Entrepreneurs Earn Honors

June 13, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the seven West Michigan entrepreneurs recognized Thursday with the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Award are characterized as much by their commercial success as individual ordeals.

A year ago, winners shared common bonds of innovation and perseverance over turbulent markets. Some were turnaround stories, while others pioneered new markets. The majority began in basements, garages, or spare bedrooms.

This year, the six firms honored share the same extraordinary track records of excellence in innovation, financial performance and a personal commitment to their businesses and communities as all EOY winners, but also share a culture focused upon employees, community, and family unique to the West Michigan region as a whole.

Ronald Schults, CEO of The Abonmarche Group in Benton Harbor, said very little of how he built his firm into one of the world's most respected marina, engineering, oceanographic and design firms when he accepted his award in the Architecture & Design category at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel ceremony.

Nor did he mention his company's current work creating a marina/waterfront master plan for the city of Shanghai.

Instead, Schults said he felt a greater entrepreneurial accomplishment was the launch of Lory's Place, an organization that provides free peer support group services for grieving children and their families throughout southwest Michigan and northern Indiana.

He founded the center to help other families face the challenges that his own had struggled through the previous year following the unexpected death of his wife, Lory.

"We as entrepreneurs and business leaders need to be committed to helping others," he said.

Jose Infante founded Community Shores Bank on similar principles. Infante, who moved with his family from Cuba when he was nine, knows many of his customers personally — many from his days coaching Little League — and is strongly committed to his employees.

He chooses his employees for their ability to provide good customer service, and encourages their involvement in the community. What is good for employees, he believes, is good for business.

"Entrepreneur is a great title," he said. "But truthfully, this is a team award. Without the team, it doesn't get done. I'm grateful to be the face of the team."

William Deary, CEO of Great Lakes Home Health and Hospice, shared a similar perspective when accepting the award for Consumer Products and Services.

"The CEO of any organization is like the conductor of an orchestra," Deary said. "The conductor is the only person that doesn't make a sound."

Deary attributed the dedication and passion of his employees to his company's success. He founded the venture partially to fulfill a promise to his wife, Cherilyn, to someday return to her hometown of Jackson. After returning home in 1993 to care for her ailing grandfather, she noticed a need for home health care services and convinced Deary, then a Fortune 50 executive, to fill it.

Winning the award for Business Services were brothers Jeffrey and William Bennett of Otterbase Technical Services Inc.

William Bennett attributed the success of the company to its employees, and his own to the support of his wife and the values instilled by his parents.

When the brothers decided to launch the supplemental staffing company in 1998, both walked away from promising careers. Jeffrey had proposed to his wife the day before he quit his job, and the newlyweds spent their first year in a subsidized housing development.

"I've noticed how the definition of success has changed for me over the years," he said. "My 2-year-old son learns how to say 'I love you, Dad,' and I've got a new definition of success.

"It's important to remember that the success of your company can be judged on the impact you have on other people's lives."

"Being able to live and work in Grand Rapids is a blessing I can never take for granted," said Eastern Floral & Gifts Inc. Owner Bing Goei, winner of the award for Retail & Entertainment.

Goei came to the United States with his family in 1960 as an Indonesian refugee. He worked in a floral wholesale business through high school and college, and for many years ran his own. After a stint working for the Christian Reformed Church, Goei made a transition into the retail floral business.

With the acquisition of first Plainfield Floral and later the bankrupt Eastern Floral & Gifts, Goei has in less than a decade built the region's most successful and innovative floral chain.

"Success is a gift from God through the good people he has put in my life," he said. "I can't thank them enough."

Technology award winner Daniel Blackledge named his Kalamazoo-based company, BlueGranite Inc., after the heavy rocks he had to clear from the fields of his family farm as a child.

Following a career as a teacher, college professor, consultant to General Motors and RE/MAX franchise salesman, Blackledge had little knowledge of technology or the Internet when he launched what has become his most successful of the four companies he has owned.

Today, BlueGranite has evolved into a full service eBusiness provider and has distinguished itself by its ability to provide clients with real-world applications for next-generation technologies.

"We've survived by our ability to look at the company as a business and not a technology company," Blackledge said. "We knew that if we developed good business practices and followed them with rigor we'd be successful."    

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