Matt Behnke // 37
Founder and CEO | Orthotic Shop, Utica | Employees: 10 | Revenue: NA |
Kettering University, University of Michigan
Growing up with two uncles who were podiatrists, Matt Behnke’s interest in health care was sparked at an early age. Little did Behnke imagine that his uncles’ passion for podiatry would inspire him to launch an orthotic footwear business.
Offering shoes, socks, heel cups, pads, and braces, the Orthotic Shop began when Behnke thought he’d try selling a few items on the Internet. All shipments and returns were made from a makeshift warehouse in the garage of his condominium. As sales increased, he added a wider variety of brands and items to the online-only department store. In 2008, he moved to a new home, giving him more space to store inventory and enabling him to add more products. A turning point in growing the company came when Behnke used his background in computer coding to revamp his website (OrthoticShop.com) to bolster marketing and sales. It worked; in fact, the growth led him to invest in large warehouses in Utica and Warren.
“I didn’t sleep much back then,” says Behnke, CEO of the Orthotic Shop in Utica, explaining how he balanced his time between working full time at TACOM in Warren as a government civilian engineer, spending time with his family, running his emerging company, and pursuing a master’s degree in engineering management at the University of Michigan.
“Luckily, while working for the U.S. Army, they had flex time, so I could go in at 9 a.m. I also had every other Friday off,” he says.
The entrepreneur explains there are several elements that make his online footwear store unique, including the company’s customer service desk. With eight employees working at the office, Behnke says all issues are taken care of right away. “I read this thing once, ‘You don’t want to outsource your core competency, and customer service is our core competency,” he says.
Paulina Braiz-Harb // 36
Founder | Paulina BH, Birmingham | Employees: 1 | Revenue: NA |
Universidad Tecnologica del Centro, Universidad de Carabobo
Growing up in Venezuela, Paulina Braiz-Harb would spend her time sketching dresses. Now, as the owner of her own custom-dress line and boutique, Paulina BH in downtown Birmingham, she is bringing those sketches to life. “My slogan is, ‘A dream becomes a reality,’ ” Braiz-Harb says. “If I don’t have it, I will make it.”
Before moving to the United States in 2002 to study English and work in marketing, Braiz-Harb obtained business degrees in administration and management, human resources, and international trade. Her education, she says, has been instrumental to her success. “I work very (closely) with my clients. My human resource degree helps me (understand) their personality and their feelings, and I try to stress that through the dresses,” she says.
Since launching her business in 2008, Braiz-Harb’s responsibilities include searching for fabrics and embellishments, sketching and designing, and getting to know her clients. Her dresses, which range in price from $200 to $5,000, are often customized to fit the unique needs of each of her clients, including business professionals, artists, and brides.
Using decorative materials such as Swarovski crystals, freshwater pearls, and hand-beading, Braiz-Harb collaborates with a team of seamstresses in Venezuela. The dresses are made for special occasions like weddings, graduations, anniversaries, bat mitzvahs, and more, and are available through special orders and at her boutique.
Braiz-Harb also designs and sells a line of custom-made shoes with hand painted soles, and offers accessories by designers she admires. “What gives me the most satisfaction is seeing my client happy and satisfied, and making them feel like a princess and important on their happy day,” she says.
Larry Brinker Jr. //36
President | L.S. Brinker Co., Detroit | Employees: 30 | Revenue: NA | University of Michigan
To boost productivity, Larry S. Brinker Jr., president of L.S. Brinker Co., a general contracting and construction management firm in Detroit, equipped his workers with tablets so they wouldn’t have to fiddle with paper drawings on job sites.
His efforts to make improvements in the business didn’t stop with his own company. As president of the Construction Association of Michigan, a trade group based in Bloomfield Hills, he’s on a mission to boost the efficiency and increase the size of the state’s construction workforce the industry. “By the year 2020, three of four construction workers will retire,” he says. “During the recession many workers left the area, so we’re aggressively looking for ways to backfill that talent and the workforce.”
One idea is to partner with the state to create a program that would provide training for junior and senior high school students. Participants would learn skilled and professional construction trades that don’t require a college degree.
Brinker knows a lot about higher-level professional construction trades, having performed a variety of jobs since starting in 2003 at the firm his father, Larry Brinker Sr., founded. The younger Brinker was project engineer and eventually director of business development before being named president in 2014.
“I’ve held pretty much every position in the company,” he says, “which is a benefit to me now because I can relate better to the other employees.”
In addition to his volunteer position with the Construction Association of Michigan, Brinker is a board member of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, the Greg K. Monroe Foundation, and the Wayne County Sheriff Youth and Senior Education Fund.
He’s also served as executive committee chair of the Boy Scouts of America Building Connections Networking Event, and is a former board member of Boys Hope Girls Hope of Detroit.
During the past 12 years, Brinker has been involved in many construction projects (collectively worth more than $600 million) and specializes in those that have complex logistics, like multiphased jobs and historic renovations.
Aaron Broglin // 38
President | Broglin Distribution, Dearborn Heights | Illuminator Logistics Group, Farmington Hills | Employees: 8/6 |
Revenue: $1.5M/$1.3M | Wayne State University
Vacationing in northern Michigan, Aaron Broglin noticed several small, gourmet food companies and had a big idea. If people bought from these businesses while they were Up North, why wouldn’t they buy the same products when they were back home?
“So I started contacting these little companies, and to my shock, they were all like, ‘Yeah, we’d be interested in talking,’ ” he recalls.
In 2001, Broglin scraped together $500, prepared a stack of sell sheets, and filled a cardboard box with samples. His first customers were R. Hirt Jr. Co. in Detroit and Westborn Market (Berkley, Dearborn, Livonia).
“This was long before the ‘Buy Michigan’ thing was sexy,” he says, adding that Broglin Distribution has grown so much, it may be the largest distributor of Michigan-made gourmet and specialty products. “We have a gigantic assortment of everything Michigan, from soft goods to hard goods to cleaning products and detergents.”
Broglin has a diverse mix of retailers: 40 percent are high-end groceries, another 40 percent are mid-level grocery stores, and the remaining 20 percent are made up of meat markets, gift shops, boutiques, and specialty retailers.
