Top 5 CEOs to Watch

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By Kevyn Burger
Tuesday, January 26, 2016

‘Quarterback’ for the Super Bowl Team
Maureen Bausch
CEO, Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee

Maureen Bausch spends much of her time in the future. Specifically, her mind is focused on ten days in late January and early February of the year 2018, when the eyes of the sporting world will be on Minnesota as the site of Super Bowl LII.

As CEO of the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee, Bausch will oversee dozens of committees, thousands of volunteers, a budget of millions of dollars and an incalculable number of details.

“We want to elevate awareness about Minnesota, that’s our mission,” she says. “We want to make sure every guest has an unbelievable, unforgettable experience, and that hundreds of thousands of people here get in on the excitement. This will be their event, too.”

The job leading local preparations for the big game — and the festivities leading up to it — is a career-capper that Bausch has unwittingly been preparing for all her life. Bausch came to the CEO position in December 2014 after decades in marketing. She was the Mall of America’s executive vice president of business development at the time she was selected.

“Maureen is a great networker, so upbeat. She rallies everyone,” says Dave Haselman, the host committee’s COO. He got to know Bausch’s penchant for executing the unexpected when they worked side-by-side at the Bloomington mall.

“She came in my office one day and says, ‘What do you think about the Mall of America sponsoring the field at the Metrodome?’ To tell the truth, I thought that we would never be able to afford it, but she negotiated the right price and it was a huge success.”

Currently, Bausch leads a seasoned staff of a half dozen executives who are mapping out the master plan from a suite on the eleventh floor of the US Bank Building. Their downtown office overlooks construction of the billion dollar stadium where the Super Bowl will be played.

“The Vikings will have had two seasons in the stadium, so all the bugs there will be worked out, and the NFL will be in charge of the game,” says Andrea Mokros, vice president for communications, who comes to the host committee after four years of directing Michelle Obama’s scheduling from the White House. “The experience around the game is what’s ours. It’s multi-dimensional, with multiple goals. We have to serve the local fans, the businesses, the spectators and keep them all happy.”    

Bausch promises to spread the Super Bowl spotlight beyond downtown Minneapolis, noting that numerous events will be held in St. Paul, Bloomington and beyond.

“This event is worth an estimated $400 million to the area, and it’s happening in February,” Bausch added, pausing for emphasis. “Not the busiest time of year for tourism.”

Bausch’s first career was in education. A UMD graduate, she taught fourth grade but lost her classroom job when a gifted-student program she was assigned to was defunded. She wound up working for her family’s Stillwater grocery; her first responsibility was setting up supermarket samplings, and the first people she managed were what she fondly calls “my demo ladies,” the crew that handed out tiny tastes to shoppers.

As the family grocery business evolved into the Cub Foods chain, Bausch moved to the advertising department. That’s where she was first captivated by marketing and strategizing, and where she first learned to pump a brand that doesn’t yet exist.

“Market entry is a real science,” Bausch noted; she was charged with introducing Cub stores into new cities as the chain grew from five to 85 stores in a national expansion.

Her 13 years with Cub positioned her for her next gig. She came on as head of marketing for the Mall of America two years before its opening day.

“Nobody remembers this now, but so many people thought the mall would fail or never even open,” she says. “My friends told me I was crazy to take that job. But I knew it would be a success. It made sense to me and I could feel the excitement.”

Bausch recalls how she went on the road while the mall was still a hole in the ground, appearing before Rotary lunches and community groups throughout the region to drum up interest in what was often derisively called the Megamall.

“It was a grassroots effort. We wanted people to feel a part of it,” she says.

Today, she’s hustling to sell the Super Bowl in much the same way, appearing at multiple civic forums and business meetings every week.  It’s part of her vision to widen the sense of ownership for the event.

“I’ve been out talking to our CMOs, asking them, how can the Super Bowl help you achieve your goals?” she says. “They want help attracting a highly skilled work force. We can use this event to talk about the Bold North and promote the sophistication of this market.”

