Dane County Small Business Awards: Playing small ball

We honor six small businesses that represent the best in Wisconsin’s most vibrant business community.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Thirty-two companies were nominated, but only six had what it took to impress their business peers and emerge as winners in the 2019 Dane County Small Business Awards, a program that recognizes consistent business growth and commitment to the welfare of employees and the community.

The 37-year-old program, now run by IB, attracted a variety of local employers in a number of industries that had to be a successful, for-profit organization headquartered in Dane County, employ a minimum of three full-time-equivalent employees and no more than 50 FTE employees, provide a responsible and rewarding workplace environment, and support (via in-kind or financial contributions) local nonprofit or community organizations.

Each application for the 2019 awards was evaluated based on three main criteria: company growth and success since inception; the company benefits package provided to employees; and the contributions and impact the company makes in the community. The following companies scored highly in each category and are profiled inside these pages:

  • Information Technology Professionals
  • Mounds Pet Food Warehouse
  • Numbers 4 Nonprofits
  • Sondel Family Veterinary Clinic
  • SunPeak

We also honor a company for its longevity with a “legacy” award. This year’s legacy winner is Wiedenbeck Inc., which happens to be celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2019.

A celebration of the success of all six winning companies will be held on Tuesday, July 16, starting at 4 p.m. in the Overture Center’s upstairs Promenade Hall and Lobby.

Special thanks go to our judging panel, which consisted of IB Publisher Jon Konarske, Editorial Director Joe Vanden Plas, and three previous DCSBA winners: Doug Fearing, president of Fearing’s Audio/Video Security; Tom Spitz, founder and CEO of Settler’s bank; and B.J. Pfeiffer, president and CEO of Enterprise Solutions Technology Group.

Wiedenbeck Inc.

The art of reinvention

When you’ve been around since the Grover Cleveland administration, and you began by selling horse shoes and wool fat, change is inevitable, and the ability to adapt must be part of your organizational skill set. For Wiedenbeck Inc., now a metals supply and fabrication business, the capacity for reinvention is among the reasons it continues to build a legacy.

The business, which began in 1894 as a wagon maker and blacksmith, has demonstrated quite a bit of steely resolve on its way to celebrating 125 years in business. Changing who you are means adding and subtracting lines of business and modifying how you sell to (and service) customers, but with each step the family business grew stronger.

Strong enough to appeal to a fifth generation of leadership in the person of Bennett Wiedenbeck, the son and nephew, respectively, of current co-owners Jane Wiedenbeck and Jim Wiedenbeck Jr. Bennett, who is referred to as “Jane’s retirement plan,” has tough acts to follow, but he’s eager to manage “grandpa’s company.”

“Ben and my dad [Jim Wiedenbeck Sr.] were best of friends; they did everything together,” explains Jane. “Ben called me one day and he said, ‘Mom, I need to talk to you. I’ve decided that I want to run grandpa’s company.’ I laughed out loud. Not my mom’s company. Not my uncle’s company. My grandpa’s company.”

Jane forgives him for that because he and his grandfather, who retired in 2002 and later passed away, were good buddies, and she loves teaching her son about the business. “He’s brought us some youthful energy and new ideas to help us in this continuous growth process, and I’m thankful every day for that.”

Eventually, Jim’s two sons might be interested in joining Bennett, and if they do, they will have some good operational role models. The Wiedenbecks provide a safe harbor 401(k) in which the company contributes 3 percent of each employee’s pay, whether or not the employee contributes. “When Jim and I took over, we had a 401(k) match in place, which is a fabulous benefit that many companies offer, but that assumes that the people working there actually can contribute something that the employer can match,” Jane explains. “Not everybody here did, and so we felt it was important to help everybody in the company with their retirement, not just the ones that had the ability to put something away.”

In the community, Wiedenbeck Inc.’s proudest contribution is to Skills USA, a competition showcasing the skills of technical college students. Jane Wiedenbeck, who serves on the Metal Fabrication Advisory Board at Madison College, is the Wisconsin State Chairperson for Skills USA and plays an active role. “I call it the best nonpaying job I’ve ever had.”



Information Technology Professionals

Stacking sales success

This award stuff is getting to be a habit for Paul Hager and Information Technology Professionals, a provider of managed IT services and strategy for small and mid-sized businesses. First, Hager was chosen for an Executive of the Year award, and now the company he leads has been selected as a Small Business Award winner. The first, Hager notes, is considered an individual award but it’s really a team honor. The second definitely is “all enterprise.”

This particular enterprise has been on a roll. Hager, owner and CEO of ITP, had high honors streaming in before these recognitions, most notably four consecutive spots on the Inc. 5000 list of fast-growing companies. When you have increased sales by 134 percent over the past five years, such recognition comes, and Hager credits his workforce’s ability to address the growing trend toward outsourcing information technology.

ITP consistently sees manufacturers and other types of employers come to the realization that they are not information technology companies, even though technology is vital to what they do, and deciding instead to focus on their core business. “More and more, as businesses look at their own growth, they look at areas where they aren’t experts and where they are experts,” Hager explains. “So, we have expertise where they don’t have expertise, and we want them to have repeatable success.”

