From owners and CEOs to presidents and directors, the 2021 Class of 30 in Their Thirties share a common trait — learning how to pivot their operations, often multiple times, to account for market upheavels brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Racheal Allen // Candace Bowman // Will Butler // Chase L. Cantrell // C.T. Charlton Caroline De Paula Correa // Melanie D’Evelyn // Katelyn Shelby Davis // Adam Fenton
Eric Frehsée // Christina Hines // David Hines Jr. // Brian Jackman // Elena Jacob
Laura Johnson // John Kohl // Grand Gordon Kosch // Kelly Kozlowski
Adrian Williams Kuhn // Jonathan Margolis // Sam Marino // Matthew McGrail // Brent Ott Vishal Rungta // Aaron Smith // Anthony Smith // Ryan Sullivan // Ram Vasudevan
Stefen Welch // Adam Wolfe
38 • COO • Marygrove Conservancy, Detroit
• Employees: 3 • Revenue: NA
• College: Marygrove College
Racheal Allen has come a long way from the start of her college career in 2001 when, as the single mother of a 6-month-old son, she took a three-hour, three-transfer bus ride each way from her home on Detroit’s east side to and from her classes at Marygrove College.
Allen worked her way through college in work-study programs, often leaving campus after midnight. She was also an entrepreneur while still a student, operating a Farmers Insurance office. She earned her undergraduate degree in English in 2006.
Her journey came full circle in December 2019, when she became COO of the Marygrove Conservancy in northwest Detroit. Prior to her appointment, she worked in nonprofit and education facility operations throughout the city.
While Marygrove College closed in 2019, the Marygrove Conservancy, a nonprofit, was formed in 2018 to take over the 53-acre campus. When fully operational, it will offer an early childhood education center run by Starfish Family Services, a K-12 school (part of the Detroit Public Schools Community District), and wellness and recreation services for community members. The University of Michigan is helping develop curricula.
“I never imagined that I would actually be part of (Marygrove’s) transformation,” Allen says. “Having the opportunity to do this work continues to be a really great honor, because it’s a place that not only meant so much to me growing up, but (it also meant a lot) to so many people in the community.”
As COO, Allen manages the daily operations of the campus and helps with outreach and engagement, including a new Community Impact Incubator and broadcasting live theater.
“We really want this campus to reflect the programming that this community needs,” Allen says. “Whether that’s educational or extracurricular, we work really closely with our partners to make sure that type of programming lives at Marygrove.”
— Grace Turner
36 • Co-Founder/Managing Partner • Equalsign, Detroit
• Employees: 5 • Revenue: $500,000+
• College: Michigan State University
Candice Bowman heard it herself, in the C-suite, from top executives of various companies. They were looking for a way to master the challenges of diversity and inclusion, and they knew they needed help to get it right.
Bowman, with a wide range of experience in publishing and marketing, sensed that the moment had arrived when the greatest strength she could bring to the market would be something else. “I got strong connectivity with CEOs and executives in the C-suite,” she says, “and it was very apparent over the course of dealings and interactions with this group that they were trying to find ways to fill the gap that was diversity and inclusion.”
Believing she could help firms navigate the challenge, Bowman joined with Kelly Coleman to establish Equalsign. The company opened its doors late in 2019 with one client on board and big ambitions. Three months later, COVID-19 came along.
“Companies were diverting their marketing spending, thinking they needed to hold back because the world was shutting (the economy) down, and the first thing to go was how we communicate to different audiences — because we didn’t necessarily know what’s going to happen with this virus,” she says. “So that was a little bit of a scare.”
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis proved a turning point for Equalsign, as the incident brought a new focus to corporate diversity efforts. Bowman and Coleman were poised and ready. “We haven’t really had to do much of an announcement because the phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” Bowman says.
An engagement with Equalsign often starts with an audit, since Bowman says companies usually have to identify their starting point. “It’s OK not to know what you don’t know,” Bowman says, “but it’s not OK to not understand that you may need to consult or bring in diverse voices of all types.” Bowman is seeking to establish herself as a leader among those voices.
— Dan Calabrese
30 • Senior Business Development Manager • Detroit Regional Partnership, Detroit • Employees: 20+
• Revenue: TC • College: University of Michigan
There was one thing Will Butler knew he did not want to do when he finished his political science degree at the University of Michigan: He didn’t want to leave. “Someone has to be here to help Michigan and metro Detroit move into the future and help it prosper,” he recalls thinking at the time.
While Butler gained experience with civic involvement by volunteering for political campaigns during college, he wanted to do something different following graduation. In 2014, he landed a job in the communication department at the Detroit Regional Chamber. He transferred to the economic development team in 2015, then transitioned with the rest of his department when it was spun off as the freestanding Detroit Regional Partnership.
The nonprofit DRP is supported by local units of government and corporate contributions. Its purpose is to attract jobs and economic development activity to the region — something Butler found to be both an art and a science.
“You have to have the technical knowledge,” he says. “You have to know your community facts, know your tax rates, and as an economic developer you have to know about every industry. If you can’t articulate an appropriate business case, you’re not doing your job.”
That’s the science part. As for the art, he says it’s all about “planting seeds and building relationships. These location decisions about where facilities go are data-driven, but they’re also a lot about relationships. It might be a year or two later before a relationship pans out.”
He’s already seen success, particularly in the form of Clearcover, a Chicago-based insurance technology company that last year relocated a 300-employee operations center to Detroit. To speed up the process, he and his team are creating a database of verified industrial properties for prospective companies. “Our work can absolutely change the narrative of this region,” he says.
— Dan Calabrese
37 • Executive Director • Building Community Value, Detroit
• Employees: 3 • Revenue: $192,420
• College: University of Michigan
Rather than pursue a likely lucrative legal career, Chase L. Cantrell chose to help rebuild the city he’s passionate about — Detroit.
After starting his journey at the Dykema law firm in 2008, Cantrell founded Building Community Value, a nonprofit group dedicated to assisting people in the basics of locating, acquiring, financing, and implementing a project management strategy for small-scale residential and commercial real estate rehabilitation projects in Detroit, Highland Park, and Hamtramck.
So far, about 300 people have enlisted in the program, and Cantrell says nearly a quarter of those individuals have either completed or are in the midst of a project. What prompted a budding jurist to eschew corporate America in favor of neighborhood America?