Bausch’s strategy involves wooing the press. She estimates 5,000 media personnel from 130 countries will arrive at Minneapolis-St. Paul International in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Her playbook is filling with ways to amuse and amaze them, from snowmobile rides to tours of local eateries and shows by Minnesota musicians.

“They’re going to see a side of Minnesota they don’t know about,” she promised.

The Host Committee’s work is funded privately by local companies and organizations; the committee’s budget is not set but is expected to range from $20-50 million.

“I’ve been thrilled with the response and support from the businesses I’m talking to as I’m talking about corporate sponsorships,” says Wendy Blackshaw, the former Sun Country marketing head who is the host committee’s vice president of marketing and sales. “This is going to be the biggest thing to ever hit this town, and they want to be onboard.”

One of Bausch’s proven strengths is her ability to build a team and lead it. For the Super Bowl, she wants the concept of team to extend beyond her working group.

“The benefits will come, but only if we work for them,” she says. “Not just the host committee, but the whole community. We need that team to enhance the visitor experience. If we can do that, there will be value for us long after the game is history.”

Master Builder of tech startups
Jim Leslie
CEO, Vidku

A visitor who wanders into the North Loop offices of Vidku may mistake its CEO for the receptionist.

Jim Leslie, often standing at his height-adjustable desk, is in the first cluster of employees at the front of the open workspace and often greets people when they arrive. 

Leslie, 55, says he’s not interested in a corner office, one of the prestige perks of power savored by many who work their way to the top of organization.

“An office has walls that keep people from your space. I want to be with my team. I know them better because I’m accessible,” he says. “There’s no hierarchy here. I’m doing this because I believe in this team and the brand and reputation we are building together.”

Leslie oversees a staff of 37 mobile engineers, developers and designers who launched Vidku, an online video sharing platform, late last year. The app lets users share 17-second videos with friends or groups; its name pays homage to the haiku, the form of Japanese poetry with 17 syllables.

“We’re early in this process but we’ve already seen that what we’re doing is meaningful for our users,” he says. “They are enthusiastic about the elegance and design of the app, and we can promise them it will only get better with time. We’re listening to our users and they will guide our development.”

Leslie previously was the founder and CEO of Midwave Corp., an Eden Prairie IT company. It had grown to 140 employees when he sold it for $17.6 million in 2011. He remained with the buyer, Datalink, until 2013.

“I sold the company because it had grown to the stage where it needed to be acquired, or be acquiring. My strength is building, not acquiring,” he says.

When he left, he entered a phase he now calls “R-One,” not quite able to bring himself to use the word ‘retirement.’ While exploring his interests, Leslie’s longstanding passion for higher education brought him to the University of Minnesota, where he met Charlie Miller, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development.

Miller had co-developed Flipgrid, a video sharing tool created for his classroom. It had caught on with the faculty at the U and quickly expanded to college classrooms nationwide.

“We hadn’t looked at it as a business, it didn’t even have a name. Then it started generating revenue, which had never been the goal,” says Miller, 36, who is now on leave from the U. “That’s when we met Jim and Phil.”

Leslie and longtime business acquaintance and fellow tech entrepreneur Phil Soran saw the commercial potential in Flipgrid. They acquired the technology from the university, which still has an equity stake in the company, and spun out Flipgrid and its staff of mostly graduate students into an independent company.  (Flipgrid remains an educational platform; Vidku is a video sharing app built for friends, groups and teams). 

Reaching out to investors in Minnesota and Silicon Valley, Leslie and Soren, who is Vidku’s executive chairman, raised $17 million in an initial round of equity seed capital — in just 17 days.

“I hadn’t done much in the corporate world, and I got to watch Jim pitch to some of the biggest VCs in the world,” says Miller, who now works alongside Leslie as Vidku’s co-founder and chief design officer. “His vision and innovative leadership made them want to say yes.”  

Miller says he’s been most inspired by Leslie’s attitude about failure.

‘He has the entrepreneur’s intense respect for failure; he truly values it. He says failure keeps us moving forward, and little failures lead to big successes,” Miller says. “We discuss and learn from our failures, I love that.”

