Rod Smith: From Old-School Hobby Racer to Monmouth College “Green Army” Manager to Global Race Car Parts Entrepreneur

Today’s Midwest Entrepreneurs class blogger is Ryian Sampson. Below, he tells the captivating and improbable entrepreneurial success story of Mr. Rod Smith. Pay particular attention to the importance of the trust-based (supplier) relationships—with some of the biggest names in NASCAR racing—that Rod has forged over the years and now leverages to the “ca-ching” ringtone tune of $400,000 to $500,000 in annual sales.

Regards,

Prof. Gabel

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Rod Smith is an individual who caught his entrepreneurial bug later in life. Everything started coming together for the man during some of his final days at Monmouth College. He attributes much of his success to the multitude of things he learned from co-workers from his time at this institution, where he was Assistant Director of the Physical Plant (in charge of the custodians, utility workers, grounds crew and student workers). While in this position, Rod had a very important concept down in his head: “The students are also the customers.” With this in mind he made it his mission to treat students as customers and that meant leaving no stone unturned when it came to the cleanliness of the campus and dorms. This idea stuck with Rod. He was able to apply it to a new venture he was trying to start. He understood the importance of his customer base and has painstakingly tried to keep those practices intact as well as polishing them over the years.

This carried over to his current business of selling used NASCAR parts and is the life blood of his success. Rod Smith, in his head, has a very wide range of specific knowledge that allows him to buy and sell used automotive parts and market them back to other individuals over EBay. In general, Rod sells auto parts worldwide and stops at nothing order to make sure that the parts he obtains are clean and in good condition and can be sold. At the end of the day it would be his name on the line and he cannot afford anything ill being said about him or the services he provides. Many years ago Rod Smith would partake in racing himself; this is where the passion and knowledge of his current trade comes from. Also from that time in his life Smith was able to build upon relationships with other racers that eventually led him to become one individual who most others will call upon in order to meet their automotive needs.

In the customer’s mind Rod Smith has an amount of trust that he himself has that other competitors cannot come close too. This is something Rod can pride himself on. The customer base he still has to this day is what is helping drive his sales. Word of mouth is a very powerful tool, especially for a beginning entrepreneur. With the help of some of his workers Rod has the ability to buy smaller more valuable car parts and clean them up in order to sell for a profit. This doesn’t exclude the plethora of other car parts associated with this industry. Rod has seen it all but chooses at this time in his life to handle smaller parts for his own health. The profit margins can be pretty big and it all comes down to if the customer has the ability to simply buy an item from Smith at his asking price. A lot of the items sold through EBay have the ability to be set up for auction and some of the money that is being made through sales are haggled on. Over the years some parts gain and lose value and Rod stays on top of a lot of information that is pertinent to providing the right price to those looking to purchase his wares.

There are a few high-trust customers that Rod Smith still stays in contact with to this day that provide him with enough work so that he can continue to see the cash flow. Some smaller  NASCAR teams have Rod in the back of their minds when they think of a salesman who can provide the parts that they need when they need it. In turn, these teams, because of their relationships with Rod, return favors like providing him with parts for extremely low prices that he can turn around sell whatever it may be for a handsome profit. The mark-ups on these items are where Rod really begins to see money start to accumulate.

It’s worthy to note that there is a bit of niche marketing occurring here with Rod Smith. Buying and selling is happening between this vendor and multiple NASCAR racing teams. Although this market is fairly small and the man has to sometimes travel down to Charlotte, NC in order to pick up some pretty specific racecar parts that someone may have an interest in after he cleans it up. A majority of his sales are made to car builders but that doesn’t mean that an average Joe could not contact Rod for motor or three.

Rod Smith’s trade mark has to be his “ca-ching” ringtone which has to have gone off at least 5 times in our class alone. Every time you hear that tone you know that Rod’s wife Debbie, who he refers to as “the brains of our operation,” will be arranging for packing and shipping and that there will soon be either be USPS or UPS delivery driver waiting outside of the Smith residence.

Ryian Sampson

Paul Rickey ‘76: The Farmer as Entrepreneur

File this under the mental categories of “serendipity,” “it is a small world” and “networking matters”…

Two weeks ago, immediately after our excellent guest speaker presentation by Penrose Brewery owner  Eric Hobbs, I headed downtown for the introduction of a new beer crafted by Monmouth College Chemistry Prof. Brad Sturgeon—a future speaker in the class—held at Market Alley Wines (owned and operated by Susan Schuytema, our first speaker of the semester).

While there—several samples of Sturgeon’s “Stout No. 2” into the evening—I was introduced to Mr. Paul Rickey, a 1976 business graduate of Monmouth College who had come to occupy space between Prof. Sturgeon’s refrigerated dispenser and I. It was then shortly learned that Paul is a long-time local “legacy farmer” and also that we have many local friends in common. Paul told me that we “need a farmer” to speak in the Midwest Entrepreneurs class. I agreed—honestly and happily—and spoke to him about his business at length (over several more samples of “Stout No. 2”).