At Dykema, he was “seeing how capital is flowing. I’m seeing how development is unfolding around the city. I realized that I had the skill set that would allow me to share my knowledge with residents of the city.”
He started Building Community Value in 2016. “We have some people doing this for sales and some for rental (income),” he says. “Most of it is residential, but we’re seeing more and more commercial. Many of (the participants) are motivated to improve their community.”
Cantrell says that at the outset, operating a nonprofit was challenging. Once he landed his first grant, though, things took off. “It took about a year to get those first dollars in the door, but when you get one funder and prove you’re doing good work, you get another funder to follow suit,” he says.
Today, the nonprofit is hiring more staff and expanding, while the philanthropic partners keep investing. “It’s difficult to get a loan from a lender in what some may see as a risky neighborhood,” Cantrell says of the issue facing many of the people with whom he works. “What folks who come to our program have shown by doing the economic analysis is that it can be done.”
— Tim Keenan
37 • President • Charlton Inc., St. Clair Shores
• Employees: 1,800 • Revenue: NA
• College: University of Colorado Boulder
Leaving Michigan to pursue a business management degree at the University of Colorado Boulder, C.T. Charlton knew that one day he’d return. Today, as president of Charlton Inc. in St. Clair Shores, a global outsource sales agent for automakers and suppliers, he leads the industrial group that includes some of the largest players in commercial vehicles, agriculture, construction, aerospace, powersports, and motorcycles.
“It opened a vital new line of business for us coming out of the 2008 recession,” says Charlton, whose father, Chris, launched the business in 1978 with a handshake deal with AMG Industries. “We came across untapped OEMs — not in automotive, but in the mobility space. I brought the idea to my father (in 2011). It made sense not to have all of our eggs in automotive.”
Returning to the region with his family last summer — he grew up in Grosse Pointe Farms — Charlton’s circuitous journey included five years in the Wealth Strategy Group at Northern Trust Corp. in Chicago. After moving over to the family business while in Chicago, Charlton made plans to open a West Coast sales office to support the start of the industrial group and decided to oversee it himself. “We hired people to do what I was doing in Chicago, and I moved to Seattle,” he says.
During high school, Charlton launched a valet parking company with a friend, while another buddy detailed cars. “The typical summer jobs weren’t that interesting,” he says. “We wanted to do more fun things that we liked. Anything with an engine, we were all over it.”
Today, running a one-stop sales office in 20 countries on five continents, Charlton says the company still operates on handshake deals. “We want to maintain a family feel (to the business),” he says. “My father got started by driving around and knocking on the doors of suppliers, and his office was in our basement. Today, we still have that same spirit of family service.”
— R.J. King
32 • Global Program Executive • Stefanini Group, Southfield • Employees: 25,000 • Revenue: $1B
• College: Kent Institute of Business and Technology, Australia
It’s been a relatively short trip in years, but long in miles, for Carolina de Paula Correa, who’s gone from the countryside in her native Brazil to a position as global program executive at the Stefanini Group in Southfield.
Stefanini provides IT consulting, marketing, mobility, personalized campaigns, and artificial intelligence. It also offers traditional services such as a service desk, field service, and outsourcing to clients in industries including automotive, chemical, banking, retail, education, and manufacturing.
Correa left Brazil to pursue higher education in Australia, and returned to Brazil to begin her Stefanini career as a quality analyst before her globe-trotting adventures kicked into high gear. After four years as a quality analyst and coordinator at Stefanini in Brazil, she was sent to Mexico for a six-month stint working with all of the countries in Latin America.
Her road to Southfield was interrupted by a pit stop in Florida, where she began her global program executive activities. Her job at the time included overseeing the entire relationship between Stefanini and its customers. Correa was transferred to Michigan a year ago to take over the relations between the company and its largest client, an enterprise in the chemical industry.
Working in the IT universe took some getting used to for Correa. “When I started to work with IT, I didn’t think I fit in because I’m more of a people person than a technical person,” she says. “Then I discovered you can do a lot within IT other than just the technical part. I enjoy having a role where my biggest concern is people. I talk to the customer every day, as their partner.”
Correa’s team, which numbers more than 500 people worldwide, provides all of the services Stefanini has to offer.
“It’s a big challenge and I feel accomplished because there’s a lot going on in my day-to-day,” she says. “I really do like Michigan. I hope to be here long-term.”
— Tim Keenan
37 • Director, Detroit Drives Degrees
• Detroit Regional Chamber, Detroit • Employees: 80
• 2020 Revenue: $6M
• College: Principia College, Princeton University
Melanie D’Evelyn is the daughter of two teachers. She credits her parents with igniting her passion for improving the educational standing of Detroiters, which she is doing today as director of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Drives Degrees program.
D’Evelyn came to Detroit in 2015 after working at a think tank and as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and joined the chamber as a part-time consultant. In that role, she helped create Detroit Drives Degrees; a year later, she was named its director. Program goals include increasing the region’s level of postsecondary attainment as a means to promote economic prosperity, and addressing the racial equity gap in the college graduation rate between white students and those of color.
“I’ve found, working in Detroit, some of the most meaningful work I’ve done in my career,” D’Evelyn says, “because of the need and opportunity to really change trajectory and benefit so many people who are deserving of greater educational opportunity. I wanted to have a more hands-on opportunity to really make change, and work in a city and regional context rather than a national one, because I thought it would be easier to effect change.”
Her greatest accomplishment was putting together the Detroit Regional Talent Compact, a coalition of about 30 regional leaders from corporations, academia, and philanthropy who share the common goal of improving education attainment and racial inequity in the region.
“One of the great privileges of working at the Detroit Chamber is the power that comes when a business constituency stands for change on the education front. I’m grateful to be situated where I am, doing this work, because business is the primary consumer of talent to make their businesses thrive. It’s been rewarding to make sure the educational institutions that we work with are responsive to the needs businesses have.”
— Tim Keenan
33 • Director, Mobility • Antenna: Detroit Branch
Employees: 80+ • Revenue: $12M+
• College: Grand Valley State University
Katelyn Shelby Davis has been interested in cars for as long as she can remember, and has worked in communications in the automotive and mobility industries since earning her degree in advertising and public relations. Her work has taken a more specific turn since she has become an advocate for gender equality in the sector.
