Winners of the annual Northwest Indiana E-Day Awards
It’s a daunting task to select the special individuals who receive Entrepreneurial Excellence Awards. Each year, the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center (NW-ISBDC) asks a 10-member steering committee to sift through countless nominees and identify the best of the best.
The process has been going on for 25 years. During that time, some 175 individuals have been recognized for their business success and community service. This year, nine outstanding entrepreneurs received the special honor at the E-Day Awards luncheon on Nov. 16 at the Radisson in Merrillville.
“This year we recognized leaders from four counties, a true regional group,” says Lorri Feldt, NW-ISBDC regional director, noting that nominees can be submitted from seven counties in Northwest Indiana.
“The E-Day committee looks for small business owners with strong track records who are having an economic impact on the region,” Feldt says, “so the criteria are around growth in sales, growth in investment, innovation, and growth in jobs. The selection process also weights community service, so E-Day honorees are truly making positive things happen in our region in many ways.”
Here are this year’s winners.
Dust and Ashes Productions
NW-ISBDC Client ‘Maker’ of the Year
Lorri Feldt says the NW-ISBDC award was given to a “maker” who merges art and engineering to create one-of-a-kind products. “Vincent goes from an idea–all the way to a finished piece of furniture that is functional and unique. His blend of design and engineering creates beautifully unconventional furniture, and every step is taken right at their small plant in Valparaiso.”
The business started under the name Dust Furniture about 10 years ago. At the time, Vincent was creating one-of-a-kind furniture pieces and marketing them at small craft galleries while also working in his father’s custom cabinetry business.
“We started from zero and grew quickly the first few years,” Vincent says. “We were just getting established when the recession hit. That shook things up a bit.”
Since then, Jessie and Vincent Leman have expanded their product lines and services under the umbrella name Dust and Ashes Productions. They now have two brands in addition to Dust Furniture: Uncommon Handmade is a line of home decor items, and Rocket Mission is a line of modern office furniture.
The company grew 50 percent from 2015 to 2016 and the products are sold all over the world. They employ four full-time and three part-time workers.
The Lemans have successfully blended their artistic talents, design instincts and business acumen. Vincent takes design inspiration from nature, striving to create one-of-a-kind, handmade furniture that has an artsy flair. Jessie creates the home decor items and handles marketing for the company, while also caring for their three-year-old son Emerson and infant daughter Ada.
Vincent says they’re committed to maintaining a work/life balance. “You can get so carried away with the business that you forget priorities. It’s easy to sacrifice your family needlessly because you forget what’s important.”
Young Entrepreneur of the Year
At the age of 12, Kevin Hand decided to find a job. He asked the owner of a horse stable to hire him and kept calling until he got the job. From these humble beginnings, Hand has emerged as a successful entrepreneur at the age of 26.
Hand became a Zounds Hearing franchisee in 2014, opening his first store in Crown Point. He now has locations in Munster, Schererville and Valparaiso. His staff has grown from three to seven over the past two years. Not content with the status quo, Hand is adding a mobile service to provide in-home hearing services.
Hand credits his parents for teaching him responsibility at a young age and for encouraging him to start his own business. “I got my work ethic from them,” he says.
After completing a bachelor’s degree at the University of Iowa, Hand returned to Crown Point and explored various small business opportunities. He says, “I was drawn to franchises because they have a structure in place, guidance and a proven business model.”
He’d always dreamed of having a business that improved people’s quality of life. After talking to owners of hearing service businesses, he knew it was a good fit. “They had cool stories about people coming in almost on a weekly basis and breaking down in tears when they got their hearing back,” Hand says.
With the aging Baby Boomer population, business is booming. Hand says he didn’t expect entrepreneurship to be an easy career path. “I knew it would be really, really hard. There’s so much you can’t prepare for. When you’re living it, it’s an entirely different animal.”
Hammond Development Corp.
Small Business Advocate of the Year
Sue Anderson knows the value of good mentors. She started her career as a file clerk in a Chicago bank and was blessed to have two bankers who instilled in her the importance of having a vision and cultivating good people skills. Anderson worked her way up in the bank from teller to vice president. Her extensive resume now includes positions in consulting, business development and workforce development.
Anderson has never forgotten her mentors and has devoted much of her career providing mentoring opportunities for others. Currently, she’s a program director for the Hammond Development Corp. (HDC), a nonprofit within the city of Hammond. Her job is to work with dozens of entrepreneurs at four incubators where new business owners can take advantage of a bevy of resources–including affordable rental space, administrative support and business management guidance.
