ARCHIVED  May 7, 2010

The entrepreneurial spirit lives in NoCo

After 12 years, I think our Bravo!
Entrepreneur Awards is my favorite Northern Colorado Business Report event. It
gives us the chance to honor some of the people who are taking the risks – and
reaping the rewards – of starting and running a business in these tough
times.

This year’s honorees are a diverse group, working in industries from
banking to computers, manufacturing to applied mathematics. What they all have
in common is a knack for seeing a need in the marketplace, and the talent,
determination and drive to fill that need – and maybe make a little bit of money
in the process.

This year, perhaps even more important than profit is the
ability of our Bravo! Entrepreneurs to create jobs here in Northern Colorado. As
we’ve heard time and again, it will be small business – and the entrepreneurs
who create and nurture new companies – that will bring our economy out of this
Great Recession.

For that as much as anything else, we are proud to say thank
you to this year’s Bravo! winners, as well as all the other entrepreneurs
working on making our region a better place to live and do business.

A hearty
thank you also to this year’s Bravo! award sponsors Kennedy & Co.,
McWhinney, Palmer Flowers and Burns Marketing.

Jeff
Nuttall

Publisher

Northern Colorado Business Report

Click here to view the electronic photo gallery from the event

The 2010 Bravo! Entrepreneur Award winners:

Evironment, engines drive Babbitt

Czero Inc. sees the potential in stopping trucks in their tracks – potential savings from potential energy, that is.

The Fort Collins-based research and development consulting company is currently working on the third generation of its hydraulic hybrid retrofit for trucks in the higher class range, such as delivery and refuse collection trucks.

Czero’s system works by pressurizing fluid in a tank as the truck comes to a stop, and then releasing the built-up pressure to get the truck moving again. Guy Babbitt, co-founder and president of Czero, sees a “realistic” 20 percent savings in fuel costs, but said the new system could push that to 30 percent. Babbitt noted other benefits, too.

“Extended brake life could exceed savings in fuel with a two- to three-year payback,” Babbitt said.

Although the hydraulic hybrid is not a new idea, developing a retrofit kit is something different. Right now, Babbitt feels truck makers are only interested in putting hybrids in new vehicles, but he believes a fleet of trucks could be retrofit for the cost of a new truck and the hybrid add-on alone.

Since relocating from Colorado Springs in 2007 to join the Northern Colorado Clean Energy Cluster, Babbitt has balanced the company’s own product development work with consulting. The firm has been involved in the research and development of growth systems for Solix Biofuels, and worked with VanDyne Superturbo on a dynamometer test facility, fuel cooling system, and control module.

From an early age it was evident that Babbitt would wind up in the engineering field. “I was the kid that took the toaster apart,” he said. “It was just clear that I’d be an engineer.”

He also developed his passion for the environment – and working on cars – young. For Babbitt, engines were a “place you could get the biggest impact.”

When Czero starting working on outboard engines for a watercraft company, some questioned how the firm could still consider itself “green.” Babbitt felt that since people were going to buy those engines anyway, why not try to make them better? That sentiment is a driving force for Czero.

“We want to be integral, give back to the community,” Babbitt said. “It’s not about us.”

For the future, Babbitt wants to know how Czero can think bigger. “How can we use our skills to get stable and strong enough to devote time to others?”

Job creation Don Churchwell’s passion

Retirement never sat well with Don Churchwell, much to the benefit of the Northern Colorado economy.

Churchwell grew up in Northern Colorado. His father worked for the Great Western Sugar Co., which took the family around the region, from Longmont to Johnstown and finally Loveland, where Churchwell graduated from Loveland High School. He recalled that in the late 1950s there were about three employment options for a recent graduate – Great Western, Colorado State University (then Colorado A&M) or Forney Industries. The other option was college. Churchwell chose the latter after a short stint at Great Western.

He graduated from the University of Northern Colorado and then the University of Colorado Graduate School of Banking. He started his banking career at a Fort Collins savings and loan association in 1964. He ended up in 1972 at Affiliated First National Bank in Loveland where he rose to the role of president and CEO. He retired, the first time, in 1995 following Affiliated’s acquisition by BankOne.

Even as he was stepping back from one career, he was stepping up to a second. Churchwell had become a fixture in Loveland’s economic development efforts.

“I remember when I was looking for a job, there were none,” he said, explaining his passion for job creation in Northern Colorado.

While he was a banker, Churchwell made a second full-time job of attracting employers. He was involved with drawing GoldCo and Woodward Governor into Loveland, among many others. He recalls visiting Ames, Iowa, to meet with Cliff and Kitty Hach about their plans for a new facility in Loveland. They set him up with an office for several weeks to meet with Hach Co. employees who would be making the move to Loveland so he could tell them about their soon-to-be new home.

