Second Stage and First Rate

Awards program honors Wisconsin’s small businesses in the next level

Story by Robin Driessen Bruecker

Regardless of which rung of the career ladder we’re on, it’s always nice when our hard work, good ideas and dedication get noticed. The same goes for companies as a whole, from start-ups to long-established players in the big leagues.

One awards program aims to provide recognition to promising young private companies in Wisconsin that have reached second-stage status with six to 99 employees. Created by the Edward Lowe Foundation in Michigan, Companies to Watch is a national program offered in individual states.

According to Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Network Director Gayle Kugler, in Wisconsin the second-stage companies comprise only about 10 percent of the nearly 420,000 registered businesses yet they provide 37 percent of the jobs.

“As small and growing entities, they are past the start-up phase and this recognition gives them a boost in attracting talent, finding the best vendors and gaining new clients,” explained Kugler. “The Edward Lowe Foundation’s studies have shown second-stage companies are the ones who generate jobs and economic growth in their communities.”

Appointed in 2007 as the state director for WEN and the Small Business Development Center network, Kugler heard about the Companies to Watch program from Michigan SBDC State Director Carol Lopucki and approached the Edward Lowe Foundation to bring the program to Wisconsin.

Kugler herself has a background in entrepreneurship and understands the particular challenges faced by small businesses.

“Most smaller companies do not yet have departments of people, let alone specific job titles. The owners and their employees become involved in every area of the business, from being out on the shop floor to sales to hiring to pushing a broom.” All of that can mean there isn’t much time left for public relations and getting the word out in the community about products or services.

“The Edward Lowe Foundation recognizes that many second-stage companies fly under the radar of typical awards programs,” noted Kugler. “Companies to Watch is specifically designed to seek out businesses from a wide range of industries representing all areas of the state, not just those in major metropolitan areas. In addition to an evaluation on past growth and projected success, applicant companies are judged according to their special strengths. These strengths revolve around innovative products and business practices, special use of technology, work within the community and more.”

The foundation hosts the Companies to Watch Web site, takes nominations, structures the evaluations and organizes the judging. On the state’s end, Kugler said that “as hosts, we are asked to find companies and encourage them to self-nominate or Wisconsin companies and economic development groups are asked to provide nominations. Additional judges from across the state agree to seek out worthy candidates and fundraise to support the costs of the year-long activity associated with the program and the celebration event.”

Tip of the hat

Among the 33 Wisconsin winners for 2011 were three northeast Wisconsin companies: Aurizon Ultrasonics LLC of Kimberly, Liveyearbook Inc. of Neenah and Cherney Microbiological Services Ltd. of Green Bay.

Aurizon Ultrasonics spun off from Kimberly-Clark Corp. just two years ago in August 2009, outfitted with technology, assets and key employees from Kimberly-Clark, said Paul McCann, CEO of the company. He said close ties remain with Kimberly-Clark as the new company fulfills the ultrasonic needs of the consumer-products manufacturer and of other clients in North America and Europe.

“The Aurizon Ultrasonics team is engaged in the research, development and commercialization of novel, high-power ultrasonic process solutions for industrial applications,” explained McCann, adding that the company “leverages an estimated $30 million and 25 years of ultrasonics research and experience into the continued development and commercialization of new innovations.”

The company uses high-power ultrasonic energy to bond materials including non-wovens, films and laminants, and also to process liquids for spraying, mixing and emulsifying.

“We have a very talented team that is dedicated to developing our three ultrasonic technology platforms into high-value solutions for our customers.”

McCann said the company has enjoyed some results since being named a Company to Watch.

“The Wisconsin Companies to Watch recognition gives us exposure to Wisconsin-based companies who are looking for innovative partners to solve their technological challenges,” noted McCann. “We have seen interest from personal care products companies, food packaging customers, papermakers, researchers, and nano-materials experts all looking to improve their processes with our equipment. With all of these markets being served by Wisconsin-based companies, it is natural for them to identify a ‘neighbor’ to work with.”

Don Noskowiak, president of Liveyearbook Inc., said his company offers an edge over the “one-size-fits-all, print-only book model,” providing a personalized product with flexibility for the students and eliminating risk and loss for the school. Spring activities – which generally occur after the press deadline for a school’s yearbook – can be added without a special supplement.

