Dane County Small Business Awards: Small business, big impact

We honor six local companies that embody the best in Dane County small business.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

This year the Dane County Small Business Awards program marks a transition in its history, as In Business magazine has taken the wheel after 36 years. However, one thing will never change. This awards program has and will continue to put the spotlight on small businesses and the contributions they make to the economy and community.

Each application for the 2018 awards program was evaluated on three main criteria: company growth and success since its 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. They will be be honored at an awards program in July.

  • Artisan Dental
  • Berndt CPA LLC
  • The Digital Ring
  • Settlers bank
  • Yahara Software

We also recognize a company for its longevity with a “legacy” award. This year’s legacy winner is Michael F. Simon Builders, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary.

The celebration of their success will be held Wednesday, July 18, starting at 4 p.m. in the Overture Center’s upstairs Promenade Hall and Lobby.

A special thanks to our judging panel, which consisted of IB Publisher Jon Konarske, Editorial Director Joe Vanden Plas, past DCSBA winner Doug Fearing of Fearing’s Audio/Video Security, and Joe Pleshek of Terso Solutions, the 2018 winner of IB’s Executive of the Year Award in the small business category.

Michael F. Simon Builders: Constructing a legacy

Throughout the 125-year history of Michael F. Simon Builders, there were several points — Great Depression, Great Recession, or garden variety slow down — at which the company’s survival was threatened. True, you could say that about any longstanding business, but it’s particularly true of residential builders. For Michael F. Simon, one thing that has kept the wolves at bay is product and service diversity.

The company’s calling card is the construction of large custom homes, but it also remodels homes and light commercial structures. In 2009-10, when only a limited number of new homes were selling, the company was able to concentrate more on remodeling, which kept workers busy.

“We have a very flexible team here, very skilled with a wide array of skills,” says Co-owner Phil Simon. “We’re able to go from building to remodeling. I wasn’t around for the Depression obviously, but the Great Recession in 2009-10 was the hardest for us because 2008 was actually one of our best years ever.”

“It’s humbling to be selected by your peers for something as prestigious as this. We know it’s not just because of the two of us — it’s the 125 years and the great leadership that’s been here, and the teamwork, the employees, and the great clients that we’ve had through the years. It’s really 125 years in the making.” — Phil Simon, co-owner, Michael F. Simon Builders

That was due to the fact that larger custom homes take up to two years to build, and those contracts were signed in 2006 and 2007. Co-owner Paul Simon started with the company on a full-time basis in 2009, which was about the worst time to join the outfit if you expected things to be smooth and level.

“I got to see how hard it was, how much work went into following up with every client, every lead,” he recalls. “It’s a roller coaster and that obviously was the bottom of that roller coaster. We’re fortunate enough that now that’s not the case in residential home construction and things are much better than they were.”

So much better that inventories of new homes are at record lows. While Michael F. Simon prefers the larger, more complicated projects, it will do almost anything for a past client, no matter how large or small. “We do have a lot of big projects going on right now like whole house remodels before people will move into them,” Paul says, “but we also have a handful of one-bathroom, a few windows, small kitchen, back projects, screen porches, and those are much smaller.”

Culturally, the staff engages in a bi-weekly culture meeting aimed at making the employees’ jobs easier while looking for areas of improvement, but with an emphasis on making each individual’s job fun. Pages and pages of little changes have resulted, from process modifications to the timing of on-site deliveries for a company that, even after 125 years, still tries to learn from each project.

“The emphasis there is everybody on the team has a say in how to improve the company and how to improve the product we’re putting out to the clients,” Phil states. “We say we address the heartburn for clients, trade partners, suppliers, and our team.”



Artisan Dental: Consciously capitalistic

The most impressive thing about the early growth of Artisan Dental is not so much the tripling of annual revenue and the doubling of its workforce, but the rapid increase in the number of patients served.

Co-owner Scott Andersen attributes this to a “multi-stakeholder” approach adopted from the Conscious Capitalism movement cofounded by John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market. In Artisan Dental’s case, the stakeholders it serves are patients, employees, suppliers, community, and Mother Earth.

“That unleashed a whole set of convergent synergies that if we were just looking to maximize profit or grow for the sake of growth, our growth would not have materialized,” Andersen states.

“In our estimation, it’s the premiere local business award. The fact that [judges] felt our practices, our approaches, and our mission was worthy of recognition is a wonderful confirmation from a highly regarded peer group.” — Scott Andersen, co-owner

It meant a great deal for Artisan Dental to become Wisconsin’s first Certified B (Benefit) Corp., which it earned for sustainable practices. For Andersen, it was a third-party confirmation that the practice is bringing the Conscious Capitalist approach to life because one of the keys to B Corp certification is creating mutually beneficial relationships with stakeholders beyond shareholder or owner interests.

“I hope we can serve as a leader, a pacer, for other organizations to follow,” Andersen says of the certification.