When Broglin acquired a warehouse for his company in 2007, the building had excess capacity, so he started Illuminator Logistics Group, a third-party logistics company for client companies. “We do warehousing, trucking, local delivery services, and packaging,” Broglin says of Illuminator.
Broglin is also a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and a partner in Hot Rod Bob’s Specialty Foods in Shelby Township.
“The work we do is not cool by today’s definition,” Broglin says. “We’re not a bunch of guys with beards and cut-up T-shirts writing code and coming up with the world’s next great technological invention. We’re companies operating in an old-fashioned industry. We just do it better.”
Christopher George // 31
Co-Founder and CEO | Gentleman’s Box, Farmington Hills | Employees: 4 |
Subscribers: 4,000 | Oakland University
Based on the notion “most men hate to shop,” Christopher George and John Haji created the Gentleman’s Box, a high-end subscription service that caters to men, and delivers them grooming products, style advice, and fashion essentials on a monthly basis.
“As a busy man myself, I never had time to shop and I never got to see what new fashion items were available to me,” says George, CEO. “The Gentleman’s Box brings the latest fashion and accessories to your door each month along with the latest issue of GQ magazine.”
A recent box, based on a tribute to golfing great Arnold Palmer, contained a pair of argyle socks, silver-plated golf cufflinks, a flask, GQ magazine, a face moisturizer for men, half and half (lemonade/iced tea) Arnold Palmer mix, and a one-year subscription to Golf Digest magazine. George says each box subscription is $25 per month ($33 international); however, buying an annual subscription will get you one month free. He says the value of each box is $75.
George, who grew up in Bloomfield Hills, was 21 when he started his first business, Echo Management Services, a collection agency in Warren that he still operates. In 2012, he launched his first online business, K&G Wholesale, a harbinger to Gentleman’s Box.
Since it launched last November, the company has attracted more than 4,000 subscribers, and is on pace to do more than $1 million in revenue in its first year. George says the goal is to reach 10,000 subscribers by the end of the year, and 100,000 at the end of 2016. Although most subscribers are in the U.S., George says the company has customers in 40 countries; the majority of those are in Canada and the U.K.
His advice to young entrepreneurs: “Always choose what you love doing. Don’t do something just for a paycheck.”
Shane Gianino // 37
Founder and CEO | Qstride Inc., Detroit | Employees: 20 | Revenue: $1.7M
Entering his senior year at Mount Clemens High School, Shane Gianino was looking forward to the upcoming basketball season. A dominant power forward/center, he was hoping his skills would land him a four-year college scholarship.
“I was poised for a great year, and I had passed a physical, but something was wrong,” Gianino says. “They ran some blood tests and it turned out I had a tumor that was cancerous.”
The tumor was removed, and although he tried to play basketball while undergoing chemotherapy, school officials declared him ineligible to play. Raised by his grandparents in Clinton Township — his parents were pursuing their own careers — Gianino enrolled at Macomb Community College and tried to play basketball, but it didn’t work out.
Prior to graduation, in 2001, he left college and co-founded a technology company which developed custom lists that businesses and organizations could use to implement direct mail and email sales campaigns. In 2005, he left the entrepreneurial world to work in IT for some of his former clients. Four years ago, seeing a need to provide companies with specialized IT recruiting services and business intelligence solutions, Gianino launched Qstride Inc. in Troy (the company recently relocated to One Woodward in downtown Detroit).
“I’m married with two children, and I decided the timing was right to launch a new business,” he says. “We help companies better leverage their data to increase profits and sales.”
National clients include L Brands Inc., Bed Bath & Beyond, Apple, and The Learning Experience, while locally the company works with North American Bancard in Troy, Marketing Associates Inc. in Detroit, and GreenPath Debt Solutions in Farmington Hills.
“When I started Qstride, I was at a point in my life where I was getting close to being 35 years old, and I didn’t want the opportunity to launch another company go by,” Gianino says.
Craig Guck // 32
Founder and CEO | Plastic Development Group, Southfield | Employees: 15 |
Revenue: $23M | University of Michigan
After Craig Guck graduated from the University of Michigan in 2005, his journey toward entrepreneurship was a tad circuitous. First he tried some commodity trading. “I put a deal together between Singapore and India,” he recalls, “but then I got cut out of it when it was time to get paid.”
Then there was the plan to set up a distributorship business — in Iraq, of all places. “It was during the war,” Guck says with a laugh. “I actually placed a deposit for our first order and I’ll never forget, we got a call from the FBI saying they were watching wires going into domestic banks and they recommended I shouldn’t be doing this.”
That’s when Guck’s father offered his son some sage advice, something along the lines of sticking to a formula that actually works. In 2011, Guck took his first big step in that direction, founding his own business, Plastic Development Group in Southfield.
The initial product line included watering cans, umbrella bases, flamingos, and an array of low-priced lawn and garden items that were sold to Home Depot, Menards, Target, Wal-Mart, and Sam’s Club, among others.Revenue for his first full year (2012) was around $400,000, primarily because Guck’s business was strictly seasonal. “You take orders and ship everything in the first and second quarters,” he explains, “and then the third and fourth are kind of lean and mean.”
By the end of 2013, revenue had improved exponentially, to around $4 million. But Guck knew that in order to take a true revenue leap, his business model had to change to include a year-round product line.
“One of my custom molders in Sturgis was producing folding banquet tables and chairs,” Guck says, “so we started producing tables and sold those to Dollar General — and that’s what kicked off what is now by far the core of our business, which is folding furniture. Then I approached Menards and got their whole assortment, so now we sell them all their folding plastic tables and chairs.”
Target soon followed, and the results were immediate. Revenue for 2014 increased by a factor of more than five, to $23 million, and Guck projects revenue this year will more than double that figure to perhaps as much as $50 million.
Richard Haddad // 33
Vice President and General Counsel | Palace Sports and Entertainment/Detroit Pistons, Auburn Hills |
Employees: 1,300 | Revenue: NA | University of Michigan, Columbia Law School
Richard Haddad concedes he wears a variety of hats on an average day as vice president and general counsel at Palace Sports and Entertainment and the Detroit Pistons.
