Mindscape lands top business honor

May 13, 2009
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Mindscape at Hanon McKendry
Industry:
Web developer
President/CEO: Co-founded by Pete Brand and Paul Ferrier
Number of employees: 15
Year founded: 2001
Founders: Paul Ferrier and Pete Brand

How do you grow a company from $4 million in sales to $22 million in less than 18 months? Hire Mindscape at Hanon McKendry, the winner of the 2009 Small Business of the Year award.

“We have a process that we’ve developed over the years called the Mindshare process,” said Pete Brand, cofounder of Mindscape. “It’s a series of questions to really help clients understand what their Internet initiative is going to be, what they want to accomplish. Secondly, we have different research that we do to thoroughly understand the different types of buyers that are going to be arriving on their site.”

Brand described his company as an interactive agency. The company focuses on creating user-friendly Web sites and applications. Brand gave an example of what makes Mindscape “interactive.” He said many companies will show a client its Google search rankings under a particular category. That category, however, may seldom be searched. Mindscape looks at categories that are frequently searched, and then focuses on getting its clients up in the rankings.

“I was talking to someone the other day and they were pretty proud that they were ranking No. 2 and No. 3 on Google for a particular search term. I was able to do some research and find that that particular term is literally searched on 72 times a month,” he said. “We have a client that has different keyword phrases — probably two to three hundred — that we’ve got them ranking in the top 10 in Google.

“I picked six out of those hundreds of phrases and found that between those six phrases, accumulatively, they’re searched on 876,000 a month. They’re ranking No. 1 on every single one of those phrases. So basically, 876,000 (times) a month, their Web site is being shown to people looking for those relevant products.”

Mindscape became equity partners with Hanon McKendry in summer 2008 and was nominated for the Small Business of the Year award last year, as well.

“To be nominated is really an honor, but my business partner and I are really competitive people. So being nominated and not winning is OK, but winning is what you like to do. We were really excited and honored,” said Brand.

“Paul and I don’t feel like this is an award that we got. All the people on our team understand that this is a tribute to their work. They’re the ones that get everything done and they’re the ones that deliver really profitable solutions for our clients. And they’re the reason our company continues to grow each year.”

During such a tough economy, one might assume a company’s success would not be based on growth but on how much it didn’t lose. In 2008, Mindscape grew 39 percent over 2007 and currently is hovering around 40 percent growth over 2008.

“That’s because we have team members who are focused on being highly efficient and just taking care of the client and making sure they’re happy. That word spreads,” he said. “The biggest thing we can contribute our growth to is we don’t focus on the negative stuff. Not to downplay the economic times — I get that there’s 12 percent unemployment, or whatever the rate happens to be. But 88 percent of the people are working.

“We’ve continued to try and be creative and keep our eye open for the opportunity instead of focusing on the challenging times. Those times are going to be cyclical and they’re eventually going to get better, but focusing on how bad it is does nothing except not allowing you to focus on making your company better and increasing your revenue and making your clients happy. We’d rather just focus on the positive.”

The nominees:

Marge’s Donut Den

Industry: Bakery

President/CEO: Marge Wilson

Number of employees: 20

Year founded: 1975

Founder: Marge Wilson

Win or lose, Marge Wilson, owner of Marge’s Donut Den, found the nomination process reward enough.

“I think it’s fantastic to be nominated, to know that someone cares that much. The nominating people had to prepare a lot of things so they could get to know you better, and I got beautiful letters from people I know,” said Wilson. “It wouldn’t make a bit of difference to me if I won or not, because the beauty of those letters — that, to me, is so satisfactory and fulfilling, it’s just wonderful.”

Despite troubling economic times, the bakery is undergoing a complete makeover.

“You can either worry about if you’re going to have any business, or you can worry about what color you’re going to paint the walls — and you gotta pick your battles,” laughed Wilson.

But while the appearance of the bakery is changing, the heart has stayed the same. Marge’s Donut Den is known for mixing quality ingredients with good customer service and great employees. Two of Wilson’s employees have been at the Den for more than 30 years.

Wilson has encountered some difficult times as a bakery owner. When she began in the bakery business in 1975, not many women owned businesses, and bakeries were especially male dominated, said Wilson.

