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Outstanding Entrepreneurs

by Lindsey Getz; Photo by Jeff Fusco
OUTSTANDING ENTREPRENEURS Outstanding Entrepreneurs Lindsey Getz; Photo by Jeff Fusco …From the pages of South Jersey Biz…

These driven individuals combined vision, passion, commitment and ability to create some of our region’s most extraordinary business success stories.

When Praveen Dala’s father-in-law had a massive heart attack, his life was saved by the fact that the cardiologist who was paged for the 911 call happened to be just nextdoor at a party. When the physician realized his proximity to the patient, he rode along in the ambulance. “I was talking to the cardiologist after the fact, and he said that riding along in the ambulance allowed him to view the EKG in real time and helped save my father- in-law’s life,” recalls Dala. “He said if there was some way he could be sent the EKG data from the ambulance on every patient, he’d be able to save a lot more lives. I thought, ‘Why not?’ and ‘Why not any medical data?’”

From there, mVisum, a communication tool that allows medical professionals to securely receive, review and respond to patient data recorded at the point of care, was born in Dala’s basement. A biomedical engineer by trade, Dala worked with his wife (also an engineer) to develop a prototype. Their hard-earned cash, coupled with an investment from a cardiothoracic surgeon who believed in the product, got things going.

At the time, they were still working with what Dala calls the “clunky older phones,” such as older versions of the BlackBerry. Dala attributes much of his success to the iPhone. “We had no idea that was going to come out, but it helped us tremendously,” he says. “It shifted the question from ‘Can we do that?’ to ‘Why can’t we do it?’ The acceptance of smartphones has opened up a whole new world for us.”

Headquarters: Camden
Year Founded: 2007
No. of employees: 15
Inspiration: “My father-in-law’s heart attack and the fact that his EKG being read so quickly saved his life.”
Guiding philosophy: “We have two guiding philosophies, the first being our pride in the fact that our technology is never behind. The second is our quality control method. We believe that our technology should be so reliable that we’d feel comfortable putting our own loved ones on a patient monitoring system that used mVisum.”
Biggest risk: “The problem with developing new technology is that you always run the risk of being too early for the technology to take root. We almost stumbled upon that, but luckily the iPhone came along and changed peoples’ beliefs about what a phone could do.”
What’s next: “We’re just scratching the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s possible in the smart phone market. There will be a lot more application possibilities, and this is what will ultimately replace the doctor’s pager.”

As a little girl growing up in Louisiana under lingering Jim Crow laws, Barbara Armand witnessed the impact her contractor uncle had on the black community by building their homes. “I was amazed by his ability to organize, manage and ultimately build something,” remembers Armand. “I was always fascinated by the tools and materials it took to create something. Plus without him, I’m not sure what the black community would have done since white contractors would not build for them.” It was with those memories that Armand launched her own construction management business 20 years ago, working long hours out of her home. “It got to the point where the neighbors were complaining about all the people coming and going, so I moved into an office complex,” she says. “Of course the complex had to shut their lights off at 2 a.m. and I was typically still working. For the first three years, I worked seven days a week for 10-hour days or more.”

Besides her investment of time, Armand made some serious financial investments as well, using credit cards to fund the business. That caught up with her when the business didn’t take off as rapidly as she’d hoped. “In 1993, the creditors were calling and I was not able to pay them back,” she recalls. “So I started looking for a bank.”

Armand spoke to dozens of banks and finally secured the loan she needed to help pay back her debt and keep the business moving forward. Her first client—the City of Philadelphia—was only the beginning. Today she’s landed jobs with American Airlines, the U.S. Army, the Air National Guard and the New Jersey Department of Transportation, and she’s added a satellite office in Manhattan. But she says it hasn’t been easy—particularly as a minority woman in a male-dominated construction and engineering field.

“Not only is this a male-dominated business, but so is the banking system,” she says.

“When I come in looking for capital, I think people expect to see me with a man, and for a while I’d bring one from my management team. But I woke up one day and realized that’s not reality. I’m the sole owner of a successful business that’s weathered many challenges in its 20 years. That’s the reality.”