“At a very high level, my job and my role here is to accelerate every aspect of our business,” he says. “There’s a risk management and risk mitigation aspect of my job. I have to protect our backside and downside, and try to minimize any exposure that we have.”
Take the three-year, $50-million renovation and transformation of The Palace of Auburn Hills, in which virtually every corner of the arena was upgraded — from concourses and gathering areas to restaurants, suites, and the Pistons locker room.
Haddad played a major role in all facets of the project, even down to the fine details of installing the $15-million, high-definition “Palace360” scoreboard system.
“I think the scoreboard was probably the single biggest challenge because there were so many moving parts,” he says of the project, which debuted last season. “That goes back to my role to kind of integrate and to connect the dots between those moving parts. “The cool thing about sports, for me, is it really has this amazing power to inspire and unite the community and to bring people together,” he says. “We try to make that happen with everything we do here at The Palace.”
Haddad readily agrees he landed his dream job, with one exception. “Unfortunately, and much to my chagrin, the basketball guys aren’t asking me for advice on who to trade for or who to sign as a free agent,” he says with a laugh.
Ryan Holdan // 36
Founder and President | Paymasters Inc., Birmingham | Employees: 12 | Revenue: $3.6M |
University of Pennsylvania
On the outside, it sure seemed like Ryan Holdan had it made. He was a recent graduate of an Ivy League college, in his early 20s, and living in Santa Monica, Calif. “I was right there on Ocean Avenue,” he recalls, “right across from the Pier. I could see it from my window.”
Holdan was working for CIBC World Markets, the investment-banking branch of a global Canadian bank.
“They were big into casinos,” he says, “and I was in the gaming, lodging, and leisure industry. The money was awesome, the hours were horrible.”
It wasn’t long before Holdan learned something about his job — and himself, too — that caused a change in his career path.
“There’s a pecking order in corporate America, and that really wasn’t something I wanted to do the rest of my life. I thought investment banking was going to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me, but I realized what I really wanted to do was to start my own business. I wanted to live and die by my own sword,” he says.
So Holdan literally moved back into the Bloomfield Township house of his youth. “It was a little bit humbling, sure,” he says, “but I was young enough to take the plunge and I saved every penny.”
Holdan started Paymasters Inc. when he was just 25, and since then he’s taken what was a modest payroll company and turned it into a growing enterprise in the industry, largely by cornering a very specific client — restaurants.
“This is more fun than just normal payroll; it’s more complicated and challenging. We like to think of ourselves almost as an elite team. We have special software just for restaurants, and we spend gobs of money doing everything in our power to educate and train our clients and ourselves so we can help them stay in compliance.”
Jason Houck // 30
CIO, Hepta Control Systems | Sarnia, Ontario, Canada (HQ) | Detroit and Chesterfield Township
Employees: 24 | 2014 Revenue: NA
Managing the lighting, electrical, fire, and HVAC functions of large buildings requires complex control systems. Unfortunately, in many older buildings these systems are physically segregated and are run by outdated software. This was the challenge Jason Houck found when he joined his family’s Hepta Control Systems in 2002, after graduating from high school.
“It was the technology aspect that attracted me to Hepta,” Houck says. “You still find building systems running off DOS commands today. I saw it as a chance to bring new technology into the industry.”
With no formal IT training, Houck learned the business from the ground up through trial and error, a lot of after-hours reading, and a parental quid pro quo: “When I was 10 my father got us a computer, and the deal was (that) to get any games for the computer, you had to learn DOS commands,” he says. Today, under Houck’s direction, the company uses newer Web-based and IOT (Internet of Things) data systems that tie multiple building systems into a single computing platform from which readouts and warnings can be accessed remotely by a tablet or a smartphone.
“Once we have all the systems integrated we can make logical decisions, like how to save energy,” Houck says. He likens it to downsizing from a V-12 engine in a car when it actually only needs two cylinders.
Hepta has clients across the country and in Bermuda, but Houck is excited to be a part of Detroit’s downtown revival. “We have a million square feet of Bedrock properties along the Woodward corridor integrated into a single computing platform,” he says, referring to Bedrock Real Estate Services, an affiliate of Quicken Loans Inc. One of Hepta’s first projects was the Chase Tower, now known as The Cube, which houses thousands of Quicken Loans employees.
“Working with Bedrock, the passion becomes very contagious,” Houck says.
Mat Ishbia // 35
President and CEO | United Shore Financial Services, Troy | Employees: 1,270 |
Revenue: $355M | Michigan State University
Can you imagine a company that doesn’t use internal emails? At United Shore Financial Services in Troy, one of the nation’s largest wholesale mortgage lenders, nearly 1,300 employees communicate across a digital platform called U-Zone. Once on the system, employees can read a colleague’s profile to glean professional and personal attributes, such as whether they belong to any associations or if they enjoy baseball.
“We communicate with our clients via email, but internally we got away from long strings of emails with multiple users and developed a much more focused communication platform,” says Mat Ishbia, president and CEO of United Shore.
This year, the company is on pace to record $13 billion in mortgage volume, up from $250 million when Ishbia joined the company in 2003.
“My dad started the company in 1986, and he’s never worked a day of his life here,” he says. “I came up from the bottom. I started out making $18,000 a year and pulling orders off the fax machine.”
To help grow the company, Ishbia reached back to his days at Michigan State University, where he was a point guard on the basketball team for four years — the team reached the Final Four three times and won the NCAA national championship in 2000 — before spending a year as a student assistant coach.
“I learned a lot from Coach Tom Izzo,” Ishbia says. “He taught me how to get into the weeds of an organization to make sure everything was operating properly, but also the importance of strong morale and a winning team environment. The big seismic shift for us in terms of growth was when we stopped trying to differentiate ourselves (in the marketplace) and instead sought out the best people to put on our team. We also created a great work environment and culture, so now people want to be here. They enjoying working in a team environment, and we have fun.”
â€‹Lorron James // 32
Vice President | James Group International, Detroit | Employees: 150 | Revenue: $133M |
Arizona State University, Central Michigan University
Lorron James sees value in linking old Detroit with new Detroit. Tapping the city’s manufacturing heritage, James helped convince Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Detroit-based Quicken Loans Inc., and his partners in Xenith, to move the designer and manufacturer of innovative football helmets and shoulder pads from the East Coast to his family’s company — James Group International — in southwest Detroit. There, in an assembly line process that started up last spring, Xenith produces thousands of helmets and pads for professional, college, and high school players.
