Chamber’s Salute to Business Honors Ingenuity through Tough Times

NILES, Ohio – The past year has been a challenging one for businesses and organizations of all stripes. And for the perseverance through uncertain economic times, the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber’s annual Salute to Business was a toast to the best that the Mahoning Valley business community has to offer.

“There’s ingenuity that came out of our award winners,” said Guy Coviello, president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. “It shows, once again, that we’re resilient. It’s been a very difficult ride for a lot of businesses and it continues to be a difficult time, whether it’s COVID related or workforce related or some combination. We still have a long way to go through this crisis, but I think we’ve shown our resilience quite well.”

One of Coviello’s examples of how the business community adapted to the challenges of the pandemic was Holly and Jeff Swartz, co-owners of Personal Protected and Hitch-Hiker Inc. When the pandemic hit, the couple saw virtually all of their business at Hitch-Hiker, a manufacturer of concession trailers for fairs and festivals, dry up. 

“For several weeks, we were losing orders on a daily basis. We were talking in our office that we needed something to do that would keep our guys here,” Jeff Swartz said. “When we started hearing the governor talk about staying six feet apart, washing your hands and wearing a mask, he also mentioned that it was all to get us back together. That alone – coming back together – is where the wheels started to turn.”

In a matter of days, the company went from initial sketch to prototypes of what is now the Quad Sink, a four-station hand washing station that can be moved around sites as needed. The first fulfilled order was to Youngstown State University in the spring of 2020 and, more recently, their products have shipped as far as Germany.

“The innovation side really came from just the way we work. Jeff is always designing for customers and innovating with Hitch-Hiker. It was just natural for us to think of ways to get people back together,” Holly Swartz said. “This past year is the hardest we’ve worked in a long time because this was a challenge, but we were all up for it.”

For their work and the success of the Personal Protected team, the Swartzes were honored as Entrepreneurs of the Year.

Also recognized at Salute to Business were:

  • Business Advocate of the Year – Dean Harris, executive director of Western Reserve Transit Authority.
  • Nonprofit Professional of the Year – Dr. Ronald Dwinnells, CEO of One Health Ohio.
  • Small-Businessperson of the Year – Fred Moran, owner and partner of Window World of Youngstown.
  • Salute to Labor Achievement – Jim Burgham, business manager of IBEW Local 64.

While public transportation can often be overlooked, Harris said, the efforts of WRTA have been crucial to local economic development. When the Regional Chamber was courting the TJX distribution center, one of the company’s requirements was that it had connecting bus routes that would allow workers to reliably get to the Lordstown site if they didn’t have their own transportation.

Without WRTA, Coviello said, that project wouldn’t have come to the Valley.

“Public transportation is usually an afterthought for most people because cars are king. Being recognized for the service we’re providing that gives people better access to jobs is just – it’s great,” Harris said.

The agency’s next step, he added, is adding an express route to Akron, which will allow Valley residents to then get onto Cleveland’s metro system.

“That’s designed more to get people to the VA hospital in Cleveland through a connection with the Cleveland Metro,” he said. “We also have our autonomous shuttle that we’ll hopefully show off and start next spring, depending on production time.” 

And on Sept. 21, WRTA will have its first public hearing on the elimination of fares for its bus routes. If approved by the organization’s board, the change would take effect in early January.

At One Health Ohio, the health-care organization is continuing work on its Glenwood Health Center, which will employ a new model aimed at addressing not just physical health, but the social determinants as well, Dwinnells said. The site will include greenhouses, walking paths and spaces for community events aimed at making the South Side neighborhood as a whole healthier.

When he founded One Health Ohio 36 years ago, the system of federally qualified health centers were viewed as “lesser than” alternatives to the already-established hospitals and medical practices.

“We started 36 years ago to support people who didn’t have insurance or were underinsured. They were people who couldn’t go anywhere else for health care. … Because of that setting, we were looked at as ‘the poor people’s health care’ and people thought that only bad doctors worked there because they couldn’t work anywhere else,” he explained. 

