by Julia Paulus
ARCTIC FOOD SERVICE
In 2004 David Gao started Arctic Food Services in three refrigerated trucks and a small rented warehouse in Peoria, Ill. With less than 10 employees, he managed to earn $390,000 in sales his first month.
Although he has been able to aggressively grow his business, Gao encountered some challenges in the beginning. “Since Arctic Food Services was a brand-new frozen food warehouse and distribution business, it was initially financed completely out of my pocket and very hard to get suppliers’ credit, if any,” says Gao. “And a lot of talented people, such as salespersons, were skeptical about joining a new company.”
Establishing Arctic as a top-tier company has helped Gao employ the people he attributes his success to. “First, since you can’t do everything yourself, you need to find the right people for the right job,” he says. “Some people are better at following instructions, so you need to give them clear step-by-step guidelines for them to do a good job. Other people have more creativity, so you may only need to give them an objective to achieve and leave them to do the creative jobs. I always consider my employees are my most important asset because without them I can’t have today.”
Arctic Food Services has achieved double-digit growth annually. “With less than 20 employees, we have an estimated more than $25 million in sales this year,” says Gao.
BRYANMARK FINANCIAL GROUP
Jason Hackmann and Nick Bellon
BryanMark Financial Group, a financial services and life insurance company that provides planning solutions to affluent and ultra-affluent clients, was founded in 2004 with only $42,000. With a lack of capital, a lack of contacts in their desired market and no advisers through which they could gain references, it was up to Jason Hackmann, president, and his only employee at the time, Aaron Arriola, CFO and director of financial planning, to build their business.
Less than five years later, BryanMark is one of the fastest-growing companies in town. In fact, the St. Louis Business Journal named it the No. 1 fastest-growing company in 2007; it grew 500%. The company’s revenue has escalated from $95,000 in 2004 to a projected $5.7 million this year.
The 12-member BryanMark team has mastered its industry with hard work. “We are willing to work more than our competition, hire the right people, take risks and not fear trying new things,” says Hackmann. “Our affiliation with M Financial Group and our access to the M proprietary life insurance policies that are uniquely priced for the affluent market allows us to bring the most value to a client by delivering a product that no other companies outside of M Financial Group can offer.”
And beyond their commitment to their company, BryanMark’s employees stay involved in the community. Nick Bellon, principal, is on the boards of two local charities with international influence: the Pujols Family Foundation and Nest.
Stephanie Turner, owner of Brentwood Travel, says travel agencies were once described as dinosaurs—meaning they were supposed to be extinct by now. Yet Brentwood Travel has been going strong in St. Louis since 1957 when Turner’s parents, Ruth and Bob Lurie, started the company.
Turner came on board during a rough patch to help out.
“In 1973 I came on to help out during a TWA strike, and I never left,” she says. “In 1977 we opened a second office in Chesterfield. We continued to grow, and we created even more of a name for ourselves. In 1998 we merged the two offices into one because business was booming. In 2001 we moved to an even larger office in Creve Coeur.”
2001 was also the year that Turner’s competitors began to go out of business because of 9/11. “The No. 1 reason we were able to continue to grow is that we continued to change with the world and adapt to technology and 800 numbers,” says Turner. “We survived commission cuts from airlines, and we had to learn to levy a fee for airline tickets.”
Turner also attributes the company’s success to its continued customer service. “That’s my boss, the consumer,” she says. “We know the value of relationships and have lasting customers. We will go out of our way to solve problems.”
Today Turner and her 18 employees concentrate on the loyal clients they have gained over the years and a growing clientele of businesses travelers.
For Marie Casey, owner of Casey Communications, listening skills are key. As Casey describes it, she and her employees are their clients’ storytellers.
“We help our clients discover and tell their stories so strategically that their businesses grow, they attract great people and they enhance their reputation,” says Casey. “We do this within a wide range of services—from media relations and websites to advertising, special events, speaking engagements and other forms of storytelling and persuasive communication. We also have a very meaningful niche in corporate histories and leadership legacies.”
Casey has used her communications background to continually grow her business and attract clients since 1983. Her challenge when deciding to launch her own business was that she did not have a business background.