“There weren’t any women that owned a bakery,” said Wilson. “I wore a dark brown suit so I’d look efficient, not pretty. … It was a constant struggle back in those days, even to get someone to answer you or take you seriously. But anything worthwhile is worth a struggle; you just figure out how.”

With word of mouth being the main source of advertising for Marge’s Donut Den, one thing Wilson has not only figured out but mastered is how to keep her customers happy.


Micro Visions Inc.

Industry: Computer technology consulting

CEO/President: Julie Lough

Number of employees: 10

Year founded: 1989

Founder: Julie Lough

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Micro Visions Inc. has earned recognition for its unique, objective approach to helping companies leverage technology to achieve strategic goals and improve their competitive position, according to the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re really excited to be nominated because we’re growing and most of our business comes from word of mouth,” said Julie Dunning, marketing specialist.

Dunning said that one of the aspects that has helped Micro Visions Inc. thrive in this economy is that its services make use of the “do more with less” adage.

“In this day and age when everybody’s really trying to be as efficient as possible, we offer some technology tools we’ve developed for companies to manage all their technology off-site remotely and automatically, and they can do that extremely cost effectively,” said Dunning. “We’re finding businesses are in a perfect position to work with us.”

Julie Lough founded the company in her living room in 1989 with a $5,000 loan for supplies while working her day job at Herman Miller. Four years later, Micro Visions became her full-time job, and it has continued to grow ever since.

Summit Landscape Management Inc.

Industry: Landscaping

President/CEO: Mike Verhulst

Number of employees: 42

Year founded: 1998

Founders: Mike Verhulst and Bill VanderVelde

It all began in a lumberyard.

“Bill (VanderVelde) and I knew each other for a while and we bumped into each other at a local lumberyard,” said president and cofounder Mike Verhulst. “He pretty much ran the company he was at, and I pretty much ran mine where I was working. Our bosses would go on long vacations, and we had a little complaint session in the lumberyard and decided to go off on our own.”

The two founded Summit Landscape Management Inc. in 1998. It has grown to roughly 42 employees.

“The economic decline’s been going on, and ever since then, we’ve been showing profits, growing our company and hiring a few people here and there,” said Verhulst. “A few years ago, we saw the downturn coming and diversified our services. We’re so diversified in-house that with one phone call, we pretty much can help any customer.”

The company hopes to become a leader in the landscape industry through quality customer care.

“It’s always going to continue to be the goal of Summit Landscape to provide quality services at competitive prices, and I think if we can do that we’ll be alright,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but we’re going to do it.”

Model First Aid Safety & Training

Industry: Workplace safety

President/CEO: Mike Bradley

Number of employees: 6

Year founded: 2000

Founder: Mike Bradley

Mike Bradley defines the path to success simply.

“The key to not just staying in business but succeeding is having really good, dedicated people. If you can surround yourself with a good team, even in these economic times you can really be successful. It boils down to hard work; a lot of hours,” he said.

“Everybody says ‘Work smart, not hard.’ But right now, to stay afloat, you’ve really got to do both.”

That combination has paid off for Bradley, whose workplace safety company has grown by 15 percent annually since its first full year.

Bradley started MFAST after working many years for a national company that had sub-par service, according to Bradley.

“I worked for a national company that did essentially the same thing, they just didn’t do it well. The national company was making a lot of mistakes that I felt I could remedy,” he said. “I’ve been actually doing this for 29 years. I spent 21 with the national and then felt that it was time to quite making them money and start trying to make me some money.”

Norris, Perné & French LLP

Industry: Investment management

President/CEO: Partnership

Number of employees: 18

Year founded: 1933

Founder: Abbott Norris

When the stock market is as up-and-down and side-to-side as Willy Wonka’s magic elevator, it’s good to have an investment adviser that’s been around the chocolate factory a time or two. Norris, Perné & French has been in Grand Rapids for 76 years, making it the city’s longest established investment management firm.

“It’s great — particularly, as a local business that’s been doing business through all types of markets, good and bad — to be recognized in this challenging time economically for the stability and visibility we have in this area,” said Julie Ridenour, director of business development.

“It’s a tough market, but when you have the philosophy that guides you through these times as well as more profitable times, you sleep well at night and know you’ve done a good job for your clients.”