“Thirty-six years later, to be recognized for this work, it’s absolutely a tremendous feeling. Maybe we’re not such bad doctors after all,” he continued with a laugh.

For the Moran family and Window World of Youngstown, it was the employees at its sites across Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia that kept things running smoothly, said Fred Moran, who started the franchise with his son in 2003.

“The biggest advantage we have is the people we have. During the pandemic, we really lost no one. We had PPP funds and put it to work,” he said. “That gave us a different perspective that really lets us appreciate our people all the more. Business-wise, we were fortunate to be in the Valley for many years and the area’s been good to us.”

The company’s next step, he continued, is expansion into Michigan, with a site likely in Saginaw.

Burgham was recognized for his career as an electrician and his three terms as business manager for IBEW Local 64.

“It’s always special to be recognized for something you love doing, something that you’re proud of. I’ve always loved this industry and working in it,” he said. “I’ve found it to be just as rewarding to represent membership and help them out as they make their way through their careers.”

While the depictions of labor and management often lean into more adversarial situations, Burgham said that in the Mahoning Valley, there’s a good relationship that has lead to success for all. Part of that, he said, is due to the IBEW’s no-strike clause in contracts, which prevents work stoppages even if there are disputes between the union and managements.

“Ultimately, it’s customers that we’re working for. That’s who uses our services. Without customers, contractors would have no jobs to bid and our members would have nowhere to work,” he said. “It’s important to give customers what they need. Our no-strike clause in contracts means grievances are solved in-house. … When [customers] ask for a job to be completed on time and on budget, that’s what they deserve.”

The keynote speaker at Salute to Business was Barry Zekelman, CEO and executive chairman of Zekleman Industries, the largest independent steel tube manufacturer in North America. Locally, the company owns Wheatland Tube and Sharon Tube.

When Zekelman first got involved in the company after his father died, the company had just five employees at its shop in Windsor, Ontario, and was running on “pretty rickety machinery,” he said.

“We were in the hole, losing money. It was a journey of necessity, you know, with that being the mother of invention. Our feet were thrown into the fire, but I was a mechanically inclined kid and I like, at the end of the day, to see what I’ve built,” he said. “That’s what we did. We learned about the equipment, fixed it up and took chances. I realized early on that the strength in any company is your teammates.”

Last year, the company reported $5 billion in sales and has introduced new products to market, such as modular steel frames that allow buildings up to three stories tall to be built quicker and more efficiently. 

For the company’s local presence, he noted that Wheatland Tube is this year celebrating its 140th anniversary.

“We’re proud of that and I hope it’s another 140 with another 140 after that,” he said. “We have the same dream with Sharon Tube as well.”

During the ceremony, the Regional Chamber recognized long-standing businesses and organizations in the Valley that have hit major milestones:

  • Harrington, Hoppe & Mitchell, 187 years.
  • Canfield Fair, 175 years.
  • L. Calvin Jones, 110 years.
  • Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC, 100 years.
  • Stambaugh Auditorium, 95 years.
  • Home Builders and Remodelers of the Valley, 75 years.
  • Lewis Construction, 51 years.
  • Beatitude House, 30 years.

Also recognized were Sherman Creative, the Rich Center for Autism and Group Management Services for 25 years.

The ingenuity and resilience shown by the companies recognized at Salute to Business, whether they received physical awards or not, has set the stage for bright times in the Mahoning Valley, Coviello said. Alongside groundbreaking innovations in places like Lordstown Motors or Ultium Cells or major developments like the TJX distribution center, the Valley also saw “more economic investment per capita than any other region in Ohio,” the chamber president said.

“From April 2021 through October 2021, we’re going to see the highest percentage of job creation in the metropolitan statistical area,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of good trends here and I think we’re going to see that continue.”

Pictured: The honorees at the 2021 Salute to Business are Dean Harris of WRTA, Jim Burgham of IBEW Local 64, Fred Moran of Window World, Holly and Jeff Swartz of Personal Protected, and Dr. Ron Dwinnells of One Health Ohio.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.