“We saw Xenith as a vehicle to bring new and old Detroit together,” James says.
James Group got its start in 1970 when James’ father, John James, began a freight logistics firm. Today, the multifaceted company includes Renaissance Global Logistics, Magnolia Automotive Services, Motor City Intermodal Distribution, and TLX.
“We’re revitalizing Detroit as a distribution hub, and we saw Xenith as a major player in reaching that goal,” says James, a former wide receiver at Arizona State University. “We offer shipping access to the Detroit River, and we have the ability to build industrial or light manufacturing space next to our 450,000-square-foot logistics center (at Fort and Clark).”
James Group, which is debt-free and has access to lines of credit, built an impressive client roster — it includes Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., and Toyota Motor Corp. — both in Detroit and across the Midwest. James, president of TLX, a provider of supply chain management software, sits on several boards, including the Detroit Wayne County Port Authority and the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council.
“The opportunities in Detroit are coming together, from what’s happening downtown and in the neighborhoods to our industrial areas that offer access to shipping, rail, and highways,” James says. “All the pieces are coming together.”
Josh Kaplan // 30
Co-founder | SLI Automotive Group, Commerce Township | Employees: 23 | Revenue: $4.5M
Josh Kaplan, like most entrepreneurs, often juggles multiple enterprises at once. As a 15-year-old, he managed several businesses along with his schoolwork. His work practices haven’t changed as an adult. Kaplan, co-founder of SLI Automotive Group and CEO of Sunscreen Mist, also sits on the board of directors of the nonprofit Kids Kicking Cancer.
After high school, Kaplan worked in industries spanning from retail to nonprofit work to running financial operations.
He eventually found himself back in the automotive industry three years ago when he, his cousin, and his brother took over the family business, an automotive replacement parts supplier. The trio restarted the company after Kaplan’s uncle retired. Prior to taking over the family business, Kaplan headed up the sales division and worked to raise capital from banks and investors.
“I was the guy on the phone 10 hours a day trying to make a sale — it didn’t matter if it was $100 or $100,000,” he says.
Today, he’s in charge of the growth and direction of SLI Automotive, which serves such markets as automotive, medical, and financial. The company has offices in Commerce Township; Orlando, Fla.; Anaheim, Calif.; and, soon, Scottsdale, Ariz.
As CEO of Sunscreen Mist, he oversees production of automated booths that spray sunscreen (SLI manufactures the booths). Kaplan, together with co-founder and president Tony Fayne, appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank in May, and while they didn’t receive an investment, Kaplan says the exposure was amazing.
His advice on being successful: “If you have the right team, the right product, and you have the ability to grow, then the only thing that’s left is the hard work that you put behind it to get to where you want to be,” Kaplan says.
Richard Kerwin // 32
Acquisitions and Dispositions | Lormax Stern Development Co., Bloomfield Hills | Employees: 30 |
Revenue: NA | University of Michigan
When Richard Kerwin was working at a local real estate company in 2007, he saw an online job posting in his field with the description: “The faint of heart need not apply.” After interviewing for the position, which involved overseeing acquisitions and dispositions, he joined Lormax Stern Development Co. in Bloomfield Hills.
“We acquire underutilized shopping centers, we improve them by adding tenants, we tear down older areas, we add new square footage, we manage and better maintain the properties, and then we either hold on to them or sell them,” Kerwin says. “Our strategy is to create value.”
A recent example is the redevelopment of Macomb Mall in Roseville. Over the last two years, the company has torn down older areas of the center; added new tenants like Dick’s Sporting Goods, ULTA Beauty, and H&M; and reconfigured the property to improve access for shoppers. One of around 40 properties in the company’s portfolio, Kerwin says he assesses the potential acquisition of five to six retail properties every day.
“Some we spend five minutes on, others we examine for hours,” he says. “If we like something, we put in an offer. During that time, we’ll do our due diligence. We’ll look at the current leases, we look where we can add value, and if we close (on the deal), we’ll pass it on to our management team for redevelopment.”
Kerwin says he’s fortunate to have found his calling. “After college I was lending money, but I quickly realized I didn’t want to lend money. I wanted to get involved in investing and creating value. Overall, we have helped create hundreds and hundreds of jobs, which is something we’re all very proud of.”
Nash Khami // 37
President and Co-Founder | Midwest Mobility Solutions, Troy |
Employees: 220 | Revenue: $30M | Wayne State University
A legacy of entrepreneurism and the lure of being his own boss encouraged Nash Khami to launch what was to become Midwest Mobility Solutions in 2009 with Matthew Sharrak, his nephew and co-“30 in Their Thirties” honoree. “My father, both of my brothers, and a few of my sisters and their husbands are entrepreneurs, so the spirit was instilled in me from a very young age,” Khami says.
A self-described technology geek, Khami began repairing pagers, computers, and phones at his brother’s AT&T store before getting his own location to manage while still in college. The company ranks as the largest AT&T-authorized retailer in the state and is planning to grow to more than 40 stores in Michigan and Ohio this year. “We always prided ourselves on going above and beyond in the remodeling of our stores or making it right for our customers,” Khami says. “We tried to stand out in AT&T’s eyes.”
While Sharrak oversees the company’s six district managers, presides over sales calls, and drives company culture, Khami works behind the scenes. “I oversee all the accounting, financials, and reporting,” he says. “I negotiate new leases with landlords and general contractors — anything to do with opening a new store. We have a dynamic where he takes care of his things and I take care of mine. That’s what makes us so successful — we don’t have one person trying to do it all.”
As MMS’s geographic presence has grown, so has its need for employees. Khami admits that finding the right workers can often be one of the hardest parts of the job. “The key is not always necessarily getting the best person, but getting the right personality that you can mold and shape and hopefully get to do the things that you want them to do for your customers.”
Anthony Lamerato // 32
Local Sales Manager | Fox Sports Detroit, Southfield | Employees: 50+ |
Revenue: NA | Aquinas College
Ask Tony Lamerato to describe the most challenging part of any job in the broadcasting business and he responds without hesitation. “There’s so many different avenues now where someone can get their news,” he says. “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it.”
