There has historically been a class of businesses that does not get due recognition. These are the businesses that have ventured into the always-turbulent seas of free enterprise and successfully weathered the storm. That is not to say that the sailing will always be smooth ahead of them. But they have shown just how seaworthy they are and how ready they are for the futurethe next challenge.
The businesses that we celebrate in our first annual Future of Business Awards have done just that. Even while Kansas City and the nation were slugging through a stagnant economy, each of these businesses prospered and, combined, pumped hundreds of much needed new jobs into the local economy. And, they thrived in the process.
The corporate partners: UMB Bank, Deloitte and Ingrams Magazine, are proud to introduce to you the debut class of the Future of Business winners. We understand that their success, and the success of the Kansas City region, depend on the enterprise and energy of these and other entrepreuners.
So hats off to our winners: Ameristar, CommunityAmerica Credit Union, DATACORE, Interconnect Devices, McGownGordon Construction, Midland Marble & Granite, S&M NuTec, and Service Management Group. Others will win this award in the years ahead, but you will always be among our premier honorees.
Ameristar Casinos, Inc.
Things Are Lighting Up At The Ameristar
Just about a year ago the sky above the all-new Ameristar Casino Kansas City exploded in vibrant color with a world-class fireworks display that must have left just about half of the metro wondering just what it was that was being celebrated.
Quite a bit actually. Kansas City General Manager Dave Albrecht and his customer-friendly staff at the Ameristar were marking in grand fashion the culmination of a $64 million dollar renovation that in and of itself obliterated any lingering effects of recession in that part of the world. This renovation included among other amenities new restaurants, food courts, parking facilities, a state-of-the-art brew pub, and a fully revamped casino floor with a spiffy new high-limit gaming area. It represented one of the most significant private investments in Clay County, or in Kansas City for that matter, in recent years. The investment seems to be paying off. The public has responded as much as Albrecht hoped it would, and the Ameristar is prospering. For Albrecht, the job represents the culmination of a successful career in the resort and gaming industry. A North Dakota native, Albrecht first made his mark managing a golf resort in Nevada. Given the location, Albrecht gravitated to the gaming side of the resort business and learned its complexities--and they are many--over a period of years.
One thing that Albrecht learned in the course of his training is that the customer always comes first. Albrecht attributes much of the Ameri-star's success to the casino's intense focus on guest service. To maintain that service at a high level Albrecht insists on hiring only quality "team members." There are now nearly 2,000 of them, and each is prepared to "take care of the guests" even beyond the guests' expectations. After nearly three years in the area, Albrecht feels entirely at home. "I love living in Kansas City," he enthuses. "My career goals are right where I'm at."
CommunityAmerica Credit Union
Putting the Community Back in America
Not unlike, say, Bill Gates, Dennis Pierce, the CEO of CommunityAmerica Credit Union, wearied of college before they started handing out the diplomas. Although there is no denying the value of a college degree, Pierce's career makes a very good case that energy and commitment trump credentials most every time. Pierce started his professional career humbly enough as a bank teller. From the beginning, however, he was determined to learn as much about the business as he could. Early in his career, he decided to master data systems and when an opening occurred at the Steelworker's Credit Union where he was working, Pierce seized the day and moved into data systems management. He hasn't looked back since.
Pierce attributes his odds-defying success to the strong sense of values that he learned from his parents: "Work hard, do the best you can do, and stay committed to what you do." His parents still live in the same Independence home in which Pierce grew up.
In 1992, Pierce signed on with what was originally the TWA Club Credit Union, an entity with deep roots in the community. After a 1998 merger, the new entity that surfaced was known as CommunityAmerica Credit Union. The company also assumed operation of Yellow Financial Credit Union for employees of Yellow Corporation. In addition, it serves more than 400 Select Employee Groups whose employees are eligible for the products and services provided by CommunityAmerica. Today, with 375 dedicated em-ployees, CommunityAmerica is the largest credit union in the Midwest and one of the largest in America. "It is a great organization," says Pierce proudly of the Lenexa-based company. He attributes the credit union's contin-ued prosperity to the remarkable spirit of cooperation that infuses the union's voluntary board. "There's great leadership," enthuses Pierce, "and a really great staff. A lot of great people working together."
Data Mining in Kansas City
Just three years after Jeff Yowell left Trinity University in San Antonio, he persuaded a successful Kansas City ad agency, Hickerson Phelps Kirtley, that it could benefit from an in-house data base marketing program. What is more, he told the folks at HPK, he was just the person to manage it. "I expected to be successful out of the gate," says Yowell. "I thought it was a category that was underdeveloped."