Waiting for perfection is not part of Leslie’s philosophy for the startup; he says the company ascribes to the “release and iterate” approach.

“In our world, the product is just starting when it becomes available to users. You expose the platform to the community, then listen really closely. We will continue to update based on what users tell us they want and what we think they will like.”

Since it was launched last October, Vidku has earned accolades from reviewers and users. Leslie is excited about the platform’s potential to “surprise and delight,” as he puts it, and its potential to grow, both in its workforce and its scope.

“I want this to be a Minnesota company with worldwide impact. We have an international base and we want to prove that a company born, developed and funded in Minnesota — that comes out of a research institution here — can succeed.”

And what about R-Two?

“I’m not thinking about what comes next,” he says. “I love what I am doing today.”

A Champion for Women
Elise Maxwell
CEO, Ova Woman

Elise Maxwell wants her startup to be what she calls “the lady friend” for women seeking intimate health products and frank advice about how to use them.

The 29-year-old CEO of OvaWoman is building a company based on breaking taboos about products that women need to feel “comfortable and confident” in their bodies, as she puts it.

“Women aren’t informed about the innovations they could be using,” says Maxwell, who will graduate with an MBA from the Carlson School at the University of Minnesota in May.

“Silence is not conducive to innovation.”

Funded with $42,000 that she won in various contests that provide seed money for entrepreneurs, Maxwell’s website went live last summer. OvaWoman currently sources and sells a reusable menstrual cup and absorbent underwear; ten additional items will soon be available in what Maxwell envisions as a clearinghouse that will feature product reviews and a full line of branded products for women, “from puberty to menopause.“

Currently, Maxwell heads a team of seven women, who work for her on a volunteer or contract basis, and her husband, who does graphic design for the OvaWoman website. Her next step is to begin raising $500,000 in capital.

Maxwell’s interest in women’s health began when she studied biology, planning to be a midwife or a physician’s assistant in a gynecological practice. She volunteered at a campus woman’s clinic as an undergrad.

“In college, I was exposed to alternative menstrual products. I really liked them and learned about keeping throwaways out of the waste stream,” she says. “With education and support, these options could be mainstream. We want to do our part to make it okay to talk about menstruation, then leverage that to talk about other women’s health issues.”

OvaWoman’s focus on products that are environmentally friendly and cutting edge is poised to hit a sweet spot with female consumers, according to Lisa Walden, head of marketing at Bridgeworks. The Minneapolis-based consulting firm advises businesses on generational dynamics in the marketplace.

“She is well-timed with this business. Young women take a more accepting view of their bodies. They don’t want to disguise this thing that happens once a month or treat it with euphemisms. It’s not disgusting, it’s a fact of life,” Walden says. “Plus, Millennials love changing the status quo; they are open to disrupting the way things have always been.”

As Maxwell built her business plan, she interviewed hundreds of women about their intimate health, quizzing them about their periods, contraception and fertility and asking about their postpartum and perimenopausal experiences.

Then Maxwell used connections at the Carlson School to network with professionals who’ve advised her on everything from raising money to building her website to marketing her inventory.

Andrew Ehart, trademark attorney at Merchant & Gould, filed a trademark application on behalf of her company last year. Ehart, who regularly volunteers his expertise to Carlson students, thinks Maxwell has the pieces in place for success.

“She’s incredibly impressive. She’s exceptionally strategic, a savvy networker,” Ehart says. “Her business is very well reasoned. She’s put together a plan and executed like someone far beyond her years. The fact that she’s so thorough speaks well for her future.”

Although Maxwell’s fledgling company is off to a strong start, she’s seen firsthand that business can be fickle — and cruel. The second of three children, Maxwell was raised in Missoula, Mont. Her parents owned a motel that was truly a family business.

“I grew up stripping linen off beds, delivering towels, helping with the breakfast bar,” recalled Maxwell. “We all worked so hard, but in my junior year of high school, I watched my parents go bankrupt.”

