EOYs 28 Finalists Get Job Done

June 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — One had 12 children, returned to college, worked as a nurse and then started running what today is one of the largest tool and die shops in the area.

Two lost their only customers within months of purchasing their respective companies, only to come up with new product lines that not only saved their businesses, but allowed them to thrive.

And two more were profoundly affected by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, only to find that dealing with adversity head-on is the best way to overcome seemingly impossible situations.

For the 28 individuals representing 26 companies who are finalists for the Ernst & Young West Michigan Entrepreneur of the Year awards, the road was never straight and smooth.

Rather, their stories of courage, skill, perseverance and triumph weave the fabric of what is today’s West Michigan business community.

Rita Williams always supported her husband, John, in his dream to own his own tool and die shop. First, however, she gave birth to the couple’s 12 children, went back to school and eventually worked as an LPN. But she was never far from Gill Industries, both physically and mentally. So when she and her husband decided that Williams would become the firm’s general manager in 1985, they knew the move would be best for them personally and for the company, despite the skepticism of their own employees and the manufacturing community as a whole. Today, Williams heads up a firm that does millions of dollars of business each year and is a leader in technological advancements for the industry.

Likewise, Juanita Briggs of Valor Industries and Jim Zawacki of GR Spring & Stamping faced plenty of adversity just after starting their respective firms. Briggs lost her only customer, Herman Miller, and revenues dropped to zero for the specialty product line manufacturer. She could have packed it in, but instead redoubled her efforts and eventually lured Herman Miller back into the fold while landing Steelcase as a second customer.

Zawacki purchased a small manufacturing concern where the bulk of the work came from producing cables that were used to manually adjust exterior automotive mirrors. Electronic mirrors rendered that technology obsolete just months after Zawacki acquired the firm. He, too, could have called it quits. He didn’t, and today is the leader of a world-class manufacturer.

While those stories and others took a long time to develop, other finalists were called on to think quickly in the face of an unexpected disaster.

Tom McIntyre, owner of Passageways Travel in Traverse City, saw his business grounded by the events of Sept. 11. Faced with tough layoff decisions and corporate restructuring, McIntyre nimbly guided the firm’s return to profitability just a month and a half after an event that still stymies the nation’s travel industry.

For Lyle Labardee, founder of Crisis Care Network in Grand Rapids, the opposite was true. The Sept. 11 attacks prompted a flood of calls to his business, which offers on-site trauma counseling services. Instead of being overwhelmed, however, Labardee overhauled his entire business in the days following the attacks and got the counseling services to the people in New York who needed them. On time. As promised.

The common thread connecting these finalists and all the others, who are profiled in a special supplement to today’s Business Journal, is that they find a way to get the job done.

And that’s what entrepreneurial spirit is all about. 

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