The Cincinnati metro area is home to some of the country’s largest companies, ranging from the nation’s largest supermarket owner, Kroger Co., to the largest consumer products company, Procter & Gamble, to the largest department store chain, Macy’s.
Ten Fortune 500 firms call Greater Cincinnati their home, and several others have based major operations here, including General Electric, Delta Air Lines and Citicorp.
Those are the companies that get most of the attention when the business landscape in Cincinnati is surveyed. But there’s another side to the big business story in Cincinnati. Many of these mega-corporations have given birth to entrepreneurs who have left the Mother Ship and ventured out on their own, creating jobs, filling unfilled niches and doing so with the type of creativity often found in small, hungry start-ups.
These are companies with names like Intelliseek, Barefoot, Red, and Big Fat Brain. They are companies that may fly a bit under the radar, but collectively are as important to the region’s economic well-being as P&G or GE.
They are led by people like Pete Blackshaw, a Procter & Gamble alum who left to start PlanetFeedback.com, a site where consumers can submit letters and comments about services and products they use. More than a million consumers have sent feedback to the site, making for a substantial database of consumer information.
Planet Feedback persevered through the dot-com boom and bust, bought in 2001 by Cincinnati-based Intelliseek, an online tracking and analysis firm. Intelliseek was in turn purchased by BuzzMetrics in 2006. (Blackshaw still runs Planet Feedback.)
They are led by people like Chris Downie, who left a finance and accounting career at P&G to help start Up4Sale, an online auction site, in 1996. That company was eventually sold to that other online auction site, eBay, netting Downie and his partners millions. (Meg Whitman, chief executive of eBay, is herself a P&G alum).
Downie went on to found SparkPeople.com, an online diet, fitness and wellness site that aims to help people reach their personal fitness goals.
In fact, Procter & Gamble, which employs about 10,000 in the Cincinnati region, has been a rich source of entrepreneurial talent. Anne Chambers was a creative director and producer for P&G’s in-house TV commercial production company when the company decided to divest the unit. Chambers acquired it, renamed it Red and developed a strategy of creating extended-length commercials designed to convey a deeper level of information to consumers. Red has since expanded into a full-service marketing communications firm with capitalized billings approaching $100 million. Red continues to service P&G, creating and producing advertising for such P&G brands as Crest, Tide and Olay.
Richard Owen and Todd Wichmann, once P&G execs, left to form Redox Brands, a company that acquires and develops undervalued name-brand products, including Oxydol detergent and Biz bleach additive. Wichmann also started HealthProBrands, which also acquires name-brand products, including Fit, a fruit and vegetable cleaning product. Oxydol, Biz and Fit are all former P&G brands that the company decided did not mesh with its strategy of building on its big, powerhouse brands such as Tide and Pampers.
“I never doubted that P&G would give us an opportunity to propose our idea,” Wichmann said when he announced the start of his company. “It is no secret that P&G encourages entrepreneurial spirit—that is how they create superior brands.”
The venture even received a boost from the parent in the form of a minority financial stake.
Mike Robinson was a global manager for P&G who went on to start Cincinnati-based La Verdad Marketing and Media, to market products to ethnic consumers, particularly Hispanics. It counts among its clients Allstate Insurance, US Bank and Bosch Tools.
Doug Worple was a brand manager of P&G, helping to launch the Crest Complete toothbrush. He left to form Barefoot, a one-person ad agency he started in his home. Thirteen years later, about 70 people work for Barefoot, getting the message out about brands such as Del Monte and Mentos.
Barefoot was recently recognized by Inc. Magazine as one of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies, making it on the magazine’s inaugural "Inc. 5000" list.
P&G’s world-renowned skills at studying and analyzing consumer behavior and bringing products to the market to meet those consumer needs have been put to use by any number of entrepreneurs, who often turn around and supply their services back to P&G.
“It just gives you the ability to understand the market and think creatively about what opportunities exist,” says Jeff Goldstein about his P&G experience.
