Muskegon's top entrepreneur emerges from career tribulations

March 22, 2010
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On Friday morning, the Business Journal tracked down Muskegon businessman Dan McKinnon in the last place you would normally find him: at home, just getting out of bed.

"With all the hoopla of yesterday, I decided to stay home and sleep in a little bit," he explained.

On Thursday, McKinnon was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce.

McKinnon and his family have three core businesses: GH Imaging (large-format digital image printing), GH Printing (offset printing of brochures, catalogs and magazines), and GH Wireless, a Nextel-Sprint cell phone franchise.

GH Imaging is one of the largest of its type in the nation, with about 4,500 customers across the country. About 85 percent of revenue comes from out-of-state. Those customers, McKinnon said, are "all like us, just smaller: the local print shop, or the local sign guy or advertising agency" —anybody who sells an ad that is too big for them to physically produce themselves.

GH Imaging also serves city transit authorities that sell advertising space on their busses. When you see a bus that looks as though it has been painted with ads, or with one huge ad, that's called a "wrap," and there's a chance GH Imaging produced it.

"They call the (advertising) panels on the side of a bus a 'queen,' and on the back, it's a 'king,'" he said. "Those are digitally printed stickers."

McKinnon started the printing business about 25 years ago, when he was about 35. That was after his first successful business crashed and left him and his large family practically penniless. He had started the business from scratch at age 25, producing large, illuminated signs. It was a capital-intensive company, he said, that grew very fast, at one point doubling its sales two years in a row.

"I didn't really understand the difference between volume and profit," he said. After 10 years, he had 35 employees but his business was under-financed for its rate of growth. A "couple of hiccups" destroyed the company.

"That business took everything," he said. He and his wife, Schar, moved with their seven kids into a two-bedroom apartment, where they lived for a year and a half while McKinnon got his new businesses going.

Like many other companies throughout the land, GH Imaging sales suffered around the end of 2008, forcing a cut of about 10 jobs, down to about 60. Things are improving now on the national scene, he said. His hiring freeze has ended, with three new hires made recently.

A moving target

Sequenom Inc.'s Interim CFO Paul Maier said during a conference call last week that the genetic test it introduced in September brought in $94,000 by the end of the year for the California company, which owns the Sequenom Center for Molecular Medicine in Grand Rapids. Results of that test, which identifies adult carriers of cystic fibrosis, are processed at the SCMM, where Dr. Daniel H. Farkas is laboratory director.

Maier said revenue from that test and two prenatal tests that were launched in the first quarter of 2010 are unpredictable at this point. With litigation and federal investigations pending related to "mishandled" clinical test results for its Down syndrome test, Sequenom won't be providing guidance during 2010, Maier said. Sequenom received state and municipal tax breaks when it promised to bring in 500 jobs with the now uncertain Down syndrome test as the centerpiece of its plan.

Chairman and CEO Harry F. Hixson Jr. told analysts and investors last week that Sequenom remains committed to starting over on clinical testing for the Down syndrome product.

Acquisition helped cause

Lambert, Edwards & Associates President & Managing Partner Jeff Lambert told the Business Journal last week that his cell phone started buzzing almost immediately after his company won PRWeek's Small PR Agency of the Year Award.

The award was one of dozens handed out by industry bible PRWeek at a March 11 black-tie event for 1,000 people at the Hilton Times Square New York. Lambert was accompanied by Tara Powers, partner and managing director, and Steve Groenink, managing director.

"I came from New York the very next morning and flew into Detroit with the award in tow. We had a new business meeting with DTE Energy and brought it to the event. We learned this week we won them as a new account," Lambert said.

He said that PRWeek based its decision partly on LE&A's 6 percent growth that occurred prior to last year's acquisition of Detroit PR firm John Bailey & Associates. He said he expects double-digit growth for 2010.

"Awards are validation of hard work, and clients do look at them, and prospective clients do look at them as an external, third-party endorsement," Lambert said. "We call it our national championship."

Lambert added that the target date is May 1 for LE&A's move to 47 Commerce St. SW, now undergoing renovation.

On fire at debut event

The international South by Southwest Interactive Festival recently came to a close and Kalamazoo-based Bloomfire, a new startup that creates online learning communities where everyone involved can teach and be taught, came back with positive remarks.

The company, whose official launch took place at the event, approached the festival with a bit of hesitance.

"I was really nervous about taking Bloomfire to South by Southwest," said Josh Little, founder and CEO. "It's kind of the who's who of the technology world. Tech people come there to network, not necessarily for new products. I was worried that we built this new tool for training and learning, and the tech world would say, 'So what?'"

Bloomfire was well received and pulled attention from influential companies in a variety of different industries, but not for Bloomfire's originally intended purpose.

"(They) were all very interested in Bloomfire … for customer communities," he said.

A snowboarding company wanted to use Bloomfire to help its customers connect with each other for tips and advice. Seven-Eleven's Slurpee Nation saw Bloomfire as a way to cross-educate its 1.2 million users on proper Slurpee pouring techniques.

"The trend at the conference and in the tech world tends to be collaboration," said Little. "Even traditional products like servers were talking about collaboration with other users or communities, which Bloomfire played really well in."

High-tech politics

Patrick Miles Jr., a Grand Rapids business attorney, announced last week he is launching his campaign for Michigan's 3rd Congressional District in the 2010 election as a Democrat. Miles made his announcement via a YouTube video. He isn't the only potential candidate using technology to reach potential constituents. Daniel Estrada, founder and CEO of D.C. Estrada and president of aimWest, was considering a run as an independent last week. Without ties to any political party or heavy financial backing, Estrada wants to know what kind of change people and businesses in the 3rd District are seeking. The bulk of Estrada's "campaign" endeavor is currently being organized on Facebook.

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