Arrangements were made… By chance at the time, Mr. Rickey was scheduled to speak the same week as another ag-based local entrepreneur; Will Zimmerman. Thus “ag-week in Midwest Entrepreneurs” was serendipitously created.

I had been hoping to find a local farmer to speak in the class for some time. I had hoped that Mr. Rickey would dispel all notions that (1) farming is not a sophisticated business, and (2) farming is not an entrepreneurial activity. He did just that.

Today’s class blogger is Tyler Baxter. Below he nicely captures the essence and feel of Mr. Rickey’s intriguing entrepreneurial tale as told to the class on Thursday 19 March.

Cheers!

Prof. Gabel

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“Agriculture week” in Midwest Entrepreneurs ended on a high note with guest speaker appearance of Paul Rickey. Mr. Rickey is a fellow Monmouth College alum from the class of 1976.

As he told the class, Mr. Rickey has never been too far from home, growing up in Seaton, IL, a small town exactly 26 miles from Monmouth. His family has been farming there for generations.  Since a young age, Rickey had an outstanding work ethic and could not get away from the farm for too long without either going back on weekends during college or even after classes here at Monmouth College.

Currently, Rickey farms just under 1,000 acres, and technically as well as literally works for his mother (who owns the land he farms).  It was Rickey’s parent’s decision to have him attend college, because they believed strongly in a good education.  Sure enough, right after graduation he headed home for the farm.  Ironically, Rickey says that his college education did not become a huge factor in his career until recently, where his business skills are becoming more important due to governmental regulations, competition, and increased need for loans. When he graduated from Monmouth College, Rickey’s peers and many other farmers did not see farming as a business.  However, Rickey seems to really grasp the business aspect of farming, with ample knowledge on commodity trading and the technological advances and finance that goes into running this increasingly complex type of operation.

Paul Rickey has a large amount of experience in not only row crop farming but, early on in his career, livestock. He compares raising livestock “to having children… but worse.” He described tending to livestock as a “guaranteed 7 day a week job” with the animals needing constant attention. During this operation, he was responsible for 50 heads of cattle and a skid steer was the main machine for organizing manure and other materials.

Mr. Rickey has always believed in staying in the family business on the farm and the land he farms has been in his family since 1847.  Rickey was the only son in the family, so the weight was on his shoulders when it came to taking it over.  Rickey recalls the price of the 160 acres he lives on being bought for $1,300 in 1847. He stated that it is worth over $1,500 per acre. He expressed very well how times have changed since he has been farming, and he also recalled the 1980 depression, and the negative impact on farmers.  He sees this trend happening again, but his experience allows him to be ready to take on another farming recession and he wisely has the equity to back up his operation in a down time.

Currently, Rickey specializes in row crop farming and he has recently invested in the newest GPS self-steering system in his tractor.  This year will be his first season with this technology and we could all tell how anxious he is to try it out and to test his patience with not being able to touch and control the wheel.  He also does his own spraying, which he says is rare now in days, because spraying can be very dangerous and also very time consuming.  He now hires enough help on the farm to be able to work a regular 5 day a week schedule and he also gave us a very detailed schedule of a “normal” season.  He will start his planting around April, spray all summer long, he will have a short lull where he can have a brief break, then he will spray repeatedly for weeds, then come late September, Rickey will start the plowing process until winter time (this year it was around December when he finished).

Mr. Rickey also gave us a few pieces of advice for any career, not only farming.  He expressed the importance of a good relationship with your local banker.  His local banker plays a huge role in his entrepreneurial business and can significantly impact his financial situation by approving or disapproving large loans that are crucial to Rickey’s complex and risky business.  He also spoke about not being too stubborn to keep up with technological advances.  He has invested a great deal of money in new technology, but it seems to be paying back great returns every season.  Education is another big piece of advice Rickey believes in, and the separation in work ethic between us students who are still in college as upper classmen, to the ones who could not make it through freshman year.  A great quote from Mr. Rickey is, “show up on time ready to go.”  This may not seem like much, but punctuality and good work ethic can get you a long way in a career.

In conclusion, I would argue that our visit from Mr. Paul Rickey was not a lecture, but an adventure.  He has been through generations of experience and has seen more than most of us can imagine in his field of work.  Ironically, Mr. Rickey never used to like speaking to students, but he made it seem like it was second nature to him.  Not only is he a great speaker, but also a good friend and neighbor to our very own “Dicky J” (Finance Professor Dick Johnston).  I think I speak for all of us in class when I express my gratitude for getting to have Paul Rickey join us in our class during agriculture week.