“I did not have the foresight to take business classes while earning a double major in political science and communications at UMSL,” she says. “So there was a great deal for me to learn about business for managing my business. Thankfully my smart clients have always been very generous in teaching me.”
Casey has undoubtedly learned a lot from those clients over the years. Her business isn’t going anywhere but up. “We’ve grown from me as the founding employee to a team of eight,” she says. “My first year, revenues were $67,409. Gross revenues in 2007 reached $1,866,360. We’ve also grown from our initial niche in design, construction and real estate to specializations in labor management, financial services, technology and nonprofits, including educational institutions.”
COLLABORATIVE STRATEGIES, INC.
In 2002, MetLife acquired General American, the parent company of professional services firm Collaborative Strategies Inc. Despite Collaborative Strategies’ loyal client base and past success, it was identified as a business that was not strategic for MetLife.
“To be strategic for MetLife, you have to offer the potential for $100 million in revenue within three years,” says Gina Hoagland, owner of Collaborative Strategies. “We did not quite fit that criterion.”
So she re-evaluated the direction of her company and decided that returning to its entrepreneurial roots was the best bet. “Because we were already a going concern with a loyal client base, we were able to transition smoothly back to our roots as an entrepreneurial business,” says Hoagland. “The challenges were minimal—mostly related to getting our own systems up and running. We are entrepreneurs serving entrepreneurs, and that has been a core strength since our start.”
Since returning to serving other entrepreneurs, Hoagland has not looked back. “Our client base makes our company outstanding,” she says. “We are who we are because of the incredible businesses and nonprofits that we serve..”
Hoagland serves her valued clients with what she describes as “A players.” “Our employees really are the key,” she says. “In a professional services firm, the people are the product. So we dedicate an enormous amount of energy to finding, qualifying, deploying and developing the right people. We started with five employees and $1 million of revenue in our first year. We are now 13 employees and have tripled our revenue.”
When she moved to St. Louis to attend Washington University, Julie Greenspoon-Kelly was less than impressed with the city. In fact, she hated it. She only moved here permanently for her husband, a St. Louis native.
Despite her initial feelings, she decided to start a St. Louis tour guide business. “I moved back in 1989, having sold a tour guide business I operated with my mother in D.C.,” she says. “I had the hospitality industry bug in my blood and started the business from scratch with a St. Louis native. I eventually bought her out and have been the sole owner since 1991.”
Today, Destination St. Louis is the market leader, having outlived two well-established destination management companies in the city. “We create events, operate large shuttles, provide meeting planning services, airport meet and greets, registration personnel, entertainment, decor, transportation services, and a wide variety of other services for groups in St. Louis,” says Greenspoon-Kelly.
She has been able to grow her business while others could not by sticking to the business’s core. “I learned early in business the key to success is pretty simple: Know your core business, and do it exceptionally well,” she says.
Destination St. Louis has made great progress since its start in 1990. “We worked out of my partner’s house, revenue was maybe $30,000 and we had two staff: the two owners,” says Greenspoon-Kelly. “Today we own our own buildings, have 12 full-time staff as well as part-timers and will do in excess of $4 million in sales this year.”
Michael Pruett and Russell Odegard
A pharmacist in Kansas City who was sent to prison for defrauding women out of chemotherapy drugs would turn out to be the tip of a very large iceberg for Michael Pruett and Russell Odegard, who today own Dynalabs. After the case, a friend of Pruett’s, who had recently been appointed to the Board of Pharmacy, took on the job of writing regulations to protect patients in Missouri.
Under the new regulations, pharmacists would need at least four tests performed before they would be able to dispatch certain medication. “It sounded expensive to me,” says Pruett.
Then he found out that of the 3,000 to 3,500 pharmacies nationwide, there were only two labs. “That screamed opportunity,” Pruett says. “I called Russ, whom I’ve known since Sigma, that night. And we put together a business plan, did a market survey, raised seed capital, secured space in the Enterprise Center and built the lab.”