Headquarters: Cherry Hill
Year Founded: 1991
No. of employees: 21
2010 Revenue: $2.3 million
Inspiration: “My days as a youngster when my uncle would take me around to some of his jobs—those experiences always stuck with me.”
Guiding philosophy: “Do what you know and be comfortable with what you do. And always preserve who you are.”
Biggest risk: “Early on I had to go to these big corporations, and even though I was the only person working in the company, had to present myself in a much bigger way— creating the idea I had a team of people working for me. Making the investments and taking those early risks have been the biggest in my career—but they’ve paid off.”
What's next: “Branching out regionally and nationally. I’ve also done quite a bit of work growing my work in the federal market, and that’s where we’ll be concentrating in the next five years.”

Robert Lipinski has always been an entrepreneur at heart. When he was just 18 he started a lawn-mowing business with just $500 and a truck—and grew it to a landscape and snow removal company with clients throughout the U.S. After 35 years, Lipinski sold that business this past summer, in order to focus his attention to his most recent venture: Dynamic Defense Materials.

Lipinski’s first introduction to the global defense business was through an equipment provider he purchased 10 years ago called Global Protection. After selling that, he bought a fledgling company that was in financial distress but had some promising concepts—particularly, the idea of portable armor wall system. “The problem was, it wasn’t engineered, just a concept,” says Lipinski, who renamed the company Dynamic Defense Materials. “There was a rough prototype made out of cardboard.”

But Lipinski believed in the idea wholeheartedly, especially considering there was no product like it on the market. Soldiers in the field were using sandbags for checkpoints. “That takes hours to assemble and seems archaic for a world superpower, to be setting up defense systems made of sandbags,” says Lipinski. “So we set out to develop this product with no idea if the military would ever buy it.”

After a multi-million-dollar investment of Lipinski’s hard-earned working capital from his landscape endeavors, he developed a product and testing trial, landing him a $150 million contract from the U.S. Army for a portable guard post system called McCurdy’s Armor, named after fallen Marine Ryan McCurdy, who was killed by a sniper while saving a wounded corporal. Lipinski hopes that the use of this portable armored wall system will help better protect armed forces from sniper, mortar, rocket and small arms fire.

Headquarters: Marlton
Year Founded: 2004
No. of employees: 13
2010 Revenue: $12 million
Inspiration: “To change the way warfare is fought. Sandbags have been used since the Revolutionary War, and we’ve brought a new product and demonstrated to the armed forces that it will work better. It can save lives.”
Key to success: “Believing it would work. It really came down to a gut feeling. People thought I was crazy for putting so much into it, but I just knew it would work.”
Biggest risk: “Putting so much into this company when I didn’t know the end game. I put millions in with no guarantee we’d be able to sell the product. But my gut told it was the right decision.”
What's next: “To continue to grow the business. I believe this company has the potential to produce $30, $40, maybe even $50 billion in sales.”

A minivan full of boys headed to a soccer tournament sounds more like a rowdy road trip than a business opportunity. But for moms Jill Levin and Annemarie McCartney, it was the “unbearable odor” coming from the backseat as the boys changed their shoes that became an “aha moment.” They began producing a homemade product that eliminated odor and absorbed moisture, and passed them out to friends in the soccer community. But it wasn’t until people started asking to buy them that the friends really knew they were on to something.

As a company idea that was born on the way to a soccer tournament, it was fitting that the partners’ big break also came at a soccer tournament. The chairman of the board of Bed Bath & Beyond happened to be there and he loved their product. From there the company grew at a rapid pace. Levin and McCartney were even recently featured on QVC.

The pair say they each put a small amount of money into starting the business, but made a pact to work within their means. They were able to rely on many of their own resources—even a friend of a friend—to get things done. “For everything from trade-marking to producing product, instead of spending thousands of dollars to get the business going, we turned to our family and friends for help,” says Levin. “It’s never easy to ask for help, but we tried to return the favor with small gestures or gift cards. We’ve been lucky to have so many people believe in this product.”