Then he goes on to explain why none of that matters when it comes to the live sports programming he’s responsible for selling at Fox Sports Detroit, the second-ranked sports network in the country.
“We believe we’re really in the golden age of live sports,” Lamerato says. “We call it the last giant standing, where we feel our TV rating has a heartbeat. So the people (who) are watching us are watching intently. All the metrics we have confirm that live sports is DVR-proof; it’s appointment-based television.”
Lamerato grew up in Sterling Heights, played basketball at Aquinas College, and eyed a career with a sports team. Following a summer internship with the Detroit Pistons, he ended up majoring in sports management, which led to a job that means he’s not only talking Pistons every day with his clients, but also covering the Tigers, Red Wings, and Lions in various capacities.
“I’ve been able to increase revenue for FSD on the local regional side to have a record-breaking year locally,” he says, “and for the fifth straight year as a company, we also had a record-breaking revenue year.
“What’s happened the last five years in downtown Detroit, it’s so exiting,” he adds. “For someone young like myself, I feel like I can be a part of something bigger than me, I can be part of a turnaround. You can feel the movement, the vibe, the energy, the creativity, and, really, the spirit of entrepreneurship — and all of that all fuels the passion of Detroit sports.”
Scottie Lee // 35
Vice President of Strategy and Research | Taubman Centers Inc., Bloomfield Hills |
Employees: 598 | Revenue: $679M | Northwestern University, University of Michigan
Growing up in a working class family in northern New Jersey, Scottie Lee knew he wanted to someday work in the retail industry. To prepare, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering and economics from Northwestern University. From there, he worked two years at Vantage Point Consultants, followed by another two years at FTI Consulting, both in the greater Chicago area. Then destiny stepped in.
One of FTI’s clients was Taubman Centers Inc. in Bloomfield Hills, which owns and operates 21 luxury shopping malls. When his boss took a job at Taubman in 2007, he offered Lee a position.
“If there was a chance to ever work in the retail industry, I knew this was it,” Lee says.
At first, Lee kept senior management abreast of daily financial and retail market conditions, while earning an MBA in strategy and finance at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Today, as vice president of strategy and research, he oversees external growth opportunities while managing relationships with department stores.
Since 2012, Taubman has opened up malls in Salt Lake City; greater St. Louis; Sarasota, Fla.; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Lee says one of the projects he’s most proud of is one that’s close to home — the rebranding of Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills in 2010. When the mall struggled during the economic downtown, Lee worked to rebrand and market the property as Great Lakes Crossing Outlets. He’s also assisting with Taubman’s Asian projects — the company is opening three malls next year, two in China and one in South Korea. Moving forward, Lee says the retail industry is at an interesting turning point, with the maturation of online retail.
“The mall business touches on so many different things,” Lee says. “You have to know about retail, but you also have to know about real estate, the development process, architects, construction — it’s multifaceted.”
Erik Meier // 33
Founder and CEO | EAM Consulting Group, Troy | Employees: 12 | Revenue: $1M+ |
Western Michigan University
To say the entrepreneurial bug bit Erik Meier at a very early age is a bit of an understatement. When he was 9 years old, he began collecting and selling trading cards. As a teenager, he and some friends built ramps and hosted inline skating competitions. They also sold skating-related merchandise and apparel items.
Then there was the dock installation company he created one summer while he was a student at Western Michigan University. “I bought a truck and grabbed a couple of barrels,” he says. “It was me and two buddies, and we built out a crew, went door-to-door, (and) dropped flyers off. … That worked out well. Good (profit) margins.”
In 2003, Meier accepted a job working for someone else — he became a mortgage banker at Quicken Loans Inc.
“What was cool about that place was you really got to see a company grow from that smaller mid-size to just a really big, well-run organization,” Meier says. “The culture at Quicken was about training and personal development. That training really helped take a business that, for all intents and purposes, was an industry that was very old and probably pretty boring, and re-created it into a superstar.”
Meier decided to duplicate the business practices at Quicken and start an authorized Sandler training center.
Over the last seven years, his EAM Consulting has served 300 companies and 10,000 sales professionals, most of them in southeast Michigan. Meier cultivated his business the old-fashioned way. “In the beginning, it was just me going out and direct selling, cold calling, (and) doing cold walk-ins,” he says. “Now we’ve got just as much business coming from referrals as we do generating (business through) our own efforts.”
But don’t expect Meier to ever sit pat. “If there’s a company I don’t know and I want to get in touch with it,” he says, “I’ll run cold calls.”
â€‹Cleamon Moorer Jr. // 39
Dean, School of Business | Madonna University, Livonia | Employees: 65 | Budget: $15M |
Kettering University, Benedectine University, Argosy University
Cleamon Moorer Jr., the dean of the School of Business at Madonna University in Livonia, is proud to be celebrating what he calls his “20th anniversary of failure.”
After flunking out of GMI Engineering & Management Institute (now Kettering University) as a sophomore, and subsequently losing his coveted internship with General Motors, Moorer spent a year working at a shoe shop while retaking courses at Oakland Community College. It was during this time that he discovered his love for learning, information systems, and business.
“I think selling shoes versus being an intern at GM was a very humbling experience,” Moorer says. “That year was pivotal.”
Moorer, a native of Detroit, went back to GMI and graduated in 1996. Since then, he has obtained many more degrees and has worked as a global service executive for AT&T, as an independent business consultant, and as a professor at various universities in Michigan and greater Chicago.
“In terms of education, I felt that it was a calling — a calling, and a purpose to create a legacy,” Moorer says. “I always felt a sense of being dispensable in the corporate settings, but I really believed I could have an indelible impact on students.”
Since taking on his position at Madonna last July, he’s formed the Business Advisory Board, Comprehensive Assurance Learning Center, and Student Stakeholder Advisory Council. Additionally, he oversees all undergraduate and graduate business programs, international partnerships, 65 faculty members, direction and strategic leadership for future programing, and programmatic accreditation.