As director of mobility for Antenna, a strategic communications and marketing firm in Hackensack, N.J., Davis is part of the team that founded the company’s Detroit branch, which works with clean technology and mobility firms, in January 2021.
“A lot of these companies are startups that have been spending a lot of their time and energy focused on the actual technology, so we do a lot of branding and messaging around who they are and what their differentiators are in the industry,” says Davis, who is co-authoring a book with Kristin Shaw, a public involvement coordinator at WSP, an engineering professional services consulting firm. “Women Driven Mobility,” which will be published by SAE International and be available late this summer, offers 35 case studies showcasing female-led mobility projects across the U.S.
According to Davis, the automotive industry is still male-dominated — so much so, she says, that women are more likely to be seriously injured and killed in car accidents. To back up her claim, she references data from multiple studies and an article in The Guardian that discusses, among other things, the fact that vehicles are designed around a male physique. While leadership positions in the mobility industry are more evenly split among men and women, Davis says, most speakers at mobility events are male.
“This is an industry that really does touch everyone,” Davis says. “At some point, either people move (in) some sort of vehicle, or goods are brought to them on some sort of vehicle.”
— Grace Turner
30 • CEO and Co-Owner • National Composites, Troy
• Employees: 215 • Revenue: $20M
• College: Central Michigan University
Adam Fenton, a four-year starter as a fullback at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, hired a trainer in 2014 with a specific goal in mind: to improve his remote chances of getting a training camp invite from an NFL team. “I had some nibbles,” Fenton says wryly, “but no bites.”
But the trainer, who had previously done some work with the U.S. bobsled team, suggested Fenton give bobsled racing a try. “I ended up making the team, which was an incredible amount of fun, but being a newbie there were a lot of crashes and those sleds got pretty messed up. So actually, my first interaction with composites was repairing our crashed-up practice bobsleds.”
Fenton didn’t know it at the time, but that experience turned out to be prescient — today he’s co-owner and CEO of Troy-based National Composites, a multi-facility OEM supplier to more than 80 customers of custom fiber-reinforced plastic and thermoformed products.
“The composite industry is pretty unique in that it’s incredibly fragmented,” Fenton says. “The vast majority of parts go to John Deere and GE, but there’s all these household names (made up of) mom-and-pop, small family-owned composites plants. Our business strategy is obviously organic growth, but also growth through acquisition.”
The strategy has been successful; in the past year, National Composites has expanded to four plants from one facility. “We have a goal of acquiring a new plant every year,” Fenton boldly proclaims. The growth led to employing 200 workers, up from 70, and the company is in the process of hiring 40 more people.
Sales exceeded $20 million last year, and Fenton is targeting $100 million-plus in sales by 2030. “We already have $5 million of organic growth projected out for 2021,” he says. “We should be closing on our fifth plant in the coming months, which is going to be a pretty big game-changer for us.”
— Tom Murray
35 • President/Vice President • Jeffrey Automotive Group, Roseville/Tamaroff Motors and Capture Automotive, Southfield
• Employees: 185 • Revenue: $125M
• College: Michigan State University
Eric Frehsée, president of the Jeffrey Automotive Group in Roseville and vice president of Tamaroff Motors in Southfield, had an inside track to upper management at the dealership organization founded by his grandfather. But he chose the more difficult road.
He started working at the Jeffrey maintenance department when he was 14, pulling weeds, painting curbs, and cleaning bathrooms. In high school and college, he was a service porter, an oil changer, a service writer, and a car salesman.
“My dad was a very strict product of Eastern European Holocaust survivors who came to this country as immigrants with $7 in their pocket,” Frehsée says. “He grew up working very hard for everything he had, and he wanted me to grow up the same way. The most valuable thing he taught me was to be successful on my own. It makes you appreciate things more, as well.”
Today, Frehsée owns the dealership in Roseville, which sells Acura, Honda, Nissan, and Kia, and is part owner of the dealership in Southfield, which sells Honda and Nissan.
He’s also vice president of Capture Automotive in Southfield, which acquires and delivers competitive vehicles for automakers for benchmarking purposes. Ever since he’s been in the business, Frehsée says he’s often the youngest person in the room at national dealer meetings.
“That gave me the courage and the confidence to know I would be successful,” he says. “I would sit in these meetings with my uncle and dealers who were twice my age, and when the subjects of digital and advertising and transparency came up, they would laugh about it, but I was thinking, ‘This is the future and they don’t see it.’
“I decided to go against the grain and embrace the future,” he says.
— Tim Keenan
31 • First Assistant Prosecuting Attorney
Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, Ann Arbor
• Employees: 55 • Budget: $6.674M (est.)
• College: Wayne State University Law School
A victim of bullying in middle school, Christina Hines has dedicated her career to helping “the little guy,” a calling that led to her role as first assistant prosecuting attorney in the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office.
Part of that assignment is leading the county prosecutor’s Appeals, Training, and Forfeiture Unit and the Special Victims Unit, which focuses on sexual assault, child sexual abuse, and child pornography cases.
“It’s a really stressful job,” says Hines, the mother of three young children. “It’s very hard emotionally. It’s challenging for anyone involved in that field of work. While it does affect me, I have the benefit of having had a blessed upbringing. I love working with kids. They’re so resilient and they’re so strong.”
Hines draws strength from her father, who introduced her to meditation when she was a teenager, and her husband, fellow 30 In Their Thirties honoree David Hines Jr. “I have the best husband in the world,” Hines says. “He and my father are my rocks.”
While attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she met her husband in the U-M Marching Band. “Music is a huge part of my life story,” says Hines, who played tuba while David Hines was drum major. “It was love at first sight.”
Hines earned her juris doctor at Wayne State University Law School, then worked in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.
“I’ve always wanted to work to protect women and children,” she says. “Once I got into the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, I saw that the real need was in the child sexual abuse unit. There’s just not a lot of people who can do that. It’s such an emotionally demanding job.
“Music and learning history gave me the confidence to move forward, believe in myself, and try to help other people who were less fortunate than myself,” Hines says. “I think that’s really what being a lawyer is about.”