It wasn’t a big surprise that city officials and boosters asked Churchwell to step into the leadership role at the Loveland Economic Development Council, which he had helped found in 1988. He completed four years of “temporary work” in 1999 after putting the wheels in motion for the merger with its Fort Collins counterpart – Fort Collins Inc. – to form the Northern Colorado Economic Development Corp. Then he retired, again.

His talent would not be untapped for long. Churchwell was soon approached by officials at Home State Bank in search of consulting help. By 2002, the bank named him CEO where he served until another so-called retirement in 2007.

Three years into his third attempt at retirement, Churchwell is finally taking a little time off. He still serves Home State in a business development role and sits on the bank’s board. In all, he puts in about 30 hours per week, but he also takes time out for travel every few months and he’s sporting a telling golf-tan.

Throughout his extensive career, Churchwell only spent a few years working outside of Colorado – about a year each in Wyoming, California and Montana. But he couldn’t stay away.

“I came back here because I missed Northern Colorado,” he said.

And while he might spend more than a couple of winter weeks in warmer climes, he will always call Northern Colorado – a place he helped to build into a regional economic force to be reckoned with – home.

Ted Warner connects the dots with computers

Ted Warner has been part of the Greeley business community for a quarter of a century, as founder and president of Connecting Point. Since he works in computers, those 25 years have seen enough change to fill four times the time.

Raised in Minneapolis and armed with a 1976 undergraduate degree in business administration from Colorado College, Warner started his career in Denver. He was selling mini-mainframes in Sterling when a funny thing happened: He and his wife, Sue, fell in love with the small town.

So when a local CPA asked Warner to manage his sideline computer business, the entrepreneur in him awoke. And when Business Computing Services Inc. started losing accounts to less-expensive PCs, Warner knew it was time to get into that business.

In 1982, he purchased the Greeley franchise of Connecting Point of America, a computer retailer. Then a funny thing happened: Technology changed, again, and Warner knew it was time to reinvent the store he’d owned ourtright since 1985.

In 1990, the company got out of retail and into selling company networks and products. The B2B model worked well through the 1990s.

Then another funny thing happened: Technology changed yet again, and clients wanted fewer products and more help solving problems.

In 2003, Connecting Point transformed itself into a proactive managed services provider. A half-dozen experts monitor technology needs – servers, routers, e-mail, VoIP systems, everything an in-house IT department would do – remotely from a help desk 24/7, each handling 500 to 600 calls a month. The company still sells equipment, through its networking solutions services.

Another funny thing is happening right now: Technology  is moving completely away from in-house equipment. And Connecting Point is beginning its fourth incarnation.

“Companies are starting to ask why they have to continually purchase equipment and house it in their own facilities,” Warner said. “Cloud computing essentially lets them rent the latest and greatest hardware and software, just like a utility. All they need is a connection to us, from anywhere in the world.”

“It’s hard to change course in mid-stream, but if you can’t move quick enough, you’ll die on the vine,” Warner said.

He has been quick enough to be involved in two other ventures over the years. Warner started Xilocore, a business continuity and data protection service based in Las Vegas three years ago, and helped found Pawnee Leasing in Fort Colllins. He sold his portion of Pawnee, but now operates Point Capital LLC.

He admits being an entrepreneur “is a lot harder than it’s cracked up to be. It can be fun, challenging and immensely rewarding, but it can also be frustrating, with obstacles you need to climb over that never appeared in your calculations.”

The key to success is investing in other people you can trust to carry on your original vision and “run it with their own style and grace,” Warner explained. “Until you can distribute your vision, you’re not going to get too far.”

Warner has distributed his time and philanthropic efforts throughout Weld County, serving on the boards of Northern Colorado Medical Center and United Way of Weld County.

“I always thought I’d be a small business owner,” Warner says now. “I just never thought I’d be in the technology business.”

Aubrey Poore knows his numbers

LOVELAND – Aubrey Poore knows his numbers.

Poore, a former Colorado State University professor of applied mathematics, is the founder, CEO and chief scientist of the Numerica Corp., a Loveland-based company that provides the mind-numbing algorithms needed to solve complex problems for military, space and surveillance applications.

Numerica sprang from work Poore was doing at CSU in 1988 in cooperation with IBM in Boulder, which involved developing a new approach to multiple target tracking. “We solved a key problem called a data association problem,” Poore said.

That led to a new tracking system for AWACS, the Airborne Warning And Control System, which provides airborne surveillance for the military and command and communications for the nation’s tactical and air defenses.

In 1996 – the year Numerica was founded – the company received the “Best of Breed Tracker Award” for its contribution to an upgrade of AWACS. That soon led to Numerica, once housed within CSU, going off on its own, Poore said.

