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Top Entrepreneurs Under 40

Each has his (or her) own start-up war story. But the trait they share, aside from their youth, is that they have triumphed during a nasty recession to do such things as start a new kind of private school, reinvent the tanning salon, or bring Southwest fl
By D Magazine |

Whether you believe in jobless recovery, you can’t dispute the
blistering economic climate of the past couple of years. Dallas has
endured the bust with mixed results—it continues to grow faster than
most metropolitan areas, yet it was recently cited as the
second-hardest hit region for unemployment in the country, right behind
Silicon Valley.

Through better and worse, our landscape is buzzing with inspired young business people, and for the first time, D Magazine
has compiled a list of the area’s top entrepreneurs younger than 40.
All of them met the following criteria: their enterprise generated at
least $1 million dollars in the last year, they retain no fewer than
six full-time employees, and the entrepreneur is the founder (or
co-founder) and majority owner of the company. We celebrate their
energy, perseverance, and deserved success.

How We Did It
We invited a select group of business professionals to nominate candidates via our web site (www.dmagazine.com).
Letters were then sent to nominees, requesting they return proof that
they met our criteria. They also received questionnaires to help us
create a profile of their businesses, back stories, and personal
visions.

On November 3, a panel of local business leaders met with D
editors to discuss the finalists. On the panel: Calvin Carter,
president of the Dallas chapter of Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization
and president and founder of The Carter Group; Buddy Teaster, chief
networking officer of Young Presidents’ Organization and former
co-founder and president of ClickPatrol and KnowledgeBuilder; and Maria
Cintron, CEO and co-founder of Consultores Internacionales and former
international president of YEO. We are grateful for their time,
insight, and thoughtful consideration of every nominee.

Sunny Vanderbeck, 31
Data Return

Sunny
Vanderbeck’s story reads like the rise of a phoenix: Data Return has
been to hell and back, and, in a kind of fateful déjà vu, is again
positioned to be the market leader in its niche. Vanderbeck’s peers
call him a “brilliant thinker and true leader.” Maybe his training as a
U.S. Army Ranger gave him the steely determination to ride out a
crushing economy.

Once employed at Microsoft, Vanderbeck
identified a market need created by the behemoth corporation: helping
customers who were doing business online using the Microsoft platform.
The company has evolved to provide extranet services and keeps clients
connected with customers and partners, regardless of their operating
systems. He started Data Return in 1996 and took it public in 1999. He
invested his new wealth back into the company, only to watch it tank
when the Internet bubble burst. Instead of backing off, Vanderbeck
rolled up his sleeves and sold the dying beast to Divine, whose own
bankruptcy two years later gave him a chance to reclaim Data Return
(which is no longer publicly traded). As a testament to the loyalty he
inspires, most of his original team is still with him. “You cannot go
it alone when building a business,” Vanderbeck says. “Find a mentor,
and hire the best people you can find. Pay them well, and learn from
them.” Not surprisingly, Vanderbeck is now devoted to helping other
aspiring entrepreneurs.

Kim Zoller, 34
Image Dynamics
Kim
Zoller credits her mentors for her success. A strong support system
gave her the advice and determination to create Image Dynamics, a
specialized corporate-training company. Whether it’s sales training,
protocol, or motivation, three times a week or three times a year,
Image Dynamics goes into companies and builds strong relationships from
the top down and bottom up. This is why for the past 12 years Zoller’s
business has come only from referrals and continues to grow, with
offices in Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, and New York.

Andrew Levi, 37
Aztec Systems
“Be
passionate enough about your mission that you would do it for
free—because you probably will have to at some point.” That’s the
advice of Andrew Levi. This young entrepreneur  was honing his
skills before he graduated from college. He owned two bars, an auto
body repair shop, a lawn care business, in addition to having a paper
route and selling greeting cards door-to-door. After moving to Dallas
in 1989 to pursue a career as a software developer, Levi quickly
discovered that he was in a booming area for new technology. In 1991,
he founded Aztec Systems to deliver tech solutions to middle-market
businesses throughout the South. Today, his company serves more than
450 companies in industries ranging from finance to entertainment. Levi
owns three other tech ventures, including Board Room Software, which he
booted up late last year.

Rich Hicks, 33
Tin Star
After
years in the restaurant industry, Rich Hicks wanted to create a fresh,
new concept in dining—one that focused on the food and the guests,
rather than the hiring, training, and retaining of staff. Five years
ago, Hicks made his dream a reality when he co-founded Tin Star, a
casual, Southwestern-style restaurant, where the attitude is in the
food. Actively pursuing his two passions, people and food, Hicks has
had success and launched a franchise division for Tin Star, which
already has sold agreements for five stores in Austin and seven more in
the Dallas area. Hicks soon plans to introduce Houston, Colorado, and
Oklahoma to his tasty vision.

Dawn Brinson, 36
Brinson Benefits
Dawn
Brinson’s personal experience reinforced her determination to take the
stress out of the health-insurance process. Ten months into the
development of her new company, she discovered she would need
surgery—something her health insurance wouldn’t cover, costing her at
least $40,000 during the next two years. Her new medical expenses
motivated her to push ahead with Brinson Benefits, which helps
employers make sound decisions about the health benefits they offer
employees.
The company also provides day-to-day services for clients’ chosen
plans, including patient advocacy.

