Every year, Forbes’ list of 25 “Small Giants” in business highlights small companies focused on being of great caliber, rather than just great in size.
In 2018, two local companies made the list.
Software developer Atomic Object, at 1034 Wealthy St. SE, and Comfort Research, a manufacturer of furniture and pool products at 1719 Elizabeth Ave. NW, were named “Small Giants” this year.
Comfort Research closed out 2017 with $73 million in revenue and 220 employees, and Atomic Object made $10 million in revenue with 60 employees, according to the Forbes list.
Steve Johandes, founder of business consultancy 100x LLC and a chair of the West Michigan Vistage group, decided to host tours of West Michigan’s Small Giants in October to find out how they made the cut. Both companies are members of the West Michigan Vistage group.
Johandes said, for his Small Giants, leadership is the key indicator of success, rather than just a byproduct. Their growth is not about the financial reward but about how they can make others, including their employees and their communities, succeed.
“The great thing that I see all of the Small Giants is their main goal is to help others succeed,” Johandes said. “Their success is a byproduct of helping others succeed.”
Atomic Object’s self-stated purpose is, “to be a company where work matters,” said Elaine Ezekiel, marketing specialist for Atomic Object, meaning employees should expect more of their jobs than just trading their time for a paycheck.
“We spend more than half of our waking adult hours at work,” Ezekiel said. “We believe Atomic Object exists to exchange wealth with our employees.”
Wealth means more than just financial return, Ezekiel said. Atomic aims to offer employees the chance to contribute to something “bigger than themselves.” As an example, Atomic became a certified B Corporation in February 2018.
B Corporations are certified by B Lab, a nonprofit that recognizes companies for their social and environmental practices, transparency and accountability.
Atomic Object gained recognition for its employee-owned structure, progressive parental leave benefits, investment in its cities and neighborhoods, and creating an award-winning workplace, according to an earlier Business Journal report.
“Atomic choosing to become a B Corp means that we value more stakeholders than simply our owners, who also happen to be our employees,” Ezekiel said. “It’s about groups we support philanthropically.”
Michael Marsiglia, vice president of Atomic Object, said the company takes an intentional approach to its culture, which revolves around personal accountability and trust.
“We assign a project team to a project, and then we trust them to find success for the project,” he said. “We design and build things so we need to go fast to win for our clients. That means our teams need autonomy. It also means they need to accept responsibility.”
To facilitate this culture, Atomic has only a few hard rules, Marsiglia said, including working a sustainable-pace job, contributing to the company blog every 50 days, taking vacation every year and taking responsibility to function under stress.
Atomic also has a very lateral organizational structure, and project teams communicate directly with clients, putting them in the best position to provide value to those clients Marsiglia said.
“That’s the value creation that makes everything else possible,” he said. “We educate our team on the finances of our business and regularly share the full results with everybody. This gives everyone the big picture of how the company is doing.”
Comparable to Atomic’s culture of personal responsibility, Comfort Research’s three fundamental values are: expect the best, find a better way and do the right thing.
Simplicity matters in the company’s culture. Matt Jung, co-founder and co-CEO of Comfort Research, said the company originally had planned 11 core values, but the model proved pointless and cumbersome when Jung tried to explain it to people outside of the company.
“I think I was on number nine, and I couldn’t remember it,” Jung said. “How can we, as leadership, have any expectation that anybody else is going to remember them? And if they can’t remember them, how is it guiding their actions on a day-to-day basis?”
Jung and fellow co-owner Chip George settled on the three values after struggling for almost two years.
“You’ve got to have a short list; no more than five,” Jung said. “If you can make it in one, more power to you. It took us three, and that’s what works for us.”
These values manifest in Comfort Research’s philanthropic acts. The company donates 10 percent of its profits to local charities and actively seeks out employees who struggle to find jobs, including former prison inmates.
Comfort Research also has a generous reward system for employees who embody its core values.
The FAB award — find a better way — pays $2,500 a quarter and $10,000 annually to employees who make a significant improvement in the company.
On top of that, the DiRT award — do the right thing — pays $1,500 to someone who goes above and beyond to help someone else, either on or off the job.
Johandes said these common elements of the Small Giants all revolve around leaders who, as he said, “are not passing on their plateau,” or are constantly expecting the best of themselves and, thus, influencing their business cultures.
Forbes selects Small Giants based on the following criteria:
The company has been acknowledged as “outstanding” by industry experts.
It has had the opportunity to grow much faster, but its leaders decided to focus on being great rather than just big.
It has been recognized for its contributions to its community and to society.
It has maintained its financial health for at least 10 years by having a sound business model, a strong balance sheet and steady profit margins.
It is privately owned and closely held.
It is human scale, meaning frontline employees have real interaction with top leaders.
Grand Rapids-based Service Express Inc. also made Forbes’ Small Giants list in 2016. The computer maintenance company had revenue of $59 million and 290 employees at the time the list was published and closed 2017 with over $100 million and over 450 employees.