Tyler Baxter

“Ag Week” Begins with a Homegrown Entrepreneurial Success Story

Tuesday’s class began with a time-lapse YouTube video of the construction of an $875,000 grain elevator roughly five miles east of Monmouth, IL.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qELQMCDRtk

The entrepreneur behind this impressive project—and many, many more in the area—is “homegrown” in the sense that he is both a Monmouth College Business Administration graduate and a former Midwest Entrepreneurs class member.

This inspirational story of homegrown entrepreneurial success is told below by current class member Adrick Barreto.

Stay tuned later this week for more on regional ag-based entrepreneurship as our guest speaker on Thursday will be local farmer—and another Monmouth College business graduate—Mr. Paul Rickey.

Enjoy…

Prof. Gabel

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This Tuesday our Midwest Entrepreneurs class had a very intelligent and relatable entrepreneur speak by the name of Will Zimmerman, who owns and operates Avon, IL-based Modern Grain Systems.

Zimmerman, a 25-year-old former Monmouth College student that graduated in 2011, told us his story of how he owns a business that he bought before he even graduated from college. Will had been working for Bill Thompson, a man whose company built grain silos, when he was a teenager. He continued to work for Mr. Thompson until he was a Junior in college when he finally purchased the company from Bill, after years of joking about doing it.

During the first year he owned the company, Zimmerman had some help from the former owner, who stayed to guide him and to help him learn the ropes of managing the company well. The former owner helped him because he saw what every one of his customers and workers would see in him: a hard-working and dedicated man with strong values. This was made apparent to me when Will talked about how his company would bid higher than other companies for construction projects, but his company would get the bid anyway. The main reasons why he would get the bids is because he has a reputation for keeping his word and for working as hard as he can to ensure things are done the right way. To quote Zimmerman: “If you tell a guy that you’re going to do something, you better do it.” That is exactly what he does.

Will’s success stems from not only this, but also his willingness to work with and effectively communicate with his employees. He sets firm rules, enforces them fairly, and is always happy to roll up his sleeves and work alongside those that he employs. He also focuses on his core customers, careful not to stretch himself too thin by accepting jobs outside of a predetermined area so that his company can do its job, and do it well.

It’s because of Will’s impressive his work ethic and the quality of work that he and his company does that his company continues to grow and expand. People who he has worked with and work for tell others of his business and those people come to him when they need a job done. Will Zimmerman is a very inspiring entrepreneur and I am glad that he came to speak for our class!

Adrick Barreto

Artistic Expression of Craft Beer Culture: Eric Hobbs and the Penrose Brewing Company

Thursday’s Midwest Entrepreneurs class was a great send-off for Spring Break. Our guest was Eric Hobbs of the Penrose Brewing Company located in the West Chicago suburb of Geneva, IL (http://penrosebrewing.com/).

Below, class blogger Donald Banks recounts the fascinating and inspirational entrepreneurial tale told by Mr. Hobbs. It is a tale of passion for, as Eric put it, “artistically expressed” beer and craft beer culture (discovered, I feel compelled to say, via his frequenting John’s Grocery Store in Iowa City, IA [https://www.johnsgrocery.com/] as an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa [as did I twenty or so years before him]).

Cheers!

Prof. Gabel

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This past Thursday, we had the pleasure to hear from Eric Hobbs, Co-founder and Co-owner of Penrose Brewing Company.

Eric grew up in Geneva, Illinois, which is also where his business is located. He graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in Communication Studies. You can say that his love for beer began during his college years by experimenting with different kinds of beers with college friends.

Upon his graduation in 2003, Eric worked for a Miller wholesaler for two years, Joseph Huber/Berghoff Brewing for three years, and then Goose Island and Anheuser Busch for six years (after AB acquired Goose Island). While with these firms, he learned all he could about the industry and how to produce and distribute beer. Then, about 18 months ago, Eric decided to take what he had learned and pursue his passion as an entrepreneur.

The other half of the Penrose Brewing Company is brewmaster Tom Korder.  He is the engineering brains behind this whole operation. He graduated from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with an engineering degree. He, like Eric, got extensive industry experience before starting up Penrose. Tom worked a total of 10 years, first for AB and then Goose Island. They both come with two different aspects of the business and that is what makes it such a great fit.

Mr. Hobbs explained to the class that finding investors to help start Penrose Brewing Company was a simple as word-of-mouth. Eric said: “Find one millionaire and they usually know a bunch more.” Mr. Hobbs also made a point in class that it is really good for the company to have an Attorney on staff because when he has a question about legal documents he looks towards that person without being charged for billable hours (which can be very expensive).

Eric also informed the class that the building of this exciting venture is founded on four principles: Experience, Building a Brand, Innovation, and The Future.

