Firms Take Entrepreneur Honors

June 25, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Eleven West Michigan entrepreneurs were honored Thursday night for their companies’ extraordinary track records and for demonstrating excellence in such areas as innovation, financial performance and personal commitment to their businesses and communities.
About 400 attended the Ernst & Young West Michigan Entrepreneur of the Year 2004 award ceremony at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

The winners in each of the following categories are:

Realizing Business Potential — Keith D. Brophy, CEO of Sagestone Consulting, Grand Rapids.

Sagestone is a leading Mircrosoft Gold Partner and pioneer in .NET. Brophy was recognized for economic improvements through innovative technology solutions, particularly in the area of life sciences.

“We’ve grown up from the early grass-roots startup to a national technology powerhouse and we’ve done that from our base here in West Michigan.”

Brophy also received a $10,000 grant from Microsoft at the awards ceremony.

Master — Rita Williams, CEO and chairman of Gill Industries Inc., Grand Rapids.

Gill Industries designs, engineers and manufactures metal products to automotive, office furniture, recreation and outdoor power markets. Gill took over as general manager in 1985 when the company was 21 years old — after raising 12 children and earning a nursing degree. She also is the owner of The Sierra Room, an upscale restaurant in downtown Grand Rapids.

“Life has presented me with many careers,” Williams said. “Getting 12 children to adulthood safely was probably my most challenging and my most rewarding career. Knowing what the customer needs drives every decision that we make. Gill Industries was built on service. It is a value that we preach every day, whether we are at Gill or at the restaurant.” 

Financial Services — Gary L. Tilkin, president and CEO of Global Futures & Forex Ltd., Ada.

Global Futures & Forex is a leading online currency-trading firm serving clients in more than 100 countries. Tilkin’s company designed the DealBook software that enables clients to bypass the paper path and the physical trading floor of the futures exchange and allows worldwide access to the market.

Referring to his employees as “the best,” Tilkin said: “I certainly feel sometimes that I’m the least of this operation. We have great people and without them we’d be nowhere.”

Business/Consumer Services — Thomas H. Highley, president and CEO of The Empire Co. Inc., Zeeland.

The Empire Co. is a distribution millwork, logistic/marketing support company that Highley has grown over the past decade from a regional to multi-regional firm. Today the company employs 325 and has four locations.

“We’ve had to earn the business,” Highley said of his company. “Good people are the driver of any success story. There lies the story of Empire Co.”

Real Estate/Construction — Michael A. Garrett, president of Pinnacle Construction Group, Grand Rapids.

Garrett started Pinnacle Construction in 1996 and went without a paycheck during the company’s first three years of operation. Pinnacle now employs more than 20 construction professionals whose projects have garnered local industry awards.

“I really kind of look at myself as the head coach of a great team,” Garrett said. “They are the ones that really do what Pinnacle is good at.”

Real Estate/Design — Wayne E. Visbeen, president of Visbeen Associates Inc., Grand Rapids.

Visbeen founded Visbeen Associates in 1992 as a full-service architectural, planning and interior design firm. He owns 10 spin-off companies.

“My staff is just awesome and they absolutely make me look good every day,” Visbeen said. “I want to thank them for their excellence, their tenacity and their creativity. I love things well done.”

Manufacturing — Karlis Vizulis, president and CEO of Performance Systematix Inc., Grand Rapids.

Performance Systematix can take products from concept to market very quickly. It specializes in custom solutions and is able to work with difficult media and substrates.

“My journey started 20 years ago with a business partner in the basement of his home in Ann Arbor,” Vizulis recalled. “Through the years I’ve seen a lot of struggle, pain, excitement, opportunity and hope. Twenty years later the spirit to create is as strong as it was in the beginning.”

Emerging — Daniel C. George, CEO, and Matthew P. Jung, president, of Comfort Research, Grand Rapids.

While enrolled at Hope College, George and Jung perceived a need among students for comfortable and affordable chairs. Using a home sewing machine, the two created the first generation of the “Foof Chair,” and subsequently founded Comfort Research. The partners were the focus of a Business Week magazine small business supplement in 2001.

“I want to thank all of our employees because they do such a great job. They’re the ones that really make this happen every day,” George said, also thanking his parents for their support and financial assistance in starting the company. “Thanks for thinking that we belong in this crowd of people here.”

Lifetime Achievement Award — John Gordon, vice chairman, and Paul Gordon, chairman, of Gordon Food Service, Grand Rapids.

Gordon Food Service is the largest family-owned foodservice distributor in North America. The two served in a variety of positions in the company before Paul Gordon became president and John Gordon its secretary/treasurer in 1965. Under their leadership, the company transitioned from a retail distributor to providing foodservice to restaurants, schools and other institutions.

“It’s been a wonderful trip and we’ve just enjoyed it,” John Gordon said. “But the most important part of our business is the wonderful people that we’ve had working for us.”

West Michigan award winners are now eligible for consideration for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year 2004 national program. Winners in several national categories and overall national E&Y Entrepreneur Of The Year will be announced at the annual awards in Palm Springs, Calif., in November. The national winner will go on to compete in the world event held in Monte Carlo.

The West Michigan awards were sponsored by Fifth Third Bank; Marsh Inc.; Miller, Johnson, Snell and Cummiskey; Seidman School of Business; Grand Rapids Business Journal; WGVU; and Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations.           

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