Anderson also develops internships for high school students who want to develop entrepreneurial skills. She enjoys interacting with people from different age groups through the HDC. “The young people are more into technology and art businesses,” she says, “while retirees are looking for new opportunities. The high school age kids don’t worry about risks and aren’t afraid of failing. It’s wonderful.”
She says small businesses play a key role in economic development and are the lifeblood of communities. “If you see a small business open up, as a community you want to support it because you see what it brings to the table. People see that it’s another part of keeping the community stable.”
Prior to taking the HDC position, Anderson was the regional director of the NW-ISDBC–the organization that presented her with this year’s Small Business Advocate of the Year award. It’s a fitting tribute to a long career built on lessons learned early in her career: Have a clear vision and work well with others.
LAURIE CLARK & ANNETTE BLOSS
Emerging Business of the Year
Annette Bloss and Laurie Clark have channeled their deep devotion to dogs into Dawg Paradise, a tropical vacation-themed, luxury dog boarding and grooming business in Westville. “We both hate winter,” Clark says, explaining the vacation concept. “We named the suites after islands.”
Dawg Paradise resembles a vacation resort with 32 luxury suites–each with a flat-screen TV, a custom-made elevated bed, tile floor and sliding glass door–two indoor and four outdoor play areas and a heated indoor pool. For customers’ convenience, an Aloha Taxi is available to pick up and deliver pet guests.
The burgeoning enterprise started in 2010 as a mobile dog grooming business and Dawg Paradise was created in 2012. A year later they expanded the facility and they’re ready to expand again this spring.
Providing clients with everything they need in one location is always the goal at Dawg Paradise. Clark says, “One of the best services we offer is the staff. We’re very picky. They have to be total animal lovers.”
Pet owners particularly appreciate the 24/7 staffing and being able to view their pets remotely via a webcam on the Dawg Paradise website. Clark says. “For most of our customers, their pets are their children. It gives them peace of mind.”
Paco’s Custom Clothiers
Minority-Owned Business of the Year
Paco Fernandez is the epitome of entrepreneurial success. He’s a self-made businessman who grew up poor in Mexico and followed his passion for fashion to create a thriving custom clothing business. Paco’s Custom Clothiers serves more than 3,900 customers in 19 cities throughout the world.
“I came to this country from Mexico without one word of English and only three years of schooling,” Fernandez says. Although his family was poor, Fernandez always took pride in his appearance. “I always liked to dress sharply,” he says. “I was given the name ‘The Gentleman’ because everywhere I went I was properly dressed.”
A career in clothing was tailor made for Fernandez, who started in the business in 1973 as a three-week temporary hire at Custom Shop, a chain of 90 stores coast-to-coast. “It was the longest three weeks of my life because I was there 28 years,” notes Fernandez, who rose through the ranks to become a traveling manager.
Fernandez launched Paco’s Custom Clothiers in 1999 and built the business on his reputation for exceptional customer service. He goes to customers’ offices or homes, or they come to his home office in Highland. He also has a showroom on Erie in downtown Chicago. Besides men’s clothing, he specializes in creating tailored suits with jackets and skirts or pants for women.
Fernandez is proud of what he’s accomplished during his long career. “I enjoy helping people. My biggest joy is to watch the smile on people when they put on my garments.”
Family-Owned Business of the Year
Vyto Damasius opened his first pharmacy in 1989 in Calumet. His son Nathan, 10 years old at the time, was actively involved in setting up the 400-square-foot apothecary.
“I still vividly remember the whole experience,” he said. He also remembers his father asking him to mop floors at 5 a.m. on Saturdays when he was a teenager. The Damasius family’s work ethic runs deep.
“My father was very health care-oriented and customer-oriented,” Nathan says.
Today, Nathan and his brother, VJ, are pharmacists who also juggle the responsibilities of running the company, along with their mother, Becky, and his wife Rosa. Over the past 27 years, the business has expanded to include locations in Highland and Hammond and employs 46 people.
Vyto’s Pharmacy serves customers in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, the Southside of Chicago and parts of Southwest Michigan. The Damasius family culture of treating customers like members of their own family is instilled in their employees. Nathan says, “We expect our employees to know our patients’ names–to not only know their medications but to know their families, too.”
At Vyto’s Pharmacy, the emphasis is not only on treating health care problems but preventing them too. The business provides a free service, called medication synchronization, that bundles medications into single-dose bubble packs, making it easier for people to keep track of what pills they need to take when.
