2022 Entrepreneur of the Year Winners
CEO and co-founder, Compute North, Eden Prairie
Dave Perrill, a self-proclaimed “tech nerd,” began his entrepreneurial career in eighth grade.
In the 1990s—the very early stages of the internet—he founded Blackhole Internet. The internet IP service, which later became SecureConnect, provided email, web hosting, and dial-up access services on what Perrill would one day call “Web 2.”
Flash-forward three decades, Perrill is still in murky tech territory. He is among many who believe the blockchain and what is created from it will eventually become the “new internet,” often referred to as Web 3.0.
In 2017, Perrill launched Compute North, a company providing computing infrastructure for customers focused on mining cryptocurrency in the blockchain space.
There are new developments surfacing almost every day in this sector, Perrill says: “Frankly, I can hardly keep up with what comes into my inbox.”
It’s no secret that crypto and bitcoin have taken a major hit over the past few months, but Perrill says it’s important to take a step back to contextualize how this impacts Compute North. When the company was founded, its premise was that bitcoin, crypto, and the blockchain itself that powered it all would eventually become a “base layer” technology platform.
If that were the case, it would continue to scale and grow until, eventually, other technologies could be built on top of it.
“Our belief was that it was going to be volatile, that the price of bitcoin would continue to go up and down, and that the way that you win in commodity markets is that you really are going to win being the low-cost provider,” he says. This means it was important from day one to drive costs as low as possible, knowing the price of bitcoin would be volatile.
Perrill says Compute North technology can also be used for computing to create artificial intelligence, graphic renderings, climate modeling, and genome sequencing.
The company has 124 employees, with 78 in Minnesota.
President and CEO, CyberOptics Corp., Golden Valley
As a board member of CyberOptics as well as a longtime tech company executive, Subodh Kulkarni understood very well the innovative technology behind the company’s high-precision inspection and measurement sensors used in electronics production. He also saw that the company was “not monetizing it correctly.” He believed CyberOptics should be more ambitious.
In early 2014, CyberOptics asked Kulkarni to put his insights to work as its president and CEO. At the time, the company was focused on optical-based inspection for low-end electronics manufacturing. “I thought the far bigger opportunity was in the high-end semiconductor industry,” Kulkarni says. He also believed there were bigger market opportunities in Asia, where manufacturers such as TSMC and Samsung were developing cutting-edge chips for applications like smartphones.
At the time Kulkarni became CEO, CyberOptics had few Fortune 100 customers. Now it has many more. “We have changed our customer base quite a bit—to a premium customer base,” he says. CyberOptics has done this largely by understanding and anticipating these customers’ challenges. Or, as Kulkarni paraphrases hockey great Wayne Gretzky, “You need to know where the puck is going, not where it is.”
Case in point: When he became CEO, Kulkarni foresaw that chip stacking was going to be a big deal—”We couldn’t push the technology aggressively enough in two dimensions.” What was needed were three-dimensional chip arrays that could provide more power for more advanced applications. In response, Kulkarni pushed CyberOptics to fine-tune its 3D semiconductor inspection and measurement technology “well ahead of the market need.”
Kulkarni’s entrepreneurial strategies have been working. In 2021, CyberOptics’ revenue increased by 32 percent to $92.8 million, up from $70.1 million in 2020 (which was an 18 percent increase over 2019). The company posted an operating profit in 2021 of $14.3 million, more than double the year before. CyberOptics now employs nearly 200 across its facilities in North America, Asia, and Europe. “We really think we’re well positioned” for continued growth, Kulkarni says.
President and CEO, Deluxe Corp., Minneapolis
When Deluxe Corp., a century-old Minnesota company best known for check-printing, hired Barry McCarthy to be its new president and CEO in 2018, he saw “a great collection of assets, with 4 million small business customers, 4,000 bank customers, and hundreds of leading brands. But it was primarily selling services that were in permanent secular decline.”
What McCarthy believed is that this “proud, 100-year-old-plus company” needed a jolt of entrepreneurial reinvention. Deluxe was run as “a company of companies, not a company of products,” he says. It had grown through numerous acquisitions that allowed it to offer business customers a wide range of services. But it hadn’t done any integration work, he adds. “As a result, it had dozens of salespeople calling on the same customers.”