Headquarters: Camden
Year Founded: 2008
No. of employees: proprietary
2010 Revenue: proprietary
Inspiration: The pair says that the “unbearable odor” coming from their kids’ soccer shoes was what started the whole idea.
Key to success: “The feedback we get from people is what drives us,” says McCartney. “When we meet people and they say they love our product or that they’ve tried everything and ours was the only one that worked—those kinds of comments keep us going.”
Biggest risk: “The risk is there every day—putting all your time and energy into something that you can’t be guaranteed to reap benefits from,” says Levin. “You give up a lot to make it happen—whether it be in opportunities to make money, or be at a soccer game, or whatever else it may be—in order to keep forging ahead.”
What’s next: “Continuing to grow brand recognition,” says Levin. “People are really starting to know the product now that it’s been on the marketplace a few years, and we believe that recognition will only continue to grow.”

Glory Days Sports (GDS) is the product of four best friends kicking around ideas for a business partnership. Today, it’s South Jersey’s fastest-growing adult sport and social club. There are leagues including co-ed softball, kickball, or dodgeball, followed by social events at local South Jersey bars and restaurants. “The participants of GDS are athletic, social, and fun-seeking men and women,” says Nick Gargano. “Anyone over the age of 18 can become a GDS member.”

Back when GDS was only a mere concept, the friends started looking into ways they might gain in- vestment capital. In the end, they opted for organic growth.

Today, GDS has more than 6,000 members and the partners say that listening to their needs is their best growth strategy. “Some believe you should watch your competitors closely and emulate them, but GDS believes in its 6,000-plus members,” says Mark DeNafo.

Headquarters: Cedar Brook
Year Founded: 2009
No. of employees: 6
2010 Revenue: $145,000
Guiding philosophy: “At Glory Days Sports, we believe in the customer,” says Mark DeNafo. “The customer will always let you know when you are not delivering on your promises made, long before you realize it on your bottom line.”
Biggest risk: “We all agree that the biggest risk we have taken as entrepreneurs was when we added the level of ‘partners’ to our friendships,” says Gargano. “We have talked several times about being candid with each other as often as possible in business situations and we try to keep the two relationships as exclusive as possible. With that being said, there is nothing better than succeeding at something with the people you care about most.”

In 1977, Ron Jaworski, affectionately known as “Jaws,” began his career with the Philadelphia Eagles. Since then, he’s called South Jersey his home. In 1980, Jaws led the Eagles to a 12- 4 record, the NFC Championship and their first-ever berth in a Super Bowl. But that didn’t stop Jaworski from thinking about what might lie ahead. He says that as a professional football player, you always realize that your next play could be your last. It was that fear that pushed him to invest in a business venture, launching Ron Jaworski Golf Management in 1980, which includes South Jersey courses Valleybrook Country Club, Running Deer Golf Club and RiverWinds Golf & Tennis Center. Jaworski says it was a good fit. “I love working with people, and directing and managing them, putting them in a position to be successful.”

Jaworski says that his own success has been a product of hard work. “You have to take that fierce competitiveness to business—especially in this economic environment,” he says. “You have to be working all the time. Fortunately my wife, my sister, my son, my daughters are all involved in my business and they share those same values that I do. We love what we do, but it’s also competition.”

Headquarters: Blackwood, Pittsgrove and West Deptford
Year Founded: 1980
No. of employees: proprietary
2010 revenue: proprietary
Inspiration: “Fear, quite honestly. When you are a player, you know that the next play could be your last. When I came to Philly, John Bunting, one of my former teammates, and I picked up a business in Jenkintown called the Abington Club, which was a golf course, a health club and a banquet facility, and we grew that business to be successful. I liked the golf business, so it kind of grew off that.”
Guiding philosophy: “My approach to business is just like when I played. I want to win. I get daily reports from everyone of my companies. I want to know the score. When you’re involved in the National Football League, the competitiveness never leaves you.”

Sam Ramasamy had been a partner in a public safety software company before, but it didn’t live up to his hopes. So, when that business was sold off in 2003, Ramasamy launched his own company, to fulfill the vision he had in mind. “I wanted to do bigger and better than before,” says Ramasamy. “Just like the phoenix, which burns itself to death and risesfrom the ashes as a powerful, beautiful bird, I wanted this new company to be powerful and memorable.” So, in 2004, his new business was named ProPhoenix.

