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ArcelorMittal Department of Energy and elected officials gathered in October for the groundbreaking of a $63 million project to make North America's largest blast furnace, No. 7 at the Indiana Harbor steel mill, more energy efficient. [People in photo, from left to right] Isaac Chan, Mark Whalen, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland, Representative Earl Harris, Andy Harshaw, Tom Hargrove, Congressman Pete Visclosky, Celina Weatherwax. (Photograph courtesy of ArcelorMittal.)

ArcelorMittal Department of Energy and elected officials gathered in October for the groundbreaking of a $63 million project to make North America's largest blast furnace, No. 7 at the Indiana Harbor steel mill, more energy efficient. (People in photo, from left to right) Isaac Chan, Mark Whalen, East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland, Representative Earl Harris, Andy Harshaw, Tom Hargrove, Congressman Pete Visclosky, Celina Weatherwax. (Photograph courtesy of ArcelorMittal.)

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” Benjamin Franklin quipped at the end of the 18th century. But indefinite population growth and finite fossil fuel supplies point to a 21st-century certainty that business owners are especially aware of: rising energy prices.

Today, as gas prices creep back up after their rapid fall from historic highs in 2008, all kinds of Northwest Indiana enterprises are paying closer attention to their electricity, gas and oil bills, hunting for ways to cut fixed costs by using energy more efficiently. Increasingly, conserving energy is an economic (rather than just an environmental) decision.
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Michael Tolbert

(Photograph by Tony V. Martin.)

(Photograph by Tony V. Martin.)

Of all professionals, lawyers may have the worst public image: We’ve all heard lawyer jokes, and they are never flattering. Gary native Michael Tolbert, a partner at the law firm of Hoeppner, Wagner and Evans, is determined to prove the longstanding stereotype wrong, whether he’s working with clients and colleagues or volunteering to better his hometown.

“At a really young age, I felt a need to serve people,” says Tolbert, who graduated from Valparaiso University School of Law in 2000. “I didn’t even think of the money. I was more concerned with where I could make the biggest impact. The practice of law seemed to be the best fit to me.”

Although just 35, Tolbert has already been practicing for 10 years, mostly focusing on civil, bad faith insurance and employment-related litigation. But he’s been doing more than just representing Northwest Indiana clients at his Merrillville-based firm during that time—he’s dedicated much of his time to ensuring lawyers keep their knowledge base up-to-date and adhere to strict professional ethics.

“As lawyers,” Tolbert says, “we often forget that we’re in the business of serving people.” While president of the Porter County chapter of the American Inns of Court, a national organization dedicated to changing the general public’s perception of lawyers, he helped make sure area attorneys lead by example. “If we can talk about making sure we treat a client fairly, making sure we are cordial and professional with each other, then slowly and surely the perception of lawyers will change.”
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Tina St. Aubin

(Photograph by Tony V. Martin.)

(Photograph by Tony V. Martin.)

Last year, in recognition of the city’s efforts to revitalize itself without raising taxes, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce named Valparaiso “Community of the Year.” Tina St. Aubin had something to do with that honor, the first for a Northwest Indiana town: As executive director of Valparaiso Community Festivals and Events, Inc. (VCFE) since 2008, St. Aubin has played a central role in ensuring that her city’s downtown remains attractive to families and businesses alike.

“Our goal is to continue to bring events to the community that everyone can support,” says St. Aubin, 37. “That’s what we do. If we can help businesses to succeed, that’s even better.”

As a lifelong resident of Valparaiso and member of a family of small business owners, St. Aubin would seem to offer the perfect blend of community passion and practical knowledge. “We do events that can help business be successful,” says St. Aubin, who has worked as operations manager at Duffy’s Place, the Valparaiso bar and restaurant her husband owns. “I understand their challenges; I understand the risks that they’ve taken.”

