Epiphany opens creative path for serial entrepreneur

January 9, 2012
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Bryan Houck should have been elated.

The Youngstown, Ohio, native was only 25 years old when he was promoted to plant manager of a Cintas Corp.-owned 60,000-square-foot industrial uniform laundry washing operation in Pittsburgh, Pa. Then, in 1998, when he was 31, the young man’s career bulleted again when he was advanced to general manager with a staff of 150 reporting to him.

For all his hard work, he received a bonus check slightly more than his annual salary.

His hard-earned success should have put him in a self-congratulatory mood. But it didn’t.

“It was a Tuesday, and the (bonus) check came in at 10 in the morning,” recalled Houck. “By 3 that same afternoon, I realized I was slightly depressed. It wasn’t fulfilling. It was rather empty.”

That emptiness was punctuated while Houck was driving to an early-morning staff meeting soon after. While making the commute, ideas were rumbling in his head as to how he could get the most work out of his staff.

“It occurred to me that wasn’t a very healthy thing to be thinking,” said Houck. “I turned it around and asked myself, ‘What do I have to give people today?’ The answer was ‘Not much.’ That was when I started a quest of personal development, to enhance my skills, to have something to give. That hasn’t changed since that day.”

Ultimately, Houck considers himself lucky, even though it didn’t feel that way at the time. “I was fortunate to have personal success early in my career and find it remarkably unfulfilling,” he said.

Houck doesn't regret rerouting his personal ambitions. He describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur” who has been at the helm of start-ups in title, real estate, lean manufacturing and storage businesses. The most recent stint he’s clearly proud to be a part of is president of the privately held Vantaura Energy Services, formerly S41, with its new digs at 4039 40th St. SE.

Vantaura’s client base is small, independent grocers and convenience stores that want to lower their energy costs through the installation of LED lighting fixtures, ECM motors and other energy-saving devices.

“The market sector we service is largely overlooked by most people in our industry,” said Houck. “These are privately held businesses, and the business owners are looking for a competitive edge in a very, very competitive environment. We can provide them with that competitive edge.”

It wasn’t too long ago that Vantaura almost ran out of gas. The company’s previous owners contacted Houck and asked if he would assume the leadership helm. He agreed, initially hiring on as its interim president, but eventually transitioning from temporary to permanent when he got a charge out of implementing a new business model. Houck bought the company in October 2010.

“We needed to streamline and focus our resources,” said Houck. “When I took over, the company was trying to be all things to all people — from assembling LED lights, trying to distribute energy-saving products to manufacturing reps, and selling directly to the retail food industry.

“I looked for what I felt was the greatest opportunity in the marketplace and found an underserviced market in the medium, independent store marketplace.”

Houck had no previous experience with the LED market, but that did not dissuade him from jumping into the fray. He believes there are some ubiquitous business practices all companies are grounded in — or at least should be — regardless of the service they provide or product they manufacture.

“I had zero experience in this particular business with LED or energy-saving technology,” he said. “However, I am a serial entrepreneur. I love building companies and teams. I worked with this group on previous businesses and liked what they did.

“The fundamentals are the same in every business,” he continued. “You need to have a clear understanding of what the market is and what the value is to that market, and build an outstanding team to fulfill that market.”

Houck feels that’s what he’s accomplishing with Vantaura. With a staff of nine that includes sales, installation and support staff, he maintains it’s important to nurture a corporate culture where everyone understands that their contributions are vital.

“Culture in small businesses isn’t talked about enough,” said Houck. “In small businesses, it’s more critical. In a small business, every single person is dependent upon and needs to rely upon every person. The culture basically defines how we do things here and gives everybody a focus, and we reference not only what is expected of them but what they can expect from the team.”

He believes such a strategy will create positive capitalist karma.

“I believe within the next few years, this company can be five times bigger than it is today,” said Houck. “I want it to be the primary service to the retail food industry in the Midwest, which is about 40 million people. The industries we serve are always going to have needs, and my vision is to be that trusted ally.”

He’s not just a numbers-crunching, vision-casting guy. Houck credits his ability to make this personal observation partly because he’s come to realize he’s not the strictly analytical person he once perceived himself to be.

“I’ve discovered I absolutely love the creative world,” he said. “I’ve been very happy ever since I’ve discovered that.”

That discovery has led to writing poetry that he keeps pretty much to himself, as well as a knack for finding the right people to fill the positions in his company.

“To me, having a small business is a little like having fun on the playground,” said Houck. “Every day you have to decide how things are going to be, and if you don’t like it, you can change it by the end of the day.”

The road to this discovery was bumpy earlier in his life. He graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1990 with a bachelor’s of science degree in industrial engineering, which wasn’t an academic cakewalk by any stretch, he said.

“It was one of the most painful experiences in my life,” he said. “But I got the degree. The curriculum is very intense, and most of the classes are a reshuffling of calculus, physics and chemistry.”

His very first job wasn’t a pushover, either. He was a rock picker for a sod farmer at age 11. Just recalling the job at which he worked six hours on Saturdays in the spring and summer still makes him chuckle. The only skill-set required was that he own a flathead screwdriver so he could yank the stones out of the ground to help prepare the soil for planting.

“I learned I didn’t want to be a rock picker,” Houck deadpans.

The following year, he got his first taste of forming a start-up business by launching his own nascent lawn-mowing enterprise. Clearly, this was more to his liking, he said.

But despite his success, Houck doesn’t think of himself as a self-made man.

“I abide in a higher power and I believe we’re participating in a much, much bigger scheme,” he said. “I guess how we participate is a choice we all must make. But we don’t have the power to change the tide of the universe. We’re kind of born with a belief that makes us think we’re in control of the universe, and the challenge is to gradually understand we control very little, and to be at peace with that.”

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