Goldstein left the company in 1995 to start Ingenuity Advisers, a consulting firm. In 2006, he started Ingenuity Products, whose main product is Repelle, a wand that protects the skin from hair dyes. The Repelle Skin Shield Wand is now sold at Walgreens stores across the country.
P&G was “a great training ground for understanding consumers,” Goldstein says.
Taking the lessons learned at a big company and using them to help start a business can be crucial to success, says Bill Cunningham, an entrepreneur and executive-in-residence at CincyTech USA, an organization that works to accelerate the growth of new-technology companies through management assistance and funding.
“You get discipline; you understand financial controls,” Cunningham says. “Those kinds of skills are going to foster the development of small business.”
One of the firms recently funded by CincyTech is Zipscene.com, a site focusing on the local entertainment scene that was founded by Sameer Mungur, formerly an engineer for – who else? — P&G, and Jaydev Karande, who had worked in promotions in the Cincinnati entertainment industry.
The goal of all these companies, of course, is to grow. The most successful entrepreneurs leave the big companies to start something that eventually becomes its own big company. That’s what happened to Paycor Inc., a Cincinnati-based payroll processing and servicing firm that CEO Bob Coughlin started after he left payroll industry giant Automatic Data Processing. Sixteen years later, Paycor employs 500 nationwide – including 250 at its Cincinnati headquarters—and tallies sales of more than $50 million.
The financial services industry has a large presence in Cincinnati and has given rise to some who have taken what they’ve learned and run with it. For example, Tom DeBord built a sales organization at Cincinnati’s largest bank, Fifth Third, marketing the bank’s credit- and debit card processing services.
After building Fifth Third’s sales force from six local reps to 180 across the country, DeBord left the bank and started Infintech in 2004, targeting small businesses, a segment Fifth Third had decided to sell. He was joined by Ryan Rybolt, another Fifth Third expatriate, who is now Infintech’s president and chief operating officer.
DeBord’s experience at Fifth Third “allowed me to see you can create a business whose sole purpose is to cater to small businesses,” he says.
Filing a void left by a large company is something entrepreneurs often do, says Laura Randall, assistant director of Xavier University’s Entrepreneurial Center.
One of the mottoes of a successful entrepreneur, says Randall: “Show me a big problem and I’ll show you a big opportunity.”
“We have so many companies where they are doing it right, where people can gain experience,” Randall said. “But it’s not just the experience, it’s the exposure to niches that the corporations aren’t doing well or are in need of.”
Peggy Murriner saw a niche that needed filling —quality, reliable babysitting for busy parents. Along with her husband and another partner, she started BabySitEase, a babysitting placement service that uses the power of the Internet to link parents in need of child care with sitters over age 18 who have been vetted through interviews, references and background checks. “We are a gap filler for many families,” Murriner said. Interestingly enough, she previously worked for Gap Inc. in Greater Cincinnati, managing the logistics of launching Old Navy and Banana Republic stores. Now she manages the logistics of linking parents with sitters. Her Gap experience helped her understand the importance of standardization in business processes, useful knowledge now that she has several hundred sitters on board and is franchising the business in Lexington, Ky. and Baltimore.
When he was director of the interactive division at Creative Department, a mid-size advertising agency in Cincinnati, Troy Hitch found he wasn’t making full use of his talents and interests. With a background in theater as an actor and director, and in music, there was a strong creative side to him that his day job wasn’t satisfying. His answer was to start Big Fat Brain, an agency that creates original content for the Web that aims to make the interactive experience richer, more creative and more entertaining for clients and consumer brands. “It can be a real boon for brands that are trying to do something different,” Hitch said. He stars on his firm’s own site and the company recently won an American Business Award for its creation of a humorous interactive video for an architectural software firm.
photos:Procter & Gamble headquarters view from OTRReception area at Barefoot Advertising
Doug Worple, fouding partner of Barefoot
Troy Hitch and Matt Bledsoe of Big Fat Brain
Photography by Scott Beseler