Friday, March 18, 2011

Meet the Entrepreneurs of the Year

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Ernst & Young's annual awards recognize owners and managers running disruptive high-growth companies. Get pointers from some of this year's national winners The national awards were presented at a black-tie gala in Palm Springs (Calif.) on Nov. 14.

The Oscars for business. That's how Selim Bassoul, president and CEO of food-service equipment maker Middleby (MIDD) describes Ernst & Young's annual Entrepreneur of the Year Award program, a multimillion-dollar extravaganza designed to recognize stand-out business leaders regionally, nationally, and internationally. A winner in the distribution and manufacturing industry category in 2004, Lebanese-born Bassoul was asked to serve as a judge the following year and has been doing so ever since. He points out that the program doesn't limit the definition of entrepreneur to founders. Any active owner or manager primarily responsible for a private or public company's recent performance who applies will be considered, with growth and profitability in mind. Bassoul say the recession didn't diminish the quantity or quality of this year's applications, which amounted to more 1,500 entrepreneurs.
Held as the culminating event at Ernst & Young's Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Springs, Calif., an invite-only Who's Who of the business world, the awards program got its start 23 years ago, long before entrepreneurship became considered such an important driver of the U.S. economy. (An Ernst & Young partner in the firm's Wisconsin office started it to recognize and celebrate entrepreneurs creating jobs within the state.) Billed as the world's most prestigious business award for entrepreneurs, there are now Entrepreneur of the Year programs in 135 cities and 50 countries worldwide.
While the Big Four auditor's chairman and CEO, James Turley, acknowledges his firm uses the program to position its brand within its target market of high-growth companies, he says the impetus behind the awards is still primarily about celebrating their accomplishments and persuading the government and private sector to offer them support. "Frankly, I get embarrassed sometimes when entrepreneurs are accepting awards on the stage and they thank us. It's not about us; it's about them." Turley believes entrepreneurs—and entrepreneurial thinking—will be instrumental in leading the economic recovery in countries around the world.

a language star for a global era

This year's overall national winner, Rosetta Stone's (RST) president and CEO, Tom Adams, appears to hold that kind of promise. The 37-year-old has doubled the language-immersion software maker's size since 2007 and held one of the few IPOs this year. Adams, who holds an MBA from INSEAD, says a high school buddy at the then-family-owned small business urged him to join in 2003 after its founder died. He credits the company's recent success with being able to quickly demonstrate the software's efficacy, convenience, and cost to potential customers. "All of that is disruptive in the marketplace. Finding a way to commercialize that, to make that known to the customer, was one of the key contributions I brought to the company." He also says Rosetta Stone has innovated enormously by rethinking its technology while remaining true to its original pedagogical principle. "Walt Mossberg reviewed the product and says it's the next best thing to being 'in country.'"
Adams speaks four languages fluently (Swedish, French, English, and Spanish), says he is basic in Chinese and German, and is learning Russian and Japanese. Right now, Adams' growth strategy is to take the 1,500-plus employee company global. So he's building operations in Japan, Korea, Germany, and the U.K. "The U.S. market is 5% of global spending. There are very few industries where the U.S. represents such a small percentage of the aggregate global spending. If we can execute like we've executed in the U.S., we could be a very, very large company."
The nine industry category winners ranged from Akamai's (AKAM) Paul Sagan in technology to defense contractor Insight Technology's Ken Solinsky in distribution and manufacturing. For profiles of each of the 2009 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year national winners, flip through this slide show.


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