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CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary: IBJ's Enterprise Award hits 25

August 20, 2007

Giving out awards can be a tricky business.

To wit, news broke Aug. 13 that CEO Peter Dunn has left Steak n Shake, a company we honored in 2005 with our annual Enterprise Award. A good chunk of the credit in our article profiling the company two years ago was directed at Dunn, an MBA and food-industry veteran who had energized the company with a philosophy that was producing results.

Now he's gone. Do his departure and a decline in same-store sales make us wrong for selecting Steak n Shake for our award? I don't think so.

Dunn ran the company for five years. Before his arrival, the chain needed a major shot in the arm. Dunn brought that. Three years into his leadership, Steak n Shake was posting strong earnings and boasting a high stock price.

Granted, sustaining the progress would've been better. But sometimes, a confluence of circumstances can conspire to undermine even the noblest and strongest efforts. What the future holds for Steak n Shake-battling in one of the toughest businesses around-is anybody's guess.

Our Enterprise Award, however, will endure. Now celebrating its 25th year, it is designed to recognize the spirit and energy of entrepreneurial thinking and the magic it can create. Most of the time, those ethereal qualities translate to enduring success.

Among the winners in the award's first decade are companies that have become industry leaders. Melvin Simon and Associates, honored in 1983, is now Simon Property Group Inc., the nation's largest shopping-mall developer. Associated Insurance Cos. Inc., our 1992 winner, is now WellPoint Inc., the nation's largest health insurance company.

More recent company winners-Finish Line Inc., Kite Cos., HH Gregg, Republic Airways and Cummins Inc.- are still flying high.

As I look back, however, the individual winners are the ones who stick out the most in my memory.

In the award's first year, we honored Ronald D. Palamara, an engineer who founded a software company called Anacomp, a high-flier before it eventually crashed here. It is now based in San Diego and highly profitable.

I interviewed Palamara in his home two weeks after he underwent surgery for abdominal cancer. A charismatic figure, he impressed me as someone who could persevere, but his illness took his life less than three years later.

I also remember Phil Duke, co-founder of Park 100 developer P.R. Duke, whom I profiled in our premiere issue in 1980. I'll always remember his grace and patience with me, at the time a very green business writer.

As testament to his stature and influence, his name lives on at Duke Realty Corp., the billion-dollar, multistate real estate powerhouse he started some 35 years ago. Duke, who won our award in 1987, died at the age of 51 six months prior. He is the only winner IBJ has honored posthumously.

There were the enigmatic winners: Bill Stokely III (1984), Michael Browning (1988) and Tony George (1994). There were those who have endured major ups and downs and now find themselves at the top of a crest: Bob Laikin of Brightpoint (1996) and Don Brown of Interactive Intelligence (1998). There were those who were "strong and steady as she goes": Dick DeMars (1985), Frank Walker (1991) and Sallie Rowland (1993).

All in all, our Enterprise Award has recognized interesting companies, as well as characters with vision, drive and, for the most part, lasting success, each with their distinct imprint on this concept we call entrepreneurship.

As we look for a company or individual to recognize this year, think about a deserving someone you know and help us identify the 2007 winner. Go to www.ibj.com, click on "Nominations" under "Editorial Submissions" in the bar at the top. Whose imprint do you think will endure?



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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