With regard to Experience, Eric and Tom came to the table with a collective total of 21 years’ worth of industry experience. Even though neither Eric nor Tom graduated from college with a degree in Business, they still managed to obtain the knowledge of how to start and grow this brewery. Everything else they learned along the way to help them get to where they are today. They presently have 10 employees—6 full-time and 4 part-time—that contribute to the major success so far.

One of the key things that Experience has taught Eric Hobbs and Tom Korder is that effectively running an entrepreneurial business is founded on social skills and communication. To make this point, Mr. Hobbs used a quote he had found online made by our very own Professor Gabel on the subject: “I understand the value of skills outside business. It’s important for students to have broad skills, social skills, a broader background, and to learn to relate to people better.” This is exactly what Eric and Tom learned and today apply in their fast-growing business. One of the main ways in which the business has grown is by the building of the taproom, where Penrose beer is sold to eager craft beer consumers. As Eric informed us, the taproom is used for direct consumer connection. This room is 40% of cash flow for the brewery. The remaining production of the brewery focuses on distribution through partners such as Windy City Distribution in the eight counties around the Chicagoland area.

Eric also told us that Building a Brand starts with getting the eyes of the consumer with up-to-date, interactive online communications. Next, you have to engage the consumer outside the event with social media and cross promotion. This means being consistent and always updating so that people know what is going on with new beers that are going to be introduced or festivals and other events Penrose is going to. That is why they have been to over 125 events and poured beer at 25 festivals to keep the name out there for the public.

The third pillar to the business is to Innovate. They have had videos made for the business that show the artistic creativity and passion that goes along with making Penrose’s growing line of craft beers. They have been featured in many newspapers and industry publications for their genius in craft beer artistry.

The last building block is The Future. Here, Mr. Hobbs explained that he and his partners believe that consistent reinvestment in the business and taking a long-term perspective is key. This also is seen in how the company hires new employees. They want to hire only people who share their passion for craft beer culture that can be used to connect with the customer. But the most important thing to Eric is hiring someone who he feels he can be around constantly because Penrose Brewery is a close-knit work group. Also, they need to innovate everyday with beer, people, events, menus, labels, carriers, photos, website, social media, and etc. so that they do not become complacent (which could lead to the end of the business).

Donald Banks

The Up and Down—and Up and Down for the Count—Tale of Paul Schuytema, The Reluctant Former High-Tech Entrepreneur

Today’s class blogger is Corine Allen. Below, she tells the captivating tale of Paul Schuytema and his roller-coaster entrepreneurial venture with Magic Lantern, a now defunct but once highly successful video game development firm based right here in Monmouth, IL.

The class learned a new and valuable lesson: There is much to learn not only from entrepreneurial success but also from failure. Most specifically: In fast-paced, dynamic high tech industries, failure can occur when even successful  firms do not see major change coming soon enough to adapt.

Enjoy!… And thank you Paul Schuytema!!

Prof. Gabel

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Before Thursday I had no idea what it took to make computer games until Paul Schuytema came and spoke to the class.  Paul described himself as a “nerdy kid” growing up.  He loved to play board games and really got into the rules of the games.  By fourth grade, Paul started to paint miniatures from the ancient Greek time area and that is when he made his first game.  Then, the technology hit and Paul’ s mother bought him a computer, one that allowed him to start programming and he loved it.

Paul’s love for computer programming had to become a hobby because it was not offered as a major at the school he was attending.  After working at Monmouth College for a couple of years, Paul worked on a lot of PC video games on the side and then got a call from 3D Realms and they offered him a job.  The company, furthermore, ended up shutting down the game that Paul and many other people that had worked really hard on, due to a larger need for a focus on another PC video game (the Duke Nukem release).  Paul left 3D Realms and returned to Monmouth in 1999 to start his own video game company, Magic Lantern. Paul told the class that, going into this entrepreneurial, one thing he knew for certain based on his past experience working for video game firms, was how NOT to run the company.

The startup of the company was slow and difficult. They attempted to launch their own video games, but soon learned that key to the business was having the legal right to use popular movie or TV show names and characters (e.g., Star Wars and Spongebob Squarepants). To get some cash flowing into his business, Paul and his partners wrote video game walkthrough/guide books.

The big break for Magic Lantern came when they released Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Covert Ops Essentials.  This release gave Magic Lantern money that they truly needed.   After Rainbow Six, they released several other even more successful games, including Combat, Survivor (a game based off the hit TV show) and also Survivor Ultimate.  After they released those games they released a few more games, but nothing as big as Combat or Survivor.  The last game Magic Lantern made was Man Jungg Tiles or Time.  The company went through numerous “landmines,” as Paul said. It wasn’t the games for the reason they went out of business, it was the release of the console video game Halo. This innovation changed the gaming industry and it was bad news for someone like Paul, a small developer who failed to see console gaming coming in time to adjust.

