of happened with mobile,” says Goldenberg.
Today, as the St. Louis tech startup scene is booming, Goldenberg and Landau are seeing all of their experience coming full-circle. “We’re pulling from that history and experience to help them build their entire business plan and marketing strategy,” says Goldenberg. “We’re a long way from where we started, but it’s been a very natural evolution for us.”
For the duo, keeping their business alive and growing has been a feat in and of itself. “We’ve seen two pretty huge bubbles: the dot-com bust in the early 2000s and then the 2008 recession,” Goldenberg says. “We’ve also seen the rise of e-commerce, social media and now mobile. That’s a lot of change. We’ve taken some licks over the years, but we’re still here. That’s what makes me proudest.”
Aside from a few industry-wide dips, Blayzer has experienced steady growth between 20% and 50% annually. “I’m St. Louis-born and -raised, so growing up in this environment has been an advantage,” says Goldenberg. “But ‘What high school did you go to?’ only gets you so far, you know? We still have to get out there and build a name for ourselves. That’s where things like networking and events can be really helpful.”
Rob Wunderlich Jr., Wunderlich Fibre Box Co.
In 1860 Rob Wunderlich Jr.’s great-great-grandfather and his family left the Brunswick region of Germany and arrived in St. Louis, then a burgeoning frontier city, where they started a cooperage, making barrels on North Broadway. Today the Wunderlich family is still in the packaging industry and has successfully run Wunderlich Fibre Box Co. for 154 years.
According to Wunderlich Jr., vice president of the company, the essence of packaging has not changed but the material in which products are packed to get to their destination without damage has changed greatly. “The corrugated paperboard carton came about at the end of the 19th century and took some time to become an accepted means of packaging,” says Wunderlich. “But from the turn of the century onward, likely not a soul on Earth has not used a ‘cardboard box.’”
While Wunderlich Cooperage made wooden barrels well into the 1950s, Wunderlich Fibre Box had been making corrugated fiberboard boxes for decades since the packaging industry changed from wooden crating to paperboard for routine parcels. “Today corrugated paperboard packaging not only ships and protects the item inside but sells those items as well by means of the point-of-sale display and all manner of graphics printed and applied to the outside of the everyday cardboard box,” says Wunderlich Jr.
Although the Wunderlich family can only wonder how its forebears were able to keep a business going through the country’s greatest economic hardships, the company has enjoyed steady growth over the years. With 53 employees today, immediate family members are still at its helm.
Wunderlich Jr. attributes their success to long-standing reputation and integrity. “We are easy to do business with and focus on the customer’s needs,” he says.
Jared Jonas | Associated Footwear
For three generations, since 1974, Jared Jonas’ family has been in the shoe industry. So, three days after he graduated from college he followed in his family’s footsteps and went to work at their company, Associated Footwear.
When his family started the company, it represented shoe lines and sold shoes, never compiling any inventory that they owned. “Today we purchase all our inventory, bring the footwear into one of our two warehouses and process most every single pair for shipments to our customer base,” says Jonas.
This inventory is built from buying millions of pairs of shoes, which are athletic, used/worn and closeouts, and selling them at competitive prices throughout the entire country as well as internationally in places ranging from Central America and South America to Africa and the Middle East.
“We have had a business model that we have stayed true to fundamentally for many years,” says Jonas. “However, we do make sure that we are flexible enough to evolve with any industry shifts. Combining these two overviews has been a key aspect to our growth over the years.”
Today Associated Footwear has grown from four employees to 28 between its office and warehouses. “For me, the most rewarding aspect of my work has been being a part of the senior management team of a business that has experienced continuous growth over many years,” Jonas says.
The company has achieved this growth by figuring out where it needs improvement and attacking those areas of concern, according to Jonas.
He looks forward to continuing the legacy of his family business while adapting as needed. “In the very near future we are strategizing so we can consolidate our two facilities to all be under one roof,” he says. “Additionally, we are working toward a business model for an online presence. Finally, we are always seeking to expand upon our international customer base.”
Greg Hoffmann | Chesterfield Sports Fusion
Greg Hoffmann worked in sales and marketing for a copper alloys company for 20 years. When it was bought and he was offered an excellent severance package, he saw it as a golden opportunity to try another career.
“I decided to go the entrepreneurial route, as I had spent 20 years working for a very conservative company that was extremely risk-averse,” says Hoffmann. “I had always wanted to have my success or failure in business more closely tied to my performance, and this seemed to be the logical way to do it.”
So when a friend of Hoffmann’s who had been working on ideas for a family recreation concept for several years asked whether he would be interested in joining the business, he accepted. “We refined the concept and moved forward, opening the business seven months later,” Hoffmann says.
Over the past five years, the outward product of Chesterfield Sports Fusion has remained relatively similar to what it was when it started – it offers seven feature attractions, a full-service cafe and a top-of-the-line arcade. The partners have concentrated on the company’s internal workings. “We have worked continuously to improve the systems, procedures and culture to make it less dependant on the owners, allowing us to work on the business rather than in the business,” says Hoffmann.
By committing themselves to embracing the “E-Myth” concepts to make sure the business continues to thrive and grow and by providing a unique, high-quality, family-oriented attraction that is an excellent value in entertainment, Hoffmann and his partners successfully employ 50 to 60 team members throughout the year. “I am most proud that we have established a startup business that has survived over five years, is profitable and is an asset to the community because the odds of this happening are very low,” says Hoffmann.
In the future, Hoffmann hopes to open several Chesterfield Sports Fusion locations in the St. Louis metro area and possibly franchise the concept.
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