— Tim Keenan
32 • Co-Owner and Creative Producer/Design Fabrication Project Lead • Valiant Films/General Motors Co., Warren/Detroit
• Employees: 2/164,000+ • Revenue: NA/$137.2B (2019)
• College: University of Michigan
David Hines Jr. divides his time between his roles as co-owner and creative producer of Valiant Films in Warren, and his job as design fabrication project lead at General Motors Co. in Detroit. He says his work at each business is similar — he oversees behind-the-scenes activities so the respective creative teams can keep the juices flowing.
Hines and J.B. Armstrong, co-owner and creative director of Valiant Films, launched the company in 2014 and released their first movie, “Solomon,” in April. Most of the film was shot in Detroit. “I’m the glue guy,” Hines says of his work at Valiant. “I need to know a little bit about everything. Not necessarily be an expert at anything, but know a little bit about everything to make sure it all flows in the right direction.”
The film follows the story of a young white writer and an elderly black psychiatrist who both live in Detroit and form a friendship. It examines the role of culture and relationships among different groups in Detroit and the effects of gentrification.
At GM, Hines coordinates the creation of show vehicles — those that are prototypes, shown in commercials, or are concept vehicles. He joined GM in October 2019.
While attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Hines played the euphonium before serving as drum major in the Michigan Marching Band. He met his wife, Christina Hines — who’s featured in this year’s 30 In Their Thirties class — at U-M; she played tuba.
Hines says he likes the balance between his jobs, and says his wife “is just the best.” He says their strong relationship is the reason he can juggle Valiant, GM, and family life. The couple has three children ages 5, 3, and 7 months. “You just kind of find the nooks and crannies in life to pack it in,” Hines says.
— Grace Turner
36 • Vice President of Finance/Treasurer
• Ziebart International Corp., Troy • Employees: 105
• Revenue: NA • College: Adrian College
Ziebart International Corp. in Troy is the only place Brian Jackman has worked, and his goal is to retire from the company when the time is right.
Today, Jackman is vice president and treasurer of the worldwide franchisor of the Ziebart brand of automotive aftermarket stores, which is famous for its rustproofing service but has expanded to include other offerings since its founding in 1959.
Jackman credits his success to a mentor he had at the company when he was first hired in as a branch accountant in 2008, immediately after graduating from Adrian College.
“If I could narrow it down to one thing,” Jackman says of his meteoric rise up the Ziebart corporate ladder, “I’d say it’s what my mentor told me about building relationships. Whether I was at the bottom or the top, I’ve always built relationships. It’s really amazing how people will go out of their way to help you if you build those relationships.”
Those connections have come in handy as Ziebart has locations in 34 countries and 20 states.
It’s also safe to say that Jackman is all in with Ziebart. “My vehicle (Cadillac Xt6) is completely Ziebarted (minus the rustproofing, since it’s a lease), and pretty much all of my family and friends’ (vehicles) are, as well,” he says. “I believe in all the products we sell, and I’m passionate about them.”
In addition to the original rustproofing, Ziebart’s services now include interior and exterior auto detailing, paint correction and protection, window tinting, films, auto glass, and spray-on pickup truck bed liners.
“We do anything to make your car feel like new longer,” Jackman says. “I hope to be at Ziebart for the rest of my life. All of the employees are owners of the company. The culture here would be tough to beat; everyone has the same goals. I’ve never had a goal of working at a huge company.”
— Tim Keenan
39 • Plant Manager • Bridgewater Interiors/Adient, Detroit
• Employees: 196 • Revenue: $27M
• College: University of Toronto, University of Manchester, U.K.
As the manager of the Detroit-based plant for Bridgewater Interiors/Adient, Elena Jacob oversees all aspects of one part of a massive global company that delivers 19 million sets of complete automobile seats every year to virtually every automaker around the world.
“I have 196 full-time employees right now, and that typically grows if (we) have contract employees, or vendors who come in and do projects for us,” Jacob says. “At any given time, we usually have two major customers in this particular plant. Right now I only have Dodge Ram, but next year we’ll also have the (Ford) Mustang lines here, which we’re in the process of launching.”
Jacob’s daily responsibilities are wide-ranging, and she generally starts each morning on the production floor.
“I do a plant walk. We have a lot of team-based activities with visual boards, where we review our key performance indicators and major projects,” she says. “And then, on the flip side, I start looking at the delivery aspect to the customer. How many trailers do you need? How many drivers?”
Jacob handles everything in stride. She emigrated from Soviet Russia to Canada at age 14, and went on to earn a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto. She then pursued an MBA at the University of Manchester before beginning her career with Bridgewater at its Warren plant in 2014. Multiple team awards and promotions followed before she was elevated to her current post in 2020. It’s clearly a high-pressure job, but Jacob relishes the responsibility.
“We know by the hour what we have to produce,” she says bluntly. “I have to produce and sell X number of products to make myself profitable. If my production rates fall below a certain level, I start losing money. So if you’re losing money on one particular day, you’d better figure out how you can make it back the next day.”
— Tom Murray
37 • Shareholder • Butzel Long, Detroit
• Employees: 200+ • Revenue: NA
• College: Michigan State University College of Law
From a very early age Laura Johnson had an inkling she wanted to be an attorney, but she was also intrigued with the idea of pursuing psychology as her profession — all of which led to an easy decision when she enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as a freshman.
“I decided to do a psychology undergrad degree thinking if I went to law school, I’d have to do my undergrad in something,” she reasoned. “Then I got some internships that exposed me to different areas of the law. I really enjoyed it.”
Johnson went on to attend the Michigan State University College of Law in East Lansing, where she was a member and executive editor of the Law Review. Following graduation, she joined the law offices of Butzel Long in Bloomfield Hills, where for the last nearly dozen years she’s practiced business and corporate law. She’s also found that some of the knowledge gleaned from her psychology degree has been invaluable.
“When you’re working with a client who’s selling their business, and they’ve been involved with it for a long period of time, it’s helpful to take a step back and just realize this is a bittersweet moment for them, and think of all the different things going through their minds and the emotions they’re feeling,” she says. “If I was a psychologist, that’s what I would enjoy doing, and I guess in a little bit of a way I get to do that now.”