Paying homage to his beginnings, he also runs a nonprofit scholarship and grant foundation funded by the profits from his memoir, From Failure to Promise: 360 Degrees, which follows his early challenges and the sometimes-rocky road to his current position as dean.
Amy Peterson // 35
Associate Counsel/Co-Founder and CEO | Detroit Tigers/Rebel Nell, Detroit | Employees: NA/7 |
Revenue: $254M*/$177,000 | New England School of Law, Boston; MBA, Suffolk University, Boston
Since she was a young girl in Jamestown, N.Y., Amy Peterson wanted to work for a Major League Baseball team. Today she’s an associate counsel for the Detroit Tigers, where she reviews sponsorship contracts and provides legal counsel to the club’s front office.
In addition to that position, she took on a second career after settling in a residence located near the Coalition for Temporary Shelter — or COTS — on Peterboro Street in Detroit’s Midtown district.
“I would walk my dog and have conversations with the shelter’s residents (women and children), and hear courageous stories of how they left really challenging situations in search of better opportunities,” Peterson says. “After so many of those conversations, I had one of those light-bulb moments. I was incredibly grateful to the city and everything it had done for me, so I thought it was time to return the favor. That was the catalyst for starting Rebel Nell.”
In 2013, Peterson and her business partner, Diana Russell, began to make jewelry on their own to raise seed money. In July of that year, they won a Detroit Soup micro-grant, and in December they hired the first of five employees. “We don’t hire a lot, but we go very deep with the ones we do,” Peterson says. “We give them the tools that we were fortunate to have that allowed us to be financially independent, like doing a budget. We also instill the value of hard work and dedication.”
Part play on words, part homage to former first lady and women’s advocate Eleanor “Nell” Roosevelt, Rebel Nell’s employees are women from COTS. They produce sterling silver jewelry made from the paint chips that have crumbled from the city’s many graffitied walls; the earrings and necklaces are sold online, at art fairs, and at retail stores in 13 states.
Peterson says the jewelry line reflects the women’s personalities. “It creates an amazing connection between the woman who made it and the one who buys it,” she says. “If that person is really proud to wear that piece, it makes our women feel incredibly empowered and accomplished.”
Chris Roebuck // 32
CEO | Clicktivated Video Inc., Birmingham | Employees: 6 | Revenue: NA | Michigan State University
After a brief run in the advertising world in 2010, Chris Roebuck began offering a technology service that allowed companies to collect and analyze customer data from the field such as consumer trade shows, conferences, or product launches. He also offered a digital geo-location service where a grocery store, for example, could send incentives to prospective customers in a given area via their smartphones.
“From there, we started focusing on the rising use of video, and the fact that while there was a great deal of future growth, the content wasn’t easily engaged,” says Roebuck, CEO of Clicktivated Video Inc. in Birmingham. “We decided to pivot and develop an on-demand, touchable interactive experience.”
To wit: A cooking video that’s equipped with Clicktivated’s behind-the-scenes software allows a viewer to touch or click on an item they like in the video — such as a stainless-steel oven or a dining room table — on their computer or smartphone screenon products. In an instant, the technology provides the user with a direct link to view and purchase the item.
“How many times have you watched a video and set out to find a way to buy (something you saw in) it?” Roebuck says. “With our service, you can click on the direct link, or one or multiple links can be saved to access later.”
Initially, the company focused on signing up fashion and retail outlets. They have since expanded into travel and entertainment. Clients include Style Network, Pure Michigan, Vanity Fair, Detroit Hustles Harder, and Bohemian Guitars, among others.
“The marketplace has really embraced our technology, and we’re becoming an international company by working with clients in Hong Kong, the Philippines, London, England, and Singapore,” Roebuck says. “But we want to work with as many local companies as possible, whether it’s on the development side or as a client. We’re definitely in the hiring mode.”
Matthew X. Roling // 35
Director of Business Development | Rock Ventures, Detroit | Employees: 23,500 |
Revenue: NA | University of Wisconsin
From a young age, Matthew X. Roling learned what it took to operate a business.
“My mom owned and operated a family day care center in our home, and I learned about revenue, taxes, and taking care of other children,” says Roling, director of business development at Rock Ventures in Detroit, an umbrella entity that provides operational guidance, coordination, and integration for Quicken Loans Inc.’s family of companies.
“My dad left when I was 11 years old, (so) my mom and my two younger sisters were all in it together,” he says, of the day care business. “We saw how our mom focused on building relationships with parents, making sure the books were in order, and providing proper nutrition for the children. It really inspired me to push myself.”
During college — Roling earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in accounting from the University of Wisconsin — he sold cars and shoes. “I was Al Bundy before there was one,” he laughs.
Following graduation in 2003, he parlayed a college internship at General Motors into an entry-level position in the automaker’s finance and accounting operations. Two years later, he worked for PwC, and in 2008 he joined AlixPartners in Southfield, where he worked on GM’s post-bankruptcy operations — namely “Old GM,” or Motors Liquidation Co.
In 2012, he joined Rock Ventures. “I love it here,” he says. “It’s just a special place with all of the people, opportunities, ideas, and resources. It feels like Dan (Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans) spent the first 30 years (of his career) building Quicken Loans, and now he wants to spend the next 30 years rebuilding Detroit.”
Along the way, Roling and a due diligence team worked on the acquisition and integration of Greektown Casino into the Quicken family of companies, and helped launch ZipCar, a vehicle-sharing service in Detroit, among other operational activities.
“During the last five years, our organization has grown by leaps and bounds, and I want to see more cranes, more buildings, more residents, more businesses, and more people from all walks of life experiencing success here in Detroit,” he says.
Jeffrey Schostak // 32
Vice President and Director of Development | Schostak Brothers and Co., Livonia | Employees: 3,500 |
Revenue: NA | Indiana University
Jeffrey Schostak could have easily walked into the family firm and been assigned a position, but he wanted to control his own destiny. So in 2005, after graduating from Indiana University, he joined Urban Retail Properties in Chicago as a leasing representative.
“My intent was to go work for someone else, learn their best practices, learn how they manage their company, and gain contacts in another market,” says Schostak, vice president and director of development at Schostak Brother and Co., a fourth-generation, multifaceted real estate company in Livonia.
