Small but standing tall

Five small businesses show the consistent business growth and commitment to workforce and the community needed to take home a coveted prize.

Placing a spotlight on successful small businesses, the Dane County Small Business Awards have honored the economic and civic contributions of these vital employers for nearly four decades.

Now in its 38th year, the annual awards program honors employers who are on the cutting edge of manufacturing technology, early childhood education, renewable energy, business consulting, and property restoration.

The program, formerly run by the UW–Madison Small Business Development Center and now run by IB, attracted a variety of local employers in a number of industries. Nominees 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 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.

Special thanks go to our judging panel, which consisted of IB Publisher Jon Konarske, Editorial Director Joe Vanden Plas, and past DCSBA winners Doug Fearing, president of Fearing’s Audio/Video Security; Chad Sorenson, president of SunPeak; and BJ Pfeiffer, president and CEO of Enterprise Solutions Technology Group.

Here, then, are the five companies that made the cut.

Midwest Prototyping

Steve Grundahl (kneeling in the front row, second from right) and his staff at Midwest Prototyping were part of the solution when it came to supplying front-line health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Midwest Prototyping: Fueled by 3D

For Midwest Prototyping president Steve Grundahl, it’s difficult to think of an industry that is not impacted in some way, or does not have the potential to be impacted in some way, by 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing.

Midwest Prototyping provides such services to industries such as aerospace, automotive, medical, and consumer products. The company, established in 2001, is considered a national leader in the 3D printing industry, and it has been on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies for seven consecutive years.

The company has grown more than 30% year over year for the past seven years, and the company has more than doubled the size of its workforce in the past five years. Its growth has been centered 3D printing. People think of 3D printing as a new, emerging technology, but the truth is that it isn’t as new as many people think. It’s been around since the 1980s, and Grundahl started his company in 2001 specifically to provide such services.

“In industry and in the technology arena, it’s been around for a long time, but it was just immature and was not nearly as powerful as it is today,” he explains. “So, yes, the intent all along was to grow with this technology, and we’ve just now seen that really blossom over the past five or 10 years.”

The biggest advance was just the passage of time and the realization that the technology has many applications. “You know how you hear an actor say he’s worked 15 years to become an overnight success?” notes Grundahl, laughing at the thought. “That’s kind of the same thing with this technology. It was about taking little steps at a time with every engineer, every designer, and every college student. Just incremental bits of exposure to different people, different users, and different ideas, and then all of the sudden, we’ve reached a critical mass of people knowing and understanding enough to start leveraging it.”

While setting up shop in a growth industry is a key piece to the puzzle, it’s hardly sufficient in and of itself. To attract and retain the unique workforce required for such an operation, Midwest Prototyping’s employee benefits package includes some unique features. Two benefits that stood out to our DCSBA judges are the company’s Learn and Grow program, which features reimbursement for admission to select museums, performances, cultural events, and recreational activities, and its first-time homebuyer program where the company provides up to $4,000 in down-payment assistance for employees who purchase a home near the company’s facility in Blue Mounds.

Learn and Grow actually grew out of a realization that Grundahl developed about the company’s broad customer base and the range of interactions that its growing workforce, which now stands at 45 full-time and eight part-time people, could have. “This is the point where we were adding employees, the burden of talking to customers about projects was shifting to other people, and it was a little bit of a light bulb moment for me about what people could be faced with — the kind of conversations, the questions, the diversity of people, and interactions they would have,” he explains. “I thought, ‘OK, this is asking a lot of people.’ We provide a technology-based service, and our customer base is really difficult because anybody can call and ask how to use this [3D printing] technology. So, the program was just a way for me to get people to expand their horizons, get out of their comfort zone a little bit, and try something that they would be reluctant to spend their hard-earned money on.”

The first-time homebuyer program recognizes that it’s not always easy to work at Midwest Prototyping because on occasion, employees are asked to work odd hours. On the internet, 3-D printers might seem like these magical vending machines that just spit out whatever you want. In reality, the machines are very complex, and they can be very temperamental, Grundahl notes, and even if things are going smoothly, workers often finish in the middle of the night or at odd hours, which requires someone to come in and attend to them.

“That’s inconvenient when you have to get up at 1:30 a.m. and spend a half hour to an hour at work to turn a machine over, especially if you live some distance away,” Grundahl explains. “Again, we were getting to the point where more and more people were having to share that burden. So, my original intent with the program was to encourage people to buy a home locally to plant themselves close to the facility so that it was less of an inconvenience.”

Among the company’s community impacts is a valuable contribution during the COVID-19 pandemic. Midwest Prototyping helped start the Badger Shield medical face-shield program to meet the needs of local hospitals, particularly UW Hospital. The multicompany effort also included Sub-Zero and the product design firm Delve in Madison, Vortex Optics in Barneveld, and Plastic Ingenuity in Cross Plains. It produced an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 disposable shields to not only help local health care workers during the most recent bout with COVID-19, but also to ensure there is enough “surge capacity” to handle another spike of COVID-19 in the fall and winter.