“We had one of our high schools comment that this is the first year in the history of the school that they captured prom in the yearbook,” Noskowiak noted. “In addition, schools have no further risk of loss because we don’t require a minimum order quantity.”

A personal touch can be added by parents and students through two free pages of custom content provided with each person’s yearbook. In addition, students can purchase a printed copy and get the electronic version free, or buy the digital yearbook at less than half the cost of the printed copy.

Noskowiak said he and his team appreciate being counted among “an elite class of companies.”

“Most companies selected have been around for quite some time and have had the test of time to substantiate their existence, said Noskowiak, whose business started up in mid-2010 after winning the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Competition earlier that year. “We are very new and being a start-up has its own challenges of gaining customer interest and acceptance in a competitive, resistant-to-change market. So I don’t know that we can measure up to the same level as the other award recipients. We are excited about being part of the group because it provides another source of validation and testament that we can use to gain traction with our model, not to mention the press has always generated more contacts.”

Program alumnus growing

Last year was the first year the Companies to Watch awards were given out in Wisconsin.

Organic apparel company green 3 LLC in Oshkosh was among the inaugural list of honorees. After more than 20 years in corporate apparel during which she sourced and developed products globally, Sandy Martin struck out on her own in 2006 to design, source and market products that are environmentally friendly and made in the U.S. After being back on the job hunt when Oshkosh B’Gosh was sold, Jim Martin pitched in at his wife’s apparel and accessory wholesale company.

“Five years later I am still helping her, and this has become our fulltime business,” he said.

Green 3 products are carried nationally by more than 600 specialty stores and several catalog retailers including Sundance, Uncommon Goods and Acacia. The company recently expanded its physical location, moving to new digs on State Road 44 in Oshkosh boasting more than 10,000 square feet. In addition to offices and the distribution center, the new facility features the green 3 company store, its first retail store open to the public. This store carries the full line of products currently available, as well as those on sale and clearance.

“Mixed in with our full offering will be additional unique items that complement the lifestyle represented by green 3,” added Jim.

Both of the Martins were excited and honored to be named one of Wisconsin’s Companies to Watch in 2010.

“For our business it has meant personal satisfaction, knowing that our hard work is not going unnoticed within the state,” said Jim. “But it also has benefited us as we meet with other local and statewide organizations who have expressed interest in our company. The Companies to Watch recognition serves as an endorsement from the state that what we are doing is unique and special.”

Besides receiving the award itself, winners from Wisconsin and the Companies to Watch programs in other states are treated to a free three-day leadership retreat in Michigan, courtesy of the Edward Lowe Foundation.

“The facilitated peer-learning retreat is created specifically for leaders of second-stage, growth-oriented companies and gives them the opportunity to tap into the collective wisdom of the group,” explained Kugler.

Sandy Martin attended the retreat in Michigan last summer and found many of her peers were willing to share their own experiences in growing a small business.

“The small business community is really open and willing to share ideas and help other businesses grow,” she noted. “This is a big departure from my corporate background where information is tightly guarded, even between co-workers. I also was encouraged by how many attendees had been in business for many years, and brought a wealth of experience. I was concerned that there might be many ‘overnight’ success stories.

“On the contrary, these were businesses that had worked hard for years, and had steadily grown throughout that time. What was really helpful was hearing how other businesses had either experienced, or were experiencing, some of the same challenges we were experiencing. Being able to share those experiences in a casual setting was great.”

As Martin discovered, the benefits of sharing work both ways.

“I also learned that I brought a lot of value to the process as well,” said Sandy. “Many of the attendees commented later that our experiences as a business were valuable to them as well.”

McCann and Noskowiak were unable to attend the retreat this past June due to other commitments.

Another perk of winning provides entrepreneurs with even more time to learn from each other and grow their businesses. Since 2005, the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Network and the Wisconsin Department of Commerce have hosted PeerSpectives, another program sponsored by the Edward Lowe Foundation. A peer learning roundtable group, PeerSpectives has eight roundtables in the state at present, led by the Small Business Development Center network, and Companies to Watch award winners are invited to join.

Learn more about Wisconsin Companies to Watch at wisconsin.companiestowatch.org.

 

Robin Driessen Bruecker has more than 15 years of experience in feature writing and marketing communications. Contact her at robindb41@sprint.blackberry.net.