To advance at the firm and be named an equity shareholder, she’s had to adjust on the fly to COVID-19. “Sometimes there were as many as 17 people on a Zoom call,” Johnson says, laughing. “It’s always interesting; you have the group of people who want to know everything, be on every single call, and involved in every decision. Then there are the kind of middle group who like to know the big things, but don’t need to know all the details. And then you have the few who trust their advisers and just want to be protected and get their money at the end of the day.”
— Tom Murray
39 • CEO • Atlas Wholesale Food Co., Detroit
• Employees: 41 • Revenue: $75M
• College: University of Michigan
Magic has been a part of John Kohl’s life since he was 5 years old. At first, he performed card tricks. He soon upgraded his skills and pulled off such acts as placing a girl in a box and sawing her in half, sticking a sword through his head, and concealing himself on stage, only to turn up an instant later in the audience. “Through high school, I was a magician at restaurants, and I did gigs in college,” says Kohl. “It was always something different. I got to see the best of people. Really, it was therapeutic more than anything else.”
But Kohl likely pulled his greatest trick by figuring out a way to get through the freeze of COVID-19. A third-generation food distributor in Detroit — his grandfather, Pete Kotsis, started the supply side of the business as an offshoot of the grocery store run by his father, Athas, in Greektown — Kohl joined the company in 2007, as sales slowed leading up to the Great Recession.
“The business was in rough shape, and it needed help,” he says. “We got things turned around with our restaurant and casino clients, and then COVID-19 hit and everything closed. We had a lot of inventory, including meat, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer. So we changed our business and developed an online portal, along with contactless delivery.”
From there, the company began working with the USDA to distribute food to food banks, and delivered 1 million boxes. It also figured out new ways to support restaurant clients.
“We developed the hashtag #RescueMiRestaurant and we matched, dollar for dollar, every receipt put on Facebook,” Kohl says. “We encouraged people to go to restaurants, and for the receipts posted online, we gave an equal credit to a restaurant on their food orders. We also believe in radical transparency.”
That is, except for a secret room Kohl set up in the basement of his home. “I have my tricks and books in there,” he says of his magic space. “It’s an active passion of mine.”
— R.J. King
35 • Co-Founder • Parker Grant, Rochester
• Employees: 15-20 • Revenue: $850,000
• College: Western Michigan University
When Grant Gordon Kosch and David Parker formed the Rochester-based Parker Grant hospitality company in 2019, it was because Kosch believed their personalities and skill sets complemented one another.
“I’m a bit of an introvert, and David’s a little more of an extrovert and is really good with face-to-face (conversations) with the customers,” Kosch explains. “I’m more of a back-of-the-house guy. I like the process and the systems, and putting things together behind the scenes.”
They’ve put together catering projects or consulted on programs for customers including 313 Presents in Detroit, Bay Harbor in Traverse City, Jimmy John’s Field in Utica, Midland Brewing Co., and Montana State University’s football program.
Parker Grant’s newest project is Kudos Tap Room and Fieldhouse on Pardee Road in Taylor, which is set to open in May. Kudos will feature axe-throwing, among other activities.
“We have a strategy of embracing all the technology available and working with our partners on training in technologies,” Kosch says. “We have touchless registration systems, touchless doors, and self-standing temperature readers, and all of our customers will be ordering directly from their phones. We’ve fully embraced the new world of hospitality.”
Part of that new world, Kosch says, includes what he calls “hospitality at home.” With this service, Parker Grant sends a private chef and a server to the customer’s house to prepare a meal. Another variation is the P/G Signature Items program, where food is shipped to the customer ready to heat.
Kosch and Parker also have a Victorian-era home in the heart of downtown Rochester called The Social Space, which doubles as an event space and an R&D lab for Parker Grant. “Our goal is to be the gold standard for progressive hospitality solutions,” Kosch says.
— Tim Keenan
37 • COO/Assistant Vice President of Economic Development
• TechTown/Wayne State University, Detroit
• Employees: NA • Revenue: NA • College: Oakland University
Kelly Kozlowski, COO of TechTown Detroit, has found her place in operations. After working as COO of Automation Alley in Troy and COO for the Downtown Detroit Partnership, Kozlowski moved into the same position with TechTown. “I love the work of a COO,” she says. “I love the work of someone who’s working very closely with a leader, in support of that leader, and in partnership with that leader.”
TechTown is a nonprofit entrepreneurship hub that supports businesses in and around Detroit by offering funding, workspaces, and programming. According to Kozlowski, finding startup capital can be a big hurdle. Many people who start a business first attempt what’s referred to as a “friends and family round,” asking loved ones for funds. It’s a route that typically isn’t an option in communities where generational wealth is scarce.
TechTown partners with Wayne State University, which has resources and networks that TechTown wouldn’t be able to curate alone. In turn, TechTown can quickly change programming when necessary. Kozlowski’s role is dual-purpose; she’s also assistant vice president of economic development for Wayne State. In this role, she guides the development and execution of the university’s economic impact strategy, serving as a bridge between TechTown, Wayne State, and the community.
Kozlowski, who oversees policy, resources, and strategy, was hired in November 2019, “just long enough to figure out where the coffee was” before being sent home due to COVID-19. The Tech Town team has worked with hundreds of business owners and entrepreneurs, hosting meetings and events.
As the programming moved online in March 2020 due to the pandemic, the organization worked to get resources to the businesses it assists. Since those busy first weeks, “We’ve found a pace that’s sustainable,” Kozlowski says. “I wouldn’t say we mellowed; that’s not really the TechTown way.”
— Grace Turner
34 • President and CEO • Impact Logistics, Hazel Park
• Employees: 96 • Revenue: $5M • College: Walsh College
Several years ago Adrian Williams Kuhn and her husband, William, were fledgling entrepreneurs exploring various industries for an investment opportunity. One promising endeavor was the last mile logistics industry, in which deliveries were made within 50 miles of a distribution center. “We knew the e-commerce industry was booming and that it would stand the test of time,” Kuhn says.
Soon after, the couple launched Impact Logistics, along with enticements that quickly separated them from a congested pack of competitors. “We want to change people’s lives and lead a great group of people,” Kuhn says. “If we invest in our employees by offering a great wage of $15 an hour, minimum, the best health coverage, and additional things, we’ll get a better caliber employee. We’ll also get loyalty from our employees, because they know we want the best for them and their families.”
