Being included in Inc. Magazine’s annual report of the 5000 fastest-growing, privately-held businesses in the United States is an honor most entrepreneurs would be thrilled to receive. It isn’t an easy list to get on. There are quite a few requirements to be met and a lengthy application process. But even so, three local firms in St. Johns county — Vested Metals, Design Extensions, and NTE Energy – were all included in the most recent list released by Inc. As one year ends and a new one begins, growth is something we’ve all got our sights on. And though business on this scale may not be in our plan for 2020, there’s something to be learned from the teams that were given this honor. I had the privilege of meeting with the leaders of each of these firms and discovered how different their approaches to running their businesses and their lives are, and at the same time, how similar.
Jay Owen has been at the helm of Design Extensions since he was 17 years old and a student at Nease High School. Twenty years later, he is a father of five and starting to branch out by developing his own personal brand. Design Extensions has been growing every year since its inception and has become a self-sufficient organization. Jay feels strongly that it is time for him to get out of the way of the day-to-day operations, and begin sharing what he has learned over the past two decades. He has been busy — developing his own personal brand, speaking at conferences and workshops, writing a book, and using his knowledge to help other entrepreneurs with marketing strategies, small business challenges, and the ever-present need for work/life balance.
Viv Helwig started Vested Metals in 2014. Viv is a graduate of Flagler College, a father of three young children, and is newer to the entrepreneurial game, still navigating the early phases of being a startup experiencing rapid growth. Viv was also recently a finalist for the Steel Manufacturers Association Next Generation Leadership Award which is trying to promote youth in steel. It hasn’t all been easy though. Just twelve months after starting Vested Metals, which supplies raw materials to manufacturers of medical devices and products for aerospace and government contracts, Viv found himself out of money, about ready to close the doors on his dream.
But he strongly believes God had a bigger purpose for him and provided help in a most unusual way. One day a check arrived in the mail. At first, he thought it was a scam. Upon further investigation, he realized it was an overpayment from when he had sold his house three years earlier to the tune of $7,600. That check allowed him to regroup and move forward with his business plan. It was only four years later when his company was included on the Inc. 5000 list.
NTE Energy has a different path to the Inc. 5000 list. NTE is unique in that it has been named to the list six times since 2012. Originally founded in 2009 by Seth Shortlidge, NTE is now owned by the executive leadership team of Tim Eves, Mike Green and Stephanie Clarkson. Tim Eves was the first to arrive in 2010, shortly after the creation of NTE Energy. He brought with him a degree in power engineering, careers at Westinghouse Power Generation and Calpine Corporation, and a law degree from the University of Miami. His time at Westinghouse drew him into the development area of power production and eventually he crossed paths with Seth. Seth’s vision for creating more reliable, affordable energy in the wholesale market struck a chord with Tim. Prior to joining NTE, Tim had been involved with Mike Green in forming PACE, a Partnership for Affordable Competitive Energy. Through this partnership, Tim and Mike were able to get some legislative changes made regarding the power industry in the state of Florida. Tim, now a grandfather to two beautiful granddaughters, has been in his industry for over forty years and with NTE for almost ten.
A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Mike Green worked with Duke Energy for thirty-one years before connecting with Tim. After retiring from Duke in 2002, Mike formed a small consulting firm assisting with regulatory consulting, working in various areas of water infrastructure. Then he got Tim’s call inviting him to join NTE in late 2010. A father of five and a grandfather of nine, Mike is the second longest-serving employee in the firm.
Stephanie Clarkson hails originally from Virginia but moved to Florida in the early 2000s. A University of Florida graduate with a specialization in accounting and finance, Stephanie worked with the Department of Transportation, state and local governments, and even worked at a biomedical engineering firm specializing in research and development. Stephanie met Mike and Tim in 2013 and was intrigued by their forward-thinking ideas for the business. She was invited to join the NTE team and moved with her husband and four children to St. Augustine that year.
The commonality of these five very different individuals is not just being included on the Inc. 5000 list. Each person shares similar goals of seeing continued growth within their respective businesses, but it’s more than just financial gain. As I spoke with each person, it became obvious that the bigger picture involves much more than simply the bottom line. It involves people and communities.
NTE came into being because of a desire to give options to consumers (that is, municipalities and power suppliers) for purchasing reliable energy at reduced pricing, especially in in strongly-regulated states like in the Southeast. This seems like a no-brainer, but in the tightly regulated world of power production, where contracts for energy supply last upwards of fifty years, it is no easy feat to break into the ring and convince municipalities to give their business model a chance. What is the difference? Choices. NTE offers the purchasers of their power choices for the most affordable rates at peak usage and other times. For NTE, those choices have allowed small municipalities to purchase power at cheaper rates, and eventually pass on those savings to their customers. “We don’t implement anything with a goal of a winning an award,” Mike Green says. “Our first goal is a solution for customers’ needs. If awards fall, they fall, but that is never a goal.”