By 1997, Yowell and his program had been sufficiently successful that Yowell bought the business out, and launched DATACORE Marketing as an independent entity. Through DATACORE, Yowell integrated his and his colleagues marketing expertise with the available technology to help his clients to leverage their business data more effectively. This may not have been the most glamorous endeavor in the marketing industry, but it was among the most cost efficient in helping clients reach their sales, marketing, and profitability objectives.
Yowell attributes DATACORE's continued success to its systematic adherence to a series of defined goals. Number one is the company's focus on its core competency, data base marketing. Yowell has resisted the urge to dilute service offerings.
The second is Yowell's insistence that "there is a need in the marketplace for what we do." From his perspective, too many seemingly good ideas have fallen short for lack of adequate market demand. As a third principle, Yowell hires only "high quality employees," and gives them autonomy to do jobs. As a fourth, he seeks out "category leading clients," ones that appreciate the service and understand the need for it.
Despite some real and repeated crises in the marketing profession in the last few years, DATACORE has grown every year and now has more than eighty employees. "Given the shocks to the industry," says Yowell, "I am a little bit surprised by our long term growth."
Interconnect Devices, Inc.
Kansas City Makes Connections Around The World
When Ed Schifman came back to Kansas city to work for Interconnect Devices, Inc. (IDI) in 1981, his greatest claim to professional fame was that he had helped the then unknown George Lucas design toys for a new movie he had coming out called Star Wars.
With a keen sense of available opportunities, Schifman was charged with moving the $300k a year IDI into new markets. IDI had been organized two years prior to supply testing components for the electronics industry. Schifman steered the company towards replaceable spring contact probes for production testing. Soon enough, in fact, Schifman had helped establish IDI as the world's leader in spring contact probe technology.
By November 1984, Schifman was IDI's president and CEO. Always on the lookout for new opportunities, he later started a company inside IDI called Synergetix to get beyond the semiconductor market. Customers had discovered that IDI technologies could be used in other areas of their companies beside the board test. Synergetix designs and builds battery contact assembles, test sockets, test connectors, coaxial interfaces and product connectors. Its interfaces are used in a variety of critical industries including the military, aerospace, auto-motive, telecommunications, and medical among others. In fact. IDI's significant growth in the last several years has come from sales generated by Synergetix. Today, the privately held IDI does some $50 million a year in business and has 237 employees in the Kansas City area and employees in selected cities around the world including those at a second manufacturing facility in the Czech Republic. Schifman attributes IDI's overall success to a "relentless execution of our product plans and an absolute dedication to a highly fun and enthusiastic work culture." The plans seem to be working. The Kansas City, Kansas-based IDI has been profitable every year that Schifman has been at the helm, and he sees no reason for this to change.
Building Buildings and Relationships
In July 1999, had Brett Gordon and Pat McCown been able to look down the road and see the impending NASDAQ collapse, a recession, and September 11, they might not have launched McCownGordon, the general contracting firm that bears their names. These were not to be the golden years of the construction industry. But for McCown and Gordon, these worst of times proved to be the best of times. What they lacked in prescience, they made up for in perseverance, and they have been working steadily ever since. Today, McCownGordon employs 100-125 workers pretty consistently in an otherwise inconsistent business. From the beginning, the pair decided to focus not so much on finding new clients as on building relations, a mission they took seriously. As the cornerstone of a given relationship were to be certain core values.
The first, and arguably most important, is integrity. "We do what we say we are going to do," says Gordon. "We have an open book approach--above all else, tell the truth." McCown belies that integrity is essential to build relationships not only with clients, but also with the various architects, engineers, and subcontractors that enable McCownGordon to prosper. "We treat them as partners," says McCown.
A second core value is participatory management, the creation of an internal team. The partners quoted one of their associates as saying, "There aren't two entrepreneurs here. There are two dozen." And that is just as they would have it.
Although they have developed relationships with a wide range of clients, the partners have something of a niche in the highly sensitive world of the biosciences. Among their clients are Aventis, Bayer, Quintiles, Lab One, and Cerner. They are really keen on their work developing a new headquarters for GE Insurance Solutions (formerly ERC), the Bartle Hall expansion, and the new exhibition space at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Of all their clients, however, the one that gives them the most satisfaction is the Ronald McDonald House. It really is all about relationships.
Midland Marble & Granite
A Literal Cutting Edge Business
Bryan Caton and a friend sat down together one day when they were still in high school and determined that the only way they were ever going to make any money was to start their own businesses. As it happened, neither had any interest in going to college.