For Midwest Prototyping, it was an opportunity to leverage its people and processes but not necessarily 3D printing. “It was kind of a perfect fit for how our business is built,” Grundahl says. “Shields were created here at our own facility and at the facility we set up in Mount Horeb to do it, but also with the help of some of our customers. You’d be surprised at the need. It’s astonishing and the cool thing is we originally developed that with Delve and with the maker space to be an open-source project, so the design has been shared across the internet worldwide.”

While Midwest Prototyping did not leverage 3D printing for the Badger Shield, the company is using the technology to make parts for the General Motors ventilator project that was enabled by the Defense Production Act. Not only is it a printing parts contractor to GM, it’s on the verge of printing nasal swabs that help advance COVID-19 testing. “Our efforts are transitioning from the emergency response of PPE to the testing and, hopefully, allowing people to get a handle on the status of the virus,” Grundahl explains. “It’s been amazing for us to see all the different things people are trying, to see how they are approaching the problem-solving side of this.”

ILLUME Advising: Surprising [Early] Sales

 

ILLUME Advising 2

Founded in 2013, ILLUME Advising LLC has been able to grow into a $6.5 million company and into a team of 30 employees (most of whom are pictured above) thanks to addressing the unmet needs of energy utility customers and because of the sterling energy industry reputations of its two founders, Anne Dougherty and Sara Conzemius (left).

ILLUME Advising 1When they founded ILLUME Advising LLC in 2013, Sara Conzemius and Anne Dougherty tried to grow at a gradual place, but fate intervened. ILLUME, a research consultancy that supports the energy industry, quickly became a multimillion firm, reporting nearly $6.5 million in revenue by 2018.

The revenue growth came despite the founders’ intention to remain a small, boutique consultancy — better to be nimble and adaptable — with remote workers from coast to coast. Those plans were upset thanks in part to the solid reputations Conzemius and Dougherty had established in the energy industry, and because they offered something different to utility clients when it came to program planning, design, and evaluation expertise in areas such as energy efficiency, demand response, smart grid, and renewable energy.

“There was a lot of work being done to help utilities run energy efficiency programs and clean energy programs, and there was a lot of work being done assessing how effective those were, but there wasn’t much work being done really helping the utilities understand exactly what the customers needed, what products and services customers might be open to, and what customers were really thinking about the utility,” Conzemius explains. “Part of it was that we accurately identified a needs gap and then were able to leverage our own reputations to get out there and sell it.”

The growth, which was based on directly awarded work (rather than competitively bid work), enabled the firm to add 13 people within 18 months, and add them from Oregon to Maine. Building a staff with some remote workers was always the plan because Dougherty, who was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, would soon move to Arizona with her academician husband, and industry colleagues with the required expertise were spread out.

Remote work isn’t ILLUME’s only attraction and retention tool. The firm’s family friendly benefits, including the unique perk of unlimited vacation, stemmed from its perspective as a women-owned business and the founders’ experience with more traditional models. “At the time, we both had pretty young children and just recognized that that was not sustainable for a lot of people, but we also recognized that you could deliver excellent work without really asking employees to choose work over life,” says Conzemius, herself a single mother when the firm was founded.

Now with 30 employees, ILLUME’s experience with working remotely came in very handy during the pandemic, and their experience with the enabling tech tools has helped them stay on track with their business goals. “We were very used to the Brady Bunch tiles of our whole team,” Conzemius jokes.

In each community where ILLUME has an anchor office — Madison, Portland, Oregon, and Tucson, Arizona — the firm has gotten behind a nonprofit group that employees are passionate about. In Madison, that would be Porchlight, which seeks to reduce homelessness. “Porchlight received overwhelming support from our Madison team as the organization they wanted to contribute to,” notes Conzemius. “It is really driven by our team, but we also felt Porchlight was a good match for us because a lot of the work we do is related to climate equity and social justice in the sense that people who are already at risk are put at even higher risk by climate change issues.”

For ILLUME Advising, winning a Dane County Small Business Award is exciting for several reasons. First, the founders tried to build a business that was intentionally small and focused on the employees, so even as it worked on a long-term growth plan, the intent was always to remain a nimble and adaptable “boutique” business. Second, Conzemius believes it’s important to recognize small businesses and also recognize that just because you’re a small business, that doesn’t mean you can’t take care of your employees.

“The other reason we’re excited is that we’re based in Madison and have been here for over six years,” she adds. “It’s kind of a difficult community in which to get attention as a small business owner because there are a lot of small businesses in Madison and there is a lot of innovation. We’ve been quietly building in Madison and it’s just nice to get some recognition from where we actually are located.”