That approach enabled the business to get off to a fast start in 2019. “Within a year we had over 100 employees,” Kuhn says. But then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived on the scene. “All of a sudden we became essential, and on one end we’re hearing, ‘Can you do even more business?’ and on the other end we had employees who didn’t come to work because they were too afraid. So we had to create a healthy work environment (and) keep morale going, in order to do the essential work of getting customers their packages.”
The Kuhns not only survived the crisis, but have expanded their entrepreneurial portfolio; they’re in the process of launching a delivery company in Taylor that offers driving opportunities for nonviolent former felons.
“We can help returning convicts and the community so they can have a livable wage and still have a career path,” Kuhn says, adding: “We also have two properties in Warren where we want to be able to offer affordable housing for people.”
— Tom Murray
33 • Senior Vice President of Asset Management
• Farbman Group, Southfield • Employees: 200
• Revenue: NA • University of Michigan
Jonathon Margolis has spent his entire 11-year career at Farbman Group’s real estate management company in Southfield and plans to stay there for the foreseeable future. “I was pretty fortunate to find a job in 2010 in real estate in Detroit,” Margolis says, recalling his hiring in the midst of an economic downturn. “It’s been an unbelievable place to be to build a career ever since, and I see my future at Farbman Group.”
The company offers multiple services in commercial real estate, including brokerage, construction, property management, and accounting. As senior vice president of asset management, Margolis describes his role as a bridge between the building’s owner and Farbman’s “boots on the ground” team.
Margolis grew up in West Bloomfield Township and had a grandfather who was a residential builder. “I grew up hearing his stories about construction, so it was always kind of around me. I just took a liking to it.”
Today, he’s actively involved in all aspects of Farbman Group’s more than 25 million square feet of commercial real estate. Margolis says he takes a very hands-on approach in establishing annual property budgets, implementing cost-cutting measures, and refining investment strategies. He’s also involved in capital events related to the properties, including the placement of debt, recapitalization of equity, and final disposition, as well as overseeing insurance and risk mitigation.
“I’ve always had a business-type mindset, but to me real estate is something tangible,” he says. “It’s not just trading paper stock certificates. You see it. You can feel it. I love hearing the dings of elevators and seeing tower cranes. Knowing that whether you acquire a piece of real estate and improve it, or build something from the ground up, leaving an impact on the community is something very powerful that you don’t get in other areas of the financial world.”
— Tim Keenan
33 • President • Marino’s Landscape, Shelby Township
• Employees: 50 • Revenue: $5.7M
In 2004, soon after 17-year-old Sam Marino graduated from Eisenhower High School in Shelby Township, he made two major decisions: First, he wasn’t going to go to college; second, he wasn’t going to take the first job that came his way.
“My family was actually in the pizza business at the time,” Marino recalls, “and I didn’t want to make pizzas. I wanted to do my own thing. So I bought a little lawnmower, I had a little pickup truck, and I borrowed $1,200 from my dad to buy my first trailer. The money I made in one day was better than people my age could make in two weeks.”
From those humble beginnings, what is now Marino’s Landscape has grown exponentially into a design, construction, and maintenance business that grossed $5.7 million in sales last year. With more than 50 employees and 20-plus trucks servicing clients daily in Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties, many of the company’s design clients are now serviced remotely.
“We can be much more efficient doing things virtually,” Marino says.
Business is so good, in fact, that Marino is in the process of relocating his company to a much larger facility in Washington Township, about 10 minutes from his current location.
“The person I bought the building from was my largest competitor. He sold the business about five years ago, and he called me and said he didn’t want to hold on to the building as an investment any longer,” Marino says. “The new building is 15,000 square feet, about three times the size of where we are.”
Marino expects to move his business by late summer. He’s also excited about an upcoming job, priced at around $500,000, to landscape a new distribution center near Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus. It’s just one of the many reasons why he confidently anticipates that sales growth this year will exceed the 26 percent jump the business experienced in 2020.
— Tom Murray
39 • Senior Vice President of Agency Operations
• Meadowbrook Insurance Agency, Southfield Employees: 100
• Revenue: NA • College: University of Michigan
Few people earn an engineering degree, it would seem, in order to pursue a career in insurance. But despite the vast difference between the two industries, Matthew McGrail made the transition look easy.
Following graduation from the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, he encountered an interesting career-day development: Insurance carriers wanted engineers, particularly Mutual of Wausau Insurance Corp. in Wisconsin.
The insurer wanted to fill a risk control consultant position, and it was interested in technical expertise beyond the ins and outs of the insurance industry. “They went out on a limb and started talking to engineers because of (our) problem-solving ability,” McGrail says.
McGrail joined Mutual of Wausau, and later accepted a position with Liberty Mutual Insurance that required him travel throughout the country before eventually getting an opportunity to move back to his native metro Detroit. The move back to Detroit involved a change: McGrail would be employed by Southfield-based Meadowbrook Insurance Agency — his first time working for an agency and not a carrier — as the senior vice president of agency operations. “As an agent, you’re definitely more responsible for that client’s insurance program,” McGrail says. “And if something goes wrong with that insurance program, you feel it (because of the relationship you’ve built.)”
That’s the approach McGrail believes will lead Meadowbrook to be the single agency of choice in Michigan. Having applied his engineering acumen to field work for carriers, he now applies his strategic thinking and drive to the pursuit of the company’s goals.
“We want them to think of Meadowbrook just as they think of the auto industry or U-M,” McGrail says. “That’s the kind of culture we’re trying to build here internally.”
— Dan Calabrese
36 • Vice President of Business Operations, CFO
• The Henry Ford, Dearborn • Employees: 617 • Revenue: $43.5M
• College: University of Michigan–Dearborn
If you ate at the Eagle Tavern in Dearborn’s Greenfield Village in the summer of 2000, your table may have been bussed by Brent Ott, now CFO and vice president of business operations for The Henry Ford.
Ott, who started clearing tables as a 16-year-old high schooler from Allen Park, now oversees the historic complex’s operating budget — a balance sheet of more than $500 million that includes short-term investments, endowment and pension assets, and retirement plans. He was appointed to the position in 2013.
Soon after, he took on the role of vice president of business operations, in which he’s responsible for facilities management, security, guest operations information, technology services, and food service and catering operations, an area where he has firsthand knowledge.
