2023 Entrepreneur Of The Year Winners

2023 Entrepreneur Of The Year Winners

Leaders from nine Minnesota companies win regional honors through EY's Entrepreneur of the Year Awards program.

Cheri Beranek

Cheri Beranek

President and CEO, Clearfield Inc., Brooklyn Park

Cheri Beranek co-founded Clearfield in 2008 because she saw an underserved market: independent rural telecoms seeking to build fiber-optic connectivity. Clearfield, which designs, manufactures, and distributes easy-to-install fiber management and fiber connectivity solutions for these smaller markets, is now a publicly traded company (Nasdaq: CLFD). In fiscal 2022, it posted a record $271 million in revenue. But that success doesn’t mean Clearfield has lost its entrepreneurial mojo.

“When the opportunity presented itself for substantial growth, we took the leap of faith and built out our capacity in response,” Beranek says. In the past year and a half, the company tripled the size of its Mexican manufacturing facility and expanded both in the U.S. and in Europe. A major reason for that growth: the July 2022 acquisition of Nestor, a Finnish fiber-optic cable manufacturer and a longtime Clearfield vendor. While integrating Nestor into Clearfield, the company has been able to bring cable manufacturing into the Mexico plant, Beranek says. The acquisition also has allowed Clearfield to expand its European business, which currently makes up about 11% of its revenue. The company now employs more than 1,000 in the U.S., Europe, and Mexico.

In the past few years, Beranek has led Clearfield’s foray into “powered” products to its traditional lines of passive equipment, including active cabinet solutions that allow those traditional products to be used in the outside plant.  This product extension reflects Clearfield’s ongoing entrepreneurship. “Through our core values, we try to extend an entrepreneurial spirit through everything we do,” Beranek says. One of those values is listening closely to customers to identify their needs, then collaborating with them to bring new products to market.

One potential opportunity that Beranek sees: development of cloud computing outside of large data centers. That would require smaller power cabinets, which Clearfield is well positioned to produce. “I think we have a chance to change the way things are done” in telecom, Beranek says. —Gene Rebeck

Michele Henry

Michele Henry

Founder/CEO, Face Foundrié, Eden Prairie

Little more than a decade ago, you could find Michele Henry at her first Primp clothing boutique in St. Paul, selling scarves as fast as she could sew them. Today, as she scales Face Foundrié into a national franchise facial spa chain, there’s process and protocol to follow for every new product launch. “Now it takes 12 months, not 12 hours,” Henry says, with a mix of pride and longing for those freewheeling founder days. “I’ve had to retrain my entrepreneurial brain. But I still listen to my gut and can pivot quickly—that’s what separates us from a giant corporation.”

An entrepreneur since her college days, Henry sold her share of the Primp stores to her co-founder to launch Face Foundrié in 2019. She saw an unfilled niche in the spa industry and set out to reframe facials as regular skincare maintenance rather than occasional pampering by delivering affordable, convenient skincare services. She opened three Twin Cities locations before the pandemic forced a pause. Henry used the downtime to develop a franchise protocol program, which launched in 2021. Face Foundrié has grown to 28 stores across the country and is on track to open another 22 by the end of the year. Face Foundrié reports generating more than $50 million in sales since its inception—largely through spa services, with its proprietary skin care line becoming an increasingly significant piece of the business.

To keep up with staffing demands, Henry launched the Savant Aesthetics Institute in Eden Prairie last year. Already fully booked a year out, she opened a second Twin Cities location in July in Northeast Minneapolis and expects to add a beauty school in Texas by 2024.

“I’m the type of person who will do whatever it takes to get a business across the finish line … it’s a superpower, and an illness,” Henry jokes. “You can’t be afraid to make sacrifices, and to have some ideas fail. Those failures set you up for success.” —Allison Kaplan

Patrick Hawkins

Patrick Hawkins

CEO and president, Hawkins Inc., Roseville

Patrick Hawkins has never been afraid to get his hands dirty. At just eight years old, he took his first job at a dairy farm near Elk River. While he was earning his degree in chemistry from the University of St. Thomas, he took a part-time job working in the plants for Hawkins Inc., a Roseville-based chemical distributor and manufacturer founded by his grandfather in 1938. By the time he became a sales rep for the company, he’d worked “just about every job on the operations side,” he says.