Viv Helwig remembers calling on customers in the early days of Vested Metals and realizing he wanted to be on the Inc. 5000 list. It was his goal. He thought, “That’s where I want to be, because to be on that list means you have grown.” But as his business grew and he eventually did see his company on that list, he realized something important. It’s not just about Vested Metals’ success. It was about the team involved in the day-to-day operations. It was about his customers’ success. In the end, Viv realized, if you are doing all you can to help those around you succeed, then you too will succeed.
When I asked how each person felt about being included on this prestigious list, the answers were surprising. NTE’s unique sixth time has not dulled the excitement of inclusion so much, but it has continued to validate that they have been and are doing things right. Jay and Viv, first time honorees, feel a bit differently.
Jay said being recognized by this list was “awesome,” but at the same time, he was cautious. “The Inc. 5000 recognizes fast growth, but fast growth is not everything.” It makes him stop and double check to make sure he hasn’t missed anything. “I’m more concerned with growing at a sustainable pace.” Excited and proud? Yes. But also careful.
Viv echoed those sentiments. “I think every good CEO should have some point of healthy paranoia,” he laughs. Additionally, Vested Metals is one of, if not the youngest company on the list in his industry. He competes with and works with companies which have been in existence for over 100 years.
Obviously, being recognized by such a reputable and prestigious organization as the Inc. 5000 list is an achievement each of these leaders values. But they were all quick to point out that focusing too much on awards takes away from their goals and what they hope to accomplish.
Jay Owen hopes to expand his personal brand by speaking nationwide at more conferences. He is now applying the marketing and branding strategies Design Extensions uses to help their clients to his own venture of building his brand. Jay’s approach centers largely on the concept of story branding. After reading Donald Miller’s book, Building A Story Brand, Jay realized it was a concept he had been trying to achieve within his own firm. The book, however, gave clarity and form to his ideas. From that point on, Design Extensions’ growth was exponential. Now he hopes to apply those same principles as he brands himself and his message.
NTE Energy and its three managing partners, Tim, Mike and Stephanie, have largely the same goal they’ve had since NTE’s inception. Now that they’ve had such tremendous success in the Carolinas and elsewhere, they hope to continue that model and make a larger impact throughout the country. They have seen success and they have a plan to expand on the proven value of that model. As they look to the future, they all continue to have an ultimate goal: providing innovative solutions that provides the end users (the towns for whom they provide power) significant savings. Tim, Mike and Stephanie added that being able to witness the direct impact on these towns has been one of the most rewarding aspects of their business model.
Viv Helwig realizes the potential danger of resting on his laurels. “So many companies who make the list don’t even exist anymore,” he says. “More companies choke on growth than die by flailing for survival.” Viv and his team hope to build an environment where organizational health is their strategic advantage. Everyone wears lots of hats, so the potential for burnout is higher. He recently sat down with his entire team and spelled out the vision for the company’s future, what they would need to do to achieve those goals, and to make sure everyone was fully on board with the plan. “Not everyone fits into a startup environment,” Viv remarked. “It doesn’t mean they aren’t talented, but not everyone can do startups.”
Despite being three different companies in three very different industries, these five leaders can offer a little advice to others who are standing at a junction in their lives, personal or professional.
Jay Owen says you must have intentionality and a clear plan. Without having your plan and goals written down, you’ll end up where you don’t want to be. It’s easy to get distracted by the whirlwind of life without clear intention. His second recommendation? Everyone needs four people in their lives – 1. Someone to look up to (a figurehead, a leader in your field, etc.); 2. Peers on your level (other business owners, for example); 3. Someone looking up to you (“When you become a teacher, you become an expert”); and lastly 4. Someone who believes in you when you don’t believe in yourself (your spouse, a family member, a close friend). Having these four people around you and learning from them is critical to writing your own story.
Viv Helwig has a similar idea. He has a “council” of mentors who are older than he to whom he turns for guidance. Their input helps him remain grounded and on track. He feels he is still learning valuable lessons, but the most important thing he’s learned so far is not to be captured by fear, or try to control every outcome. “It’s okay to fail. In fact, being able to realize that something is not going to work and to cut the cord, take your losses, and move on to the next goal is critical. Failures are not final.”
Mike Green encourages people to find that goal or activity about which you are really passionate. “Find something you believe in and good things will happen, but you’ve got to be willing to take that risk.” Tim Eves agrees, and adds, “You have to persevere. It’s tough.”
Stephanie takes her advice one step further, “Make sure what you love to do leaves a positive impact on communities and society in general. I love what I do because I see the direct impact in these towns where [our help] is needed.” List or no list, these leaders are worth listening to.
Photography by Kate Gardiner