The members of Magic Lantern successfully developed numerous quality products for the customer while living out their dreams of doing what they loved.  Having Paul speak to the class was a unique opportunity to hear not only about how to start up and run a high-tech firm but also how it came to fail.  Paul is proud of what he did with Magic Lantern and is now the Director of Community Development for the city of Monmouth. He is also married to Susan Schuytema, owner of Market Alley Wines.

Corine Allen

The Inspirational, Titanic Entrepreneurial Tale of Monmouth’s Own Mary Kellogg-Joslyn

 

Today’s class blogger is Adewuyi Adeniji. Below, he recounts the largest and riskiest–and arguably most inspirational–entrepreneurial story we have heard yet this semester; that of Titanic Museum co-owner Mary Kellogg-Joslyn  (http://www.titanicattraction.com).

Enjoy… and be inspired!

Prof. Gabel

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Successful, motivated, ambitious… Those are words that describe our guest in Midwest Entrepreneurs class this past Tuesday.

Mary Kellogg-Joslyn returned to her roots to encourage a group of Monmouth College students to pursue their goals with aggression and passion every day. Born and raised in Monmouth, she became one of the most successful Monmouth residents. After graduating from Monmouth high-school, she attended Columbia College in Chicago. She then took her talents to Los Angeles, where she landed her first job that paid her $100 a week for a department store. Her great work ethic was recognized by CBS employees she interacted with, which led to her being offered a position to work for the firm. She eventually worked at CBS for ten great years where she became the executive director of marketing and programming. Her performance at CBS got her noticed by Disney, where she worked for another 20 years, rising to the rank of Executive Vice President of television. Her husband, John Joslyn, was also a television producer. The two eventually merged their entertainment skills and knowledge to pursue a grand entrepreneurial venture. Today, she and John own the Titanic; specifically the two Titanic Museums (one located in Branson, MO and the other in Pigeon Forge, TN).

Mary began her presentation to the class by informing us of the significance of the Titanic and enormity of the building of the ship, which took three years to build in Ireland. She then told us that “Five days after she (Titanic) was built, she sunk after colliding with an iceberg. It took two hours and forty minutes to sink under the Atlantic Ocean.”

Mary then went into the details of running the two Titanic Museums. She stated that before making the decision to build the first Museum, she told her husband: “You must be the only boss and then everyone under you must answer to me.” She explained that she was more structured than her husband John and that she needed to make sure everything was operating correctly and efficiently. From this previous statement, we can draw the conclusion that Mary was all about doing business the right way because without structure, a business can never be successful.

To continue about Mary and John’s business plan, John was in charge of recovering artifacts from the Titanic ship; a $6 million operation. Today, he and Mary own a lot of Titanic artifacts which they display in their two Museums. Both of these Museums are successful and are visited by millions of people yearly. I highly recommend that you visit one of these Museums, if not both!

Mary’s ultimate goal is to create a personal experience of a lifetime with each visit to the Museum. In order to do this, Mary understands that she has to hire and train employees—“crew members” as she calls them—who can display her vision that she has for the two Museums. Mary and John eventually hired 110 crew members. These crew members act out real Titanic stories each day to create the desired experience. To do so effectively, each person goes through several months of Titanic University training as well as take “1912 Etiquette” lessons, with 192 being the year of the ship’s maiden—and final—voyage. Today, before crew members “go on stage” each day, they see a sign stating: “You are now entering 1912.”

Another valuable lesson learned from Mary is the importance of treating employees right. For example, from the janitor to the manager of a particular department, she feels all crew members are equally important. She understands that her employers are her most important asset. According to Mary: “The biggest asset in our company is our employees.”

There was other vital information that Mary shared with my classmates and I that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

First, she explained that in order to build a good a company there are three traits that it must consist of. She said a good company consists of good leadership, education, and structure.

The second learning experience that Mary shared with us occurred when she explained the two different types of bosses. She stated: “The best boss in the world works through his management. The worse boss in the world wants control.” She further explained that a good boss never hesitates to show his employers he or she can do anything they ask them to do.

Finally, the last learning experience I will share with you from Mary’s discussion is when she explained that we must do everything in life with passion. The more passion and effort you put into yourself or what you love doing, the better results you will witness yourself achieving.

In closing, I was very inspired and motivated by Mary Kellogg-Joslyn. The drive and passion she uses to do business and live her life is not displayed by many in today’s society. She loves what she does and enjoys helping others who want to follow in her footsteps or just want to be successful. She ends every conversation with her employers by saying “I appreciate you.” Is it not obvious that she is special in many ways? I am grateful for the opportunity she shared with my classmates and I.

Sincerely,

Adewuyi Adeniji

On Time Quality at a Competitive Price: Michael Vipond ’03 and The Entrepreneurial Success Story of General Grind and Machine

Yesterday’s guest speaker in Midwest Entrepreneurs class both continued and added to our recent emphasis on business-to-business (B2B) heavy industrial firms. As class blogger Ben Schweitzer discusses below, also continued was a focus on quality, customer satisfaction, and the importance of highly satisfied, well-trained employees.

