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These Leaders Have a Talent for Business Building

Here's how four fast-growing private companies depended on "killer talent" in order to scale up successfully.

by Carrie Blackmore

Divisions Maintenance Group, Gravity Diagnostics, Prolink, and SugarCreek have nothing in common and everything in common as growing businesses.

Divisions is in the facility management business, helping its customers streamline service contracts for everything from landscaping to plumbing to window cleaning. What does DMG sell to the big-box retailers, distribution centers, apartment complexes, and medical facilities they serve? Peace of mind, says CEO Gary Mitchell.

Gravity Diagnostics is a laboratory conducting all sorts of diagnostic tests. Inside its state-of-the-art facility in Covington, the company ran 45 percent of the state of Kentucky’s COVID tests during the height of the pandemic. Since then, it’s shifted into other areas, says CEO Tony Remington, including substance abuse disorder and mental health.

Prolink is a workforce solutions company that placed 70,000 people into a plethora of jobs across the country in 2022. The company does far more than staffing these days, says CEO Tony Munafo, offering expertise in talent acquisition planning, culture, data collection, and more.

Finally, SugarCreek is a food manufacturer, one of the nation’s largest producers of bacon products and proud new owner of classic Cincinnati beer brands. If you shop at Costco or Walmart, you’ve probably eaten some of its food, says Board Chair John G. Richardson.

They’re very different companies, yet they all have two outward characteristics in common: Each has experienced tremendous growth since launching from the seed of an idea. And each chief executive has approached business challenges and opportunities from an entrepreneurial mindset.

The four leaders speak to Realm about their intentions to find, nurture, and retain top talent in every corner of their companies, and each expresses a deep sense of responsibly to their clients. How else have they found success? Let’s dig a little deeper.

In November 2022, parts of western New York got buried in more than five feet of snow, but Divisions Maintenance Group had a plan for one of its clients, Walgreens, which has hundreds of stores in the state. DMG handles snow and ice removal for Walgreens stores all around the country, and days before the historic storm hit the company had already called in additional equipment and manpower from surrounding cities and states. Its network of providers worked night and day to keep the stores—including 30 in hard-hit Buffalo—accessible to the public. Ultimately, just five stores had to close temporarily.

“Facing many challenges including a state of emergency, travel, and the holidays, DMG was able to execute at a high level and provide timely updates as requested,” the Walgreens team wrote when it awarded DMG a Vendor Recognition Award. How did they do it? “It starts with no constraints,” says CEO Gary Mitchell. “We’re able to utilize local providers who are very knowledgeable—that’s why I call them ‘pros’—but we’re also able to call in resources.”

Gary Mitchell

Mitchell started DMG in 1999 with one client, a friend who owned five retail stores in Northern Kentucky. The friend told Mitchell that dealing with 28 different vendors—one for plumbing, one for HVAC, one for lot sweeping, one for snow removal, and so on—was a time suck and invoices often contained uncommunicated costs.

There had to be a better way if so many facilities, large and small, were being managed in similar individual silos, Mitchell thought. Divisions began adding clients and building its network of providers. Today, the company averages one million work orders a year at 60,000 properties across the U.S., including every Kroger, Kohl’s, and Lowe’s store nationwide.

DMG achieves this level of service by tapping into its network of vetted providers, who specialize in all sorts of services, including those already mentioned along with concrete repair, painting, janitorial services, power washing, EV charging station installation, and more. DMG account managers work with clients to streamline all of the services they need, and field managers visit facilities monthly, taking photos and identifying issues before they become problems.

Technology plays a big part in what they do, Mitchell says, and DMG has created smart phone applications for its clients and providers to have a plug-and-play, easily communicated experience. Today, the company employs around 1,000

people, a 147 percent increase since 2020. Revenues from 2018 to 2022 have grown by 140 percent, with 2022 revenues exceeding $607.7 million.

None of it could be possible without DMG’s “killer talent,” Mitchell says, which recently moved into a new downtown headquarters office in The Foundry development across from Fountain Square (top photograph). It was time for the team to come together under one roof, Mitchell says, and work together in a fun and inspiring environment. Case in point: The office has plenty of great places for teams and individuals to focus on the job at hand, but also a decompression zone, with gaming consoles, a ping pong table, and skeeball.

“It comes down to speed, quality, and cost,” says Mitchell. “DMG delivers on all three.”

When CEO Tony Remington and Chief Operations Officer Julie Brazil (above) established Gravity Diagnostics in 2016, they had no way of knowing that laboratories like theirs would play a vital role in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We saw the value of diagnostic testing, so we sought out to build or buy a laboratory,” says Remington. “We found a laboratory in Covington that was licensed in all 50 states … but we had no idea what was going to happen.”

The company’s chief science officer approached the pair in early 2020, asking whether they should validate and begin testing for a mysterious and deadly virus beginning to spread on the other side of the globe. Yes, they agreed. Their laboratory was soon running samples for the states of Kentucky and Indiana, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Kroger Health.

Demand for rapid test results catapulted the company from $5.8 million in revenues in 2019 to $145.2 million in 2020, turning Gravity Diagnostics into the fastest growing company in the region during that time, according to the Cincinnati Business Courier. The company exploded from 50 pre-pandemic employees to 500 at COVID’s peak. The lab expanded, too, from 5,000 to 80,000 square feet.

“When COVID hit the United States, we focused on the intensive care units and nursing homes where patients needed rapid results the most,” Remington says. “We felt we had a responsibility to assist our community, so saying no was never an option.”