Pruett and Odegard’s next step was to find out how they could differentiate their lab from their competitors’. Their answer was turnaround time. “The lab wouldn’t get back to you for two to four weeks,” says Odegard. “So we asked ourselves, ‘How can we differentiate as a lab?’ Service, time and price. We knew we could come in at a lower price.”
Then they developed a website to make information available to their clients. “It’s all put on the website so that they can track the test and get the certificate with the push of a button,” says Odegard. “None of our competitors are close to us in terms of service.”
Today, Dynalabs is growing at 108% a year, and the industry is growing at 20%.
HAMPTON CORPORATE SUITES
When Brenda Hampton saw a gap in the residential property management industry that was not being served, she took her seven years of field experience to fill it. “I had an idea to meet the interim housing needs of people relocating to St. Louis or staying in the area for business on a temporary basis,” says Hampton. “I set my sights on selling the idea to businesses that were relocating employees by convincing corporations in the area how much more cost-effective this would be than a hotel—much more like a home. It was a big hit right away.”
Although Hampton did not have experience as an entrepreneur, childhood lessons from her father guided her as she established her company, Hampton Corporate Suites. “My father was the owner and pharmacist of a drugstore in a small rural town in central Illinois,” she says. “His work ethic and unfailing care and dedication to his customers were lessons witnessed by me throughout my childhood. Understanding and practicing those principles of business success were easy to emulate.”
Following her father’s example, Hampton earned her clients’ confidence and grew her business. “At the start of Hampton Corporate Suites, I was the only employee working out of my home, so the increase to nine employees plus contractors has been substantial,” she says. “I started HCS on my own with my $2,000 Visa credit line as a backup. When I started marketing my business, I would explain that I would need payment in advance before I could set up the corporate suite. Times were different 20 years ago, and I have always believed that people respected my determination and honesty and wanted to see me get a start in this business.”
Brady Miller and Jeff Snell
In 1999, Jeff Snell and Brady Miller decided to buy Binder Design, Miller’s father’s business. They rebranded the company iDream Solutions.
The business does dimensional packaging, printing and promotional products for its clients.
As Snell and Miller crafted their plans for the future, they faced cash flow problems. “We had a 10-year buyout of the previous owner with the challenge of establishing line of credit with banks and vendors,” says Snell. “We also needed to continue growing the business. That included expenses for rebranding: a new name, new printed materials, new website, office space signage and redesign. Then we needed new technology, including computers, website, software, and we had an ever-increasing need to extend larger amounts of credit to our customer base to grow sales.”
Dealing with the company’s relaunch was further complicated after Sept. 11, 2001. “We were still very early in establishing iDream Solutions and had heavy fixed expenses and debt load when the unthinkable happened,” says Snell. “The unprecedented terrorist attack changed everything for all of us, and most of our customers implemented an immediate spending freeze.”
But Snell and Brady’s creativity and ability enabled them to find success; they have tripled their sales since 2000.
“We have a great time doing it,” says Snell. “Life is too short to not have fun. Relationships are everything to us. Our customers trust us with marketing solutions for either themselves or their customers, meaning we have to be good.”
Ever since the days when Alex Wolk was a teenager running a small computer company, being a full-time entrepreneur had been his dream. So after graduating from college six years ago, he started Insite Advice, a full-service website design and development company.
Proficiency in both programming and design gave Wolk an immediate edge over his competition, but he still encountered challenges.
“The first year was very trying,” he says. “I rented an inexpensive loft work space on Washington Avenue in the Fashion Square Building before it was renovated. I worked so much I essentially lived there as well. This led to a problem considering there was only a small bathroom down the hall. I primarily joined the local Gold’s Gym down the street so I could take free showers.”
Eventually, Wolk’s hard work began to pay off. “We have been fortunate to have grown steadily over the years, and we continue to do so in spite of the tough economic climate,” he says. “In our first year, I was the only employee, and our revenue was around $30,000. We now have four employees and are expecting revenue this year to be over 10 times that.”
Wolk attributes his success to the fact that he never stops pushing himself to move forward. “I have found having the confidence to tackle almost any challenges and the persistence to see solutions through are invaluable to my business success,” he says. “I am also never afraid to take calculated risks because in most cases I am betting on myself to succeed, and it gives me extra motivation.”