McCarthy, a longtime executive at Atlanta-based payment processing firm First Data (now part of Wisconsin-headquartered fintech Fiserv), introduced a sales model called One Deluxe that integrates all of Deluxe’s capabilities. “We wanted to change the company to be more like a technology company, one that is rapidly innovating, rapidly delivering new products to customers, and helping solve customer problems,” he says. The approach has rejuvenated the company—and its financial performance. In 2021, Deluxe posted revenue of more than $2 billion, a 12.9 percent increase over 2020. It was the first year in nearly a decade that Deluxe achieved sales-driven growth.
While Deluxe offered products and services at almost every stage of a company’s life cycle, McCarthy also detected a gap in the company’s portfolio—helping smaller businesses accept credit- and debit-card payments. In mid-2021, Deluxe filled that gap by acquiring Texas-based First American Payment Systems. McCarthy says that in 2023, the payments business will become even larger than check printing.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Deluxe’s check-printing market share also is growing, thanks largely to new technology that allows faster product delivery at lower cost. This year, McCarthy says, Deluxe won one of the biggest check-printing deals in the company’s history with Charlotte, N.C.-based Truist Financial, the country’s seventh-largest bank.
Co-Founder and CEO, GrandPad, Hopkins
“Like many entrepreneurs, I was looking to address an issue that was affecting me and my family,” Scott Lien recalls. Back in 2014, Lien—a former Best Buy executive who’d moved to California and was then Mountain View-based Intuit’s vice president of mobile innovation—wanted to stay in touch with his mother, then age 80, who was living in his home state of Iowa.
“She was so frustrated with standard technology that it was negatively affecting her life,” Lien recalls. “Most urgently, it was limiting her ability to communicate with me, her grandson, and the rest of her family.”
With the help of his son Isaac, then pursuing an IT degree in college, Lien launched GrandPad, whose tablet device is designed to help seniors overcome cognitive impairment that might hinder easy operation of the device. “We believe there are about 32 million ‘super-seniors’—people 75 and older—who are struggling with technology,” Lien says. The GrandPad allows seniors to more easily make video calls, share care-related emails and messages, and conduct multiparty video care conferences among family members and caregivers.
When Covid-19 arrived, Lien and his wife moved back to Minnesota to help his mother-in-law; GrandPad is now headquartered in Hopkins. “Our business was growing very quickly before the pandemic,” Lien says. When Covid hit, it “exploded.”
The company’s customer base is split roughly 50-50 between consumer sales and health care organizations, which use the company’s tablets to reduce seniors’ social isolation. GrandPad also supports telehealth and remote monitoring services provided by a growing number of in-home health care organizations.
The GrandPad devices are produced by Taiwan-based hardware maker Acer, which is also a major investor in the company. They’re sold in all 50 states, as well as in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Portugal. GrandPad now connects more than 1.4 million seniors, family, friends, and caregivers in 120 countries. Lien says that GrandPad, which employs 166 worldwide, plans to focus on expanding internationally.
Owner and president, Maud Borup Inc., Plymouth
When the pandemic hit, Christine Lantinen was able to have her candy and food gift company, Maud Borup Inc., classified as an essential business. “That really put us in the position for growth,” says Lantinen, who bought the Maud Borup candy brand name in 2005. Last year, Maud Borup’s business was up 50%. “Had we shipped everything we got purchase orders for, it would have been more like 70%,” she says.
What kept Lantinen from hitting that 70% were problems many businesses have experienced since Covid-19’s onset: supply and labor shortages. In 2021, the company’s main production facility in the small Minnesota town of Le Center employed about 100 people. Lantinen had wanted to boost her workforce there to 200 but she couldn’t find enough job candidates. “We felt like we’d reached this max number of people in a town of 2,000,” she says.
So this year, Maud Borup acquired two facilities. Its Delafield, Wisconsin, plant is used primarily for starch molding to make jelly candies such as gummies, and a new Plymouth location is producing cotton candy. Each new plant employs about 50; Lantinen hopes to double that at both locations by year’s end.
