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Past experiences inform how leaders manage many different aspects of their companies. At Shive-Hattery, Clickstop Inc., Circle Computer Resources Inc., and West Liberty Foods, CEOs and presidents have walked a mile in their staff’s shoes. They all started in very different roles from where they sit today.
Jennifer Bennett: maintaining a strong company culture
Jennifer Bennett, president of Shive-Hattery, started at the architecture and engineering consulting firm in 2003 as a structural engineer.
“There were times early on in my career where I wondered if I’d even made the right decision in pursuing engineering,” she said, about her experiences before her time at Shive-Hattery. “I was a little bit unsettled and I knew for sure that I didn’t want to keep doing what I was doing earlier in my career. I found that at Shive-Hattery I could get out of that.”
The firm was founded in Cedar Rapids in 1895 and has worked with a variety of clients both locally and nationally.
“At Shive-Hattery I found a culture that is very entrepreneurial, and allowed me to try a lot of different things,” Ms. Bennett said. “I started in the Quad Cities and was able to grow that industrial team to a pretty significant size and really enjoyed doing that. In around 2007, the structural group needed a leader. I pursued that opportunity and found a new love and new passion in developing people. That was the start of my leadership career.”
In 2016, Ms. Bennett became vice president and the Moline office director. Four years later, in 2020, she was named president of the company.
“I was the incoming president selected just before the pandemic hit. So my goals that I had when I was interviewing for this position had to pivot quickly to short-term,” she said. “It’s been refreshing in the last year or so to be able to focus more on the long term again.”
Ms. Bennett said her main focus, and challenge, as president has been Shive-Hattery’s exponential growth throughout the last few years. She said the company now operates 16 offices across the country.
In 2022, Shive-Hattery reported $90.9 million in revenue. Placing it at number 21 in the CBJ’s Largest Privately Held Companies list.
Despite this growth, Ms. Bennett said she hopes to cultivate and maintain the company culture that first drew her to Shive-Hattery.
“As engineers and architects, we’re selling our expertise and our time. So, at the crux of that is how people feel,” she said. “I want to maintain our culture, stay true to who Shive-Hattery is, keep that entrepreneurial culture and continue to be a place where people can come and thrive in their careers.”
Cari McCoy: seizing challenges to drive growth
When Cari McCoy was searching for her next career opportunity in 2018, she was looking for a “culture first” organization. She heard about Clickstop Inc. from a friend of a friend, who confirmed that all the rumors were true. The culture there really is as good as it seems.
“I had no idea what Clickstop did or sold, but I knew that it had a culture that sounded like what I was looking for,” she said. “I was on a mission just to apply for anything and everything that I felt like I could possibly do.”
Ms. McCoy started as a content marketing director at Clickstop in 2018. Within months she took on a new role as vice president of creative services and then chief marketing officer. Just over a year into her total time at Clickstop she became president, then moved into her role as CEO in 2021.
“Even if this CEO gig doesn’t work out, I’ll be the janitor. I just want to be here,” she said. “It’s like meeting your soulmate.”
Clickstop, based in Urbana, is an e-commerce company that owns and operates several brands. Their mission statement, to create a business that is sustainable, enjoyable, and provides opportunity for those who seek it, is “not just a plaque on the wall” Ms. McCoy said.
“Everything we do here revolves around those three things,” she said. “My career path is a testament to the mission statement.”
At number 20 on the CBJ’s Largest Privately Held Companies list, Clickstop Inc. reported $95.12 million in revenue in 2022.
Ms. McCoy hopes to offer the same career advancement opportunities to all 208 of her employees, but not without meeting a few expectations.
“We expect every employee to fully engage with the mission, the values and the strategy that we’re here to accomplish as a business,” she said. “So it is an expectation of every leader to lead every employee to engagement. That employees need to have clear expectations and to understand how their role connects to the overall strategy.”
Brandon Achen: from intern to CEO
Brandon Achen has been the president and CEO of West Liberty Foods for just over a year now, but he started his career at the turkey processing plant as a college intern in 2005. In 2008, Mr. Achen took his first full-time position at West Liberty Foods.
In 2022, its first time on the CBJ’s Largest Privately Held Companies list, the company reported $825 million in revenue.
“If you look at it on paper, I started full-time as an industrial engineer in 2008,” he explained. “But my first experience was a tour of the facilities when I was 13. I thought it was fascinating, all the coordination… I never forgot that experience.”
Mr. Achen’s family is one of the original founding families of the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative, which formed to purchase what would eventually become West Liberty Foods in 1997.
Although there is a family connection for Mr. Achen, his rise to the C-suite was anything but planned. He has held eight different full-time positions in just over a decade at the company. His experiences have given him perspective on the “ins and outs” of the company.
Throughout each of his promotions at West Liberty Foods, Mr. Achen said he was never afraid to ask a “tremendous amount of questions.” He believes humility and trust in his team is what has propelled him to his current position.
Just before the pandemic began, in February of 2020, Mr. Achen was named president. In 2022, “CEO” was added to his title, bringing with it another set of goals, challenges and responsibilities to the company and its employees.
“We want people to feel comfortable when they’re here working,” he said. “We work really hard to make sure that we maintain as much of a family-oriented culture as possible in the manufacturing business.”
Shea Kelly: taking stock and fulfilling the company’s needs
Shea Kelly, CEO of Circle Computer Resources Inc. (CCR), jokes that his first responsibility at the company was cleaning its floors when he was just 8 years old.
“This is the family farm,” Mr. Kelly said.
Founded in Cedar Rapids in 1986 by three brothers, Mr. Kelly’s father and uncles, CCR provides specialized IT services.
In 2022, the company reported $44.3 million in revenue. It is listed as number 30 on the CBJ’s Largest Privately Held Companies list.
Mr. Kelly’s first “official” full-time position at CCR was as a software engineer more than 20 years ago. Like Mr. Achen, despite family ties, Mr. Kelly’s promotion to CEO was not a part of a succession plan.
Mr. Kelly attended Kirkwood Community College in 2000 for a degree in PC and internet programming after realizing the need for a software engineer at CCR. According to him, each title he has held at the company has been a matter of “building the company first, hierarchy second.”
“We have to be growing as professionals as fast if not faster than the organization. Otherwise, you’re over your skis, you’re out of your competency,” Mr. Kelly said. “So, your personal development has to be front and center.”
Throughout the last decade, the company has grown dramatically in both size and revenue. CCR now operates internationally and employs around 170 remote and local workers.
“We’re so much bigger than what we were,” Mr. Kelly said, about his goals as CEO. “I have to be growing, my team has to be growing, especially the leaders have to be growing as fast if not faster than the company. Each phase will look different. So far, it’s been fun.”