“(That experience) kind of grounds me for the decisions we make at the executive level, to know the real-world impact of how the decisions are implemented with our staff,” Ott says. “It’s a lot of work, but I have a full understanding of our operations and that helps me. And I like a challenge where I can push myself.”
Ott’s interest in accounting and finance began while he was studying at the University of Michigan Dearborn. During his collegiate years, he took a part-time job in the office of The Henry Ford’s CFO. When he graduated, he went back to The Henry Ford as a financial and investment analyst. Once he earned his MBA from U-M Dearborn, he was made a manager.
“My interest has been accounting and finance, but I’ve developed an appreciation for history with The Henry Ford,” Ott says. “It’s also a great place because you don’t have to have a history background to have a job there. There are a lot of functions that are needed to support the museum.”
Ott’s current goal is to “make sure we’re laying a foundation for our 100th anniversary in October 2029.”
— Tim Keenan
35 • President and CFO • C3 Industries Inc., Ann Arbor
• Employees: 230 • Revenue: NA
• College: University of Michigan
Thinking back and reflecting on a few meetings he had with Larry Page and Sergey Brin during a two-year period with search engine giant Google Inc., Vishal Rungta says what he learned was that the two founders were a few steps ahead of everyone else. “I was working there in business operations and strategy,” he says. “They both are bona fide geniuses; I didn’t understand a third of what they were saying.”
Two years has proved to be a fortuitous pattern with Rungta. Prior to joining Google in 2012, he spent a couple of years at investment banker Moelis and Co., before joining TPG Capital in San Francisco — where he completed a six-year run.
In 2016, with his older brother, Ankur, and a longtime friend, Joel Ruggiero, Rungta started C3 Industries, a cannabis production and retail operator that today has operations in Michigan, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Missouri. It was just a handful of people out of the gate; now there are 230 employees and the company, which has its headquarters in Ann Arbor, plans to grow to 450 workers by the end of the year.
“We began in Oregon with an eye to coming to Michigan if the laws ever changed,” he says. “Ankur and I were born in Ohio, grew up in Buffalo, and moved to Ann Arbor and went to U-M. Now Michigan is our largest market, between our growing operations and our retail stores. We’re planning even more growth here.”
Next door to the company’s 37,000-square-foot growing facility in Webberville, near Lansing, a 90,000-square-foot complex will come online later this year. On the retail side, C3 operates High Profile stores in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Grant, and Buchannan, with more in the pipeline.
“We’re adding capacity in Massachusetts and Missouri, both on the supply and retail side,” Rungta says. “On the growth side, when we’re done building everything out in the current pipeline, we’ll have 250,000 square feet of production space.”
— R.J. King
30 • Senior Consultant and Vice President of Operations
• ChoiceTel, Clarkston • Employees: 15
• Revenue: $3.2M • College: Oakland University
The ever-evolving information technology industry is keeping life interesting for Aaron Smith, senior consultant and vice president of operations at ChoiceTel IT, a telecommunications consulting firm in Clarkston.
The company provides managed telecom and IT, cybersecurity, cloud communications, network infrastructure, voice-over internet protocol, and educational workshops on industry trends and best practices for multiple IT categories. It specializes in technology adoption, change management, engineering design and support, project management, and help desk support.
“I really enjoy that in IT, things are constantly changing,” Smith says. “It’s never stagnant. There’s always something new, something to improve on, and analyzing new technology that’s becoming commercially available. (We’re) looking at business problems that we can solve with technology that’s in place currently, but not being fully utilized.”
To help the company grow, Smith transitioned to advising ChoiceTel’s medium-size and large corporate clients about their technological needs. “When I started working with ChoiceTel 10 years ago, I was helping them with marketing materials and contract review analysis, more so on the writing, marketing, and storytelling side of things,” he says.
Smith joined the company full time after graduating from Oakland University in Rochester Hills in 2013, and ventured into client support by earning certification on a variety of phone systems, IT systems, cloud architecture, and Lean Six Sigma.
“I moved into account management in 2016, when I started being the main interface with the customer,” says Smith, who was appointed to his current role three years ago. “I took over a lot of the operations, and how we look at data after we implement technology for our customers, in order to optimize and improve their environment with that technology.”
— Tim Keenan
38 • Real Estate Agent • The Monzo Group, Mount Clemens
• Employees: 30 • Volume: $80M
• College: Foothill College
Anthony Smith says he was born with a silver tongue, and it’s a talent that has served him well in the residential housing market — he’s the top-selling real estate agent at The Monzo Group in Mount Clemens. His talent, though, wasn’t encouraged at home.
“I was an orphan and grew up in foster care (in California),” Smith says. “When I was 26 years old (in 2009), I found my parents through an internet search. I actually found out I was the oldest of four boys, and my parents had me when they were 17 years old. They weren’t really able to care for me at that time.”
Living in a series of foster care group homes until he became a legal adult, Smith struck out on his own and took classes in musical engineering while doing sales for a telemarketing company. He came to Detroit, where his brothers were real estate property investors, in 2014, and met his parents. After getting his real estate salesperson’s license, Smith started selling homes.
“When I came in, The Monzo Group didn’t sell homes in Detroit, but I kept working at it and now the city is our largest market (by volume),” Smith says. “From there, I met Glenn Prentice in 2017, and now we’re co-founders of a residential property management company we call TLC in Detroit.”
The business got its start last October. At the time, Smith and Prentice, who has long renovated and sold homes throughout the region, shared their ideas for better serving clients. “Anthony sells homes, and I renovate them, and for large investors we now manage their assets under TLC,” says Prentice, president of Woodlands Initiative and TLC.
Prentice is currently renovating 43 homes in the Hantz Woodlands area on the city’s east side. TLC, meanwhile, has 200 homes it manages and is renovating another 20 more in the city that have a combined value of $10 million.
“We work hard, but we always try to work smarter,” Smith says.
— R.J. King
37 • CEO • Xenith, Detroit • Employees: 100 • Revenue: NA
• College: Michigan State University
Ryan Sullivan, CEO of Xenith, has been spearheading the transformation of the football gear company. The company’s products are on the field at youth, college-level, and NFL games.