Maud Borup also has been addressing the employee shortage by introducing automated production processes. This allows the company to keep costs down and control production from start to finish. One of its most successful new products is hot cocoa bombs—chocolate spheres that turn hot water into cocoa. Maud Borup has invested $7 million in a new, automated hot cocoa bomb production line in Le Center.
Lantinen is projecting $50 million in revenue this year, and she expects the company to hit $100 million in the next couple of years. “The new facilities are putting the infrastructure in place to grow, and grow quickly,” she says. “And they allow us to go deeper into manufacturing the products we’re really strong at, which include chocolate, cotton candy, and now gummies.”
Founder and CEO, Players Health, Minneapolis
Even if they don’t play a contact sport, young athletes need protection. That’s what Tyrre Burks, a former youth and professional athlete himself, seeks to provide through Players Health. Founded in 2016, the company offers insurance and risk management resources to 40,000 youth sports organizations, including schools, Little League, and national groups as well as local clubs.
Burks, a Chicago native, played football at Winona State and in the Canadian Football League before injuries forced him to retire. He returned to Minnesota to coach football at Apple Valley High School and for the Apple Valley Athletic Association, where he implemented background checks, concussion awareness, and abuse prevention training for the association’s 350 volunteer coaches. Through this work, he saw an opportunity for a youth sports risk management business.
Before launching Players Health, Burks met Justin Kaufenberg, CEO of Minneapolis-based Sport Ngin, which offers online management tools for youth sports organizations. That led Players Health to become the first participant in Sport Ngin’s business incubator.
“When we started the company, health and safety was the core of the business,” Burks says. Within a few years, he began to think more about liability insurance. The two biggest sources of liability for youth sports organizations are abuse and concussions. “We used to have low frequency of claims and high severity,” he says. “Now we have high frequency of claims and high severity.” As a result, “we’ve gone from north of two dozen carriers to about a handful.” Some organizations, he adds, are seeing 100% premium increases.
After operating an insurance brokerage for a few years, Players Health recently launched a managing general agent status, so the company can underwrite policies. As part of its value proposition, Players Health provides background checks and abuse awareness training at cost. “We’re not going to guarantee savings on insurance,” Burks says. “But we will guarantee you savings on all of the risk management requirements you need to have.”
Former CEO, Solutran, Plymouth
Barry Nordstrand says the best way he could ever drive positive change was through technology and entrepreneurship. Earlier this year, Nordstrand retired as CEO of Solutran, a company that provides payment technology and healthy living programs for many large companies, including Humana, Aetna, Cigna, Anthem, Walmart, Kroger, CVS, Walgreens, and Albertsons.
In his 16 years with Solutran, Nordstrand left a lasting mark on the industry as payment technology moved from physical checks to cards and mobile apps. He spearheaded the invention and implementation of S3, a technology that revolutionized the ability to designate benefit transfers.
Prior to S3, Nordstrand says, people on benefit plans “could buy booze and smokes and guns if they wanted to at Walmart. There was no way to restrict it.” The S3 payment infrastructure allows benefit program sponsors, such as health plans, schools, or employers, to provide resources through a new payment ecosystem focused on products proven to improve health, Nordstrand says. For example, through S3, someone using a benefit payment card could be limited to purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables.
Looking forward, Nordstrand says S3 technology could be deployed well beyond its current use. “It can be used for things like medical payments in general, making significant changes to the health care industry to make health care [access] easier. That’s how I see the future of S3,” he says.
When Nordstrand started at Solutran, the company was only using checks. It took years of innovation to create the system that is prominently used today, he says. “All of the challenges and bumps in the road we went through, there was a whole group of people riding on that roller coaster with me,” Nordstrand says.
Solutran was acquired by Optum Financial in 2021. “Optum is the perfect place for [Solutran] because they can use a lot of the technologies that were invented and there’s just a deep bench of talented leaders there who can take those opportunities forward,” Nordstrand says.