Inspire Early Childhood Learning Center: Character Counts

Inspire Early Childhood Learning Center

In less than two years, Bob Davis (cutting ribbon) and his staff at Inspire Early Childhood Learning Center have gone to the head of the class.

Bob Davis, founder and president of Inspire Early Childhood Learning Center, believes the Dane County Small Business Award honor signifies something important about early childhood education centers.

“It means that an early childhood center like ours can be a great business, too,” he states. “Early childhood education is really the next frontier in preparing children for the challenges they are going to face in their lives. If we do it right, we can make strong businesses that are also great schools. There is a win-win there, for sure.”

Perhaps another lesson of this particular honor is that it can happen in a hurry. Having opened in November 2018, the school operation has grown quickly. Davis attributes that in part to the growing research and public awareness of how important pre-school years are to a child’s development.

“The research is showing that the early years are really much more important than we thought, that there are things you can do in early childhood to strengthen children’s character, specifically the performance character traits which help children succeed,” he explains. “There is a lot of research out there that connects those two, so parents are looking for better schools — for schools that are creative and offer something more and something different.”

That “something different” includes a unique, 40-acre campus with exotic animals (zebras, camels, kangaroos, and the like) for its 200 students to admire, a culture of skilled, well-compensated educators paid $3 to $8 above the average wage in this field, and a unique curriculum that is about character and soft-skills, and that is child-interest focused and project-based. While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Inspire to throw out its playbook and invent new ways of interacting with pre-school children — remote learning has limitations with this age group, but video and Zoom have been helpful — one thing that won’t change is its emphasis on providing better wages, medical benefits, and professional development opportunities.

In Davis’ view, building character is important for enrollees’ success as students and in building the relationships they will have throughout their lives. The fact that the school’s curriculum is a project-based simply means that it follows each child’s interests and tries to do things that are central to how they think, rather than inundate them with lots of different information to memorize. “That makes learning exciting and it makes it relevant to them,” he explains, “and then, with that motivation that they have, we work on eight performance character traits.”

Those traits are creativity, persistence, curiosity, optimism, zest, social and emotional intelligence, and growth mindset, which is the idea that you get better at things the more you try and the harder you practice. According to Davis, the latest research shows that if educators can equipment children with a healthy part of that in their character, they are very well prepared for not only kindergarten, but also all the challenges they face as they grow up into adults.

In the past 18 months, the school’s own characteristics has helped it field about 250 resumes from teaching candidates interested in its approach to early childhood education. It now employs 47 full-time people, and revenue was on pace to surpass $3 million this year. “You can have the coolest school in the world, but you can’t achieve the things you want to achieve without great educators,” Davis notes. “So, we’ve done numerous things to attract the best talent in our area.

“But the fact that we’re a very unique school and we have a very unique approach to health and education, is a very attractive thing to teachers,” he adds. “When they find out we’re on 40 acres and we’re directly across from Governor Nelson State Park and have access through a bike tunnel and we have exotic animals like zebras and kangaroos, they are pretty curious as to our approach to early childhood education.”

As a new school, Inspire Early Childhood Learning Center still is the early stages of creating community connections, including partnerships with other local schools and centers, but it’s jumping in with both feet. School-wide events are planned by a parent committee, including a clothing drive that last year benefited Middleton Outreach Ministry.

Since it also offers child-care services, the center was considered an essential business, and it more fully reopened in late May. Interest in its summer and fall programs, plus its after-school programs, remains high. Davis is aware of reports that one-third of early childhood centers are staying open, while two-thirds have closed as the pandemic does its economic damage.

“That creates a situation where there are so many people out there looking,” he notes. “We are not enrolling everyone that’s calling. We have a wait list of about 90 children right now, but we’re trying to do it in a mindful way so that our groups aren’t too big.”

FarWell: Intentional Change Agents

FarWell

Jason Potter (back row, left) and his FarWell staff made a key strategic change that paid off when it came to recapturing business during COVID-19.

After making Inc. magazine’s fastest growing list for consecutive years, a lot of executives would have thought “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Yet in 2019, FarWell CEO Jason Potter and his team made a profound change to place an even greater emphasize on the employee experience, a decision made for the benefit of employees and customers alike.

Founded in 2012, clients look to FarWell when making significant changes to their people, processes, or technology; the company, in turn, helps them plan and implement the resulting strategic changes. At this moment in time, as we continue the process of reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic, that decision still looks like the right one, even though company revenue had reached $6.9 million in 2019 and many organizations would have been reluctant to tamper with success.