Formed in 1999, VCFE is dedicated to improving Valparaiso’s retail environment, initiating cooperative efforts and providing family-oriented recreational events. In practice, that means St. Aubin spends much of her time working closely with city officials and VCFE’s board of directors to plan and oversee a variety of annual events, many of which are familiar to Valparaiso residents. These include the long-running Popcorn Festival (Orville Redenbacher resided in Valparaiso), this year’s inaugural Valpo Brewfest, the Fall Harvest Festival and the VCFE Concert Series, which is a fundraiser for the organization. (VCFE is partly funded by the city, but it is an independent nonprofit.)
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Cynthia Mose-Trevino

(Photograph by Tony V. Martin.)

(Photograph by Tony V. Martin.)

From a young age, Cynthia Mose-Trevino knew she wanted to dedicate her life to giving back to her community. But it wasn’t until studying African-American history and culture at Indiana University at Bloomington that she realized she wanted to give back by ensuring all Americans have equal access to a quality education.

Throughout her education career, all of which has been at Gary’s struggling Calumet High School, Mose-Trevino has left her mark on students—first as a guidance counselor, then as a teacher, and now as an administrator. Although no longer working in classrooms, there’s no doubt that the 36-year-old Gary native and Calumet high graduate is dramatically impacting Calumet students’ future.

That’s because as Director of New Tech at Calumet—one of 23 schools statewide that have been on academic probation for six straight years and could face state takeover next year—Mose-Trevino is leading the charge to fundamentally remake the school and redefine how students learn there. “We took things and shook it upside down,” she says. “We want students to be prepared for positions in a 21st century society.”
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Shannon Burhans

(Photograph by Tony V. Martin.)

(Photograph by Tony V. Martin.)

Like anyone who runs a small independent business and has young children, Shannon Burhans stays very busy. Paid vacations are hard to come by. When her young children aren’t in school, they’re probably with her—and need rides to sports or gymnastics practices.

That would be enough for most people, but not Burhans, who for the last seven years has run The eState, a jewelry, memorabilia and antiques shop in Portage, with her husband Dave. Throughout those years, the 38-year-old mother of two also volunteered for a dizzying array of positions in four organizations: the Portage Chamber of Commerce, the Portage Kiwanis club, Safe Sitter and the Portage Parks and Recreation Foundation.

“I really enjoy doing community service,” says Burhans, who’s originally from Schererville and went to Lake Central High School. Last year, she was named “Distinguished Club President” by Kiwanis International, which is dedicated to “changing the world, one child and one community at a time.” Burhans is the immediate past-president of the Portage club. She’s also served as the club’s secretary and vice-president, and is currently chair of its membership committee.

She also coordinates the club’s Dictionary Project, which she created while serving as vice president in 2006. Each year, the club fundraises to purchase dictionaries that are given to all third graders in Portage Township schools. “Most of us have the internet, so you wouldn’t think a dictionary would be such a big deal,” says Burhans, who lives in Portage. But children like having their own dictionary. “Every one of those kids is extremely grateful—they’re using it, they’re interested.”
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Rob Grill

(Photograph Robert Wray.)

(Photograph Robert Wray.)

Many small business owners rightly feel threatened by “big box” stores, but not Rob Grill, co-owner of Gus Bock’s Ace Hardware store in Dyer. The way Grill sees it, his store has developed a loyal customer base by offering unique products and services—things even sprawling home improvement stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s don’t carry.

“You want to make big purchases, [so] I understand you’ll want to go to the big stores,” Grill says. “But they’re not going to be able to fix things,” Grill says. “We have a service department where customers can get items fixed.” With a licensed mechanic on staff and unusual product lines in stock—the store offers hundreds of work boots, plenty of work clothing and rentable equipment—Grill is confident that Gus Bock’s can co-exist with the big boxes.

Some of that confidence might come from having worked closely with his father and brothers during the last 30 years to keep the business going. It’s done more than survive the arrival of bigger stores during those years—it’s thrived.

“We have tons of loyal customers, ranging from homeowners, contractors, handymen and custodians that have been with us for years” he says. “It’s nice to see the friendships that have been made at our stores.”