Operating office, retail, residential, and industrial properties in 24 states, including Pointe Plaza in Grosse Pointe Woods, Wonderland Village in Livonia, and the Maccabees Center in Southfield, Schostak Brothers traces its roots to 1920.
“When I left Chicago and joined our company (in 2010), I wanted to build my own niche and not be placed in an (established) department,” he says. “One of the deals I acquired (while at Urban Retail Properties) was Oakland Mall in Troy, along with (neighboring) Oakland Plaza and Oakland Square. I learned a lot from that deal.”
In recent months, Schostak helped orchestrate an agreement to bring a 300,000-square-foot FedEx distribution center to the former Michigan Light Guard Armory site at Eight Mile and Greenfield in Oak Park.
“That was a home-run deal that takes up 54 of the 100 acres,” he says of Armory Park. “We’re looking to add retail and restaurants along Greenfield, and big box retail or industrial along Eight Mile.”
The company also is working with Schoolcraft College to attract office and R&D users to a 25-acre site along I-275 near Six Mile Road in Livonia.
“It’s a well-located, highly visible site,” he says. “We think it will go quickly.”
Matthew Sharrak // 31
President, Co-CEO | Midwest Mobility Solutions, Troy | Employees: 220 |
Revenue: $30M | Oakland University
Matthew Sharrak’s career path was set at a young age, thanks to two distinct work experiences. He started working at his uncle’s pager shop in Detroit when he was 15, and at age 18, he began selling women’s shoes at Nordstrom.
“I loved technology and I loved the customer service at Nordstrom,” he says. When he was 20, Sharrak found a way to combine both passions by using his savings to acquire a Sprint franchise in Macomb Township.
He sold that store four years later for $350,000 and, with the proceeds and with some help from his uncle, Nash Khami, opened two AT&T dealerships in 2009. Today, Midwest Mobility Solutions owns 24 stores in Michigan and 11 in Ohio, and has plans to open five more stores in the region by the end of the year.
Sharrak says he drives a “no excuses” company culture. “If somebody has a problem, we all get together and figure out what the problem is, and we overachieve on it and make it a focus,” he says. “Customer experience is the No. 1 thing. Whether it’s a problem created in our store — or even created by a competitor, another AT&T dealer, or a Verizon dealer — when the customer comes in, we’re going to own that problem and make sure the customer is happy.”
The company culture extends to the parts of the stores unseen by customers. “In retail, the back rooms are only an afterthought,” Sharrak says. “AT&T prescribes what the front of the house looks like, but we went above and beyond by hiring a designer to make the back rooms really nice.”
Sharrak sees plenty of growth ahead. “Small businesses accounted for 5 percent of new service activations last year,” he says. “By next year, we expect 50 percent of our new accounts will be with small businesses.”
Michael Watts // 34
Founding Partner, Managing Director | Hook Studios, Ann Arbor | Employees: 66 | Revenue: NA
Michael Watts says his charge for Hook Studios was to “delight the world through compelling and meaningful digital experiences.”
Launched in 2006, the company has created more than 800 projects for hundreds of brands, including Google, Coca-Cola, Toyota, Old Spice, Microsoft, and Burger King. A native of Plymouth, Watts got his start at age 16, when he launched a Web design company. His first client was his parents, who operated their own music event production company.
Hook Studios, based in Ann Arbor with an office in Los Angeles, works to develop authentic, effective, and measurable content for companies. A project Watts is particularly proud of is the #DearMe campaign, launched in May for Google. The mission was to counteract the troubling issues young girls face around body image, self-esteem, and bullying, and what he says is the proliferation of social media activity today that has magnified the problems.
“Our objective was to create an effective public service campaign to engage as many people as possible, change negative behavior, and give victims a voice along with some valuable coping tools,” he says. “Our strategy was to create a stirring rallying cry for female empowerment and confidence that would become a movement.”
Watts and his team also created a series of #DearMe PSAs on YouTube to invite women to answer one question on camera: “What would you give your younger self?” He says the responses were powerful.
“Everyone joined the conversation, from women (and men) of all walks of life to world leaders such as first lady Michelle Obama. The social effort reached 3 billion people globally.”
But the best part of #DearMe? YouTube was able to “unite a community of role models and inspire, encourage, and elevate young girls worldwide,” Watts says.
â€‹Shanell Weatherspoon // 37
Lead Human Resources Business Partner | General Motors Co., Detroit | Employees: 216,000 |
Revenue: $156B | Michigan State University, University of Michigan-Flint
Like many of its counterparts in urban areas, the Pontiac School District suffers from relatively high dropout rates, which means there are fewer Pontiac students heading for college. Despite this reality, many of the school district’s students have talent and determination, says Shanell Weatherspoon, who is dedicated to helping them reach their full potential.
A 1996 graduate of (the now-closed) Pontiac Central High School, Weatherspoon worked as a forklift truck driver at GM’s assembly plant in Lake Orion while in college. Today, in addition to providing human resources support to GM’s Powertrain Engineering Group in Pontiac, she takes a special interest in local students.
“Pontiac has the world’s best dynamometer lab and engine and transmission testing facilities. We really want (young people) to understand what we do and how they can become a part of GM’s next 100 years.”
Weatherspoon was instrumental in 2013 in helping to expand GM’s college internship program at the Powertrain Engineering Group to include students from Pontiac High School and its satellite facility, the International Technology Academy.
“I look for opportunities where we can increase our diversity and find talent in places where we haven’t customarily looked,” she says. “Right now students are working in our dynamometer lab, and learning all the roles of the technician. A lot of the students have aspirations of being engineers, so they’ll have the opportunity to get engineering experience, as well.”
Outside of work, Weatherspoon and her husband, who owns a small-business consulting firm, are equally involved in students’ lives.
“As they get older, students reach out to my husband for career advice,” she says. “I help them get a better understanding of their skills and passions, and how they can turn those interests into a career.”
Melanie Williams // 32
CEO | Guru Public Relations Events and Concierge, Detroit | Employees: 5 |
Revenue: NA | Wayne State University
When Melanie Williams couldn’t find a job after graduating from Wayne State University, she created her own position and became a public relations practitioner. Her first client was someone who had noticed how hard Williams worked on a project during a college internship.