The mom-and-pop motel ultimately failed because the landscape of Missoula changed. The town’s development moved to a strip on the edge of the city limits and traffic was diverted in the direction of a cluster of new hotel chains — and away from where the Maxwells operated.

“I saw my parents figure out how to make the best of it,” she says. “My mom went back to college in her mid-forties; we did calculus homework together at the dining room table. She was humble and brave; it was an amazing lesson.”

Like her mother, Maxwell has switched lanes, moving from biology to business. While Maxwell hadn’t studied accounting and finance, she says her MBA coursework has given her the know-how to be fully involved with vendors and investors as she moves forward.

“I don’t think you have to have a business background to be in business,” she says. “What I excel at is bringing ideas to life. I know women would be willing to try some of these products if they had a friend or a big sister who’s used them and says, give it a try. That’s the voice that OvaWoman can be.”

Manufacturing MasterMind
Greg Heinemann
CEO, Metro Mold and Design

Greg Heinemann entered his first chess tournament before he’d begun losing his baby teeth. He credits the game he learned in early childhood for shaping his strategic thinking as a CEO today.

“One of my best problem-solving abilities is to anticipate different scenarios,” says Heinemann, 35, chief executive officer at Metro Mold and Design (MMD), a Rogers-based manufacturer that predicts $40 million in revenue this fiscal year. “I can think ahead and plan an alternative course of action; I’ve already analyzed my next step.”

The son of an award-winning school chess coach, Heinemann grew up playing the game in tournaments. In his current role, he’s moving the pieces in a complex manufacturing business, managing employee teams with different skill sets and solving problems for an expanding customer base.  

MMD offers services including injection molding, blow molding, compression molding and precision machining. One area where the company is seeing growth is in its contract manufacturing for medical device companies.

“There are a lot of opportunities in the niches we are working in. We can add value by finding solutions where other manufacturers have failed,” he says, while declining to specify Metro Mold’s medical tech customers. “One thing they’re looking for is speed to market. We have processes that are designed to be both quick and accurate.”

Metro Mold and Design started in its founder’s home in Rogers and the company is still headquartered in the northwest metro community; it operates manufacturing facilities there and in Little Falls.

But its premiere space is in Brooklyn Park. In 2012, MMD opened a new 100,000-square-foot space there, and now the $5.2 million state-of-the-art medical manufacturing facility employs 54, bringing Metro Mold’s total number of employees to 200.

Heinemann says the company is expanding and predicts its workforce could grow by as much as 15% in the next two years.

Heinemann is more of an old hand than his age might suggest. He came to Metro Mold seven years ago as CFO and was appointed CEO last year. He’d previously worked in finance for a software business and a commercial real estate concern.

“Experience is gained at different rates. The quality of your mentors and the speed at which you learn has more impact on what you know than the amount of time you’ve lived,” Heinemann says. “And my age is an asset. People working in this industry are aging, so I’m in a great position to recruit the next generation of technical staff.”

Raised in West St. Paul, Heinemann graduated from Bethel University with a business degree. While attending the Arden Hills Christian college, Heinemann took macroeconomics from Prof. Tim Essenburg, who Heinemann cites as an important influence.

“Previously, I tried to surround myself with people with whom I agreed,” Heinemann explained. “After being in Tim’s classes, I realized this approach limited the number of people I could learn from.”

“We didn’t see eye-to-eye, we have different political outlooks, but he could engage with respect,” Essenburg says. “He has the intellect to be open.”

That willingness to challenge himself is something that his former boss Michael Van Heel saw. Both men were in their mid-twenties when Van Heel hired Heinemann at a commercial real estate firm.

They’d both read Good to Great, an influential management book published 15 years ago.  One chapter of the book urges leaders to confront what the author called “brutal facts of reality.” The two took the concept to heart and began scheduling weekly one-on-one conversations about shortcomings each observed in one another.

“It’s not cheap shots. It was painful but we both wanted to break through to the next level to be our best. It requires humility to look in the mirror,” Van Heel says. “We challenged and strengthened each other. We both gained self-awareness and we both grew tremendously as a result.”

