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David Zalik revealed himself as something of a prodigy more than 20 years ago. He took his first class at Auburn University as a 14-year-old and did so well that he skipped high school.
When he wasn’t studying mathematics and computer science and taking “as many business courses as I could,” Zalik was developing his entrepreneurial skills at a similarly accelerated pace. He started his first company, set up shop outside campus computer labs and sold floppy disks to his classmates for $5 a pop.
“The students were required to show up with them and most of them didn’t,” Zalik said. “That was the beginning.”
These days, as co-founder and CEO of GreenSky Trade Credit LLC, Zalik helps set the course of a company that employs 800, counts more than 500,000 customers and expects to do more than $3 billion in business. GreenSky, Deshazo Automation, and BrightWhistle were the big winners among the 60 companies honored at the first Top Tigers awards luncheon hosted at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center on Friday, April 24.
Presented by Auburn University’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, in partnership with Business Alabama magazine and Warren Averett CPAs and Advisors, Top Tigers honors the fastest-growing companies founded, owned, or led by Auburn University alumni. Warren Averett CPAs and Advisors calculated companies’ compound annual growth rates over a three year period and ranked them according to total revenue. Nearly 300 companies were nominated for Top Tigers, one of three events held as part of the inaugural Auburn University Entrepreneurship Summit. The daylong program began with the Tiger Cage student entrepreneurship competition and ended with the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame gala.
GreenSky, a small business and consumer credit provider, ranked No. 1 among Top Tigers in the Large Company category (revenue in excess of $20 million). Deshazo Automation, a developer of robotics and manufacturer of overhead cranes, earned topped honors in the Medium Company division (revenue range of $5 million to $20 million). Leading the list of Small Companies (revenue up to $5 million) was BrightWhistle, a digital marketing and lead provider for healthcare systems.
All told, the average growth rate for Top Tigers companies was 34 percent. While Top Tigers might make sustained growth appear easy, the winners said the reality is quite different.
“When we first heard about this [awards] program six or eight months ago, we had really been through a tough time,” said Chris McCulley, President of Deshazo Automation and a 1994 computer engineering graduate. “Four years ago, the company really wasn’t making money and we weren’t profitable. Employee morale was down. We decided we were going to forget about that -- let’s not concentrate on our profit, let’s just concentrate on being the best. We woke up four years later and we were making money and our customer loyalty was the best it has ever been. It was a complete turnaround.”
Top Tigers keynote speaker Kevin Harrington, one of the original judges from ABC’s “Shark Tank,” founder of the infomercial and investor in more than 500 inventions, said the most successful entrepreneurs and business leaders are resilient. “Not everything that I do is successful,” Harrington said. “I actually fail more than I succeed. In my world, I fail three out of four times. If you’ve been successful 100 percent of the time, you’re not trying enough things.”
Whether starting a business from scratch or attempting to change the fortunes of an existing company, BrightWhistle Senior VP for Sales and Development Jason Hopper said entrepreneurs can’t afford to be paralyzed by fear.
“You have to begin with not being afraid and not telling yourself `no’ when you’re shaving and blowing your hair dry,” said Hopper, a 1997 management information systems graduate.