EPIC finalists represent the areas best

May 13, 2012
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A half-dozen of the area’s most innovative businesses will be honored Wednesday during the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s second annual EPIC Awards dinner at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.

Profiles of the 18 finalists in six categories appear below. Finalists went through a two-step process to reach this point, starting with an extensive questionnaire that is reviewed by a committee of chamber volunteers, which is followed by a personal interview with chamber representatives for the finalists.

The awards celebrate the entrepreneurial, progressive, innovative and collaborative (EPIC) traits displayed by the companies. The finalists gathered for a pre-event reception at PNC Bank last Tuesday. This Wednesday’s dinner is from 5:30-8 p.m. Details are available at www.grandrapids.org/epic-awards or by calling (616) 771-0303.

EXCELLENCE IN BUSINESS AWARD

Axios proves worthy partner in HR functions

Not everyone has a background in human resources. Yet the hiring of  good employees is one of the most important decisions for companies that want to grow and succeed.

That’s why Axios Inc. has been around since 1988 — it simplifies the hiring process and human resources services for busy executives who may not have the time or expertise to handle such tasks. Axios (which happens to be the Greek word for “worthy”) has proved itself a good HR partner and complement to organizations’ overall goals. President Kellie Haines and COO Ann Hayes have navigated Axios through several recessions and marketplace obstacles, so they know exactly what executives are facing during these challenging times.

Axios also helps businesses retain their people by providing consulting to determine market-based wage scales, leading edge employment policies and procedures, psychological testing, in-depth screening processes and top-tier benefits. These services help deliver increased capability, improved results and desired culture change to clients.

Axios Human Resource Services recently created a new digital online marketing approach that uses search engine optimization technology to effectively segment their chosen market for small and mid-sized companies. Through this approach, HRS can rapidly grow using a focused marketing approach, eliminating wasteful traditional methods (such as mailers and telemarketing) and significantly improving the hiring rate for new business. Axios also gives back to the community through serving on the WIRED/CSR advisory board and as a partner to introduce the concept of the Career Readiness Certification process to the West Michigan business community.

Hope Network molds useful, skilled employees

Hope Network, founded in 1963 by President Becky Henry, is fast coming up on its 50-year anniversary, but the organization dedicated to meeting the needs of people with disabilities or disadvantages shows no signs of slowing down.

Initially, Hope Network served approximately 2,200 individuals. Today that figure totals more than 9,300.

In March, Hope Network opened its second Grand Rapids-area residential home for individuals living with Prader-Willi Syndrome (PWS), a rare but life-threatening genetic disorder. The organization’s innovative program is the only one that serves PWS sufferers in Michigan and has a 100 percent success rate.

Hope Network also is a leader in sustainable job training. It was the first agency in Michigan to bolster its federal job training program with “Green Clean” certification. This highly marketable certification gives Hope Network’s personnel the knowledge and skills to perform janitorial services with no corrosive materials and environmentally safe procedures. Hope Network also is a leader in human services. Hope’s goal is to continue to meet the needs for specialized transportation services as the largest nonprofit transportation system in Michigan. The agency also owns and manages nearly 600 income-based apartments for people with mobility impairments or chronic mental illness, or who are classified as low-income.

Elzinga & Volkers shifts its specializations

Elzinga & Volkers Inc., which has been in business since 1945, isn’t afraid to change with the times.

The construction services firm differentiates itself in three aspects of its business: employee-centered business operations; industry specialization; and creating positive and lasting client experiences.

After many years of specializing in public school and heavy industrial construction, E&V has shifted its specialization to the highly regulated industries of food processing, health care and senior living.

Through its subsidiary, Elzinga & Volkers Professional Services, the company is also one of very few providers of professional owner representation to large commercial food manufacturers such as Kraft, ConAgra, Wrigley and Nestle.

The firm also has made great strides toward more sustainable construction. E&V currently employs eight LEED Accredited Professional and 10 Green Advantage Certified individuals who have received special training in the areas of environmentally friendly design and construction. The firm also has a six-member sustainability committee that reviews the company’s operations for “green” opportunities. This includes a companywide switch to 30 percent post-consumer paper and the elimination of one-time use plastic water bottles and replacing them with reusable water bottles and filtered water.

E&V has been recognized as one of “West Michigan’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For” three years running, with two of those years being an Elite award winner (top 10 percent).

YOUNG ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR

GrandRapidsGolfLesson.com guarantees results

GrandRapidsGolfLesson.com has one of the sweetest summertime locations for golf instruction in West Michigan. Facing the 18th fairway of The Highlands Golf Club, visitors can imagine the legends who walked the greens before them. Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and others have grooved their swings on the same practice tee that now hosts GrandRapidsGolfLesson.com at The Highlands Golf Academy.

