News Column

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Neal St. Anthony column

August 30, 2014

By Neal St. Anthony, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)



Aug. 30--Monica Little, a pioneer of the local design-agency trade since she started Little & Co. fresh out of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1979, has stepped out of day-to-day operations and is selling her majority stake to her successor, Joe Cecere.

Little, 59, is selling for an unspecified sum over "a long time" to Cecere, 44, the president and a 15-year Little veteran.

"I'm the chair of the board and I meet with Joe about once a week, and I'm around if he needs me," Little said. "He and I have been talking about this for years.

"I made the decision years ago that I didn't want to sell to an outside firm because I've seen other companies that did and they were eviscerated. ... I like money, but my mortgage is paid. And I'm not about wringing as much as I can out of the company. Life is too short. It was about valuable work and working with these smart people."

Little called her 35-year entrepreneurial venture, which she launched after concluding she didn't want to go inside a big corporation or an advertising agency, an improvisational act that started with two other colleagues.

"It was a hang-the-curtain-in-the-barn-and-have-a-play production," she quipped. "I became more of a planner. I made a million mistakes along the way. But we had amazing people in this company over the years."

The business has fluctuated around $10 million in revenue and 30 employees for several years. Little says the toughest years were during the 2008-09 Great Recession.

"It made me sick to my stomach to let several people go," Little said. "They all eventually landed with jobs or freelancing. We lost projects, not clients. We've built the business back up."

For years, the firm has tried to brand clients from the inside out. Not just producing brochures and annual reports, but trying to understand the culture of client companies and producing marketing materials that reflect the reality, Little said.

At the end of the day, Little said: "Employees are your most important customer. They bring your brand to life every day through every customer interaction."

Wolford's Warehouse District world thriving

The three technology businesses owned in whole or in part by Jim Wolford have outgrown the headquarters building at 615 N. 3rd St. in the Warehouse District.

"Everything is growing like a weed," Wolford 46, CEO of Atomic Data and two smaller companies, quipped the other day.

Matt Woestehoff, 33, who runs the Foundation, an Apple-product service provider with about 300 small-business clients in the Twin Cities, said that the 18-and-growing employee outfit is moving to expanded space in the nearby, refurbished Ford Center. The business serves advertising and other creative companies.

Wolford called the Foundation a $5 million-revenue business that he expects to grow to $20 million over several years.

Atomic Data, which took over and expanded a data center in the Marquette Plaza building last year, operates data centers around the globe. The data storage and managed-services firm has grown to about 110 employees from 80 employees a year ago and expects revenue of about $20 million this year.

A third Wolford firm employs five who provide software development for creative companies.

"The key to growth is to pick good people, keep them focused and get out of their way," Wolford said. "The hardest part, and I've made this mistake a few times, is hiring middle managers who don't know enough about technology."

SHORT TAKES

-- Tom McCullough, one of two successful entrepreneurs who gave back by starting and capitalizing nonprofit social-enterprise Tech Dump several years ago, reports that Tech Dump will open a 31,000-square foot warehouse in the Midway area of St. Paul in September. The expansion from Tech Dump's Golden Valley hub results from its growing business of recycling consumer electronics for consumers and businesses. Tech Dump, which refurbishes what it can and properly recycles the rest, expects revenue of $4 million-plus this year. The company has several dozen employees, some of whom are rebounding from criminal backgrounds and jail time.

It's a neat business model and a growing business. Website is at www.techdump.org. The column I wrote last spring is at www.tinyurl.com/l3jgd6e.

-- Environmental Initiative, which brings together business, government and environmental stakeholders to address concerns and initiate solutions to be shared, will hold a Business & Environment Expo at the Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Prior Lake on Sept. 16. The focus: conserve water, minimize waste, save energy, recycle and make a buck or save one through the growing business-sustainability movement.

Participants also will get insight into the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community's composting facility, state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant, wind turbine, urban farm, green roofs, and on-site biodiesel production. More information: www.environmental-initiative.org.

-- The summer is full of business volunteer-led runs, walks, rides and golf tournaments for charities. Good causes and they attract more volunteers and donations.

Most recently, Allianz Life Insurance of North America raised $185,000 for the Alzheimer's Association of Minnesota-North Dakota from its annual golf tournament. That's a total of $720,000 over the past five years. "We are proud that our contributions will be used to strengthen a support system used by seniors, caregivers, friends and family," said Allianz Life General Counsel Gretchen Cepek, who serves on the Alzheimer's Association board.

___

(c)2014 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Visit the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) at www.startribune.com

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