Prof. Gabel

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On Thursday, our class had the honor of hearing from Michael Vipond, a 2003 Monmouth College graduate who is presently the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at General Grind and Machine (http://www.generalgrind.com/). The company has grown from a tiny three-person operation in 1976 to its present size of up to 450 employees and nearly $80 million in annual sales (using about 4 million pounds of raw materials every month).

Michael described the company as an American-made “one stop shop” for all its customers’ machining needs. He discussed many factors that set the company apart but they all relate to three main interrelated goals: to strive for product quality delivered on-time and at a competitive price.

The corporation is located in Aledo, Illinois, placing it near its three largest customers; Caterpillar, John Deere and Case New Holland. Being close to three of the biggest agricultural equipment manufacturing companies has allowed the business to thrive as orders continuously come in throughout the day and night. The company is running machines 24 hours hour a day, seven days a week because the size of orders is so large.

General Grind uses an MRP (Material Requirements Planning) based computer application that not only takes orders but automatically figures how much material to buy for upcoming jobs. The company also buys directly from the steel mill in great volume, which allows it both cut its costs and sell to customers at a more competitive price.

To find the right workers to do the growing volume of needed work, General Grind “hires attitude.” What they are looking for in an employee is a good work ethic and the willingness to learn. The company has implemented an on-sight training facility for employees. By hiring the right people that they know will care about their work and training them properly, there is a sense of care that flows from each employee to each customer, resulting in products that satisfy customer requirements and fulfill all promises made. On top of this, Mr. Vipond also told us that deliveries of parts are made by engineers and managers to help grow a personal connection with customers.

Machinery is another big competitive advantage for the business. Having one of only two heat treatment machines in Illinois and four $500,000 Mazak lathes along with offering robotic welding, the company can do everything customers need right in their Aledo-based shop without having to outsource any jobs.

Another factor that that makes General Grind stand out is ISO (International Organization of Standardization) certifications. The ISO certifications show that everything is being run properly and efficiently to ensure that a quality product will be made every time. By having top of the line machinery and certifications, it makes it seem as if there is no better place to go in the world than General Grind and Machine for any and all machining needs.

Something that Michael repeatedly talked about was the people that run the company and how they work together to constantly improve the company in many ways. The owner, Mark Bieri, is always trying to better every aspect of the business for everyone who is involved.

A company that started with 3 employees in 1976 has grown to employ over 400 people, having gone through numerous expansions. This company does everything so well that they have no real competition on this side of the world. General Grind and Machine’s products tend to speak for themselves but the services provided by its employees and the owner have made this business everything that it is today.

Ben Schweitzer

It’s All About the People: Mike Luna’s Entrepreneurial Success Story

 

As the class learned this past Tuesday–from a practicing McDonald’s franchisee–franchising can represent a special type of entrepreneurial venture. No one knows this better than Mike Luna, who has been with McDonald’s in some capacity almost continuously since 1960. As he told the class, he opened McDonald’s store #154… of the 35,000 the company now has around the world.

Today’s blog entry is written by Midwest Entrepreneurs student Bryce Willett. In it, Bryce captures very well several key points of franchising existing as an entrepreneurial option. Particularly well discussed is the importance of what Harvard scholars James Heskett, Thomas Jones, Gary Loveman, W. Earl Sasser, Jr., and Leonard Schlesinger term “The Service-Profit Chain” (as first articulated in a 1994 Harvard Business Review article). The gist of the “Chain” is that achieving organizational goals of revenue growth and profitability is predicated ultimately on “internal service quality” and employee satisfaction (which leads to employee retention and productivity, which in turn enhances value delivered to customers/clients).

I am very pleased to see Bryce focus on this aspect of Mr. Luna’s entrepreneurial success story as I have always felt that The Service Profit Chain is one of the most practical and important things to know about successfully running any type of business.

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“People, it’s all about the people…” Mike Luna, February 17, 2015

Last Tuesday, we were honored to have Mike Luna, a highly successful McDonald’s Franchisee, tell his long-running success story to our class.

Mr. Luna started with McDonald’s in Galesburg, Illinois in 1960 when he was very young. Although he did leave for school, the young Mike Luna would find his way back to McDonalds; this time in a supervisor’s role. After some time supervising, Mr. Luna was offered to buy into the franchise in Kewanee, Illinois.

Mr. Luna told us that his business is like a “three-legged stool.” The first leg being the franchisor (McDonalds), the second being his suppliers, and the third leg being the franchisee (Mr. Luna). Being a franchisee, Mr. Luna has a lot of different expenses that other entrepreneurs might not have. He has to pay a service fee of 4% to McDonalds, as well as a 4% advertising fee to the company. If things do not go right, Mr. Luna informed us that it is the franchisee that is most likely to lose money because McDonalds and the suppliers will always be paid their piece of the pie before he is.