In 2010, Hawkins became president of the company. Under his watch, Hawkins Inc. significantly expanded its presence in the nutrition and water treatment markets—moves that would ultimately transform the company from a $300 million operation into a nearly $1 billion one in just about a decade. In its 2023 fiscal year, Hawkins Inc. reported $935 million in revenue and employed around 850 people. 

Hawkins says he’s worked to “establish a culture of constant reinvention. If you get stale in this business, you can slow down and go in reverse.” That’s why he’s continued to push for acquisitions in new markets, such as the company’s 2016 purchase of Florida-based food and supplement ingredient company Stauber Performance. Though Hawkins Inc. didn’t complete any acquisitions in its past fiscal year, the company did about a half-dozen in the prior two. Looking ahead, Hawkins sees potential in the water treatment market and aims to continue investing in that sector. 

More than anything, though, Hawkins says he aims to foster a spirit of entrepreneurship throughout the company. “I personally just try to make sure every one of our employees feels like an owner,” he says. That includes taking the time to send an email or pick up the phone to personally congratulate employees on wins big and small. “Every day feels like we’re a new company, whether we’re doing something new or picking up new customers.” —Dan Niepow

Jim Mortensen

Jim Mortensen

President, R3 Continuum, Bloomington

Whenever or wherever a tragedy or trauma occurs—whether it’s a shooting incident, a bank robbery, hurricanes, or other workplace disruptions—“we can be there within two hours with counselors,” Jim Mortensen says.

Mortensen, president of R3 Continuum, says his company is “all about mental health in the workplace and helping people in great need.” Its 118 employees work with more than 7,300 professional counselors, performance psychologists, and coaches who provide counseling services across the country, offering help to employees who have been through traumatic events.

Mortensen didn’t found R3, but he helped put it together and make it work. In 2013, Mortensen was working for one of the three companies owned by crisis management expert Bruce Blythe. Run as separate entities, they made up a clinical practice “with a thin veneer of business,” Mortensen says. “My job was to maintain the efficacy and the viability of the clinical side while adding a lot of business acumen on top.” He became the president of the combined company in 2014.

By uniting the three companies, R3 has taken advantage of synergies and scale. Cumulatively, the three separate businesses brought in about $16 million in annual revenue. Eight years later, under Mortensen’s leadership,
“we’re a single company doing $60 million,” he says.

Mortensen manages the business risks so that company clinicians can focus on their practices. “To me, the real leadership challenge in that is to get people to believe that you both believe in what they stand for and that you need to change to sustain it,” he says. “That’s what an entrepreneur does.”

Under Mortensen’s leadership, R3 is expanding its new performance coaching and specialized clinical services for companies’ senior-level leaders. “Senior executives and their families have the same mental health issues as anybody else,” he says. R3’s program provides confidential services, using specialized clinicians “who understand the unique aspects of somebody at that level.” —Gene Rebeck

Rita KatonaEric Hall

Rita Katona

Board chair,  So Good So You, St. Paul

Eric Hall

CEO, So Good So You, St. Paul

Husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Rita Katona and Eric Hall didn’t just create a product. They carved their own space in the grocery store refrigerator case—between cold-pressed juices and kombuchas—for a new category of healthy drinks: single-serve probiotic juice shots.

Founded in 2014 as a downtown Minneapolis juice shop, So Good So You (SGSY) is now a category leader in the fast-growing functional beverage industry; its juice shots are sold in 15,000 stores nationwide.

Katona and Hall spent the company’s earliest days educating grocers on the growing demand for on-the-go products that support digestive and immune health. “Now everybody has a space for this category,” Katona says. “The next level is looking at how we can be most productive within the refrigerated beverage space, building our innovation pipeline within shots and exploring other categories.”