Today, Heinemann is the father of five children between the ages of two and ten; they are home-schooled by his wife Becky on their Dayton hobby farm. 

The children play chess, of course, to build their critical thinking skills. They’re also learning from the family’s small organic pig operation. Heinemann set it up as a hands-on educational exercise and runs it as a business with his 10-year-old daughter.  

“She’s applying mathematics every day,” he explained. “She has to do a profit-and-loss statement, she’s learning about biology. She’s also seeing the payoff for getting up early and working, and the benefits of getting paid to do something she loves.”

That’s something her father is modeling for her. Busy with responsibilities at home and at work, Heinemann works long days and gets by on five hours sleep. 

But he’s not complaining. “I have a life that I very much enjoy living,” he says.

A Catalyst for a family enterprise
Sunil Shah

Sunil Shah does some of his best thinking in the company of his best friend — his sweet-tempered Lab mix Laddu, named after a popular dessert in his native India.

Shah, 55, walks her five miles a day, every day.

“That’s when I come up with new ideas and solve problems in a creative way,” he says. “I think the oxygen refreshes me and energizes me.”

Shah grew up in Mumbai, where air is thick, humid — and polluted. The purity of Minnesota’s atmosphere is just one element that natives may take for granted but a newcomer notices and appreciates.

Shah is CEO of Eden Prairie-based SAM HPRP, which imports and distributes more than 50 different chemicals, supplying ingredients for animal feed, fertilizer and human nutrition.

He founded the company in 2002 with a single client — Red Wing Shoes, which bought one container of chemicals used in tanning leather for military boots. Since then, the company has experienced growth of 10-12% annually; today SAM HPRP distributes close to 50 containers per month from its warehouses in St. Paul, Albert Lea and Milwaukee.

“The Upper Midwest has been very kind to us,” says Shah, who runs the business with his wife and adult son. “What impresses me most is how a handshake is valued here. We import materials and it can take weeks or months for them to arrive. The price can change in that time, but my customers honor their commitment to me even when it’s not on paper.”

Shah grew up working for the company his entrepreneurial father started; it provided specialized chemicals used by the paint industry. To better advance the family’s business, Shah came to North Dakota State University to earn his master’s degree in polymers and coatings. He went back to India, married and started a family. A few years later his wife Mita also came to NDSU with their only child to further her education in IT.

After the family of three went back and forth between the continents for several years, they ultimately decided to settle permanently in the United States.

Their son Apoorva, now 28, a business graduate of the University of St. Thomas and the company’s COO, was nine years old when the Shahs moved to Eden Prairie. He says their immigrant experience and appreciation for their adopted country is woven into the family business, right down to its name.

“Growing up, we always liked the Uncle Sam posters, that represented America to us,” Apoorva Shah says. “We saw that we could take our first initials — of Sunil, Apoorva and Mita — to honor Uncle Sam and also show that we believe in our company by putting our own names out there.”

The “HPRP” is a short form of the company’s motto, “High Performance, Reasonable Price.”

Apoorva began as his father’s right-hand man. He was still in high school when the elder Shah traveled to meet with suppliers and customers. In an era before computers were the norm for remote updates, Sunil would telephone his son and instruct him on how to take care of tasks associated with the company.

“I was his backup when he was on the road so I grew up understanding the business,” Apoorva explains. “Now we have different duties. My father’s background is on the technical side and those genes did not get passed down to me. I’m good at strategy and direction and working with people.”

The younger Shah believes the family is well-positioned for growth.

“My parents set up the business with good fundamentals. We’ve stayed lean; we’re self-funded so we pay no interest on inventory. That allows us to pass savings on to our customers,” he says. “Our competitors can buy ten times more product, but with their overhead they can’t beat our pricing.”

Currently, falling prices in the commodity market has impacted the company’s sales and inventory; with corn and soybean values at rock bottom, SAM HPRP’s agricultural customers are wary about making big purchases.

Sunil Shah is philosophical about the ups and downs of the market.

“You win some and you lose some, that’s the nature of our business,” he says. “We can win most of the time.”