Couple dives into deep end from the start
Tom Foreman had worked for other contractors, but in 1993 he decided the time was right for him and his wife, Donna, to start their own business.
So they founded Leader Corporation of Indiana, which provides control systems (think temperature controls, security and automation systems) for commercial and institutional customers such as Lucas Oil Stadium, the Conrad Indianapolis hotel and the Pendleton Correctional Facility.
He was 53 at the time. Donna was 51.
"It was either crazy or intelligent," Tom said with a laugh. "I don't know which. But if anything ever happened to me, I wanted her to have a career."
He had three decades of experience and was teaching his trade at Ivy Tech. Donna was a homemaker. They made a six-figure investment, along with a doctor-friend, and bought the warehouse materials and vehicles of a contractor who was going out of business.
Leader Corp. opened shop with 35 employees and 15 vehicles, going full bore into business rather than starting small and building slowly. They advise others to do the same, but, as Donna added, "I would say do it younger."
That first year, using Tom's contacts and building business through word of mouth, the company grossed $2 million. It's been growing ever since.
The Foremans market the business through their Web site, an engineer trade publication and a Yellow Pages ad. But a lot of work comes from repeat customers.
Leader Corp. also offers supplier diversity to customers, since it is a certified Women's Business Enterprise. Donna became 100-percent owner when her doctor-partner left the business in 2006. The company has federal and state WBE designation and has applied to the city as well for that status.
Tom oversees the contractors and the technical end of the business, while Donna handles all the accounting.
Only about four other companies in central Indiana do what Leader Corp. does, Tom said. And experience sets it apart. Tom's now been in the business 45 years, and Leader Corp.'s employees are all skilled union workers.
Duane Mercer, the company's accountant and a CPA with London Witte Group, said Leader Corp. does well for a small company.
"They've had ups and downs; a lot of small businesses have trouble having adequate capital," Mercer said. "They have turned things around, managed expenses, debt, resources-getting the right people in the right places. They've proved that if you work hard, the rewards will be there. This is a company that typifies the American dream."
If you want to achieve that dream, Tom Foreman suggests small-business owners prepare for long hours and competition.
"And remember, you're a guest in your customer's house," he said. "You don't violate their house rules and you're honest with them. That's why we have so many customers call us back."
Tom Boyd, mechanical/electrical/plumbing project manager for Hunt Construction Group, said he's pleased with Leader Corp.'s work on the security and temperature-control systems at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"The electricians working for them are very conscientious across the board," he said. "They are doing a good job."
That's what Leader Corp. likes to hear. Although the Foremans expect to scale back their role in the company in about two years (their son Tom Jr. and one or two others are likely to step in), they want to continue to increase business.
"There are two ways to make a business grow," Tom said. "One is a lot of flim-flam; the other is to develop the business and trust. When you develop the business and trust, it's a slow climb. But it'll last a long time.
"Take it a step at a time. Don't go past your means, don't take on more work than you can do, don't promise to do things you can't do, and call in experts when you have a problem. Don't be afraid to ask."