The company saw explosive growth during the pandemic. It generates more than $40 million in annual revenue. “It’s becoming more mainstream to proactively manage your health,” Katona says. About 65% of buyers are new customers to the category, which Hall and Katona say contributes to SGSY’s velocity.

Manufactured in Minnesota, SGSY currently employs 63, most of whom work out of its St. Paul headquarters. The company became B Corp certified this past January, the culmination of its commitment to meeting strict social and environmental standards, including proprietary packaging that is recyclable and biodegradable.

The sleepless nights that tend to go with being a founder are mostly a thing of the past, but, Katona says, “We’re still a baby. We’re bracing for the next inflection point.” While Hall oversees sales, finance, and operations, Katona focuses on brand and product development, including new flavor profiles, functional ingredients, and product packs to meet the needs of different retailers, from Target to Costco. —Allison Kaplan

Jude Bricker

Jude Bricker

CEO, Sun Country Airlines, Minneapolis

The words “entrepreneurial” and “airline” are not usually uttered in the same breath. Airlines, by nature, are not nimble—weighed down by large, unionized labor forces, reliance on volatile commodities (fuel), and difficulty rightsizing in recessionary periods due to debt loads and leased aircraft.

Sun Country, under Jude Bricker, is playing a fundamentally different game. “A core pillar of entrepreneurism,” Bricker says, “is looking at every opportunity on merits alone. ‘What’s our next opportunity?’ The airline industry tends to optimize what it has. We looked to do different things, but I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur.”

The airline’s fundamental challenge, as a leisure carrier serving the Upper Midwest, is the harsh seasonality of demand. “Everyone wants to travel in March and July,” he says, “and no one goes anywhere in September and most of January.” The 41-year-old Sun Country made that work, in its rare profitable years, by staying small.

Bricker, who took over the airline under Minnesota’s Davis family ownership, facilitated a private equity buyout (Apollo Asset Management) so the carrier could grow. But to do so he had to figure out “how do we make March bigger without making September a disaster. Planes are expensive, staff is expensive.”

Bricker knew he couldn’t get Twin Citians to Cancun for Columbus Day or much of anywhere for the MLK holiday in January, so instead he remade Sun Country under the idea of a “variable capacity airline.” It partnered with Amazon to fly a dedicated fleet moving packages around the country (10% of current revenue). By reinvigorating Sun Country’s longtime charter business (18% of revenue), Bricker provides work for pilots and planes in slow periods. In both divisions there’s minimal downside risk; the profitability of each flight is baked into the contract.

The result? A Boeing 737 fleet that’s grown from 21 to 54 planes (with six more entering service in the coming year), over 2,600 employees, and $894 million in revenue for fiscal 2022, each all-time highs for the airline. —Adam Platt

Nay Hla

Nay Hla

CEO, Sushi Avenue Inc., Eagan

Along his path to becoming a business owner, Nay Hla lived and worked in several countries, had a couple of false starts, and even spent a short time living out of his car in Ohio.

A native of Myanmar, Hla first ventured out on his own at 18 when he took a dishwasher job in Singapore. He went on to work service jobs in a few other Southeast Asian countries before he came to the United States. After a brief stint in Los Angeles in 1996, he landed a job as a chef for sushi vendor Hissho Sushi in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1999, he got the chance to run his own sushi kiosk for the company at an Ohio grocery store. He would go on to run sushi kiosks in Indianapolis and Dallas before finally setting up permanently at locations in Minnesota.

Despite long hours, Hla enjoyed the work, but he never lost sight of owning his own business. So, in 2004, he and his brother founded their own competitor sushi vendor they named Sushi Avenue Inc., which quickly grew into a nationwide venture. At the outset, though, Hla had a hard time securing a business loan. “For the first three to four years, we were really struggling,” he recalls. 

But they persevered. These days, Sushi Avenue operates kiosks in 38 states and employs 110 people, along with hundreds of independent contractors.

