When students graduate from the School of Business and Economics, they set off on divergent roads into the business world. Many alumni choose to chart their own course at the helm of a new business.
We’d like to introduce you to four of our enterprising alumni, whose careers run the gamut of innovative business endeavors. Jim Anttonen ’65 founded a sustainable construction firm that has become a leader in its field. Kristina Marshall ’98 runs a growing nonprofit organization that provides mentoring to middle and high school students. Venture capitalist John Rockwell ’79 gives entrepreneurs the support they need to boost their businesses. Steve Vizanko ’04 and Caleb Wendel ’07 own a thriving shop that caters to bicycling enthusiasts.
Each of these successful professionals earned their bachelor’s degrees from the School of Business and Economics, and all have gone on to make a unique mark in their chosen fields. While these pioneering individuals—along with many more School of Business and Economics alumni—have arrived at success through different paths, their stories all share one key element: a passion for innovation.
Venture Capitalist Helps Entrepreneurs Build Strong Businesses
In his career as a venture capitalist, John Rockwell ’79 frequently draws on the knowledge he gained in his courses at the School of Business and Economics. He said that he picked up one of his most valuable business skills not in the classroom but on the ice.
“I came to Michigan Tech on a hockey scholarship,” said Rockwell, who lives in Silicon Valley. “I was one of twenty-six guys on a team. We all made contributions, and when we worked together we could do some great things.
“That same principle is true in the business world, too. I enjoy working with companies as a member of their team, helping them develop into great businesses.”
Rockwell, who has more than twenty-three years of financial investment experience, currently serves as managing director of Element Partners, a private equity firm that invests in high-growth companies offering innovative solutions to global energy, resource, and environmental problems. The company, which is part of the Draper Fisher Jurvetson global venture capital network, has offices in Menlo Park, California, and Philadelphia.
Since 1995, Element’s team has successfully managed more than $1.2 billion in capital commitments in partnerships focused on investing in and profitably growing energy, industrial, and environment-related businesses.
Along with providing funding for pioneering companies in the field of clean technology, Rockwell provides strategic insights and industry contacts to help businesses grow.
“My goal is to build companies that are the best in their niche,” he said.
Rockwell considered a career in chemical engineering before transferring to the School of Business and Economics for his undergraduate degree. He went on to earn an MBA from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.
“I realized that I wanted to work with people,” he said of the switch from engineering to business.
Before joining Element Partners, Rockwell served as a partner at Advent International Corporation, invested and managed early-stage companies with Materia Ventures Associates, and held various positions in 3M Corporation’s Acquisitions and Business Development.
During his time at Materia, Rockwell scored a huge success as CEO of Luxar Corporation. When he took the helm of the medical laser manufacturing firm, the struggling company was valued at $4 million. After two years under his direction, Luxar was valued at $130 million.
With millions of dollars on the table every time Rockwell does a deal, he’s looking for dynamic entrepreneurs who are offering new ways to solve problems. Of every 1,000 business plans that come across his desk, Rockwell will choose to invest in just a couple of them.
“I’m looking for entrepreneurs who are really passionate,” he said, “and I like to work with people who have good leadership characteristics. It’s also important to be good at what you do on the technical side and also have a business perspective.”
As the clean tech field continues to expand, Rockwell expects the opportunities for investment to grow as well. That’s an exciting prospect for an investor who loves the fast-paced nature of his work.
“ The typical venture capitalist does about three deals every two years,” Rockwell said. “I like to be on six deals at a time, and I’m usually doing even more.”
Cycling Enthusiasts Roll Their Passion Into a Profitable Business
In their classes at the School of Business and Economics, Steve Vizanko ’04 and Caleb Wendel ’07 learned how to craft a detailed business plan and meticulously estimate a new enterprise’s growth.
As owners of The Bike Shop in Houghton, Vizanko and Wendel are discovering the thrills and challenges of running a flourishing business that has quickly exceeded their on-paper projections.
“Our first year has been phenomenal,” said Wendel. “And this year has been even busier than last year.”
Vizanko and Wendel opened The Bike Shop in April 2008. As longtime bicycling enthusiasts, they knew the sport’s popularity was booming. While working together at a local cycling store during college, they discovered that many cyclists in the area would welcome a new business offering a variety of services to people who love to ride.
In fact, as students, Vizanko and Wendel pitched their idea to open a bike shop in the Copper Country as a project for their entrepreneurship class.
“We knew our market, and we knew the people we were trying to reach,” said Vizanko. “Most importantly, cycling is something we’re both passionate about.”
All that legwork added up to more than a good grade on that class project for Wendel and Vizanko. Their innovative concept of a one-stop cycling shop is paying off in the real world, too.
“We figured that, after the first year in business, we’d be busy enough to hire our first employee,” Vizanko said. “After the first week we were open, we had to hire someone. After three months, we hired our second employee.”
“We are very lucky to have found employees who are as excited about bikes as we are,” Vizanko said. “ There are times when Caleb or I can’t be here, and it’s comforting to know that we are leaving the shop in good hands with people who care.”
Vizanko and Wendel conceived of The Bike Shop as more than just a store that sells all kinds of cycling equipment, from top-of-the-line bicycles to water bottles. It’s a lifestyle destination for anyone who loves to ride.
Customers often gather on the couches in the front of the shop to swap advice and road stories. The owners are eager to share their extensive knowledge of the sport with riders who stop in to look for gear and take advantage of the expert services offered, which include repairs and tune-ups.
The Bike Shop’s comprehensive marketing plan also plays a big part in its success. No surprise, since Wendel and Vizanko both focused on marketing as students.
Customers can buy an array of T-shirts, hoodies, and other accoutrements that are screen-printed on-site with The Bike Shop’s logo. The business also has begun sponsoring cycling events, including the Miner’s Revenge Mountain Bike Race. Vizanko and Wendel enjoy taking cycling trips of their own that help them take the pulse of the sport and spread the word about their business.