The IT consultancy also wants employees to have repeatable success, and with its impressive sales, profit, and workforce growth, the 50-person firm tries to be different when it comes to employee benefits. One prominent example is its parental leave plan, which in some respects goes beyond what state and federal law requires. Eligible employees may take off up to 12 weeks for the birth or adoption of a child, and there also is a compensation benefit based on tenure for up to an additional three weeks of PTO.

The plan provides longer leave than Wisconsin’s Family Medical Leave Act and the same amount as the corresponding federal law. In a growing company, it helps to have some scale, but Hager notes that ITP is a technology company. If the firm didn’t allow people the flexibility to work creatively and remotely, it would betray its own mission. “To not support an employee going through a major transition in their lives just doesn’t make sense with how we support our employees,” states Hager. “It’s not congruent with our strategy or our internal voice.”

In the community, ITP serves as a strategic partner for Wisconsin-based nonprofit organizations, including Easter Seals and Special Olympics. It provides managed IT services at a reduced rate and offers “gratis” project management support.

Mounds Pet Food Warehouse

No sale brings goodwill and growth

Mounds Pet Food Warehouse has grown into one of the largest independent pet food retailers in southern Wisconsin by intentionally bypassing a potentially large revenue source.

For altruistic reasons, Mounds does not sell domesticated animals to pet lovers, and it chooses not to do so for a very important reason — so that more animals can find a home. Mounds, now a five-store operation, views itself as a partner with the Dane County Humane Society and animal rescue organizations, and so instead of selling pets, it encourages potential pet owners to look to local animal shelters or rescue groups for their new best friend, especially since shelters are often overflowing with animals in need.

President Katie Van Altena says the company has never regretted this decision. “I’ve been here almost 18 years, and we’ve never even second-guessed that decision at all,” Van Altena says. “We stand firmly with rescue groups and humane societies in not selling animals and being part of what they do.”

Being part of what they do also means directly accommodating pet adoption. In an ongoing partnership with the Dane County Humane Society, Mounds established satellite adoption centers. These in-store accommodations benefit hundreds of animals each year by giving them an outlet to be adopted into a new home.

The centers began with Ken Mack, the original owner of Mounds. “People really enjoy it, and it helps get those animals adopted and get more exposure,” Van Altena says. “We work with Friends of Noah at our Janesville-Rock County store because they don’t have a place to showcase their animals, so that helps them tremendously, as well.”

Mounds, founded in 1969, has for the past quarter century put on Dog Fest, a community-based, customer-appreciation event that brings a lot of “rescues” to one location. The event, held on the second Sunday in June, attracts people from humane societies, rescue groups, and local pet-friendly businesses. “We see 5,000 to 8,000 people annually in a one-day event,” says Purchasing Manager Michelle Mitchell, “and that’s something unique to us, and it also really drives home the community aspect that we try to provide.”

In becoming 100 percent employee owned and establishing an Employee Stock Option Plan, Mounds also has done the right thing by employees and the community. In 2015, former president Tim Walton was looking to retire, and he did not want to sell to an outside entity. He wanted Mounds to remain a community-based store that supports rescue animals.

Says Mitchell: “When we heard the company was going to be employee-owned, we were all very excited to be a part of such a company — where I’ve worked for almost 18 years — and really see it grow and thrive and stay community-based.”



Numbers 4 Nonprofits

Money management mission

Nonprofit executives have ample philanthropic expertise, but like private sector executives, they often need assistance on the business side. With limited budgets, however, they have a challenge attracting the best and brightest accounting help.

Numbers 4 Nonprofits’ mission is partnering with nonprofit clients to manage their money, including assistance with annual budgeting, cash flow projections, financial statements, and auditing. For CEO Nick Curran, the inspiration comes from the mission of nonprofit clients, but his expertise began with nonprofits as an external auditor with Williams Young (now Wipfli).

Since Madison has a lot of nonprofit organizations, Curran attributes N4N’s growth to the sheer size of this industry, the need for outside business acumen, and the expertise of a staff that helps clients feel as though they have a full-service financial department. In 2007, Curran began with six clients and revenues of $44,000, and as of March 31, the organization projects revenues of at least $1.35 million while helping more than 75 clients and employing 13 people. Through the first two months of 2019, it saw 75 percent revenue growth coupled with 50 percent growth in net income.

Word-of-mouth has been a big part of that growth. “What we have found is that nonprofits tend to, because of budget size, attract the lowest-tier financial people, and so that doesn’t always lead to the best financial results. So, they ended up coming to us to fill that gap, and we’re still able to do it for the cost that is in the budget for those organizations. We started out with the Madison Children’s Museum, got to go through their capital campaign with them, and from there it just snowballed. In this town, when you do good work, word travels fast. 