By 2011, the company had branched out into the restaurant industry when it opened fine dining establishment Masu Sushi & Robata in Northeast Minneapolis. Hla went on to open two additional locations in Apple Valley and at the Mall of America. In 2012, Hla opened a new fast-casual, “Chipotle-like” concept known as OneTwoThree Sushi. 

In 2018, Hla established yet another line of business known as Packaging Avenue, which manufactures packaging for his sushi ventures. To give back to his native country, Hla established the plastic factory for that company back in Myanmar. —Dan Niepow

Eli Maloley

Eli Maloley

CEO, Vivacity Tech, St. Paul

In 2011, Eli Maloley co-founded an education technology business. Though it was successful financially, he had a vision for the company that put more emphasis on social impact.

That approach was a bit different from that of his partners, however, so Maloley left to start Vivacity Tech, which officially launched in 2018.

Maloley’s vision has succeeded. Vivacity Tech has provided 1-to-1 Chromebook deployments to more than 2,000 K–12 schools nationwide. (“1-to-1” means each student gets his or her own computer.)

After generating revenue of $800,000 its first year, Vivacity brought in $6 million in the next year; by 2022, it reached $55 million. The company currently employs 180.

What makes Vivacity distinctive? For one thing, it doesn’t simply supply laptops. It also manufactures its own lines of steel carts, cases, and accessories. In addition, it develops computer curricula for students.

Vivacity also is a product developer—and one that has gained recognition in the ed-tech space.

Its proprietary asset management system, Customer Central, was awarded Best in Show at the 2020 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference.

At the same event, Vivacity’s Sidekick Carrier for transporting digital devices, a product that Maloley designed, earned similar recognition.

A year later, the company’s Student Repair Academy software platform was recognized as one of the Best Secondary Tools for Back to School by Tech & Learning magazine.

Maloley set up Vivacity Tech as a public benefit corporation, believing in the importance of building a company that balances profitability and social conscience. As a PBC, Vivacity has provided free help to schools setting up virtual learning classrooms.

It also sponsors professional development for Black educators working in underprivileged school districts.

The company gives its employees 12 days of paid time off a year to volunteer for causes that are meaningful to them. —Gene Rebeck

Michael Happe

Michael Happe

President and CEO, Winnebago Industries, Eden Prairie

Michael Happe was hired as president and CEO of RV-maker Winnebago Industries in 2016 because the Eden Prairie company’s board liked Happe’s C-suite experience with machinery manufacturer The Toro Co.

Happe had worked with premium brands and durable goods. “At the time I had the opportunity to be considered to lead the company, it did not have the competitive or strategic or financial momentum that the board was looking for,” he says, adding the board wanted “a catalyst for change in the right direction.” 

Several acquisitions have boosted the success of Winnebago Industries, which was founded in 1958. It acquired the Grand Design and Newmar RV companies and the Chris-Craft and Barletta boat businesses. Yet the core of Happe’s leadership strategy was to stabilize the flagship business Winnebago and position it for future growth. The company diversified into the marine industry with motorboat businesses. Happe says RVs and boats both have an emotional appeal to consumers, because they are geared towards friends and families making memories outdoors.  

The company’s leadership philosophy hinges on collaboration by enabling its acquired brands and businesses to succeed with access to Winnebago Industries’ resources, Happe says.  Currently, Winnebago Industries has three lines of business—towable RVs, motorhome RVs, and the marine segment.

Under Happe’s leadership, the workforce has increased from about 3,000 employees in 2016 to more than 6,500 today. Annual revenue reached a record $5 billion in fiscal 2022, up from $3.6 billion in fiscal 2021. That revenue growth was fueled by consumer demand for the company’s products, pricing decisions, and the acquisition of the Barletta pontoon boat business. In June, the company reported that revenue had dropped by more than $1 billion during the first three quarters of fiscal 2023 largely because of decreased consumer demand for RVs.

“This culture of collaboration, the autonomy of these wonderful brands—we think the combination of all that is special and allows us to create a successful company where all ships rise,” Happe says. —Tina Nguyen

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2023 EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards