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Former Stryker Corporation President and CEO John Brown crunched the numbers and arrived at the following conclusion. Stryker stock traded at 8 cents per share when the company went public on May 2, 1979. If an individual invested $8,000 in shares that day and held onto the stock, that investment would now be worth $1 billion.
Brown, the first inductee into the Auburn University Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, has always been a believer in the power of numbers. “Numbers matter,” said Brown, who earned an engineering degree from Auburn in 1957. “They always set the difference between success and failure.”
Brown headlined the first Auburn University Entrepreneur Hall of Fame gala presented by the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business because of his ability to set and meet ambitious numerical goals. When he joined Kalamazoo, Michigan-based Stryker in 1976, it was a small, family-owned business known for making hospital beds and stretchers. Brown set the goal of taking the company public and achieving 20 percent net income growth each year.
That approach made Brown a prominent subject in the Jim Collins book, “Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All.” Collins, co-author Morten T. Hansen and a team of researchers analyzed the methods of companies that consistently beat their industry performance indexes a minimum of 10 times over a 15-year period despite battling uncertainty and unfavorable market conditions. Collins described top managers like Brown as having a “20 Mile March” mentality, meaning they blended intelligence and discipline with specific and tough performance goals.
“I thought I was going to get laughed out of the room,” Brown said of his initial discussions with investors and employees. “But we did it, year in and year out. We never did have to argue about what our goal was. The goal always set all of our activities for the year. Everybody knew what they had to do. That 20 percent per year (goal) produced fabulous results.”
By the time Brown retired as chairman of the board in 2009, Stryker had grown into a global leader in medical and surgical equipment, neurotechnology, and orthopedics with more than 17,000 employees worldwide and more than $6.7 billion in sales.
The April 24 Hall of Fame gala capped off the first Auburn University Entrepreneurship Summit, which also included the Tiger Cage student entrepreneurship competition and the Top Tigers luncheon honoring the fastest-growing firms founded, owned or led by Auburn alumni. In addition to honoring Brown, the Harbert College of Business also presented individual entrepreneurship awards for the first time to alumni from five different academic units.
Gary Martin, a 1957 engineering graduate, earned the first Spirit of Auburn Family Entrepreneurship Award for his role in growing a family-owned business, Martin Sprocket & Gear, over the course of six decades. Through his service as vice president, executive vice president, president and vice chairman, Martin helped the Texas-based company become a leader in such areas as machining, powdered metal technology, industrial hand tools and power transmission components.
Entrepreneur of the Year Award winners included Delphinus Medical Technologies President and CEO Mark Forchette, Oskar Blues Brewery Founder and Owner Dale Katechis and Iron Tribe Fitness Founder and CEO Forrest Walden. Forchette, a 1981 marketing graduate, leads a Michigan-based company that conceptualized and developed a first-of-its-kind whole breast ultrasound system. Katechis and Walden built fast-growing businesses from humble beginnings.
Katechis began experimenting with a home brewing kit and making beer in the bath tub of the mobile home he occupied as an Auburn student before earning a finance degree in 1992. Walden, a 1998 exercise science alum, began his business in the garage of his Birmingham home with a group of friends meeting for physical fitness training. Both companies have since landed on the Inc. 5,000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing companies.
Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award winners included Tailgate Guys/The Event Group CEO and President Parker Duffey (horticulture, 2006), Wire Road Studios CEO and President James Kelley (sociology, 2005) and Back Forty Beer Company CEO Jason Wilson (supply chain management, 2005). Duffey’s Auburn-based company, which stages tailgating events for a variety of university clients and the Chick-fil-A Bowl, ranked 17th among Alabama’s fastest-growing businesses in 2014.
Kelley’s Houston-based music and audio recording studio has built relationships with major record labels, earning a Platinum Record for its work on Beyonce’s self-titled album, as well as a Gold Record and “Addy” awards for other projects. “It’s a tremendously challenging business,” Kelley said. “It’s 24-7, 365, literally. The studio does not close. I’ve gone years without taking a single Saturday or Sunday off.”
Each award winner cited the importance of supportive spouses and family members, as well as the Auburn Creed-ingrained trait of “hard work.” Wilson attempted to pay homage to the latter when he launched Back Forty Beer, which was selected as the state’s Small Manufacturer of the Year by the Business Council of Alabama.
“The Back Forty is an old agricultural term that refers to the acreage farthest from the barn, the hardest to maintain,” he said. “Most farmers don’t bother working that land because it’s so remote. The irony of the Back Forty is that, if you’re willing to do the hard work to clear the soil, move the old tractors and run the irrigation, it’s the freshest soil on the farm and will produce the largest yield.”