With the help of some investments via friends and family, and a personal home equity loan, Ramasamy began work, both out of a friend’s office and his basement. Now, the company offers software solutions for law enforcement, fire, EMS, courts and corrections. “In today’s budget climate, public safety agencies are being required to do more with less,” says Ramasamy. “ProPhoenix was designed to meet this need, and we continually strive to improve the efficiencies of our customers.”

ProPhoenix is rapidly growing, with more than 160 user agencies in eight states, and expansion anticipated in an additional seven states in 2012. And today, ProPhoenix employs individuals from all around the globe. Ramasamy designed the initial product and hired professionals who had the skills to write software using the latest technology. Later, he added designers who had years of public safety experience.

Ramasamy says his goal is “shifting the public safety software paradigm.” “From our inception, we decided that we were going to change the way public safety software was offered,” he explains. “We eliminated a la carte sales and made ProPhoenix software an all-inclusive product, and we offer site licensing instead of forcing agencies to buy expensive individual licenses each time they add a user. We strive for long-term relationships. ProPhoenix makes a difference in improving public life and we are very proud to be part of that process.”

Headquarters: Moorestown
Year Founded: 2004
No. of employees: 78
2010 Revenue: $4.2 million
Inspiration: “I started my career as a scientist in a satellite research organization, which gave me the inspiration that there is usually a better way to do things.”
Guiding philosophy: Empowering people. “I believe that with a committed workforce possessing talent and skills, we will achieve our mission.”
Biggest risk: “My decision to buy out the investors and take sole ownership of ProPhoenix was the biggest risk I’ve taken. It put everything on the line, but looking back, with the talented and dedicated people I have working with me, that decision wasn’t so risky after all.”
What's next: “Our vision is to be a dominant player in the nation and our strategy is to compete on the competition’s strengths and not their weakness. Doing this will make us all perform better.”

Jay Several’s first entrepreneurial venture was launching his own computer software marketing and consulting firm. But after 22 successful years in the business, it was time to move on. So, Several sold that business, and began looking for his “next adventure.”

“After selling my software company at 55 years old, I knew I wasn’t ready to retire and needed a financial stream,” says Several. “I wanted to do something that I was passionate about, that wouldn’t seem like a job.”

That answer came in real estate—something that Several had always invested in as a hobby. Five years ago, he launched Several Properties Group with the hard-earned capital he had from his software company. Of course it wasn’t long after that the housing market collapsed. But Several says he was able to turn the economy into an opportunity.

“A lot of the problems came from the lack of jobs,” he says. “So I realized if we could lease spaces that would create jobs, we might be able to make this work.”

And that’s just what he did. Turning the Fromm Electric Building in Cherry Hill into a retail space with restaurants created 65 new jobs. At least 15 new jobs came from redeveloping the former Cherry Hill Toyota dealership into retail space. In addition to putting up internal financing, Several says he hasn’t had much trouble getting financing from the bank for what he calls “value-added” redevelopments. “I’ve found that since my projects are under $5 million, which is the lending limit for local banks, that they’ve been interested in financing them,” he says. “They recognize thevalue in our mission of taking an existing property and converting it to something productive that will help the community.”

Headquarters: Cherry Hill
Year Founded: 2006
No. of employees: Several is a sole proprietor, however he likes to say he has “a whole army of independent consultants including lawyers, planners, engineers, architects, and more”
Guiding Philosophy: A quote from Calvin Coolidge, paraphrased: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
Biggest Risk: “Going into the real estate business when the economy was tanking. Shortly after I sold my computer software business and invested all of the proceeds into real estate, the market collapsed. Forging ahead was uncertain but I decided to turn the economy into an opportunity.”
What's next: “Continuing to look for value-added redevelopments with the same mission of creating jobs. With President Obama’s latest bill being pushed, job creation is going to continue to be a major effort to improve the economy.”

Tim Fox was in his young high school years when both of his parents were diagnosed with terminal cancer. As a result, he became intimately involved in their care, and subsequently immersed in the healthcare system. That experience led him to the sciences, and he graduated from Thomas Jefferson University in 1995, taking a physical therapy position in a hospital setting. Ultimately, he wound up in long-term care, and that’s when his observations of the treatment of the elderly inspired him to make a difference.