KOCHAN AND COMPANY
When Bob Kochan took a job as the park magician at Six Flags during college, he didn’t realize his hobby would lead him to a career in marketing.
“A week before I graduated from college, I was offered a job as the head of the entertainment division for Six Flags,” says Kochan. “I was in the right place at the right time.”
He worked his way up and eventually became the company’s director of marketing.
In 1987, after 16 years at Six Flags, Kochan decided it was time to branch out on his own. So he started Kochan and Co., a full-service marketing firm, in his basement. Although big advertising agencies were closing their doors at the time, Kochan believed his years in marketing and his industry contacts would help him get business. “It helped tremendously that I was active in the community,” he says. “I used my network to grow.”
Kochan has expanded his company each year; he has 17 employees today and expects revenue to be up 20% over last year.
He says that when hiring, he finds people that have strengths different from his own in order to make the business a one-stop shop.
“The trick is that any company is only as good as its people,” says Kochan. “I still have the first and second employees that I hired in my basement days. I look for talented, enthusiastic people, so we have low turnover. It’s a family environment, so we check our egos at the door.”
Brad Cooper and Mark Locheed
In 1999, Internet services provider Kyvon, formerly HTTP Solutions, decided to simply start asking its clients, “What is your need?” It found that their clients needed ways to grow their through technology.
“We approached this need very directly,” says owner Brad Cooper. “We continue to reach out in this same manner: ‘What is your need; how can we help?’ It has been a cornerstone to our business.”
Kyvon saw that small businesses don’t have the same resources as corporate America. “They need a unique, customized solution that is both efficient—cost-effective—and effective—productive,” says Cooper. “This is Kyvon’s sweet spot. Tell us what you need—opportunity or threat—and we will provide the solution in a personal, hands-on, friendly manner.”
Kyvon plans to continue to grow its client base by engaging in a niche where creativity leads to success - small businesses. “These businesses have to stay agile and creative to compete in a global market,” says Cooper. “We want to support this business group because it is the business group we are in.”
Other small businesses have been important to Kyvon not only as clients but also as advisers. “Key advisers to Kyvon have always been our clients,” says Cooper. “Whether it be a legal, financial or general business question, we find a mutual need in our network of clients. Lawyers and accountants all require tech support, and IT companies need legal contracts and to file taxes. It is an excellent relationship!”
Chip Self started Logic Systems in 1986 before he graduated from high school. “To be completely honest, I started the company in hopes of avoiding a real job,” he says. “With a $2,000 loan from the local bank, I purchased a set of used speakers and gradually accumulated enough parts to build a marginally working sound system. That began a decade of running sound for local bands in local bars, long before I was actually old enough to be in those bars.”
By living frugally and reinvesting the money he brought in, Self built up his inventory and earned clients. After 15 years he began to consider Logic Systems a true business with employees, insurance, cash flow and an office, and he continued to reinvent and grow it.
“I decided to divide the sales and installation parts of the business into a company of its own,” says Self. “To ensure the success of the new venture, I brought in three partners to give the new business the attention I could not. Cignal has grown to become a nationally respected design and build contractor for installed audio, video and theatrical lighting systems with an emphasis on churches and performance spaces. What makes both companies outstanding is the quality of our people and the breadth of our experience.”
“Having worked on such a wide variety of projects, we’ve learned to work with everyone and how to make the very best of challenging situations,” Self says. “I believe firmly that what we’ve already done makes us the best at what we’re about to do.”
Both Self’s businesses have had consistent growth in the double digits since inception. In 2008 combined revenue will be nearly $6 million.
LORI COULTER MADE-TO-ORDER SWIMWEAR
Most women would agree that the average swimsuit-shopping experience is not something they look forward to. Lori Coulter decided to do something about that.
Her path to creating Lori Coulter Made-To-Order Swimwear began while in graduate school at Washington University. “I wrote a paper on how new technologies were changing the traditionally slow-to-change retail industry. I became fascinated with digital body scanning and was inspired to start the business after my mother expressed her frustration with traditional swimwear shopping. My mother said, ‘If we could just make a swimsuit that fits, we’d have a gold mine.’”