She started in 2007 as Yellow Brick Road Communications, but in 2012 she changed the business name to Guru Public Relations Events and Concierge in Detroit.
“I wanted to rebrand it because, at that time, I was working with Ford and Lincoln on their multicultural campaign,” Williams says. “I wanted to … fit the corporate scope of what I was doing.”
In addition to her automotive clients, Williams works with health care, technology, and nonprofits in metro Detroit as well as in Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. She’s helped plan the BET awards and the Ford Neighborhood Awards.
A fair amount of Guru PR’s business is media relations. You can find Williams’ clients in local publications and on local broadcast media, as well as in national outlets like Essence, Rolling Out, and Black Enterprise magazines, and The New York Times.
“I love what I do,” she says. “I like bringing my clients’ dreams and goals to fruition.”
One client that strikes a personal as well as a professional chord with Williams is the Detroit chapter of the Real Life 101 Scholarship Fund, a national college scholarship and mentoring program for at-risk African-American men. Williams recently organized the chapter’s annual event at the MGM Grand Detroit.
“I would say my secret to success is something my mentor told me a long time ago,” Williams says. “She told me to remember that the client is always right.”
Heather Zara // 31
Founder and CEO | Zara Creative, Troy | Employees: 9 | Revenue: NA | Michigan State University
Heather Zara’s friends thought she was crazy to quit her 10-year sports broadcasting career to open a video company that specializes in TV commercials, branding videos, philanthropic films, and weddings.
“It’s funny because I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur, but I was always fascinated with why people became successful,” Zara says.
She started with zero funding but, in just over three years, Zara Creative has grown to serve more than 500 clients ranging from nonprofits to Fortune 500 companies. It has nearly doubled its sales every year.
Zara estimates that weddings make up about 35 percent of her business. They’ve taken her and her crew to far-flung destinations like Cancun and Miami, and in Michigan to Petoskey and Glen Arbor. Because her business has grown so much, Zara recently turned over supervision of the wedding portion of her firm to one of her employees.
Zara, meanwhile, maintains direct responsibility for the rest of the business. “It’s really cool because it almost ties back to my days as a reporter,” she says. “Every time I work with a client I get to learn about their business.”
The video storyteller prides herself on always trying to push the creative envelope for clients. One client, a lawyer, wanted a commercial shot in his library, with him standing in front of shelves of law journals.
“After he told us what he was looking for, I asked him if he was married to that idea,” Zara says. “I just thought we could do something more creative.”
Instead, she made a commercial intended to make the attorney’s target audience laugh. “The lawyer wasn’t even in it,” she recalls. “He ended up getting a ton of new business and we won a national award.”
Zara says her philanthropic efforts are a driving force in her life: She works with more than 30 Detroit-area nonprofits, serves on committees for the Boy Scouts of America, and is one of the sponsors of the newly-relocated Ronald McDonald House at the Detroit Medical Center.
Bob Zhang // 37
Director of IT and Customer Service | Strategic Staffing Solutions, Detroit | Employees: 2,700 |
Revenue: $265M | University of Michigan
Born in Shanghai, Bob Zhang arrived in the United States when he was 7 years old.
“Our family was in search of opportunity,” says Zhang, director of IT and customer service at Strategic Staffing Solutions in downtown Detroit. “My parents started a restaurant in Ann Arbor (Beijing Restaurant), and it was there that I developed a strong work ethic. It was the typical American dream. My parents saved every penny they had to open the restaurant.”
During his teenage years, Zhang gained experience juggling multiple tasks — bus boy, cook, waiter, and cleaner. Following high school, he earned degrees in computer science and mathematics at the University of Michigan while working at a startup business that was focused on developing technology services. In 2004, he joined Strategic Staffing Solutions as IT director, and later added the role of director of customer service.
“Today we have 25 signature clients, and our focus is to be their No. 1 business partner,” he says. “We work closely with our customers and help them identify efficiencies and cost savings with IT as the foundation.”
The firm’s clients include Fortune 500 companies in multiple industries, including insurance, biotech, utility, and financial services.
“Apart from our day-to-day activities, I really enjoy working on our community service programs where we help change people’s positions in life, whether it’s the homeless or underprivileged children,” Zhang says.
The company supports a diverse range of organizations, including the Detroit Zoo, Michigan Humane Society, Eastern Market, the North End Youth Improvement Council’s Adopt a Child for Christmas program, and Mosaic Youth Theatre, among others.
“Everyone pitches in to help out in one way or another,” Zhang says.
Daniel Zwolak // 37
Principal/Executive Creative Director | Seeds Marketing+Design, Birmingham |
Employees: 9 | Revenue: NA | Michigan State University
Daniel Zwolak started Seeds Marketing+Design in 2008, around the time the world’s economy was plunging into its worst downturn since the Great Depression. His timing was perfect.
“If the world were to end tomorrow, there would be a lot of going-out-of-business sales,” he says. “And they would need advertising.”
When he opened his doors, there were startups that needed help with logos, branding, and marketing, due to the fact so many workers who had been laid off were becoming independent entrepreneurs. Zwolak took the plunge himself after spending several years at different advertising firms in downtown Lansing.
“At the other agencies, we’d get a lot of small businesses — they were boot- strappers, and you just knew they were walking through the door and money was an object,” he says.
“This was something they were choosing to invest in, and that always just struck me.”
Part of his good fortune was partnering with one of his clients, MVP Collaborative, an agency in Madison Heights that produces live events, video, and digital programs. Zwolak says his firm and MVP bring things to the table that the other agencies don’t offer, and each has contributed to the other’s success. Zwolak and his staff also grew the company by brainstorming ideas for prospective clients they’d like to work with, and then approaching those businesses.
“What are the brands that we as consumers love and what are the stories that inspire us?” he asks. “You just want to be a part of that.” That’s what his company told clients Audi, Mills Pharmacy, Great Lakes Coffee, Bell’s Brewery, and Bow Wow Baketique.
“Every day (we) live and work (vicariously) through all of our clients,” he says. “When we talk to them, when we get to know them, we become an extension of them. That’s what we rally around, (and) that’s what keeps us showing up every day. For us, that’s the magic.”