“In 1998 the university asked me to take it out and commercialize it,´ said Poore, who accumulated four patents on Numerica’s proprietary technology while at CSU, which shares in royalties.

Put simply, Poore said, Numerica’s technology focuses on developing complex algorithms that address moving objects in space.

“The key problem is what we call data association and fusion of information to arrive at information about flying objects,” he said. “It’s really about just knowing where things are.”

Poore said earning the Tracker Award started opening doors for the company. “The funding agencies took notice of that accomplishment,” he said. “Since ’96 we’ve been blessed with opportunities for many different projects.”

The company now lists Lockheed Martin IS&S, Northrup Grumman Space Technology, General Dynamics and Boeing among its distinguished list of clients.

“We do many things now, but it all has its core in statistics, electrical engineering, mathematics and computer science,” Poore said. “It’s kind of a blend of all of those.”

Poore said Numerica’s technology enables it to minimize the “noise level” in complex calculations. “We can solve these very hard problems within the noise level in the problem as accurately as we wish. We can do that in fractions of a second and as accurately as possible.”

That’s especially important when you’re working to constantly improve the nation’s missile defense system, as Numerica does.

Poore said he keeps his focus on the company’s technology and could not say how much money it’s earning through its many contracts, including being part of a $600 million contract with Northrup Grumman to help build the next generation of the nation’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System that will be put into place in 2014.

Poore said while he founded the 45-employee company and serves as its chief scientist, he can’t take all the credit for its success. That belongs, he said, to its highly educated workforce.

“What we’ve done over the years is try to hire the best people from around the nation from the best schools – Princeton, Harvard, Cambridge and MIT as well as CSU, the School of Mines and the University of Colorado. We recruit from all of them.

“These people are just truly exceptional. That’s what makes Numerica work.”

Chambers moving region forward

At the Northern Colorado Business Report, we have always endorsed a regional approach to business issues and are pleased this year to recognize the largest chambers of commerce in Larimer and Weld counties for their efforts to bring their individual memberships closer together.

The chambers’ leaders – David L. May, president and CEO of the Fort Collins Area Chamber; Sarah MacQuiddy, president of the Greeley Chamber; and Brian Willms, president of the Loveland Chamber – have worked together to create a joint initiative designed to build human capacity and address issues facing the region. In December, with the support of the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado and the Community Foundation Serving Greeley and Weld County, the chambers cooperatively launched Leadership Northern Colorado.

“Northern Colorado is morphing into an area with regional potential, population and challenges,” according to the Leadership NoCo website. “Leadership with a regional perspective will be essential for a positive vision of our future.”

The six-month program focuses on regional issues, regionalism and regional leadership skills, designed to educate and motivate leaders committed to shaping Northern Colorado.

Leadership Northern Colorado builds on the success of the chambers’ separate leadership development programs and is off to a promising start, with 30 current and emerging leaders in the inaugural class. The group includes representatives from education, large and small business, nonprofits and county offices, on both sides of Interstate 25.

“We had 55 fantastic applications for the program and as a result, have an outstanding class,´ said May, program chair.

The Leadership Northern Colorado class continues through June; applications for the 2011 class are available online now at www.leadershipnortherncolorado.com

An area of more long-standing cooperation is the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance, the joint public policy advocacy arm of the chambers as well as the Northern Colorado Economic Development Corp. The NCLA works for all of Northern Colorado on local, state and federal policy issues affecting business.

“With so many special interests beating down lawmakers’ doors to have their voices heard during the session, it’s critical that business make its presence known and its priorities understood at the Capitol,” explained Sandra Hagen Solin, issues manager for NCLA.

NCLA not only brings business issues to the state Legislature, it also brings legislators to businesses through monthly Monday Morning meetings. It also brings local business face-to-face with legislators in its popular Mission to the Capitol.

The three chambers are awarded the 2010 Bravo! Entrepreneur Regional Spirit Award for their continuing efforts on behalf of all the region’s businesses.

Richardson out of garage for good

FORT COLLINS – Many of the best business success stories start out in a garage, and the tale of the OtterBox is one.

Otter Products founder and CEO Curt Richardson is an injection molder by tool and trade. He spent time developing his talents at Value Plastics in Fort Collins before striking it out on his own at the ripe age of 21 when he purchased Genie Plastic Tooling and formed Richardson Tool and Mold.

“That really started my career as a business owner,” Richardson said.

Over the next decade, Richardson started several firms: Richardson Finch Manufacturing, Richardson International, Associated Tooling Concepts, and Associated Molding. Richardson admits not all were high-flying successes. In fact, he guesses he probably went bankrupt twice without ever officially filing for relief.