The firm marks its performance in two categories: assets under management and client base. Ridenour noted that, while assets under management has gone down, the dip hasn’t equaled the slide of its competitors — and the firm’s client base has gone up.

Opportunity Concepts

Industry: Life insurance consulting

President/CEO: Bill Boersma

Number of employees: 6

Year founded: 2004

Founder: Bill Boersma

One way to become a leader in an industry is to create your own.

“I’ll generically call it a life insurance consulting company. There is not another company of which I am aware that does what I do anywhere near Grand Rapids,” said Bill Boersma, founder and CEO. “In fact, there’s only a couple I’m aware of around the country that do what I do. I’m not acting as a life insurance agent. I’m a third party that is brought in by professional advisers — generally attorneys, accountants and trust officers.”

Boersma has been in the industry since 1992. In 1996, he took over a brokerage firm and has since garnered a reputation as a specialist in the technical aspects of the insurance world. He found that many people, both from within and from outside the industry, were coming to him for insight and he decided to make a business out of it. In 2004, he created Opportunity Concepts.

He said the trouble with the life insurance industry is that not many people fully understand policies. “It’s one thing that everyone thinks they understand, but from a consumer level, almost nobody understands how life insurance works — and when I say that, I include the professional advisers,” said Boersma.

While Boersma admits Opportunity Concepts’ level of success fluctuates, it has little to do with the economy.

“This year will be, by far, my best year ever. With that said, last year was a very bad year for me. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t have much to do with the economy,” he said. “I made more money yesterday than I made all of last year. It’s going to be a great year.”

Wealthy Street Bakery

Industry: Bakery/coffee shop

President/CEO: David LaGrand

Number of employees: 25

Year founded: 2002

Founders: David and Melissa LaGrand and Jim and Barb McClurg

David LaGrand, along with his wife, Melissa, and their friends Jim and Barb McClurg founded Wealthy Street Bakery in their own “backyard.”

Both couples are residents of Heritage Hill, a community that, along with the nearby Eastown community, tends to support its members and its businesses.

“We’ve got customers who are really committed to us. I think in this economy, often times people may not care whether Wal-Mart succeeds or fails, but they really are paying attention to their local businesses and that’s great. That’s exactly how the world ought to be,” said David LaGrand.

LaGrand remembered a customer who came in shortly after the bakery opened in 2002.

“A neighbor came in and said, ‘I’m so glad that your bread is good. I was going to buy a loaf a week anyway and throw it away if I couldn’t eat it,’” said LaGrand.

On top of a dedicated customer base, LaGrand attributes the bakery’s success to great partners and great employees.

Summit Training Source Inc.

Industry: Training media

President/CEO: Valerie Overheul

Number of employees: 45

Year founded: 1981

Founder: Valerie Overheul

There’s much being said these days about film making in Michigan, but Summit Training Source Inc. might argue it’s been here a long time. The company has been producing quality safety training videos for a variety of industries since 1981.

“Valerie was an independent sales rep and she had clientele who were asking for particular training programs,” said general manager Bryan Hornik of the founder. “Her company was not inclined to produce them, so she decided to take a gamble and do it herself, and she was successful. The program worked. She sold enough copies to start another program, and thus Summit Training Source came to be.”

The company has now expanded into the global playing field and looks to continue growth in the European Union and Asia.

With more than 40,000 clients in the United States, the privately held, women-owned business has had to stay on top of the ever-changing media realm.

“The biggest change was going from strictly producing video training programs to having formats — VHS, Beta — and when the Internet came out, we started making Web-based training curriculum,” said Hornik. “The delivery of the media has changed tremendously over the years.”

Big Dog Taekwon Do

Industry: Sports and recreation

President/CEO: Sharon Spungen and Marianne Armstrong

Number of employees: 5

Year founded: 2005

Founders: Sharon Spungen, Marianne Armstrong, James Smith, Jeffrey Wilt

When your company is founded around the tenets of tae kwon do — courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and an indomitable spirit — it’s no wonder that the business finds success.

“The four of us had a vision for a martial arts school that would be a benefit to the community and make West Michiganders stronger, faster and safer,” said Sharon Spungen, cofounder and co-CEO. “When we opened our doors, it was with some trepidation, because we had no idea if it was going to work. What we found was, by treating our customers the way we would want to be treated, we have a reputation for excellence — not only in the level of instruction but in how we treat our customers.”

