This month, we’re introducing some of America’s most inspiring entrepreneurs by interviewing all 18 finalists for this year’s Dream Big Small Business Awards. The awards program honors the achievements of some of our nation’s most remarkable small business owners and celebrates their contributions to the American economy. We’ll be spotlighting a different finalist every day between now and the Small Business Summit 2017, where the winners will be announced (register to attend here).
The company: Ecolink
Who’s in charge: John Roudebush
Where are they: Tucker, Georgia
What they do: Work alongside both businesses and government agencies to develop safer industrial chemicals. And involve students and young professionals in the process.
Q: What inspired the creation of your business? What problem does it help to solve?
Roudebush: Ecolink was founded in 1991 in response to a market need for cleaning fluids that did not deplete the stratospheric ozone layer. Impending bans on production of ozone depleting solvents created a great deal of disruption to the power generation industry, and Ecolink quickly capitalized by achieving approvals by General Electric and Westinghouse. Ecolink immediately made a significant contribution to the global effort to repair the ozone layer.
Ecolink has continued to innovate in response to other environmental issues including air pollution and global warming. It is gratifying to have developed and sold cleaners and degreasers that solve critical cleaning applications in U.S. Military as well as the aerospace and power generation markets.
Q: What barriers have you faced while building your company? How did you overcome them?
Roudebush: When Ecolink was started, all manufacturing, warehousing, and logistics processes were outsourced to a third party. I joined the organization as president in 2004 and acquired the company in March of 2006. Three months into ownership, the company that provided all of our third party support announced that it was going to abandon its facility and cease its partnership with us. I had to quickly decide whether to identify another company to manufacture, warehouse, and ship my product, or to set up my own warehouse and find suitable manufacturing partners. Overcoming this challenge was simply a matter of systematically identifying new vendor/partners and a new facility in a timely manner.
By March of 2007, we had a fully functional warehouse and multiple manufacturing companies providing our production needs. There was no disruption in the supply of Ecolink products to our customers. What’s more, 2007 was a record year for revenue and profits in the Company’s history.
Q: What is your proudest moment as an entrepreneur?
Roudebush: Among my proudest achievements is the fact that Ecolink weathered the great recession of 2008-2009 and remaining profitable without cutting staff. Additionally, under my leadership, the company received the Energy Conservation and Environmental Steward awards from former Governor Sonny Perdue. We also had the opportunity to travel with Governor Perdue on a trade mission in Dubai.
Q: Tell us about your company’s role in the community. How do you use your business to serve as a community leader?
Roudebush: We have a long history of investing in education and the environment. We see a positive correlation with education and environmental awareness. Recently, Ecolink began to employ high school and college students to help launch our multi-million dollar product lines. Our hope is that our interns come to internalize Ecolink’s zero waste mission. We hope that students apply this in different environments, including schools, homes, and other workplaces. Outside of our work with students, our employees spread our mission through presentations at local, regional, and national conferences and workshop as well as webinars and online content.
Q: What does it mean to not only have created your own job, but to also create jobs for others?
Roudebush: I did not acquire Ecolink to buy myself a job. I did it to make a difference in both my life and the lives of my employees. Business ownership has given me greater ability to mentor young professionals. Most of my career has been spent working in small organizations where I have been afforded the chance to wear many hats and to make a visible difference within an organization. It is highly satisfying to hire and mentor people who share that mindset. I’ve been able to watch my employees grow both personally and professionally. Ecolink provides high-value jobs and strong benefits. I seek to hire and retain employees that yearn to make a difference and contribute to their community.
Q: How did you decide to participate in the Dream Big Small Business of the Year Awards program? And, what does it mean to you to be a finalist in this year’s program?
Roudebush: We were graciously nominated by the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce, which also named Ecolink one of its Georgia Small Business Rock Stars. In fact, this designation inspired the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners to declare March 14, 2017 as Ecolink Day.
We are especially proud of this opportunity to showcase our public-private partnership with high school teachers and students. Being a finalist validates the value and practicality of working with schools. If just one company is inspired by our story and takes the leap of faith to partner with a school, we will consider that a victory, no matter the outcome of the award selection.
Q: If selected as the winner of the Dream Big Small Business of the Year Award, how will you invest the $25,000 grand prize?
Roudebush: If selected, we will continue to fund our year-round high school and college internship program. We will use the prize money to explore distance learning technologies in order to expand the reach of our program and collaborate with remote schools. This program will help us to incentivize our customers and vendors to invest in their local communities and widen the reach of cultivating tomorrow’s leaders. In addition to distance learning, we will continue to invest in our online presence to attract progressive companies open to similar public-private partnerships.
Q: What advice would you give to other small business owners looking to grow their business or someone who is just starting out with a new business?
Roudebush: In the words of Jim Collins, make sure you have the right people on the bus and in the right seats. One thing I’ve learned from experience and other CEOs is that to hire slowly and fire quickly is the best prescription for success. Equally important is to have a strong business banking relationship and to work with a competent outside accounting firm. Business owners should also cultivate a strong board of directors or advisors.