When Andersen explains Conscious Capitalism, he focuses on four basic components. The first is having a higher purpose that motivates and galvanizes all stakeholders to serve that higher purpose. The second is the multi-stakeholder orientation, or the ability to see things from a broader perspective given the interdependencies within. A third component is conscious leadership and the fourth is conscious culture. “Another way of translating that is that the leadership and the culture you’re trying to create is interested in honoring and fostering people’s professional and personal growth,” he says.

On the subject of personal growth, Artisan Dental thinks outside the box with benefits such as science-of-happiness training, a complementary course offered by the University of California–Berkeley through its Greater Good Science Center. The Center has aggregated the best scientific research on best practices — such as gratitude, mindfulness, and journaling — that contribute to happiness. Artisan Dental offers employees a $300 incentive for completion of this course, and it offers a $150 reimbursement if a team member’s friend or family member completes the course.

Artisan Dental’s community giving is extensive and mission consistent with initiatives like Give Kids a Smile. “There are certainly developmental opportunities available in terms of working with the pediatric population,” Andersen explains. “There is the opportunity to work with that population, just in terms of teaching them the value of oral health, and then there is the business case for it. The research we’ve seen suggests that in terms of customer loyalty, the largest single factor is shared values. It accounts for about 60% of patient loyalty.”



Berndt CPA: Floating on the cloud

Bruce D. Berndt saw the future more than four years ago and reinvented the accounting model. Seeking to make his profession, or at least his own practice as paperless as possible, the owner of Berndt CPA LLC launched his firm to emphasize mobile accounting.

In so doing, Berndt CPA has set itself apart from other CPA firms, growing at an average annual rate of 32% and increasing his staff from three to 16 employees and counting. With almost 100% of its interaction with clients cloud based, it still delivers tax returns and financial statements, but entrepreneurs now approve invoices from their smartphones, pay bills on the fly, and access real-time financial data via secure dashboards.

“With all the great businesses in and around Dane County, just to be recognized as one of them is great for our firm and our team members. Everyone here is just happy as can be, and we’re looking forward to sharing [this award] with our friends and our community.” — Bruce D. Berndt, owner, Berndt CPA

“We basically said the future for all small business clients is going to be the cloud,” Berndt states, “and so we went 100% in and said our whole service model is going to be working with people in the cloud so they can get their business information 24/7.”

One of the reasons that cloud-enabled, mobile accounting is gaining traction with clients is that it’s difficult to find and retain employees, so they are open to outsourcing various accounting functions. “What we find is that many clients look at this and say, ‘Okay, we have a hard time keeping good internal people, so if we have an outsourced model for this accounting function, and have a team at Berndt CPAs doing this, we’re not relying on any one person,’” Berndt explains. “The other major issue is people are living through their PDAs and their phones, so desktops for many business owners are a thing of the past.”

When it comes to employee benefits, Berndt CPA emphasizes the family needs of its employees, especially protection from financial hardship. The firm provides financial planning training for employees and families, it supports employees’ children in their activities through sponsorships and fundraising, employee spouses receive flowers and candy on April 10 for their support during tax season, and it allows employees to be in attendance for any of their children’s activities during normal work hours.

The family emphasis stems from Berndt’s appreciation for the sacrifices that his own family has had to make to support the business. “My daughter and son were in the business, so they understand the process, as do their spouses and loved ones,” he says. “Thinking about the support structure that’s needed, it’s critical that we recognize the families are doing as much or more as the employees are.

“In our own small way, we try to make their lives better and make it possible to spend quality time with their families when we’re not in the tax season.”



The Digital Ring: Day at the Improv

Already armed with a list of ADDYs and other awards longer than your arm, The Digital Ring (founded in 2015) has started fast, but the notion of accepting an award for its creative work is synergistic for an agency that resorts to skill-building theatrics.

The Digital Ring was founded as a digital marketing agency after seeing the need for this kind of expertise in the Madison market. It since has morphed into more of a full-service agency that specializes in the digital space, and Partner Mason Kemp (pictured above, center) attributes some of the agency’s early growth to a keen focus on under promising and over delivering.

“It is incredibly important to our crew to be recognized in this fashion, especially by others in the area who have built such great companies themselves.” — Mason Kemp, partner, The Digital Ring

That might hurt sales to some extent, especially if other agencies take a pie-in-the-sky approach and promise everything during the sales process, but it results in clients becoming your best advocates. The Digital Ring, which has grown its staff to 19 people and reports more than $2 million in annual revenue, also doesn’t accept certain accounts because business relationships are built on trust and transparency, and it does no good to pretend to be something you’re not.

“We do have to sacrifice some sales, but we also don’t take on all of the potential business that comes to us,” Kemp says. “Our philosophy is built on us being a true extension of our clients. We want to improve their marketing, but more importantly we want to improve their business as a whole.”

The Digital Ring provides custom software development, website redesign, strategic marketing initiatives, and content development. Culturally, the agency keeps pace with perks such as casual dress and professional massages, but its improv-themed, team-building events have a cultural and business development purpose. The concept behind the improvisational exercise is that presenting in front of your peers is one of the hardest, most uncomfortable things people are asked to do, and getting accustomed to it will pay dividends elsewhere.

