Three area businesses among Top 50 Companies to Watch

Championing the entrepreneurial spirit is at the heart of the Edward Lowe Foundation in Cassopolis, Mich. This year they initiated and sponsored the "50 Companies to Watch in Michigan" program to celebrate the contribution, innovation and energy of diverse second-stage companies around the state.

Driving second-stage businesses are their owners, often the founders, whose decisions are critical to the future of their companies.

Second, stage companies are defined as employing 7 to 99 full-time equivalent employees and generating $750,000 to $50 million in gross annual sales. They are privately held and headquartered in Michigan.

The winners were selected by the partners of the first-ever Michigan Celebrates Small Business event, held April 28 at the Kellogg Center in East Lansing. Chosen from several hundred nominees, the local companies to watch include Salamander Technologies, Inc., Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay, and Electro-Optics Technology Inc. in Traverse City.

The companies were chosen based on one or more of the following: Employee or sales growth, exceptional entrepreneurial leadership, sustainable competitive advantage and other notable factors that showcase the company's success.

Salamander Technologies is headed by co-founders Russ Miller, president and CEO, and Mike Whelan, vice-president.

"We fit every criteria on their check list," Miller explained their selection. "We're a high-tech company, we're in an explosive market niche called home land security. We're experiencing explosive sales growth, doubling and tripling sales every year."

Salamander is the developer and leading supplier of both physical and electronic personnel accountability solutions for emergency management of first response crews. The solutions consist of personnel and equipment tracking software for mass casualty or emergency incidents such as fire, earthquakes, hurricanes, chemical or biological accidents, or terrorist attacks.

The software is contained in a palm-based system that is portable and used in conjunction with personnel identity tags (pictured). These tags hold a high capacity bar code that sustains over 100 times what a standard bar code does. The bar code includes a "passport" with the personnel's name, rank, agency, serial number, training level, certifications and site permissions. On the back of the tag is emergency contact information. The bar codes determine who is at the site, with what units, where they are assigned and when they got there.

"We bought the company that was the country's largest provider of dog tags and added the bar code and the technology for use by the emergency units," Miller explained. "Any emergency personnel showing up at a large incident can be tagged on site."

Salamander was formed in early 2001 to concentrate on the personnel and resource tracking needs of fire departments. In response to the 9/11 attacks and the Homeland Security initiatives, Salamander broadened its software solutions to include first responders of all types, including fire, police, public safety, public health, military and industrial.

"Salamander is unique in the whole homeland security aspect, but it's also the noble cause of helping our first responders with safety and security," Miller pointed out. "The award is great recognition for us and we passed it on to our team. It's nice to have someone saying, 'you're doing well.'"

The company grew from three people in 2001 to 20 employees in 2005. The company is now expanding beyond its present product production and finding further uses for their innovation.

"Tracking victims is the next huge market niche," Miller said. "We're getting now into public health because there are huge grants and interest in tracking systems for victims of mass casualty incidents."

Destination: Black Star Farms

Black Star Farms was the only agricultural entity to receive the award.

Established in Leelanau County in 1998, Black Star Farms has created a successful winery, inn, stables and creamery as an agricultural destination.

Don Coe, the managing member, and his partners, Kerm Campbell and Bill Hjorth, retired from corporate life and took on a new direction. The value-added agriculture and agricultural tourism idea became an approach that the members had observed while living in Europe and working in wine, spirits and agriculture-based companies.

"We felt this area was an ideal location for wine consumers," Coe explained. "The biggest wine consumers are normally 35 to 65 years old, 50 percent women, 50 percent men, college educated, interested in visual performing and culinary arts, the environment and recreation. So, all of those elements are in place here and for people coming up here with those interests, we want to be the must-see, must-stop place."

According to Coe, Black Star is set up as an incubator business, where someone who is starting to grow grapes and can't afford to make their own wine can come in as a partner in the winery. Leelanau Cheese, a tenet business on the farm, is an incubator company.

When Black Star bought the 120-acre agriculture property, nothing was being grown, there were no employees and the land was a prime target for development. Four years later, Black Star has 16 full-time employees in skilled jobs with benefits and 20 part time employees, 8 acres of grapes and 40 acres of cherries, along with a hay crop, plus grapes from 70 acres off-site in Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties. They have put the land back into agriculture production. In addition, the property is now open for general public use with approximately 60,000 visitors a year.

According to Coe, Black Star's strengths come from its determination to prove that a sustainable agriculture business starts with the consumer and not the land. They look for a product that the consumer desires, than they look back at the farm and the land to see if they can produce it.

As to the award, "First of all, it's a good incentive for our staff; it shows we have been recognized for the work that everyone is doing here on the farm," Coe declared. "Another thing, it is an opportunity to network with other companies."

Electro-Optics: meeting the need

Electro-Optics Technology, Inc (EOT) is involved in the development and manufacture of components and test equipment for laser systems. As lasers have improved, the need to protect laser oscillators and laser diodes from optical feedback has increased. A Faraday isolators' ability to allow light to pass unimpeded in one direction, while strongly attenuating light traveling in the opposite direction, eliminates the negative effects of optical feedback.

Similarly, many laser manufacturers and prestigious research centers are using EOT's other product, photodetectors. Photodetectors monitor the output of lasers and are suitable for a variety of pulse width measurements and pulse profiling applications.

The company was founded in Fremont, Calif. in 1987 by its current president, David Scerbak. In 1992, after struggling financially in Silicon Valley, Scerbak along with a college friend from Albion, Mike Torrance, moved the company's operations to Traverse City.

In Traverse City, EOT hired Jim Niessink, a local resident, and Scerbak was able to combine his strong technical advantage with Niessink's design aptitude in a new type of Faraday isolator for a company named Quantel. This began a stable stream of revenue. EOT now has 15 employees with seven of them comprised of electrical or physics engineers.

"We're working hard at growing fast and we have markets that will allow us to do that," Scerbak explained. "Historically, we've worked with scientific research lasers all along. We're the company they come to for these devices, but now their products are finding practical applications, like industrial metal. So it's kind of a natural that they are coming to us first to meet their needs for pretty rapidly-growing markets."

EOT offers a combination of in-house developed expertise with the handling of strong magnets and a lot of experience working with laser components for high-powered lasers. They offer the kind of innovation and response companies are looking for. In addition, over the years they have focused on their high-tech for lower costs.

"I think the award is going to mean recognition and awareness within our state and community that a high-tech company, such as ourselves, can thrive in a beautiful northern Michigan environment," Scerbak pointed out. "The immediate short-term benefit has brought some awareness of ourselves to politicians. We've had Senator Levin, Representative Camp, and State Senator Allen all through our facilities, they are looking at ways to plug us in to some government grant money to support some research." BN