GrandRapidsGolfLesson.com invests a significant amount of time and effort into each client, and boasts a rather unusual guarantee for its customers. Scott Seifferlein, owner, offers the “Stop Slicing in Five Swings Guarantee,” a unique 3-D technology by K-VEST only available in eight locations across Michigan, and Michigan’s first training location to offer the latest in putting technology by Zenio Sports. In seeking to develop a score-based program, GrandRapidsGolfLesson.com has created a unique program that consists of three levels: Breaking 100, Breaking 90 and Breaking 80. The program holds both the student and the coach accountable for results and is the first of its kind to provide a money-back guarantee if the score is not achieved within six weeks.

Seifferlein also is involved in the community as a board member for the Pink Ball Charity Classic, the Grand Rapids CEO Roundtable, the Grand Rapids Glazer Kennedy Insiders Circle Mastermind Group and Grand Rapids BNI Chapter V. He also volunteers at Sunshine Community Church, is a member of the downtown University Club and supporter of the Grand Rapids EWGA. GrandRapidsGolfLesson.com also has donated more than $20,000 in gift certificates to West Michigan charities since 2006.

Crystal Clean’s innovative ‘airport valet’ is a hit

Crystal Clean Auto Detailing was created when Ross Timyan decided to officially establish the company in 2007 after selling vehicles online for friends at age 15. For the past three years Crystal Clean has expanded into a thriving organization servicing more than 30 automotive dealership accounts as well as thousands of retail customers in the Grand Rapids area.

Recently, Crystal Clean introduced an innovative service based on customer feedback. Its new “airport valet” program allows customers to have their vehicle detailed while they are away on a trip, saving on airport parking fees and offering secure storage at the same time.

Timyan said that Crystal Clean is recognized as a next generation car care center, incorporating the latest technology while maintaining a clean, modern facility that enables employees to use the newest products and equipment during the detailing process. Timyan strives to deliver a “red carpet” experience to every customer by providing the fastest turnaround, highest quality, and most convenient, hassle-free experience without sacrificing workmanship or value.

Improving clients’ Web presence is gNetworks’ goal

When Nate Lewis in 1995 launched one of the country’s first online shopping carts, bettercart.com, he was actually creating the business model for the Web development company gNetworks that would come along in 2006.

Lewis created a business environment where clients were able to improve their own Web presence and see gNetworks as a partner, not just the people who charged a fee every time the clients needed to update their website.

Lewis continues to focus on what gNetworks does best: developing websites and custom applications using a content management system. The company is constantly working toward improving clients’ software to offer a better Web presence while enhancing the quality of the products they deliver.

Lewis strongly believes that collaboration is an important element to future success. The firm provides free classes on SEO, e-Commerce, Google Analytics and social media to educate fellow business owners and managers. gNetworks also is one of the founding members of GeekAid of Michigan, which allows gNetworks to collaborate with fellow technology-related entrepreneurs and professionals to organize events that encourage West Michigan students to pursue a degree in an arts or technology-related field. The proceeds from the events provide scholarships for students pursuing those particular degrees.

NONPROFIT OF THE YEAR

The Right Place touts West Michigan’s advantages

The Right Place Inc. has spent more than 25 years supporting West Michigan’s economic growth and development. As the lead agency for economic development in metro Grand Rapids, Right Place has assisted hundreds of companies and helped to secure hundreds of millions in new investment and new payroll for the region.

In the economic development community, Right Place is not only notable for its longevity, but also for the unique approach to its creation. Launched at a time when economic development organizations were (and often still are) municipal entities or departments within local chambers, the creation of a private/public partnership with a singular mission to “promote economic growth in the areas of quality employment, productivity and technology by developing jobs through leading business retention, expansion, and attraction,” was not only the first of its kind in Michigan, but became the model upon which many economic development organizations across the United States were subsequently based.

As it has served the companies of West Michigan, Right Place has continued to adapt to the changing marketplace, becoming among the first of its peers to develop an international marketing strategy for attracting foreign direct investment to the region. Thanks in part to these efforts, West Michigan is now home to more than 70 international companies and ranks 36th among the top U.S. metro areas for European expansions.

Right Place supports the growth of local companies and the development of new innovation and new industries throughout the region. Specifically, recent activities have included supporting the growth of the life sciences/medical device industry, the aerospace and defense industry, the West Michigan alternative energy industry, sustainable business practices and the development of renewable products and services, and the commercialization of innovations.