While Curran cites the organization’s total benefits package, a couple perks stand out, including 100 percent coverage for individual health and dental, and the accommodation, via a monthly stipend, of remote work environments. He doesn’t view benefits as a necessary business expense, but a necessary investment. “It’s our highest cost, compared to our revenues, but I don’t even want to call it a cost,” he says. “It’s very cliché, but it’s our investment in the product that we put out there.”

N4N’s community impact is amplified by the work it does with mission-driven nonprofits, which provide opportunities to offer its own support for those philanthropic missions. Many of them are child focused, including Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Bowl for Kids, the Road Home for homeless families, and the Madison Reading Project.

“We like to spread the wealth, and we try to pick 10 or so galas during the year, but we budget for that,” Curran explains. “That’s part of our giving back to the community.”

Sondel Family Veterinary Clinic

Promoting pet projects

Jesse Sondel has always felt that you can’t get to a good place in a bad way, and he’s built his veterinary business by treating his staff well and allowing customers to choose what’s right for them and their animals. Having worked in the field before opening his own practice, he knew that what’s right for one family might not be right for another when it comes to decisions about their pets.

There is one exception, but that’s when complete strangers come in and want their pets put down because they’ve become an inconvenience — yes, sadly, it happens — and in that case, it’s best to simply turn down their business. But to do right by animal welfare, which is the true mission of the practice, Sondel knows it begins by treating his staff, to the extent it’s possible, as he would a cute little puppy.

“I feel that way on a daily basis about my staff,” he explains. “Being a small business, unlike very large businesses where when someone falls out of line, they get knocked down and the next person steps up, we’ve been working with the same people for years and we really care about each other. We watch out for each other in and away from the business.”

Since its founding in 2013, Sondel Family Veterinary Clinic has seen unprecedented growth in Madison’s already saturated veterinary market. The clinic now has 14,500 individual active patients owned by over 7,000 clients, it has expanded from a staff of three to a team of eight, it has grown from $30,000 in monthly sales to more than $2 million in annual revenue, and reports an annual income that exceeds the industry-wide goal of 10-15 percent.

Sondel attributes this growth to a number of factors, including treating people as individuals in a concierge-style manner and relying on a relatively new, barrier-reducing way to reach pet owners. From 2013–17, the clinic capitalized on the use of social media, particularly Facebook, to spread the word. It eventually reached 20,000 Facebook followers before interest in that social media channel peaked.

In Madison, consumers want to know if the businesses they patronize contribute something extra. For Sondel, the focus of philanthropy was a no brainer: children, in the form of pediatric cancer research and animal welfare. Thanks largely to investments in research, upwards of 90 percent of children survive a leukemia diagnosis, much higher than in the late 1970s, and Sondel looks forward to the day when more pets survive a cancer diagnosis, as well. That’s why the clinic supports canine cancer research organizations such as Czar’s Promise, which is named for a dog, and PuppyUp Madison.

“There simply are not as many people who get together and say, ‘Let’s throw our resources into raising money for canine cancer research,’” Sondel laments, “but Czar’s Promise is working to do so.”


Installing solar with flair

Chad Sorenson says it was part of his business plan all along. Two years ago, Sorenson, the president and co-founder of SunPeak, a solar photovoltaic system developer focused on commercial and industrial customers, moved his company away from the traditional business model of using subcontractors and began performing all of its installations.

This was cited as a major contributor in the five-year-old company’s employee growth, but it had an impact on revenues, as well. Now with 40 employees, $40 million in projected revenue, and 15.6M kilowatts in direct current of solar installed, SunPeak has eclipsed the competition for businesses, educational institutions, and municipalities that want to reduce their electrical costs and carbon footprint.

When your company’s mission is to make solar accessible to everyone, this change was inevitable. “The biggest reason for it was so that we could control the customer experience,” Sorenson explains. “SunPeak wants to be vertically integrated, and we wanted to have continuity so the company that is selling the system is the company installing it.”

It works out well because SunPeak doesn’t just install the system and leave. It takes care of it over the next 30 years with an ongoing operations, monitoring, and maintenance contract with customers. Since this fosters relationship building with customers, it’s vital for SunPeak to make sure its growing staff is well taken care of so they can, in turn, take care of customers. For Sorenson, who has three college degrees and is an active instructor at UW–Madison in both the College of Engineering and the School of Business, that means continuing education.

The company picks up the complete tab for employees to be certified with the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP), which offers credentials for sales, installation, and design. While OSHA training is common in the solar industry, NABCEP training isn’t as common as some would assume. “I would say the majority of the workforce in the solar industry does not have it,” Sorenson explains. “There probably are no more than 50 people in the state of Wisconsin who have it.”

PTO for a philanthropic cause that interests employees is another perk, but perhaps the company’s biggest community impact is its support and active participation in the Urban League of Greater Madison’s Foundations for the Trades initiative. This program provides a second chance for men and women who have significant barriers to obtaining gainful employment due to prior conviction or other life circumstances. A number of SunPeak employees were hired out of the program, including six that were hired in one day.

“It’s a very exciting thing that we’re very proud of,” Sorenson states, “and it’s something we plan to do more of moving forward.”

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