In 2008, Big Dog Taekwon-Do was named one of the Best Women-Owned Small Businesses nationwide by Mother Magazine. More recently, Big Dog was included among 200 winners nationwide for Startupnation.com’s Mom-Owned Business competition. While the national recognition is nice, Spungen said the local chamber’s nomination means more.

“To be honest, this chamber recognition is even more important to us, because this is the community we serve,” said Spungen. “Don’t get me wrong: It was nice to get the national recognition, but we try to give back a great deal to the community.”

Grand Connection

Industry: Destination management

President/CEO: Amy Young and Tracy VanderMeer

Number of employees: 10

Year founded: 1999

Founder: Amy Young and Tracy VanderMeer

Grand Connection was started to help companies set up meetings and events in Grand Rapids, along with all the travel arrangements that go along with that. Thanks to customer demand, however, the company has grown from serving businesses coming into the Grand Rapids area to “outbound” business, convention management and other services, as well.

“As our business grew and clients became happier and happier with our services, they said, ‘Hey, if you do this well in Grand Rapids, why can’t you take this group to such and such,” said Holly Froumis, director of business development. “So now we’re doing national and international travel for our customers. It’s just been fun to watch it evolve over the 10 years.”

Starting with Herman Miller and Steelcase as its main clients, the company has grown while maintaining a 100 percent client retention ratio.

Young and VanderMeer both came from backgrounds as travel consultants, an industry that is hurting under current economic conditions. But even in a troubled economy, Froumis said that businesses still need to have meetings.

“In this market where the travel industry is in a downward slope and more and more layoffs are happening, we’re trying to let people know what we’re doing,” said Froumis. “Meetings still do need to happen. Everybody is doing more with less, and we’re trying to let people know that we’re here to help during this downslide.”

GrandLAN Gaming Center

Industry: Entertainment


President/CEO: Eric Baur

Number of employees: 2

Year founded: 2006

Founder: Eric Baur

Business is all fun and games for GrandLAN Gaming Center. Eric Baur decided to take a swing at opening up a LAN (local area network) gaming center after he and a friend started thinking about hosting a LAN party.

Baur describes a LAN party as: “When you get as many people as you can together and they all bring their computers, and you hook them up to the Internet and each other and you play a video game against each other.

“We were looking at some of the other groups that did it, and they would sell out 50 or 100 spots a month in advance. The more we started talking about it, we decided to make it permanent.”

After doing research and meeting with LAN gaming center owners, Baur opened up shop in 2006. Located within walking distance of Kendall College of Art & Design and Grand Rapids Community College, GrandLAN always has had a large number of college-aged clients. Students would stop in between classes to kill time, but in the evenings, the numbers would die down. More recently, however, Baur said business has stayed steady into the evenings. He hypothesizes that the down economy could be one of the reasons.

“I hate to say it’s been good for us, but we are inexpensive entertainment,” he said. GrandLAN charges $2 per hour or $10 per day. “It’s a really inexpensive entertainment. Compare that to going to a movie or an amusement park. I think it’s the same way people are saying, ‘Hey, you’re not going to Cygnus for dinner, but you can go to Red Lobster.’ A lot of people have stepped down to this kind of entertainment rather than going to the more expensive options.”

Global Vision Eyewear Corp.

Industry: Eye wear

President/CEO: Richard Wright

Number of employees: 14

Year founded: 1993

Founder: Richard Wright

It was 1993, just after the Gulf War, and CNN was toting its tagline of presenting “news with a global vision.” Richard Wright had just created his own brand of sunglasses and was brainstorming with a graphic artist on a name for the line. Thus was born Global Vision Eyewear.

Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, the company has shown sales increases every year. The consistent growth has afforded the company the ability to never have to lay anyone off for lack of business.

“No matter how much money I had, I would not be a success if my family didn’t love me, if my employees hated me, if I lied to people and compromised my principles to get ahead,” said founder and CEO Richard Wright.

“My company is a success because of all the people that have been positively affected by my company. My greatest accomplishment in the past few years is the changes I’ve made in me and my business.”

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