Innovative practices mark Habitat’s building program

Habitat for Humanity of Kent County was founded in 1983 and is now in its 28th year of service in West Michigan. Throughout HFHKC’s history, each year has brought steady and stable growth in operations, capacity and community impact. HFHKC has experienced a tremendous amount of growth over the last few years in particular, increasing the number of homes built in Kent, eastern Ottawa and northern Allegan counties to 300, representing more than 1,300 family members served.

Habitat homes are not “given away,” but rather purchased at a 25-year, 0 percent interest mortgage. Homebuyers must complete a pre-determined number of sweat equity hours building their home or helping build the home of another family, and also participate in a number of financial, home maintenance and family strengthening courses that help set the family up for success.

HFHKC is leading the way in sustainable design or “green” homes. Having built the first LEED Certified Affordable Home in the nation in 2007, as recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council, HFHKC soon after dedicated itself to building all future homes to LEED certified standards. It is Michigan’s top producing Habitat affiliate, and was honored with the title of “Affiliate of the Year” in 2007.

In response to the call for continued innovative practices that will benefit Habitat homebuyers, the community and the environment, HFHKC is building two homes that offer another “first” for the state of Michigan. HFHKC is currently building the first two Michigan Habitat Net-Zero Energy Homes. These homes will produce as much energy as they consume, leaving the Habitat homebuyer with a net-zero energy bill at the end of the year.

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RYAN HOLTZ talks with Finalist Ryan Anderson from Kids’ Food Basket.

Kids’ Food Basket grows to meet growing need

In 2001, Mary Ann Prisichenko, principal of Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Straight Elementary School, discovered some of her students digging through the trash bin looking for food. She began seeking an organization that could help ensure her students received adequate nutrition after school.

When Mary K. Hoodhood, a long-time volunteer with the local Meals on Wheels program, heard this story and other similar tales from school officials, she decided to take action. She secured seed funding to support a sack supper program for 125 children every weekday at three schools. From its modest beginning, Kids’ Food Basket now serves 3,775 sack suppers to children each weekday. Sack suppers are evening meals that provide 1,000 calories from five food groups — nutrition that’s critical to the development of children’s brains and bodies.

In just nine years, Kids’ Food Basket has grown and is now serving more than 3,700 children from 28 schools each weekday, has eight full-time staff, two or three interns and part-time staff, and utilizes more than 150 volunteers on average each day to accomplish its mission. In the last year alone, Kids’ Food Basket has expanded its sack supper program by 50 percent.

Kids’ Food Basket is the only organization in West Michigan that directly serves elementary age children by addressing the problem of childhood hunger. It serves more meals each day than any other hunger relief organization in Michigan. Furthermore, the Kids’ Helping Kids program educates young people about the challenges of hunger in their own community, creates an engine for service, and gives them the opportunity to lead the projects that benefit children in their communities. More than 25 percent of hours volunteered at Kids’ Food Basket come from youth.

MINORITY BUSINESS OF THE YEAR

MBS invests in its own employees, too

Management Business Solutions, a professional staffing firm with national capabilities, designs customized solutions to meet the specialized needs of its clients. MBS, founded by Floriza Genautis, provides staffing solutions in such areas as accounting, IT, engineering, sales, marketing and health care administration. The company also participates and aligns itself with various diversity and inclusive organizations in the community that provide a visibility and attraction of diverse talents.

MBS is a relationship-driven organization and much of its marketing efforts are completed by establishing and strengthening its connections to clients and candidates. MBS helps in career coaching and transition for candidates, which allows the firm to make better placements.

As a service organization, MBS understands that “people” are its deliverables and therefore it invests in the firm’s internal talents, as well. At MBS, an ownership track is available to all interested employees. A five-year plan is carved out to help develop owners. Coaching future owners in “the MBS way” requires community involvement, as well as fostering the relationship-driven philosophy the firm embraces.

Mentoring is a big part of the success of MBS, both personally and professionally. The company has been involved with helping several new business entrepreneurs get started in their business endeavors. Sharing experiences and successes, as well as tools and information, helps others succeed in their respective businesses and professions.

Summit Landscape lessens environmental impact

Summit Landscape Management Inc. was founded in 1998 by Michael B. Verhulst and Bill VanderVelde and is a full service landscape contractor that provides a variety of services including lawn design, construction and maintenance, snow removal, tree care and removal and low impact development (LID) for sustainable designs. Summit has been able to help its clients reduce the overhead costs of their facilities by being creative in services provided, such as vegetated roofs. These roofs help maintain a constant temperature throughout the year, helping to reduce heating and cooling costs, and they extend the roof life up to three times.