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Tom Hayes and Sean Fadden

(Photograph by Kyle Telechan.)

(Photograph by Kyle Telechan.)

Cigarettes have been thoroughly demonized during the last few decades, but somehow cigars’ reputation has survived these anti-tobacco times intact. A symbol of refined prosperity, cigar aficionados have managed to avoid accusations of snobbery—and being a public-health threat.

Tom Hayes and Sean Fadden enjoy smoking cigars, and for the last 18 months or so, they’ve also enjoyed selling them. In October 2008, they opened Omni Tobacconist in Schererville, catering to aficionados living in Northwest Indiana and beyond. The timing may not have been perfect—the recession was peaking and unemployment began to soar in late 2008—but the uncle-nephew team has stuck with it and slowly attracted a clientele.
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Mark Maassel

(Photograph by Robert Wray.)

(Photograph by Robert Wray.)

The last day of April, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels traveled to Gary and delivered a clear message to a few hundred business leaders and officials gathered at the Genesis Convention Center: The people of Northwest Indiana, Daniels said, need to work harder to make the region an economic engine for the state.

It’s hard to imagine anyone working harder to reach that goal than Mark Maassel, who was of course in attendance at the luncheon. As the new president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum, Maassel is uniquely positioned to help ensure the region emerges from the recession to become the economic engine that Daniels and Northwest Indiana’s 850,000 residents want to see power prosperity.

“This was a true recession—for the most part, it impacted everyone,” Maassel says. “But I think businesses here in Indiana have done better for a number of reasons.” The recession—from which most area business leaders now believe NWI is steadily recovering—would have impacted the region much more deeply if not for its basic strengths, Maassel says: a “superb” dedicated workforce bolstered by great educational institutions; close proximity to Chicago; excellent infrastructure; and business-friendly environment.

“The fact that Indiana has not raised taxes is very important,” says Maassel, who lives in Valparaiso, the school board of which he began serving on last year. “The last thing you want to do during a recession is raise the cost of doing business.”
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Erik Schneider

(Photograph by Robert Wray.)

(Photograph by Robert Wray.)

In January 2005, Erik Schneider fell on a building site, breaking two ribs and effectively ending his carpentry career. He had spent more than half a decade working in the residential and commercial construction industries, beginning right after he graduated from Lake Central High School in St. John. Now it was time to find something new.

What Schneider quickly settled on—the home appliance retail industry—both builds on his construction experience and makes him happy. This year, he decided to finally act on a dream first hatched while working as a manager at Nason’s Appliances in Crown Point. Schneider, 32, struck out on his own and opened Hometown Appliance & Electronics, located on busy Route 41 in St. John, in mid-March. It’s been open seven days each week ever since.

“I had the idea of going out on my own and getting back to the roots of what the business is: customer service, being forward with people,” says Schneider, who still lives in his hometown. “The customer service end of things is really going to be the key to our business.”

Thus the new store’s name—the idea being to combine “Big Box” store savings with classic small-town friendliness. “I’m trying to have some of the best trained and skilled sales people answer your questions to ensure the decision-making process is a smooth one,” he says. (His 10 employees together have nearly 50 years of experience in the industry.)
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Andy Arnold

(Photograph by Robert Wray.)

(Photograph by Robert Wray.)

When Andy Arnold founded Precision Control Systems Inc. in 1980, the United States was heading into a deep recession—not a great time to start a business, in theory at least. Thirty years later, Arnold is steering his company through an even worse recession, and it’s no worse for the wear.

Precision Control Systems—based in Griffith and affiliated with identically named sister companies in Chicago and Indianapolis—contracts with area institutions and businesses to install temperature control systems and retrofit buildings for more efficient energy use.

The key to survival in Northwest Indiana’s fast-changing business environment, he says, is building long-lasting customer relationships and a highly skilled employee base. “Because we are more stable with our customers, we tend to provide better quality than our competitors,” says Arnold, a native of Lombard, Ill., who now lives in Chesterton. Read the rest of this entry »