Each set a goal of starting a business by age 35, making a million by 40, and retiring by 50, and each has delivered on at least the front end of the compact. Caton's friend started his business at 32. Caton followed quickly behind. After many years working as a tile setter and stone installer Caton felt he knew the business well enough to launch Midland Marble. This he did in 1996, just under the wire. He was 34 years old.
With projects ranging from kitchens to casinos, Midland has made a name for itself across the Midwest for its consistent quality and customer service. Caton attributes much of his success to the help he has gotten from his wife Cathy and his brother Mike. They work out of a 50,000-square-foot underground headquarters in Independence.
Caton's two motivations for starting Midland hold true today and are embodied in the mission statements for the company--"To provide outstanding customer service from start to finish and offering state-of-the-art' cutting edge natural stone fabrication techniques and installation." Caton strongly emphasizes customer service with his staff as a means to build relationships and assure return business. He also believes strongly that if he treats his employees with dignity and respect, they will treat the clients with similar quality care.
Today Midland marble is doing some $14 million a year in sales, almost double what it was doing just four years ago. But despite his high school compact, Bryan Caton has no interest in retiring anywhere in the near future. For him, his career is really just getting started.
The Greening of Canine America
After two years of running their would-be business on a wish and a prayer, Joe nd Judy Roetheli, the proprietors of S&M NuTec, sold their first "Greenie" in 1998. Says Joe admiringly of Judy, the company president, "She is the all time reigning queen of rolling credit cards."
Necessity being the mother of invention, Joe had developed the product two years earlier to combat the world-class halitosis of the family's beloved Samoyed, Ivan. A friendly veterinary clinical nutritionist had helped Joe refine the product, and sure enough, it worked. The new creation managed to satisfy Ivan's natural desire to chew. It reduced odors, controlled dental tartar, strengthened the dog's gums and diminished oral bacteria.
In fact, the entirely edible product did such wonders for Ivan that Joe and Judy, both dog lovers, turned down a transfer to Washington by his employer, the USDA, and launched a business around this newly discovered dog breath cleanser. Without any business experience--Judy had been a teacher and homemaker before becoming president--the Roethelis struggled. The breakthrough came in 2000 when they hired a veteran salesman who knew his way around the pet industry and understood the potential of the product on hand. Since that fortuitous hire, S&M NuTec has sold at least 259 million of the total 260 million Greenies it has sold.
"We are doing now in a week," says Joe Roetheli, "what we had anticipated doing in a year." The Roethelies employ 56 staff directly and provide a total of nearly 400 jobs which includes with local business alliance partners who manufacture, package, warehouse, and ship Greenies® to fill their orders".
Still somewhat amazed by his own success, Joe attributes it to "luck and getting good people."
Service Management Group
Customer Satisfaction as a Way of Satisfying Customers
As Andy Fromm is quick to admit, when you are in the business of improving customer satisfaction, you better be awfully sure that you are satisfying your own customers.
"We do more than 15 million surveys a year," says Fromm, but the ones I look most closely at are the ones we do with our own clients." Fromm got his introduction to customer satisfaction issues helping his father, local ad executive Bill Fromm, work on his successful book, The Ten Commandments of Business-And How to Break Them. At the time Fromm was working in Boston, having graduated from Boston University not too long before.
As it happened, Fromm, his father, and Len Schlesinger, formerly a professor at the Harvard Business School, began talking about the idea of building a business around the idea of customer satisfaction. At the heart of the business was a strategic model called the "Service Profit Chain" developed by Schlesinger and his colleagues, whose research showed a clear link between a company's financial performance and its customer and employee satisfaction.
The trio turned the concept into a business, and the next thing Andy Fromm knew he was back in Kansas City running it. In 1998, Fromm spun the Service Management Group (SMG) off from Bill Fromm's Barkley Evergreen & Partners, where it had incubated, and he and the firm have been going gangbusters ever since. SMG has built its reputation in one specific area, that is multi-unit companies. In fact, Fromm and his associates work with many of the nation's top retail, restaurant and hospitality companies, helping them with customer and employee satisfaction measurement at some 40,000 locations annually.
Today, SMG has some 65 employees. Now the President and CEO, Andy Fromm attributes the company's success to his ability to attract and retain "some extraordinary people." Located in the heart of the Crossroads District, SMG maintains "a fun, flexible, energetic, creative environment," but one in which the focus is sharp and the work product consistent.