Xenith was founded as a helmet developer in Boston in 2006 by Vin Ferrara, a former quarterback at Harvard University and a graduate of Columbia University’s medical school. The first helmets were sold in 2009. Ferrara left the company in 2013, and Dan Gilbert, who has a majority stake in Xenith and is founder and chairman of the Rock Family of Cos., moved the headquarters to Detroit in 2015. Sullivan was hired as CEO in March 2016.
Sullivan has led the company in three areas of change. The first was shifting the company’s long-term direction by expanding the product line from helmet design to offering gear “from head to ankle” for football athletes.
Building off of the first goal, the second looks to invest in product development. Since December 2018, Xenith has introduced 43 products including helmets, shoulder pads, apparel, gloves, team uniforms, and gear for nontackle and women’s football.
“When you come at it from the point of view of being in service of the athlete and the team and elevating their pursuit, as we say — spending a lot of time with athletes and teams, and understanding their needs — we’ve come to identify all these different opportunities in the marketplace,” Sullivan says.
Third, the company, which operates from Renaissance Global Logistics at Fort and Clark streets, dropped its wholesale model in 2018 and started to sell directly to teams and leagues.
In addition, the company publishes peer-reviewed articles based on its research. “This wasn’t just a couple of people going out to a game with a clipboard and tallying things up,” Sullivan says. “This was very sophisticated, academic-grade research.”
— Grace Turner
36 • Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering
• University of Michigan, Ann Arbor • Employees: 25
• Revenue: NA • College: University of California, Berkeley
Why go out to buy groceries or takeout food when a robot can deliver them to your home or office? That’s the thinking of Ram Vasudevan, co-founder of Refraction AI in Ann Arbor. He and his business partner, Matthew Johnson-Roberson, launched the robot delivery platform in 2018; today it’s on a straight growth trajectory.
“We’re on track to hire new engineers, and add to our sales staff and operations team,” says Vasudevan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “We have a record number of orders, we’ll be adding cities, we just raised another (funding) round, and we’re doing more deliveries all the time.”
With 25 robots performing hundreds of deliveries each week, Refraction AI hopes to expand its last-mile delivery service to a second city by the end of the year.
The battery-powered robots have a top speed of 15 miles per hour and operate mainly in available bike lanes or by traveling parallel with street curbs or on sidewalks. The batteries, which are hot-swappable, last for several hours — even when the units are fully loaded with 100 pounds of cargo.
“We map the routes to maximize right turns, as it’s safer and easier,” Vasudevan says. “There’s also more potential for fuel-efficiency. Their low speed enables them to use inexpensive camera-based navigation systems, which makes their cost feasible for a delivery service.”
He says the operation is fairly straightforward.
“We have tele-operators drive the robots through some of the routes, and we have people virtually monitoring all of the vehicles,” Vasudevan explains. “Some portions (of a route) are done autonomously, while some areas can be very difficult, given human behavior can be uncertain or difficult to predict. A good example would be at a busy intersection.”
— R.J. King
39 • Divisional Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
• Saks OFF 5th, New York • Employees: 4,000+
• Revenue: TC • College: University of Detroit Mercy
Stefen Welch is a product of his environment, but it’s what he learned in that environment that’s driving him to make an impact at one of New York’s well-known retailers — all from a vantage point right here in Detroit.
Welch, who grew up on Detroit’s northwest side and graduated in 2000 from St. Martin DePorres High School, has always been around people who advocated for the best interests of minorities. His grandmother worked in an NAACP office in Highland Park, and during his years at Oakland University, Welch was president of the Association of Black Students.
For Welch, his current role as divisional vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion for New York-based Saks OFF 5th — a job Welch took in September 2020 after several years in a similar position with Quicken Loans — was a natural fit.
But he had to let go of another passion first.
“I remember being in my grandparents’ home and turning on ESPN, and seeing this dude who talked about sports and sounded like someone in my barbershop,” Welch says. “Stuart Scott was amazing and extremely special. I’m not amazing and special when it comes to broadcasting, so I shifted my focus and started to think differently about understanding and uniting communities, as well as leaning on my own experiences. I wanted to change the narratives of Black males.”
First at Quicken Loans, and now at Saks OFF 5th, Welch has focused on creating strategic affiliations, pushing for supplier diversity, and building a partnership with the National Minority Supplier Development Council. He also has achieved mandates within the company to ensure that high-level positions aren’t filled without qualified minority candidates getting a real shot.
“We want people to thrive in a place where they can be their true, authentic selves,” Welch says. “My job, at the end of the day, is to create an opportunity.”
— Dan Calabrese
39 • Chief Legal Officer • United Wholesale Mortgage, Pontiac
• Employees: 9,000+ • Revenue: $3.4B
• College: Michigan State University College of Law
Adam Wolfe knows how innovators think. When someone has an interesting idea, especially if it’s unconventional, the last people anyone wants to get involved in the startup discussions are lawyers.
“A lot of legal departments are where dreams go to die,” says Wolfe, who has served as chief legal officer for United Wholesale Mortgage since 2016. “It’s like, ‘We do not want to go talk to the lawyers.’ That’s the way most companies run.”
When Wolfe was recruited by UWM CEO Mat Ishbia — who was Wolfe’s teammate on the 2000 Michigan State University national basketball championship team — it was with the idea that UWM’s legal department should work differently.
“There are a lot of attorneys who are in-house who don’t view legal risk the same way I do,” says Wolfe, who helped oversee the company’s IPO earlier this year, as well as the acquisition of property in Pontiac for the company’s headquarters. “There are ways to view risk that can help make a business successful. I’m a businessperson first and a lawyer second.”
Wolfe and his team consider it their job to take bold ideas and, rather than shoot them down, find ways to make them work. The attorney developed his entrepreneurial mindset during a career that started with the law firm Trautman Pepper (formerly Pepper Hamilton), followed by Rock Gaming in Detroit, which later became Jack Entertainment.
During his three years with Rock/Jack, Wolfe worked in the litigation group, but he ventured into various areas of law. He valued the experience of being an in-house counsel because of the perspective it offers.
“As an outside lawyer you have different types of clients and you have lots of issues you work with,” Wolfe says, “but you never really get deep to the core of what the business is about, which is what I like to do.”
— Dan Calabrese