“I moved in and out of my garage a few times in my career,” he said. “I had to back all the way up – back to the garage.”

It was in Richardson’s garage that the first OtterBox was born. Richardson decided to focus his efforts on his own creation, rather than making products for someone else.

“I started playing around with boxes in the early ’90’s,” he said. “I looked at what interested me.”

Richardson knew, from businesses past, that he should focus on something that was not complex and could be shipped easily and cheaply through standard mail. He also knew about outdoor activities, since his interests include watersports.

“The OtterBox sprang up out of that,” Richardson said.

The first OtterBox was just a box, albeit waterproof and durable, that evolved rapidly into the company’s founding product. Richardson credits Otter’s customers, who requested new functionality, for the mutation from box to specialized electronics cases. Today, the company offers cases for mobile phones from more than a dozen manufacturers in styles ranging from rugged to sleek.

The company, as a whole, has also experienced rapid change. By the time Otter moves into its new digs – tentatively scheduled for February 2011 – Richardson expects to have around 200 employees in Fort Collins, up from around 70 in early 2009. Additionally, the company recently opened an office in Ireland that will have 10 employees to handle the European, Middle Eastern and African markets.

The rapid growth is not daunting for Richardson.

“If you’re just doing your ‘to-do’ list every day, you’re just waiting for the next fire or starting the next fire,” he said, adding that the company now has the proper systems in place to handle growth at any level.

Richardson endorses the business theories of “E-Myth” – a 1985 book that explains the reason for most small-business failures is that their founders are technicians, not business owners, who don’t know the first thing about running an enterprise.

Richardson admits to being more of an arsonist than a firefighter in his business, but counts himself lucky to have others there to dampen any infernos. The company takes great care in putting people in roles where they can excel.

“Otter is as much about people development as it is about product development,” Richardson said.

Rankin motors UQM up to big guys

Bill Rankin hesitates to call himself a pessimist — he prefers “realist” – but he readily admits to thriving as an underdog.

The company he heads, Frederick-based UQM Technologies Inc., has long been a “little guy” in the giant world of the automotive market. UQM actually started in 1967 fabricating fiberglass components for aircraft and kit automobiles. The company dabbled in the electric vehicle market in the late 1970s, but its main business was providing smaller electric motors for vehicle components and low-volume production for military and other specialty vehicles.

While not the founder of UQM, Rankin has used his entrepreneurial spirit to lead the company into a new era of its operations. Rankin joined UQM in 1992 as executive vice president, was promoted to president in 1996 and to CEO in 1999. His background as the chief of the Weapon System Simulation and Technology Division at the U.S. Army’s Rock Island Arsenal in Iowa has proved useful, as the company has counted the military as a major customer over the years. His manufacturing experience, garnered at Deere & Co., has been of utmost value for UQM and will soon become even more crucial.

In August 2009, the company landed a $45.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to ramp up its manufacturing capabilities. The grant matches UQM’s capital investments for the Coda Automotive program.

UQM entered a supply agreement with California-based Coda to provide a propulsion system for Coda’s electric car. The 10-year agreement calls for 20,000 units in the first two years after the vehicle is launched.

Rankin said that he was dubious about even applying for the grant, because the Department of Defense had indicated that four to seven component manufacturers would be selected.

“We thought we’d be upstaged by the big guys,” he explained. But because UQM is a publicly traded company (AMEX:UQM), Rankin knew he had a responsibility to the shareholders to at least try.

UQM definitely found itself among the “big guys.” Other awards went to General Motors, Ford, Delphi and Magna International.

So far, the grant has allowed the company to purchase a new facility, which it plans to occupy this summer. Once all of the manufacturing lines are running at full capacity, UQM plans to have 400 employees.

On April 30, UQM hosted Vice President Joe Biden at the still-under-construction plant. The company was selected to highlight what the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was intended to accomplish.

“Here at UQM, they get it,” the vice president said. “We’re proud to act as a catalyst for companies like UQM Technologies.”

Rankin added that it is orders, not stimulus dollars, that create jobs.

Even with all the accolades, Rankin remains grounded in UQM’s longtime focus: providing advanced electric motor technologies. He admits that the company is receiving a lot more attention now from other large companies, and he hopes to see some deals come out of that. But for now, it’s one step at a time.

“Now, we’re just heads-down, executing,” Rankin said.

After 12 years, I think our Bravo!
Entrepreneur Awards is my favorite Northern Colorado Business Report event. It
gives us the chance to honor some of the people who are taking the risks – and
reaping the rewards – of starting and running a business in these tough
times.

This year’s honorees are a diverse group, working in industries from
banking to computers, manufacturing to applied mathematics. What they all have
in common is a knack for seeing a need in the marketplace, and the talent,
determination and drive…

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