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Local business icons share wisdom

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — There were some provocative comments, a bit of good-natured ribbing and brief dollops of wisdom that ran quite deep.

Perhaps the early hour kept the crowd on the smallish side during Wednesday’s breakfast event, which featured four of the area’s best-known entrepreneurs. But the 30 to 40 people who showed up certainly got their money’s worth — even if they’d had to pay to get in.

“I think the current economic climate is one where entrepreneurs flourish,” said Juan Rodriguez, a man who knows something about the subject. “Entrepreneurs are born, if you will, during these times.”

Rodriguez transferred to the area when he was employed by IBM back in 1966. Three years later, he and three others founded Storage Technology Corp., which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary.

He has since gone on to co-found Exabyte.

Rodriguez is one of many talented people who were honored at Wednesday night’s 20th anniversary celebration of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce’s Esprit Entrepreneur awards, held at the Omni Interlocken Resort in Broomfield.

Gary Neptune, founder of Neptune Mountaineering, received the 2004 Entrepreneur of the Year award.

Four of the honorees took part in Wednesday morning’s panel at the Boulder Theatre — an opportunity for the audience to get some insights into business from four distinguished but varied viewpoints.

“I love this town,” exclaimed Mo Seigel, founder of Celestial Seasonings, when asked about doing business in Boulder.

Seigel sold his company to Kraft in 1984 and rejoined it seven years later as chairman and CEO. Four years ago, Seigel oversaw the merger of Celestial with the Hain Food Group that formed the Hain Celestial Group.

After Seigel finished touting the benefits of living and working in Boulder, Bob Greenlee, founder of radio station KBCO and a former Boulder city councilman and mayor, offered a different take on the town.

“I think entrepreneurial spirits here have managed to survive and thrive despite the policy makers,” said Greenlee, who has experience in both the restaurant and casino industries. “How many communities do you know that want to control and limit outcomes as much as we do in Boulder?”

Greenlee and Seigel took some good-natured jabs at each other’s politics. After Seigel noted he was an “avid Democrat,” Greenlee, a former Republican candidate for the 2nd Congressional District, drew laughs when he feigned surprise with a loud “Wow!”

One thing the panelists did agree on was the way the economy is changing. As R.C. “Merc” Mercure — one of the original founders of Ball Brothers Research Corp., later Ball Aerospace — put it, “I would say we’re much more in a management phase.”

Mercure noted that many of the things a company used to do in-house — manufacturing, marketing, sales and engineering — are being outsourced these days, a trend that is only increasing.

“This is a big, big paradigm shift in entrepreneurial skills and in the challenges an entrepreneur must face,” said Mercure.

Asked about their measure of success, all four men mentioned family and the ability to take care of one’s employees and customers.

Finding your niche is key for an entrepreneur, the group said. Perhaps Mercure put it best: “If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, I think everything around you kind of goes to hell in a handbasket,” he said.

Recalling his first job after graduating from the University of Colorado-Boulder, Mercure said he found himself in a position he didn’t like.

“And I remember waking up every morning and detesting going to work at Rocky Flats because they had such idiot management,” he said.