In retrospect, it’s a good thing it did. FarWell tracks revenue on a weekly basis and was down 35–40% in the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, but it has regained 94% of the lost business and the forthcoming months look strong. Interviewed in late May, Potter noted that everyone has gone through some forced change in the last couple of months. “For us, the fact that we already were focusing on that as a service offering has been really valuable to a lot of our clients and has been resonating with a lot of people that we’ve been speaking with over the last six to eight weeks,” he says. “We’ve been very fortunate to already be in that position.”

Change is never easy, whether it’s done intentionally, or we’re given no choice, because there are unknown stresses to deal with. FarWell’s decision to place greater emphasis on the employee experience has, indeed, resulted in a better customer experience, but it’s pre-COVID-19 growth mostly is tied to the partners’ leveraging their pre-existing relationships and listening to what the market wanted. “We’ve got some ideas of where we want to take things, but customers ultimately dictate what we do and what we offer,” Potter states. “So, there is a lot of listening to our customers and providing services relating to that. It seems to have been something that has resonated with a lot of our customers, so we’ve been fortunate in that regard.”

When it comes to driving what it calls EX, or employee experience, the key driver is the benefits program. FarWell is always looking to expand its benefits package, and the latest manifestation of that is the launching of FarWell Fringe, a company-sponsored marketplace for employees to select rotating subscription services — Netflix, Amazon, etcetera — that align with their personal interests. “Our two key drivers as an organization are employee experience and customer experience,” Potter reiterates. “Obviously, as a services organization, employee experience is critical. Our people are what make our business what it is, and they are the ones that have a large impact on the customer experience. So, if we want to deliver great experiences to our customers, we need to have great experiences for our employees.

“Fringe, specifically, is something that has resonated really well with our people,” he adds. “They’ve been really excited about the flexibility that it offers and their ability to control where those benefit dollars go.”

FarWell gets its 50 employees involved in the community through the “Do Well in the Community” program, which predated COVID-19 and gives employees the freedom to choose the charitable organization that’s important to them. The employee-directed approach has always been the company’s philosophy, but Potter acknowledges it has become a little more intentional about it in terms of how it’s structured with the focus in EX and CX. “The involvement of our team, similar to the involvement of our customers, is really part of our culture,” Potter states. “We’re big on listing to what people need and want, and then structuring solutions based on meeting that need.”

Revive Restoration: Coming to the Rescue

Revive Restoration

When a structure needs reviving, Josh Duggan (center) and his Revive Restoration staff are on call if a natural or man-made disaster strikes.

Neither fire, nor mold, nor floods have kept Revive Restoration from its appointed rounds of restoration, and at no time was this more true than recent natural disasters. The Madison company restores both residential and commercial buildings, and its ability to come to the rescue impressed our panel of DCSBA judges.

For President Josh Duggan, being honored as a small business validates its work to help people and businesses get back on their feet after a disaster, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest sparked by police brutality, and the natural disasters of recent years, unforeseen calamities are coming fast and furious.

When they do, Revive Restoration’s first task is to put traumatized clients — it has served more than 6,600 people and counting — at ease as they walk them through the restoration process. “Being responsive, acting with urgency, and doing quality work has strengthened our professional relationships in Dane County, and our referral base has grown dramatically,” Duggan explains.

Rebranded from Aquire Restoration of Madison in late 2018, management has doubled the company’s revenue leading into 2020. Revive Restoration’s 28 associates form emergency response teams that are on call 24/7, and it serves as an example of a small business whose investment in mobile technology allowed it to make a smooth transition during COVID-19. Even before pandemic struck, the company started working on ways to free its team from the constraints of the office, and as an essential business, it was already mobile enough to work entirely from the field.

Estimators and project managers were able to write estimates, electronically sign work documents, and manage projects from mobile offices. Technicians, who Duggan calls the backbone of the company, have been using cloud-based software on their mobile devices for several years, enabling them to track and document real-time job data (including pictures and notes) and share the information with clients.

Personal and professional development is a constant focus. Having launched its 17th restorative service in 2019, the company built and expanded a designated training room so that team members and partners could receive up-to-date training and continuing education on all services. In fact, constant training could be considered its most comprehensive employee benefit. In 2018, the team received an impressive 1,126 hours of training, increased that to 1,465 hours in 2019, and the organization seeks to provide 1,600 hours of training in 2020.

Restoring the community is one mission, but so is giving back. In the fall of 2019, Revive Restoration organized and hosted its first annual charity golf event, attracting 130 attendees and raising $4,000 for the Professional Firefighters Charitable Foundation. Even with other events being canceled due to COVID-19, a golf event is one that naturally allows for social distancing, and therefore Revive Restoration’s second charity golf outing is still on for August.

“It’s always been something that’s been a goal for us,” says Vice President Simonett. “It takes a lot of preparation and investment in time, but we were excited last year to be at the point where we could really pull one off. There is no looking back now.”

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