Coulter’s mother was right. With the help of local investors and Macy’s Midwest, Coulter launched at Macy’s in Chesterfield using the TrueMeasure process, which is a unique blend of three-dimensional body-scanning technology and high fashion that creates a personalized experience for fashion- and body-conscious women. “Our clients select the color, style, bra type, lining, embellishments and hardware to create the desired look and fit,” she says.
Coulter’s company is different from other custom clothiers. “Our process is fully digital and automated and at the same time unique for each client,” she says. “Currently we offer designs for high-end resorts, casinos and branded products, including the new ‘ultra pool’ at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.”
She says her company is outstanding for one reason: her team of world-class designers and consultants. “They are truly the soul of the company and do what they do because of their belief in our concept and a passion for helping women,” says Coulter.
Sally and Stephen Mitchell
Exporting may seem like a daunting industry to enter, but for Stephen and Sally Mitchell, it just made sense. They had both worked for companies involved with international business and knew they could use their experience to build a business. “We found that overseas customers were struggling to find trustworthy suppliers for test and measurement, calibration, and aerospace products,” says Stephen Mitchell. “We vowed to fill that void.”
Today it is a worldwide producer, supplier and integrator of test and measurement, calibration, and petroleum-related products for the U.S. government, overseas ally governments and manufacturers throughout the world. Its customers include the U.S. Department of Defense, NATO, and militaries and repair facilities on almost every continent. “Our strength comes from developing trustworthy relationships with manufacturers and with customers—both of whom rely upon Magna Technologies’ customer service and financial strength,” says Mitchell.
The Mitchells have developed these relationships through their honesty and integrity, service, and patience. “Both customers and suppliers work with us because they know they can trust our word and our work ethics,” says Mitchell. “Offer the best customer service at all times. Don’t accept mediocrity. If you are the best in your industry, then both manufacturers and customers will look to find ways to work with you. The third key to our success is patience. Too many U.S. companies expect immediate results.”
With the relationships it has built since its start in 1996, Magna’s sales have exceeded $6 million for the past few years.
Mike Losse practically grew up at Opinions Inc.
His father started the full-service opinion research and consulting firm, which specializes in helping organizations maximize the effectiveness of their human capital, in 1989. Losse worked for the company in the summers while he was in school and says he officially started working full time there in 1995.
“My brother, sister and I work in the business and took over ownership of the company when my father unexpectedly passed away in 2000,” he says. “My father’s passing created two major challenges. First, it was necessary to make sure all of our customers understood it would continue to be business as usual. Second, for the most part my father was our main consultant regarding survey design—question selection—and analysis—interpretation of the survey results.”
Losse and his siblings used consulting firms to help them with those areas, but they wanted the process to be more seamless for their customers.
“In order to achieve that, we invited select consulting firms to join us under the same umbrella and roof,” says Losse. “They each maintain their own individual consulting practices, serving their own customers, and also work under the Opinions name when needed.”
The company has grown 10% each year, adding new services and eight new employees. It now has nine employees at the U.S. office and two at the European location. “Our reach is now global, conducting surveys in 37 countries and 28 languages with an office in Europe,” Losse says.
In 1995, Steve Randazzo thought the changing marketing industry combined with his experience at event marketing company McCann-Erickson could help him create a successful new agency of his own. He was right on. His firm, Pro Motion, took off from the start. “We started in sports marketing and then moved into events, then sales promotion, then event again,” says Randazzo. “Now we combine all those aspects of marketing and more, including event, field, sports, PR, multicultural. We have also started doing some interactive marketing with different digital, mobile and text components.”
The longer Randazzo is in business, the more he realizes that challenges make you better. For him, that has meant changing with technology and following clients’ needs. “This industry has really grown up since I started in it,” he says. “It is so much more sophisticated. Clients want integrated promotions and immediate payout. That is a big change. And as the industry has grown, more industries are saying, ‘I want more of these promos.’ So there are more agencies and more competition. We adapt by bringing innovation in the marketplace to what we do day in and day out.”