Among other things, the agency had employees act as Shakira, enact an alien invasion of the company, and “birth” a few children. There were a few awkward moments, but they were all part of the professional growth process. “When you are able to be comfortable amongst your peers, then talking in front of clients and dealing with professionals outside of your peer group becomes that much easier,” Kemp explains. “Our entire team was pushed outside of their comfort zone, and we think that’s healthy when building professional skills.”

Community involvement also has an internal, community-building motivation, especially the volunteer time staff devotes to a range of nonprofits and charities. “All three owners have always been very active and involved in nonprofits and business boards, and we wanted to make sure that people who work for The Digital Ring have just as much vested interest in giving back,” Kemp says. “It’s more of an internal value than an external public-relations stunt for us.”



Settlers bank: Evolving with banking

For a small business that launched the year before a near economic collapse, Settlers bank was in a unique position to thrive. In that 2007 environment, taking the same risk that other small business owners take, and taking it as a bank in a crisis that resulted in bank failures nationwide, struck some as an exercise in futility.

But when you think about it, CEO Tom Spitz and President David Fink had a lot going for them. For one, they did not exist at a time when some were engaged in questionable lending practices, they were in a better capital position than some, and they had a cleaner balance sheet than most banks.

“Everybody here works very hard to take care of our customers and grow this small business, so it means a lot to be recognized by other small businesses that appreciate the hard work that goes into starting and growing a company.” — Tom Spitz, CEO, Settlers bank

They also have been able to grow from seven to 35 employees and from $10.5 million in assets to $250 million. “We certainly didn’t know the economy was going to take a turn when we were planning and getting ready to start the bank,” says Spitz. “We were preparing ourselves for how to tell people that it’s okay to do business with a new bank, and all we really had to say is that our balance sheet is okay and we have money to lend.”

In a lot of cases, competitors were facing trouble and needed to shrink their balance sheets in order to get in compliance with different regulatory ratios. In order to do that, they needed to shed some of their customers and that made it easier for Settlers to pick them up.

When the bank opened, little did the founders know the speed of banking soon would accelerate. This technologically driven reinvention enabled Settlers to create a paperless environment, which created efficiency, allowed the bank to expand into different markets, and enabled employees to work from home. “We’re constantly using and empowering the people we have to bring us new ideas as a way to find better ways of doing things, or better technologies to embrace,” states Fink. “Frankly, with many of the technology companies that we use, we push them to come along with the pace we want to set and the direction we want to go, as well.”

It was the staff that recommended Settlers management seek a dementia-friendly business certification, which requires staff training to look for signs of dementia in visitors. “As the workforce continues to tighten, we find it to be incredibly important to engage our staff in their ideas about how to grow the business, and therefore the quality of their work life is a great thing to get their involvement in,” notes Spitz. “They help choose the social causes we support. They value that the bank has a social purpose beyond just the shareholders, and it makes us all work with a greater sense of purpose on the things that matter to each of us.”



Yahara Software: Innovation drives growth

What stands out about Yahara Software are the different ways its custom software is deployed. From customizing business systems for clinical trials to reducing childhood mortality around the world, its software developers accommodate sophisticated medicine.

Innovation is a key business function when you’re customizing software, and when Yahara Software developed a flexible platform that allows clients to blend proven architecture within a customized system, it found a growth driver. Not only has the company grown its expertise in focus areas such as life sciences, transportation, education, and agribusiness, it has tripled its revenue over the past seven years, with 36% growth in revenue last year alone. To handle this growth, its staff has grown to 35 employees.

“It’s a great honor. We like to feel we’re making a difference in what we do as a business, both in the clients we work for and what we do for the community and other organizations that serve the community. Recognition for those efforts are always very much appreciated.” — Kevin Meech, CEO and principal, Yahara Software

CEO and Principal Kevin Meech attributed the flexible innovation to a combination of experience in the market, listening to clients about their needs, and looking for similarities across clients. As Meech explains, you start to see a lot of trends in core foundation pieces that are used on every project. “With our experience of seeing that every project we do needs similar things, we cut that initial cycle down so that in a matter of days we can develop functionality that is specific to the client and not worry about things that are more about the infrastructure every application needs,” he says. “We’ve got those in place, they have been used over and over again, and they’ve been tested.”

The company’s focus on innovation is a recruiting and retention tool. Since it designs custom business systems, Yahara Software provides opportunities for employees to be innovative, something the workforce welcomes. When you work in the global health space and help solve a problem, it carries the kind of human impact that makes employees feel more invested in projects.

Company perks include monthly chair massages, a break room with a pool table and pinball machines, a lounge area with video games, and getting teams together for charity runs, which adds to the fun. However, the emphasis is remaining on the cutting edge. There are many differences between the small companies that are trying to be innovative and disruptive and the larger, more established companies that have a larger market share and more control, but they have one thing in common. “At the end of the day,” Meech notes, “they both are trying to use technology to bring more value to their end customers.”

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