“I noticed a bias against the elderly,” says Fox. “I saw that the elderly could only receive rehab services once they were sick. They had to have an acute illness or be hospitalized to receive any rehabilitation. Not only the general population, but much of the medical community is willing to accept that a decline in function is OK if you’re old—it’s just part of aging. That’s where I believe we’re missing the boat in modern medicine. Why is it OK to accept that an older individual shouldn’t be able to get better or improve their functionality?”

That inspiration to make a difference in elder patient care, coupled with a significant Medicare change in 1998 that allowed patients who weren’t sick or hospitalized to receive home health care, was the catalyst for Fox Rehabilitation. It started with Fox going to patients’ homes and working out of his basement. “The growth was organic— there were no investors and no capital,” he says. “It just started with me. Today I remain the sole owner but have 500 therapists on board with me.”

And Fox says he knows they’re changing peoples’ lives. He hears it on a daily basis from patients. “Patients tell me they can now leave their house or take a shower when they hadn’t been able to for years,” he says. “Our patients are doing things they once thought impossible.”

Headquarters: Cherry Hill
Year Founded: 1998
No. of employees: 735
2010 Revenue: $50 million-plus
Inspiration: “I believe in the scientific- based evidence behind what we do. And I believe in our therapists. Happy clinicians make for good health care.”
Guiding philosophy: “‘Do right and fear no man.’ If you do the right thing, you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Biggest risk: “We take a daily risks when dealing with our government and Medicare system. We are dealing with a government and politicians that don’t truly understand their constituents’ health care needs.”
What’s next: “To continue to be a health- care advocate. We haven’t even skimmed the surface yet. There are solutions to make aging easier and more enjoyable. I’d like to remove the stigma and biases that are associated with aging.”

It was a “personal touch” that Kelly McCabe Tandourjian and Patti Maltese thought was lacking in the home health care industry. Homecare nurses may change the bedpan, administer medications or even do at-home check-ups, but it isn’t their duty to provide a home-cooked meal, fold laundry, or even just make the bed. Though the young and healthy often take these types of everyday chores for granted, simple tasks such as changing sheets can become difficult with arthritic hands or other side effects of aging.

Tandourjian and Maltese had previously worked together in the staffing industry and started talking about developing a new home care program that would fill in some of these gaps. While they first explored the franchise system, they decided they knew the industry well enough and wanted to go out on their own. With an investment from their 401k plans, the pair was able to launch TLC HomeCare Services without a business loan or investors.

In order to research what their clients truly needed, the pair spent time training as Certified Home Health Aides and Certified Nurse’s Assistants, performing clinical hours at local nursing homes. “That gave us in- valuable insight,” says Maltese. “We learned the trials and tribulations that come into play when caring for a loved one.”

One of the innovative endeavors since launching the company was creating a home care gift card that allows loved ones to give prepaid hours of service. “When the suggestion for extra help is made, an elder person may feel that their independence is being taken away” says Tandourjian. “But when given as a gift card, it feels more like a sense of pampering. It’s a kinder, gentler way of initially introducing home care.”

Headquarters: Marlton
Year founded: 2009
No. of employees: 100
2010 revenue: proprietary
Inspiration: “In staffing, I realized that we were providing a helpful service, but I knew we could make a bigger impact if we were sending a smiling, compassionate face to make the day of an elderly or disabled individual,” says Tandourjian.
Guiding philosophy: Maltese says: “TLC strives to provide dedicated, caring, qualified caregivers who value the independence and dignity of our clients.”
Biggest risk: Launching a business without knowing the future. “When we stepped off that ledge we didn’t know if the ledge would still be there if we needed to step back,” says Tandourjian. “The fear of falling keeps you moving full speed ahead.”
What's next: “TLC Home Care Services is committed to expanding our services with alternative, holistic practices in an effort to enhance our clients’ experience,” says Maltese. “We are expanding our menu to include in-home massage therapy, reflexology, aromatherapy and nutritional counseling.”

Photo: (From left) Praveen Dala, Barbara Armand and Robert Lipinski

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 1, Issue 9 (September, 2011).
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