As Mr. Luna was talking, I couldn’t help but admire how high of a pedestal he put people on when talking about his business. He said that every success story he had was from working with good people. He said that his job is to take the people he hires and develop them to reach the peak of their potential. This attitude has propelled his business into something that has driven several of his key competitors—like most recently Hardees—out of Monmouth.

As stated earlier, Mr. Luna puts a lot of weight on the people in the business. He treats them the right way and gives them the right training so that they can reach their top level of performance. This creates an environment that people want to work in and continue working in for years to come. It also creates a place where customers feel welcome; giving him much more business than his local fast-food competitors have.

Mr. Luna has made a name for himself and has become a successful entrepreneur through hard work and determination. He would work the hours needed and whatever job it took in order to put his McDonalds on top in whatever community they were in. But most importantly, Mr. Luna knows the value of people in a business and is willing to do what it takes to keep them happy.

Bryce Willett

Lee Miller: Three-Time Entrepreneur and Serial Challenge Seeker

Yesterday’s Midwest Entrepreneurs class was the second in a row where students got heavily exposed to the heavy industrial, business-to-business (B2B) side of the business world. Although many fail to realize it, the national and global economy is more predicated on businesses selling to other businesses than it is the more glamorous and obvious world of heavily advertised consumer products. There are thousands and thousands of little B2B companies all over this country that virtually no one outside of the communities they are based in has heard of. Yet these companies are important part of the national economy (and a key area for entrepreneurial startups).

With that as our introduction, I turn things over to class member Konor Tempel. 

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Yesterday in class we had the honor to learn about the three-part entrepreneurial success story of one of our very own professors here at Monmouth College, Lee Miller. Not only did we hear about his success with starting and selling the businesses, we learned a little bit about him too. We also learned that he loves a challenge and that, for him, running his own business was often more about the challenge than the money.

Lee Miller attended school with the intention of becoming a Mechanical Engineer after school. He got his first job at a company called Eaton, which is a large car parts manufacturing company. While working there he got a bit bored and decided to go back to school and take accounting classes at West Carolina University in order to better himself in his career. He eventually decided to leave the company and open up his first entrepreneurial business at the age of 28.

Prof. Miller knew that he wanted to continue his career in the automotive industry, so he started a company called Manufacturing Solutions. However, in order to get up and running he needed about $150,000 and was a little short on cash. His dad came into the picture and loaned him some money to get the business started. With the opening of this first business he was faced with many challenges, such as the challenge of hiring people, which he admitted to being one of the hardest things for him because he did not communicate all that well with non-engineers. He was the owner of the company for ten years. He built the company from nothing to eventually employ 40 employees and annual sales of almost 3 million dollars.

A fun fact we learned about Prof. Miller is that while he was running this first company he was living out of a RV that was parked next to the business to save him some money because all of his money was being put towards the business and he did not have a salary until the business was open for five years. It seems this business was his life at the time.

After the ten years in business, Miller decided to sell the assets of the company because his dad was retiring and he wanted to give his dad’s investment back to him. Around this time he remembered a man who had contacted him while he was running the first business asking if he could manufacture these tiny pieces of surgical equipment, which Miller first turned down. After the first business he decided he wanted another challenge in his life so he took the money he received from the asset sale of his first company and used it to open another business. During this time he designed a machine that was able to make these small pieces more efficiently then others and he was able to patent it. As this product became more in demand he was then going to be forced to expand his business, which he did not want to do. Since he wanted to stay small he decided it was time to sell this company. He sold his company to another company of a former customer, agreeing to train the new engineers to manufacture the device.

After he sold the business he was confronted by a marketing company that had an idea to create a new car part; an alignment shim rotator. They wanted Prof. Miller to design and manufacture this part for them. So he took the job and was given a small amount of shares in the company and went to work and designing and manufacturing these parts. The company went on to sell this product to General Motors. However, it had been financed by a venture capital company, so the investors were looking for a “home run” (meaning a big return on their investment fast). As iot turned out, while this company was successful with the part designed by Lee Miller, it was not the “home run” the investors had hoped for. This company is still in business today, and Miller still owns some the stock in it.

After he started and left his third successful business he decided to go back to school and become a teacher. While attending school he helped a couple of foreign exchange students from Thailand proofread their doctoral dissertations. Little did he know that this would end up helping him get a job at the University of Bangkok in Thailand teaching English. When asked why he decided to become a teacher he responded: “I just want to help the future generations any way I can.”