CEO, Vista Outdoor, Anoka
In October 2017, when he became CEO of Anoka-based Vista Outdoor, Chris Metz focused on reinvigorating a company that was both long-established and very new. So far, he has consistently been hitting the target.
Vista Outdoor (NYSE: VSTO) owns 39 brands that design, manufacture, and market sporting and outdoor products; it has a particularly strong presence in shooting sports. The company, which now employs nearly 6,000 worldwide, was spun off in 2014 from the now-defunct Alliant Techsystems, which itself was spun off from legendary Minnesota company Honeywell.
Metz came to Vista Outdoor after serving as president and CEO of Plymouth-based Arctic Cat, which was acquired in 2017 by Rhode Island-headquartered conglomerate Textron. At the time Metz joined, Vista Outdoor was experiencing slow growth and financial underperformance. One of his first moves was to divest Vista of firearms maker Savage Arms, a key Vista Outdoor brand, and focus more on brands with leadership positions in their respective categories—ammunition and shooting accessories (brands include Federal and Remington), hydration bottles and packs (Camelbak), and sports helmets (Bell, Giro).
Last year, Metz led the transformation of Vista Outdoor’s portfolio through strategic acquisitions, adding six outdoor brands and expanding Vista’s reach into growing categories including women’s apparel, e-bikes, and golf simulation. In addition to acquisitions, Metz has pursued other strategies for strengthening the company’s bottom line, including significant debt reduction.
It’s all been paying off. For fiscal 2022, which ended March 31, sales were up 37 percent over 2021, exceeding $3 billion, and net income was $490 million, compared to $219 million in 2021. As of the fourth quarter of 2022, Vista Outdoor had posted seven straight quarters of record growth.
Next year, with the goal of creating more shareholder value, Vista Outdoor will split into two publicly traded companies—one focused on outdoor products, which Metz will lead, the other on hunting and ammunition.
Jason Von Bank
President and CEO, Wellbeats, Golden Valley
Health and wellness became top of mind for employers when the pandemic arrived. First, it was a focus as employees navigated a new normal in the work-from-home space. Later, the reshuffling of the workforce prompted efforts to increase worker well-being to strengthen recruitment and retention.
Wellbeats was prepared to provide an array of virtual health-oriented content as the pandemic surfaced in 2020, says president and CEO Jason Von Bank.
After the pandemic emerged, he notes that Wellbeats lost 30% of its revenue because it couldn’t use on-site fitness rooms. But Von Bank already had been working to shift the company from gyms to a cloud-based platform with wellness content for all ages, areas of interest, and levels of fitness. Wellbeats quickly recovered its losses and continued on a growth trajectory with its focus entirely on online content.
Now, Wellbeats provides on-demand virtual wellness content and programming to businesses and corporations, serving about 2.3 million users. Content includes more than 1,000 fitness, nutrition, and mindfulness classes.
“Whether you’re 3 or 90 years old, we have something available. We meet
you where you’re at, when you need it the most,” Von Bank says.
Among Wellbeats users, around 80% consider themselves “not fit.” However, health needs are relative and often should be targeted to each individual, Von Bank notes.
When Von Bank started at Wellbeats seven years ago, he ran marathons and triathlons. But he kept getting injured. Three surgeries later, hardly able to walk, he turned to meditation and mindfulness. “I think I’m a microcosm of the population out there,” he says.
On March 1, Toronto-based LifeSpeak acquired Wellbeats. Von Bank serves as COO of LifeSpeak along with his role at Wellbeats.
Looking ahead, Wellbeats has purchased a new studio to record classes and is set to add 400 new classes to the platform by year’s end. Wellbeats, which has 64 employees, had revenue of $13.9 million in 2021.
Headquarters: Clayton, Missouri
Mission: To manage veterinary hospitals with a new model that places a high priority on employee benefits and compensation.
Major impact: Siwak wanted to “put people above profits” and that management philosophy has been successful. When the pandemic surfaced in March 2020, CareVet started acquiring one hospital a week and now has more than 125 hospitals in 30-plus states. CareVet employees benefit individually through a “revenue bonus share” program. Headquarters employees are eligible for a stock purchase program. The CareVet Learning Institute offers continuing education for employees.