Vizanko and Wendel forecast even more growth for The Bike Shop, and they’re dedicated to working all the angles to keep their business profitable. They’re also planning to “keep having an awesome time doing it.”
“We’re doing this because we really love it,” Vizanko said. “We’re excited: going to work every day and having fun.”
Michigan CEO Reaches Out to Today's Youth
Kristina (Sobczynski) Marshall ’98 began her education at Michigan Tech with an interest in environmental engineering and landed a student co-op job at General Motors. One evening while driving home from the GM plant in Ypsilanti, Marshall realized that she needed to turn her life in a completely different direction.
“It hit me that my purpose was to make my life about helping kids,” said Marshall, who lives in Shelby Township with her husband, Duane Marshall, also a School of Business and Economics graduate.
While attending Warren Mott High School outside Detroit, Marshall learned firsthand how mentoring can make a big difference in a young person’s life. She was one of the first high school students to take part in a new program called Winning Futures. That guidance helped Marshall to graduate in the top one percent of her class, and she earned Winning Futures’ first grand prize and received its first scholarship.
When Marshall returned to Michigan Tech after her co-op ended, she switched to the School of Business and Economics. After graduating, she knew exactly where she wanted to work.
“I went right to the founder of Winning Futures and told him I wanted a position,” Marshall said. Sam Cupp, the entrepreneur who launched Winning Futures in 1994, hired Marshall in 1998 to serve as the organization’s managing director. She has since been named president and CEO.
When Marshall signed on with the organization, Winning Futures was operating in one Michigan school district. She has led the program’s expansion to six districts in southeast Michigan.
Marshall also has worked to expand the organization’s reach by making the successful mentoring curriculum available to students everywhere. Currently, twenty-two organizations in Michigan use the Winning Futures model, and the program has been adopted by agencies in nine other states as well.
“We want to reach as many children as possible,” Marshall said. “ Through the workbooks and training manuals we’ve developed, we’ve created a social entrepreneurship arm of our organization. We take our product and sell it to other nonprofits, schools, and parents. We then use those profits for our local fundraising missions.”
Marshall said her long-term goal is to make Winning Futures a national program.
“I want us to become the go-to agency for youth development curriculum,” she said.
Thus far, Winning Futures has touched the lives of more than 16,000 students and given out more than $1.5 million in scholarships. In 2008, Crain’s Detroit Business acknowledged Marshall’s efforts by naming her one of its “Forty Under Forty.” The list recognizes the top-forty influential business professionals, community activists, and leaders who are younger than age forty.
Drawing upon her business school education, Marshall takes an entrepreneurial approach to running Winning Futures.
“We have innovative processes and systems in place, and we don’t allow rigid guidelines to affect the way we serve our kids,” she said. “We’re always looking at creative new ways to serve our mission.”
Marshall said that, at Winning Futures, she’s found the perfect opportunity to fulfill her life’s mission of helping others.
“What I enjoy most is seeing our organization make an impact on young people’s lives,” she said. Winning Futures has touched the lives of more than 16,000 students and given out more than $1.5 million in scholarships.
Get more information about Winning Futures.
Construction Company Owner Leads His Field With Green Practices
Jim Anttonen ’65 became a pioneer in environmentally sustainable construction long before the term “sustainable” became a household word.
In 1985, Anttonen launched ARS Denver Inc. with his partner, Kim Haarberg. The Colorado-based corporation has grown to become one of the top firms in the country specializing in soil stabilization and asphalt reclamation.
Using methods that are friendly to the environment, including the grinding and repurposing of existing asphalt, ARS Denver prepares roadways and other thoroughfares to be paved.
“We were one of the companies that pioneered full-depth asphalt reclamation in this part of the country,” said Anttonen.
The green practices that helped cement ARS Denver’s success don’t just preserve the environment. Sustainable measures reduce costs and, therefore, make good business sense, as well.
“My philosophy has always been to leave something for the next guy,” he said.
ARS Denver has tackled more than 3,000 projects during the last two decades, including a number of grand-scale endeavors: highways, state parks, and citywide bike paths. When Denver International Airport was being built in the 1990s, the company prepared all the parking areas, the major highway in and out of the airport, and all the runways, including the longest public-use runway in the United States.
Although Anttonen has found great success as the owner of a business, he didn’t jump into entrepreneurship right out of college. He served in Vietnam after graduating from Michigan Tech, then sold construction and mining equipment for eighteen years before launching his first business.
“I went from selling a piece of equipment to telling clients, ‘Why don’t I just buy the equipment myself and do the work for you?’” he said.
As a Michigan Tech graduate, Anttonen had no trouble making industry contacts. Many of his fellow alumni worked in the mining and construction industries, and he had built a strong business network during his sales days, as well.
“I already had my foot in the door,” he said. “Having a good reputation is very important in the construction business.”
Anttonen said that his years of marketing and sales experience gave him an edge when he went into business for himself. The marketing principles he first discovered in his classes at Tech still come in handy when he’s going after big government contracts.
“We know how to talk to cities and counties and states,” Anttonen said. “In fact, most of our jobs have been with governmental agencies this year, since the home-building industry is struggling right now.”
Anttonen stepped down as president of ARS Denver this year, but not so he could retire, he quickly added. He’s now seeking out new opportunities to keep his company growing.
ARS Denver, which employs about eighty people, continues to complete more than 100 projects per year throughout the western states. The firm recently launched a training division in partnership with several universities and has forged a partnership with a recycling company. Anttonen also is overseeing a new land development venture.
“The company’s not slowing down, and I’m not, either,” he said. “We’re going to keep on going and going.”
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.