One thing that I learned from Prof. Miller was how much he loves a challenge. Out of college he had a job at a company where he could probably make a decent living for life but he decided to accept the challenge himself and open his own business at the young age of 28. He built the company from the bottom up, sold it, and then went on to run two more successful businesses. But he wasn’t done there, he challenged himself again by returning to school and pursuing a Ph.D. and becoming a teacher to help the younger generations.

If you have any intention on starting a business I would strongly suggest you attack it the same way Lee Miller did. He never gave up on his dreams and he faced every challenge head on; he is the ideal image of what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

Thank you again to Mr. Miller for talking to our class and sharing your stories of starting and running three entrepreneurial businesses.

Konor Tempel

Fusion Tech: The One-Stop Metal Design and Processing Shop in “The Middle of Somewhere”

This past Tuesday’s Midwest Entrepreneurs class involved our second field trip of the semester; this one to the very outer limits of tiny Roseville, IL and the sprawling Fusion Tech Integrated compound.

As I wheeled one of the two Monmouth College mini-busses needed for the excursion onto the country road running in front of the firm’s facilities, I told the students: “Here, in the virtual middle of nowhere, you will find a world-class steel processing company.”

I was quickly corrected about my “middle of nowhere” assertion once inside with Fusion Tech General Manager Dan Bentz.

Rather than being in the “middle of nowhere,” Dan told us that he prefers to think of the company as being “in the middle of somewhere.” It was obvious after our tour through the various buildings and exposure to too many in-process innovative projects to count, that it is Fusion Tech’s being on the outer limits of Roseville that has indeed made it “in the middle of somewhere”; somewhere very important when it comes—as stated on the Fusion Tech webpage—to meeting customer needs encompassing “all areas of design, engineering, metal forming, fabrication and testing… we maintain process control from concept to completion.” See more at: http://www.ftiinc.org/.

I now turn the blog over to Midwest Entrepreneurs student Roger Stribling for further details of the fascinating Fusion Tech entrepreneurial story and our tour of the firm’s operations.

Prof. Gabel

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Tuesday we had the pleasure of not having an incredible speaker in class but going to the entrepreneur’s place of work and seeing firsthand the amazing work of yet another amazing Midwest Entrepreneur. We had the opportunity to visit Fusion Tech Integrated and learn about their business in person.

The company, which is a one-stop source for all metal design and fabrication needs, has grown to be a dominant force in their industry. The professional team is there to provide the services of facility designs, concept layouts, equipment detail design, and fabrication of equipment.

The great family-owned business was started in a two door garage in 1997.  It was started by Dan Bentz’s brother and father as Modern Engineering and Piping in Roseville, IL.  The company was then inherited by his brother, along with 88 acres of land.  It all started when they wanted to start making their own products because the old ones were having defects.  The company kept growing and by around 2001 they were able to put in their first shop.  After about two years they got their first piece of equipment to do their own cutting, and that was also when Dan came in to help with the family business.

In the year 2007 the company introduced the Fusion Tech part of the business.  Fusion Tech was the part that designed the projects, and Modern Engineering and Piping handled the servicing.  Eventually these two companies combined and were known as Fusion Tech.  The company was growing so fast that the local bank they were banking with for 5-6 years had to be left behind.  Now the company banks with Wells Fargo with a 1 million dollar line of credit.  Dan mentioned the credit line was needed because only 20% of the cost was paid at the beginning.  With the cost of the material and labor and other small costs, such as scraping, which was 15-20%, there wasn’t enough money to cover the costs.

In 2013, the firm got a 1.3 million dollar contract with a company they had previously lost due to lack of having a laser jet cutting machine.  The company was able to gain this client back when they got several laser machines.  The lesson learned here was to “never burn bridges” as an entrepreneur.  Dan Bentz could have easily forgotten about the company when Fusion Tech was at first rejected.  However, he did not and the other company eventually grew dissatisfied with the firm chosen over Fusion Tech to do the work.  Dan Bentz and Fusion Tech was there and waiting and got the business back.

Another important issue was that the company attained International Standards Organization (ISO) certification.  This certificate demonstrates that the company is an ethical environment and performs high quality work.  With this certification they are able to get the big food processing companies, which is one of their main focuses.

Today, Fusion Tech’s clients are mainly in the food processing, transportation, renewable fuels, and agriculture industries.  The company from time to time also provide small, highly customized services like making signs, handrails, and counter tops, just to name a few.  Dan mentioned that they really don’t want their company to grow helping new customers, but prefer to sufficiently satisfy current clients and get more and more of their business over time.  So far this strategy has helped with annual earnings because it has jumped a couple of millions of dollars from the previous year.  However, one year Dan stated that they put all of their eggs in one basket and everything went bad.  Other than that understandable mistake the company is now growing and is up to five separate buildings.  With the great employee benefits this is also adding to the success of the growing company.

Thank you Dan Bentz for leading us on a very interesting entrepreneurial journey!

Roger Stribling