Summit has designed and installed the largest rain garden in West Michigan. The garden acts as a filter for collected rain water from the rooftop and is then used to irrigate athletic fields. Another positive impact Summit has on the environment is educating its clients on different fertilizer programs. Summit also encourages clients to include “no-mow” areas in their urban designs and existing properties to aid in the reduction of labor costs and emissions reduction. The goal at Summit is to provide environmentally sound design on all its products.

Recycling programs have been put in place for all Summit’s landscape products. The recycling of plants, wood, metal, cement, fill soils, plastic and aluminum have been incorporated into the staff’s daily routine. Summit also encourages its staff to continue to educate themselves on all the new trends in customer priorities. This includes upgrading business technology to ensure daily operations are as efficient as possible. Summit also has been able to plan route and timing traffic to minimize travel and reduce fuel and labor costs, which keeps client pricing stabilized.

Jim Roberts Enterprises bolsters minority community

There are several unique aspects to Jim Roberts Enterprises LLC, a financial investment and business consulting business. As a business consultant with a background in engineering and integrative management, Roberts is able to incorporate technology, engineering, operations and finance into business plans that have helped clients save millions of dollars. The same research is used to identify various companies that benefit Roberts’ investment work.

Roberts started his firm in 2004 after leaving his position as managing director of the Corporate Services Division for CB Richard Ellis. His goal was to build a business that would allow him to work in an intellectually stimulating environment while spending more time with his family.

Roberts has been able to show his clients how to use data management to help recognize their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, understand their financials, develop written objectives (operating plans, marketing plans and budgets), position descriptions (including detailed goals and objectives) and a scorecard to measure the performance of the individual employees and the team.

For Roberts, success isn’t just measured on financial goals. He believes it is just as important to give back to the community, including the minority business community. He recently worked with a fellow minority business owner to handle his insurance work. With that contract arrangement Roberts was able to push his percentage of controllable spending to more than 50 percent with other minority- and women-owned businesses.

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FINALIST WALT Gutowski from Swift Printing and Communications talks with  Finalist Patrick Van Haren from SecurAlarm.  

SMALL BUSINESS OF THE YEAR

Swift Printing relishes its role in the community

Swift Printing and Communications was founded in 1950 by Walter Gutowski Sr. and his wife, Lorraine. In 1984, Walt Sr.’s only son, Walt Jr., joined Swift and co-managed and operated the company with his father. Today Walt Jr. is sole owner of Swift but he continues to include his dad in many aspects of managing the business.

The Swifts have been devoted to three main tenets to govern everything they do — content, well-cared-for employees; outstanding, solution-oriented service; and being a leader in technology. In 2006, they showed this leadership by purchasing the first iGen3 90 Digital Production Press, which was the first placement of this press in the world.

Over 90 percent of Swift’s business comes from repeat clients, and the average tenure of the company’s employees is over 10 years. The business is promoted by current customers and a majority of new clients come from recommendations, which is a testament to Swift’s success in gaining and keeping customers.

One of Swift’s most important corporate values is being a good citizen. In April 2000, Swift renovated its building and the block, including 20 new apartments devoted to people with special needs. In 2009, Swift supported Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids by underwriting the “Think Pink” high school basketball game between the West Catholic and Sparta girls’ varsity teams. This year, the firm made a five-year commitment to underwrite the newly renamed Walt Gutowski Sr. YMCA Strong Kids Golf Outing in honor of its founder.

SecurAlarm’s platforms simplify clients’ security

Established in 1993 by Pat Van Haren and Gloria Lubben, SecurAlarm Systems Inc. is now one of the most recognizable security integrators in West Michigan. Pat Van Haren is the president of SecurAlarm and Gloria Lubben is the executive vice president of sales & marketing. Lubben started as SecurAlarm’s first employee.

As a security provider, SecurAlarm has a competitive advantage in the sophistication of its technological platforms that simplify clients’ security solutions. The firm pushes the envelope for systems integration in a way that utilizes existing infrastructure (the client’s network, databases, servers, and existing access control, video, fire systems) and minimizes cost and additional work for its customers.

SecurAlarm does not stop at just introducing innovative technologies, however; the company also ensures that it is introducing concepts in a cost-effective manner to manage its budget while being aggressive in investing in the future. The industry is constantly in a state of change with the development of new technology, convergence of services, and the push for unified/simplified solutions.

SecurAlarm also participates in the community. Kids’ Food Basket is one of its main beneficiaries, but the firm also contributes to many area churches, Second Harvest Gleaners, Homes for our Troops and Habitat for Humanity. It takes great pride in helping ensure that those who have protected the nation are protected as well.