Randazzo and his team continue to adapt and succeed by following five core values: employees first always, work as a team, win as a team, make it happen, reputation before revenue and commitment to safety. And it’s not just talk. Unlimited sick days to promote work/life balance are an example, and daily team meetings benefit the company’s clients. “We are fortunate,” says Randazzo. “Our projection is that we will be up 15% this year. Growth is important to us because it means opportunities for our employees’ personal growth.”
Allyson Mace and Catherine Neville
Most of us have picked up Sauce Magazine at one time or another. The print industry may be shrinking, but Sauce, a monthly magazine focusing on St. Louis’ restaurant, bar and entertainment industry, is one of the area’s most-read publications.
Whether you’re a foodie wanting to read up on the latest trends or an average Joe looking for a certain St. Louis restaurant, Sauce can take you there.
From a dining room, publishers Allyson Mace and Catherine Neville started Sauce as an online restaurant guide in 1999. In 2001 they expanded to a print version. But launching a publication had its fair share of challenges.
“Finding great writers and designers, hiring a good sales staff, managing distribution, maintaining an advertising base are all challenges,” says Mace.
But by following their gut instincts, she and Neville have built Sauce into one of St. Louis’ largest publications. Today it has a circulation of about 85,000 and is distributed to more than 900 locations throughout the St. Louis region.
“We adhere to strict journalistic standards, never sell our content and maintain a high level of production quality,” says Mace. “When readers pick up the magazine, they know that they’ll be reading insightful, well-written, unbiased information about St. Louis’ culinary scene. Also, we’ve been incredibly cautious in terms of our finances. We grow when we can afford to grow and do our best to keep costs down while constantly increasing the quality of our product.”
In January, Joe Balsarotti’s company, Software To Go, will be 28 years old. But it has not thrived through three decades without encountering adversity that could have put it out of commission.
Balsarotti worked for the company before purchasing it in 1992. “When I took over, finances were my challenge,” he says. “I used my savings to back half of the company and a bank loan for the other half of the money.”
In 2006, he moved the business from Clayton to St. Peters. It was a challenge to run the business, keep clients happy and look at property with only two other full-time employees. The company moved on a Tuesday, and by Friday Balsarotti’s greatest challenge set in.
“By Friday I was in the ER with what I found out was an autoimmune disease,” he says. “It took me out of work for three months. I was drugged or in bed unable to do anything, and we had just moved. Dan and Dan, my two full-time employees, jumped in, divided the work and in a long weekend had it all figured out. They kept things running without anything major going bad while still taking on major projects. That’s what happens when you have good people.”
Despite these challenges, Balsarotti kept a positive attitude and accepted help from friends to continue growing his business.
“We continue to do what we do very well,” he says. “To oversimplify, we become your computer department. Existing clients give us referrals. We lose clients if they retire or sell the business. We are guided by our clients’ needs. As our clients change, we change.”
When Bonny Filandrinos graduated from college, she didn’t know what field she wanted to enter, so she went to a temp agency to find a job.
Instead of placing her elsewhere, the agency hired her, and she found the field she had been searching for.
She later became the first employee at a startup temp agency and loved it.
“I stayed for five years before deciding to sell my car for seed money to start my own agency in 1992,” says Filandrinos. “At the same time, a friend of mine sold part of his business and had office space available. I got the office space I needed through barter by filling jobs my friend had available.”
Finances were a challenge as Filandrinos established and grew her business.
“One of my greatest challenges was being a one-woman show,” she says. “I had to do all the work on my own because I didn’t have the money to hire anyone. I had to generate revenue, so I worked for a year on my own and saved by not paying myself. Then I earned enough to hire my first employee. Today I have eight employees.”
Over the past 16 years, Filandrinos has found that sticking to her unique business structure and strategy is best for her business.
“Our model is upside-down for a staffing company,” she says. “We are locally owned and independent. I always hear that you are supposed to work on your business and not in it, but I have found that it is best for me to do both. I still interview all of our applicants and work on placement. I have 32 years of experience. I am good at it, and I love it.”