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Small town entrepreneurs prove success not hinged on city lights

Bill Whittenberger, President of Catacel in Garrettsville. Photos | Bob Perkoski
Bill Whittenberger, President of Catacel in Garrettsville. Photos | Bob Perkoski

Big business doesn't always have to mean life in the big city. Some of Ohio's fastest-growing companies are proving that, becoming leaders in high-tech and service fields far from the outer-belts of Ohio's urban centers.  A few of Ohio's home-grown entrepreneurs  spoke to hiVelocity about why they like where they live and why they plan to stay.

ABS Materials, Wooster

When a college professor and an entrepreneur shared a flight in 2008, no one could know the ramifications their meeting would hold for a  massive future oil spill. But after College of Wooster professor Dr. Paul Edmiston spoke to Steve Spoonamore, who had just sold his business, the two decided to form a new company to explore commercial uses of new polymers. The company's biggest product to date may prove to be Osorb, a granulated silicon polymer that can remove contaminants, like oil, from water. Once it soaks up eight times its weight in oil, it can be cleaned and re-used. Its abilities, ABS hopes, will lead to a test in the Gulf of Mexico in the coming weeks, and a huge step forward in environmental science. Buoyed by a $250,000 venture grant from Cleveland-based JumpStart Inc. earlier this year, ABS is planning to step-up production of Osorb.

While the company has grown to 38 employees and has a secondary office in Houston, Wooster is still home.

Spoonamore, who serves as the company's CEO, credits a deep talent pool in the area and governmental efforts for a large part of ABS's close ties to Wooster.

While Ohio focused on building an innovation ecosystem in the state, he explains, Wooster officials have worked hard to build it locally.

"A small company can get lost in a bigger city," Spoonamore says. "But the local government works closely with the corporate community here. There's a lot of one-on-one attention."

National Patent Analytical Systems, Inc., Mansfield

Almost 20 years ago, John Fusco was working from his hometown, Mansfield, as a sales agent for a New York-based company that marketed, along with other items, a newer technology that would become a law enforcement staple the breathalyzer. When the company decided to get out of the market, Fusco saw his chance.

After teaming up with a colleague, he bought the rights to the system and opened National Patent Analytical Systems Inc. in the north central Ohio town in 1991. Through a 1997 buyout of another tech firm and the development of another product, a gas analyzer for use in integrated electronic circuits, National Patent has become one of the state's leading electronic firms.

Today, with $5 million in annual revenues, it counts U.S. military contracts and heavy-hitting international technology giants like Intel among its clients. Meanwhile, it has become a national leader in its original system, the breathalyzer, which is in use by 90 percent of Ohio law enforcement agencies and nearly a third of all American police forces.

Despite its growth, headquarters is still a building off Taxiway Three at Mansfield's Lahm Airport.

"The way the world works today, with the Internet, cell phones and faxes, you don't have to be in a big city," Fusco explains. "You don't need the higher overhead of being in a larger city. I much prefer to take advantage of the labor market here in Mansfield, where you can hire the top talent, pay them more than the going rate for the area and have their loyalty. Here, you have almost no turnover."

Catacel, Garrettsville

Bill Whittenberger, president of Catacel Corp., uses a baseball metaphor to describe the success of the northeast Ohio company. Founded in 2001, the firm converted early expertise in emission control products made from metal foils with catalytic coatings into a leading position in two areas of new technology the burgeoning fuel cell business and the use of industrial hydrogen.

"Fuel cells are a growing market, which is big business for us, but the hydrogen market could be even bigger. Fuel cells are like hitting singles, and we're happy to keep hitting singles, but hydrogen's a home run," says Whittenberger.

With a client base that includes most U.S. alternative energy companies, while reaching out to international clients, Catacel remains in Garrettsville, where Whittenberger and partners Dr. William Retallick and Richard Cornelison founded it.

"To find us, turn left at the cow," jokes Whittenberger, allowing that the site allows a less frenzied way of life that's a big draw to the company's engineering-heavy roster. "The biggest challenge of our current building site is power. We realize within one to two years, we're going to have to go into an industrial park. But we'll be staying in Garrettsville."

Ed Map, Nelsonville

Eight years ago, shortly after selling a mail-order company that supplied textbooks to schools and college campuses throughout the country, the founders of Ed Map saw a better way to serve the textbook market. So, taking their contacts and expertise from the previous enterprise, they jumped back into the business.

Michael Mark, formerly in charge of distance learning and non-traditional education at Ohio University, had started the original business from his barn in Nelsonville. "It was a classic mail order business," Mark says. "We saw the Internet as a technology that would allow us to offer a better level of service to educational institutions. We wouldn't just provide them with books, but a service. As soon as former clients heard we had a new venture, they found us."

Today, Ed Map, serving 85 to 90 institutions with hundreds of locations including the University of Phoenix, also provides materials for continuing education courses, professional associations and corporate training entities. Its services include guidance for distance learning courses and tracking information that lets buyers track not only extensive titles available, but also their bottom lines.

Investments from venture capitalists have allowed the company to expand to 110 employees and to an ever-increasing client list, but it remains tied to its southeastern Ohio birthplace.

"We're in a beautiful area that's really laid-back," says Mark. Even though the company isn't in a big city, it still finds itself perfectly positioned, he says -- 60 percent of the U.S. population is within 600 miles of its offices. But the real benefit of staying in Nelsonville, he says, is the people.

"We've got incredibly dedicated personnel, wonderful people who reflect the values of the area dedication, hard work. They've chosen a lifestyle to work here," Mark says. "I don't know that we'd find them in a larger city."

Resource Systems, New Concord

In the late 1970s, Muskingham College was one of few places in eastern Ohio with its own computer lab. So, when local companies needed data processing services, they sought the school's help. That caught the attention of two Muskingham students, Greg Adams and Larry Triplett.

"The school was doing a few jobs here and there, but it wasn't part of its mission. It wasn't trying to grow the business. We saw an opportunity was being missed," says Triplett.

So, soon after graduating in 1980, he and Adams set up their own data processing business in Triplett's apartment, operating on "subsistence level" for a few years. It wasn't until 1986, when a nursing home approached the duo seeking a new way to track medical supplies and medications, that Resource Systems found its gold mine. The following year, Adams and Triplett unveiled software that used bar coding to track those resources, and Resource Systems became an industry standard.

Since then, the company has continued to build upon its flagship CareTracker system to include alerts of critical patient conditions and interfacing with other electronic systems. Now with more than 80 employees, Resource Systems caters to more than 3,500 nursing homes nationwide. Inc. magazine has named it one of the nation's fastest growing private companies.

Triplett, president of the company, says Resource Systems is in New Concord to stay.

"There are so many benefits to being out here. We're in a nice setting overlooking town, and we have a strong internship program with Muskingham," he says. "People are attracted to work for us because of where we are, and they make New Concord their home. Once they come, they stay. Our turnover is nearly zero."


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