The company has conducted more than four million COVID tests to date, with COVID tests constituted 95 percent of the lab’s workload during the height of the pandemic. Today, COVID samples represent 5 percent of the workload, while non-COVID samples are up 10-fold since 2019, Remington says. He and Brazil decided to pivot into the areas of substance use disorder and mental health disorders and are now doing a lot of medical monitoring and toxicology testing for addiction clinics around the U.S.

Looking to the future, Remington would like to see diagnostics testing become a bigger part of the wellness and prevention side of healthcare. “We truly believe more testing before you need the results, when done correctly, will reduce overall healthcare costs and save lives,” he says.

What else does he attribute their success to? “Our team, our people, our commitment to doing right by others and paying it forward,” says Remington. “We never accept no, we work hard, and we find a way to overcome obstacles.”

Words on the conference room wall behind CEO Tony Munafo read “Here We Grow,” “Linked by Empathy,” and “Family First.” Munafo is talking about how his company became the third-fastest growing business in Cincinnati between 2020 and 2022, when revenues grew 453 percent from $316.2 million in 2020 to $1.7 billion in 2022.

“It wasn’t about being the biggest,” he says. “It’s about being the best. The best for our clients, for our talent, and for our internal team—giving them the resources they needed to be the best versions of themselves.”

Munafo started Prolink with his younger brother, Michael Munafo, in 2011. The brothers previously had worked for another staffing company, where the elder Munafo had first been a recruiter and then served in operations. He was leading teams in Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton when he was offered another promotion in Virginia.

Tony Munafo

A mentor, who Munafo has been meeting with for years, asked him if he was happy. Did he want something different? If so, the mentor suggested he should think about starting his own company. The conversation made Munafo think of his father, who had said they would start a company together when he beat cancer. “I went to Mike and said, We’re going to start a business.”

Munafo’s father died years before, just as Munafo was entering high school. But in the 10 years that he fought cancer, Vince Munafo showed his sons the meaning of perseverance, living without complaint, the power of positivity, and family. “You get one life, one opportunity,” Tony says. “It’s not about how long your life is or how many breaths you take. It’s what you do with those breaths.”

The brothers started Prolink as a staffing agency connecting occupational and physical therapists with temporary jobs in hospitals and schools. Since then, it’s expanded to include other parts of the healthcare industry, including travel healthcare jobs, and other industries, including technology and skilled labor sectors like engineering, manufacturing, and construction. Today Prolink has 15 offices in major cities across the country—from Cincinnati to Florida to Hawaii—and employs roughly 1,100 people.

The company dropped the word “staffing” from its name last year because its scope has broadened, says Munafo. Prolink has developed processes, in-depth client analysis, and other workforce optimization solutions to help clients fill jobs while also planning for the right team and creating a thriving workplace culture.

Munafo’s father taught him what it means to leave a legacy, and Munafo wants his and Prolink’s legacy to be about empowerment. “We want to create a vehicle for people to get where they want to go personally, professionally, and financially in order to create their own legacy,” he says.

SugarCreek has started brewing Hudy Delight in Over-the-Rhine again. // Photograph by Chris Von Holle

SugarCreek founder John S. Richardson started working in the meat business after World War II. Beginning in a simple sales job, he rose through the industry to lead day-to-day operations for an international, full-line meat packing plant, says his son, SugarCreek Board Chair John G. Richardson.

“He was really good with numbers and recognized the industry was changing into specialty processing,” Richardson says. “He noticed out of all the departments—hams, loins, ribs, all the others—bacon was the department that made the most money.” And so in 1966 the elder Richardson and two partners purchased land in Washington Court House, 80 miles northeast of Cincinnati, and opened SugarCreek’s first bacon production plant.

Fast forward to today: SugarCreek is one of the largest custom manufacturers of private-label bacon products in the U.S. and has expanded to include many other ready-to-eat, organic, and fresh food products such as sausage, poultry, beef, seafood, and more. “We are really a meal solutions company,” says John G. Richardson, selling to both retail and food service industries.

Headquartered in Blue Ash, SugarCreek operates six plants in three states, including one of the nation’s first commercial-scale sous vide operations in Cambridge City, Indiana. The company has expanded into charcuterie, grains, and pastas and employs roughly 2,700 people.

In 2013, SugarCreek co-developed Brandworthy Food Solutions in West Chester Township. Products for some of North America’s best-known food brands in retail stores like Costco and Walmart are processed and packed there. The company recently passed $1 billion in annual revenues, and Richardson attributes their success to a tone his father set from the start. “He used to say, Good enough is not enough,” he says.

They take that to heart, says President Michael Richardson, the third generation to lead the company. To date SugarCreek has never faced a product recall. “We’re not perfect, but we obsess about what needs to be tweaked and what needs more support,” Michael says. “At the end of the day, when you’re feeding people and your name is on it, there is an element of pride. I don’t want my in-laws, my neighbors, or any of our customers to have a bad experience.”

SugarCreek acquired Cincinnati Beverage Company last year, making them the owners of classic Cincinnati beer brands Christian Moerlein, Little Kings, Hudepohl, and Burger as well as a handful of historic beer-related buildings in Over-the-Rhine. It’s a passion project, says John G. Richardson, who is fascinated by the city’s brewing history. “We have unbelievable engineering and operations knowledge, so the pieces just came together,” he says.

Staying relevant is the name of the game, Michael Richardson says, as is being an employer of choice. To attract and keep talent, SugarCreek provides on-site daycare on its campuses, transportation to work, and housing options for its employees. “At the end of the day, you can have the nicest facilities and the best equipment,” Michael says, “but you’re going to lose if you don’t make a concerted effort to take care of your employees.”