Lambert, Edwards & Associates’ reach crosses the country

Lambert, Edwards & Associates was founded in 1998 with a vision to become a leading national agency with cross-functional capabilities in public relations and investor relations. While most agencies specialize in one or the other, few have true expertise in the technical aspects of investor relations while providing a full range of PR services. This is best captured by the firm’s motto: “The PR firm that can read an income statement.”

This blend of bottom-line business knowledge and public relations expertise has created valuable differentiation that has resonated in the marketplace, said Jeff Lambert, helping LE&A extend its reach to serve 100 clients based in 20 states and five countries, driving 11 consecutive years of record sales and strong profitability and a ranking as the largest PR firm in West Michigan, No. 6 in the Midwest, and a top 60 firm nationally.

LE&A’s 2009 acquisition of John Bailey & Associates is the latest milestone in its uninterrupted track record of growth. It also makes LE&A the first coast-to-coast firm of its kind based in Michigan, with offices in the three largest metro markets and a diverse team boasting experience as former big agency execs, Wall Street analysts, Fortune 100 corporate communications staff and journalists.

WOMAN OWNED BUSINESS OF THE YEAR

Holistic Care Approach expands services, client base

Holistic Care Approach was founded by Barb Meconis on the belief that achieving wellness from within is the key to physical and mental well being.

Since 2003, HCA has grown from 10 practitioners and one employee to 30 practitioners and four employees. The company has accomplished this by adding and diversifying services and products, as well as expanding its client base to more than 8,000. The client demographic also has changed from primarily females over 40 to include more males and children.

In 2011, HCA has become a team of medical doctors, registered nurses, massage therapists, naturopathic doctors, acupuncturists, nutritional coaches, hypnotherapists, aestheticians, colon therapists, and other practitioners of integrative treatments.

Meconis said HCA has a unique competitive edge in the health care industry because the “alternative” medicine industry has traditionally been single-provider based, or salon based. HCA provides what she calls a “medi-spa” model that now has over 30 services and product offerings under one roof. Clients are also now able to use their flex benefits spending accounts and their health savings accounts to purchase services at HCA. With the changes in health care insurance today, Meconis said, individuals are spending more out of pocket as well, and thus are making consumer choices for the diverse services that HCA offers.

Reagan Marketing + Design gives back to community

Founded in 1991, Reagan Marketing + Design LLC is a marketing solutions and design firm dedicated to strategy, account and project management, graphic design and production management, copywriting and editing services, Web-based services including content and social media, and video and motion graphics.

RM&D has enjoyed steady, strategic growth for two decades. Over the course of growing from a one-woman business to a staff of more than 20 professionals, RM&D has moved or expanded its offices three times. Later this year, Mary Reagan Shapton and crew will take occupancy in a historic property they purchased and renovated in the Wealthy Street business district.

RM&D gives back by supporting a broad range of community and business initiatives, from mentoring entrepreneurs and volunteering at schools to making presentations to business groups and participating in local events. For Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids, RM&D worked on Laughfest, developing branding (the yellow smiley face), messaging, a video and also supported the project with a presence in social media.

Working together with organizations that represent the community is a focus of RM&D’s collaborative efforts. The firm has ongoing relationships with a number of business and community organizations, including Monroe North Business Association, the Wealthy Street Business Alliance, the American Advertising Federation of West Michigan, the East Hills Community of Neighbors, Local First and LINC Community Revitalization.


Environmental awareness drives Busy Bea’s Services

Cindy Locklin started Busy Bea’s Services Inc. as a side project while a financial project manager for a large corporation.

Busy Bea’s mission is to exceed customers’ expectations, and Locklin believes it takes everyone in the company pulling together to meet that goal. The firm’s competitive edge comes from the niche it has developed in the medical field and the experience of cleaning clean rooms for medical manufacturers. Busy Bea’s embraces technology and has purchased equipment that provides the best environmental impact and results for the customer, while being the best ergonomically for its employees.

Tackling jobs other companies shy away from is something Busy Bea’s does on a continual basis. Locklin said the willingness to do the tough jobs is what has built the firm’s reputation over the years. Innovative bids using blueprints for long-term contracts assist in taking on those jobs, she said.

Busy Bea’s uses products, processes and procedures to enhance the environment. The use of cleaning tools that are not merely thrown away after one use plays an important role, as does purchasing higher end equipment with a long life expectancy to minimize landfill contributions. Other initiatives include collaborating with companies, such as Cascade Engineering, on cost reduction ideas for customers to help them reduce their waste and save money while helping with the environment.

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