Vyto’s has always had a delivery service for people who are homebound or in assisted living. And the business has a showroom that carries a full line of medical equipment.
Nathan says the pharmacy doesn’t try to compete with the larger chains such as Walgreens and CVS that have pharmacies within stores that carry an array of consumer products. “We want to concentrate on health care. That’s our niche.”
Tortillas Nuevo Leon
Entrepreneurial Success of the Year
Jesus Martinez owns and operates OM Distributors with his twin brother, Jaime, and sister, Olga. They create and distribute Tortillas Nuevo Leon products–including corn and flour tortillas, tortilla chips and tostadas–to retail stores in 28 states and Canada with the help of 40 employees.
The robust family food business was started by their parents, Oscar and Maria, in 1975. The name Nuevo Leon comes from the Mexican state where Oscar and Maria grew up. They met in Northwest Indiana after their fathers came to work at the steel mills. Oscar worked for a food company before deciding to put his energies into his own company.
Jesus says his parents’ approach of starting their kids at the ground floor of the business–literally sweeping the floors–was a good one. “It’s important to know every aspect of the business. It’s a mistake to put kids in an executive position when they don’t know what happens in production.”
When Jesus and Jaime graduated from college in the 1990s, the company was serving the Northwest Indiana and the Chicagoland area. The brothers started going to food shows across the country and sales took off.
“It’s always been our dream to be a national product,” Jesus says. “When you stay local, you don’t grow as much. We reinvest in the company every year and keep updating equipment. You have to keep up.”
Oscar and Maria retired 10 years ago and the Martinez siblings enjoy continuing their parents’ legacy. “They are very proud of us and proud of what they accomplished,” Jesus says.
Jerry Tomasic, of Centier Bank, nominated the Martinez family for the Entrepreneurial Success of the Year award and says, “The Martinez model for success has always been a direct result of responsive customer service and great tasting products.”
It’s clearly a winning recipe.
TRACEY & BARRY TRISKA
Traffic Control Specialists
Small Business Persons of the Year
The next time you’re on a highway and spot orange barrels, cones and other traffic control devices signaling a construction zone, there’s a good chance you’ll see Traffic Control Specialists Inc. employees on the site. It’s been life in the fast lane for Tracey and Barry Triska since they started their construction-related traffic control business in Knox in 2007.
“Over the past three years we’ve doubled our employees each year,” Tracey says. “We’ve grown so fast it’s amazing.”
TCS Inc. now has 100 employees and just added a larger facility on 16 acres that can accommodate an expanding signage business. The majority of the work is on interstates and toll roads, Tracey says, and they are subcontractors on state, county and city projects throughout Northwest Indiana.
Barry and Tracey learned the business while working for a large traffic control company based in Illinois. They came to Indiana when Barry was asked to manage a branch office here. Tracey eventually convinced Barry to start their own company.
“We had the experience in the industry and knew how to do things right and offer quality service,” Tracey says.
Tracey is the majority owner of the company and her son, Brian, owns the rest. “I credit him with a lot of our growth,” she says. “The next generation always has the bigger ideas.
“One good thing about this industry is it’s needed. You always have to repair roads and bridges and always have to protect workers.”
Mortar Net Solutions
Lifetime Achievement Award
Tom Sourlis is a Renaissance man. He’s an inventor, artist, angler, rugby player, preservationist and philanthropist. And he’s a very successful businessman who has joined a roster of distinguished leaders in Northwest Indiana who’ve received the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Sourlis attended the Illinois Institute of Technology architecture program but decided a desk-bound career was not for him. So he combined his interest in architecture with an outdoor job working in his father’s tuck-pointing business in Gary. He took over the company in 1972 and built a solid reputation in Chicago’s historic restoration industry, working on such landmark buildings as Chicago Water Tower, Old St. Patrick’s and Holy Family churches and the Rookery.
Sourlis had a flash of inspiration 25 years ago that catapulted his career into the stratosphere. Based on years of masonry experience, he recognized the chronic problem of destructive leaks in brick buildings. Suddenly, Sourlis had a lightbulb moment and sketched out an innovative idea that came to be known as mortar net. The patented product is now used by architects and contractors throughout North America.
After 22 years at the helm of Mortar Net Solutions in Burns Harbor, Sourlis is reducing his work week and leaving much of the leadership responsibility to Gary Johnson, company president. He spends more time assisting with a half dozen nonprofits and foundations, creating art and fishing. “Mortar Net Solutions gave me an amazing combination of time and money,” Sourlis says. And that suits him just fine.