Toby Hammer, 28
Par One Mortgage Group
Integrity
is a concept that Toby Hammer never takes for granted. It’s the bold
underline of his company, Par One Mortgage Group. When he started it,
he resolved to make customer interests his priority, which is why he
focuses on consulting, rather than sales and commissions. In turn, the
strong relationships he builds with clients keep sales and profits
growing. Hammer believes that employees enjoy working for and customers
like to do business with a company that is socially and morally
responsible. Judging by his enormous success, he’s hit a business
philosophy bull’s-eye.

Elizabeth Showers, 32
Elizabeth Showers
If
taking a risk is a common theme in entrepreneurs’ tales, Elizabeth
Showers’ plunge was exceptionally deep. At 24, after the SMU grad took
a course in jewelry making and made three pieces—a necklace, bracelet,
and anklet—she quit her sales job, became a waitress, and financed her
new jewelry-design business with 12 credit cards. “I had been exposed
to entrepreneurs who had started their own businesses by making
products at home and selling those products to retailers,” she
explains. “It motivated me to do my own thing.” She doesn’t think she
evolved into a serious entrepreneur until two years ago, and when it
comes to mapping out a business strategy (something she wishes she’d
done a bit earlier), she quotes Jim Collins’ Good to Great:
“Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the
right people in the right positions.” She advises aspiring
entrepreneurs to “avoid mis-hires and hire as many A-players as
possible.” That, as well as cultivating a fun, energizing workplace for
her employees, has done wonders for her business. Her workshop and
offices are in a large space in the Design District, and her delicate
designs are sold in the pinnacles of national jewelry retail—Saks Fifth
Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Translations—and have been featured in In Style, Cosmopolitan, and Elle.

Tony Hartl, 36
Planet Tan
Tony
Hartl has carved out a rarified spot in the vast universe of
tanning—quite a feat considering the plethora of tanning salons in
Dallas. His seven state-of-the-art facilities, each equipped with 50
beds and open 7 a.m.-11 p.m., focus on access and convenience. The
boutique-like environment is relaxed but hip, and Hartl believes it’s
the atmosphere that keeps his thousands of clients coming back. With a
thoughtful approach to the business side of bronzing, Hartl also takes
interest in his employees and their development within the company—and
that’s what keeps his planet spinning.

Anita Khandpur, 26
Starwood Montessori School
Precocious,
anyone? It’s Monday morning, and the 3-year-olds at Starwood Montessori
are in computer class. Perhaps they will follow in the footsteps of the
school’s founder and owner, Anita Khandpur, who started at SMU at age
16, earned a business degree by 19, and went on to get a master’s in
education at Texas Women’s University. Kandpur envisioned an academic
environment where both teachers and students loved learning and a
state-of-the-art facility where children turned into well-rounded
individuals—and had fun doing it. At 21, she opened Starwood’s doors.
Now in its fourth year, the Frisco school already has an outstanding
reputation for a diverse student population and an environment where
learning is shaped around each individual child.

Scott Wood, 36
Mark Gehlbach, 36
True North Advisors

Imagine
in this scandalous and selfish financial world a completely unbiased,
independent, and objective investment advisory firm. That’s just what
Scott Wood and Mark Gehlbach did when co-founding True North Advisors
in the summer of 2000. These guys know that patience, persistence, and
sticking to honest answers has gotten them this far—reasons their firm
is not about “fad” investing. They believe in building long-term
solutions for their clients based on consistency, not trends or
popularity, which is why True North grew after launching during one of
the worst bear markets in history. Wood and Gehlbach believe they can
change their industry from the inside out. With hard work and
determination, it appears they will.

Steve Jenkins, 32
John E. Stubbs, 34

MosquitoNix
Prior
to becoming mosquito-fighting  heroes, Steve Jenkins and John
Stubbs were more conventional entrepreneurs. Jenkins sold his
Renaissance Laser Hair Removal and Cosmetic Centers in early 2002 to
move on to new projects, and Stubbs turned his Lone Star Valet Services
(which he continues to run and plans to expand to Austin and Houston)
into a hit. Put the two together, and you’ve got the founding partners
of MosquitoNix, an ambitious pest-fighting concept that uses a
botanical pesticide misting system to keep the wee beasties away. Their
five-year agenda includes building MosquitoNix into a $100 million
enterprise.

Tracy Bolt, 39
Hartman Leito & Bolt and HBC Holdings
In
1994, when Tracy Bolt co-founded Hartman Leito & Bolt, he didn’t
have an office. He set up his desk in his storage room and put his nose
to the grindstone. A veteran of what once was the Big 8 accounting
firms in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Atlanta for nine years, he was up to
the challenge. HLB has since become one of the largest independent
accounting and consulting firms in the area, and it has an alliance
with BDO Seidman, a nationwide accounting and consulting association.
In 1999, Bolt co-founded HBC Holdings, which maintains 50 building
centers, lumberyards, and home-improvement centers throughout Texas.

Lois Melbourne, 37
TimeVision
Melbourne
recalls an awkward moment in 1995 while working out of her home: her
mother-in-law’s dog began barking during an important business call.
The Fortune 500 company lingered on the line. Melbourne laughed it off,
explaining, “We’re a very liberal software company that lets employees
bring pets to work.” TimeVision, co-founded with her husband Ross, has
since become a multimillion-dollar company that provides improved
networking and paperless solutions to a variety of industries and
clients such as Mercedes-Benz, Proctor & Gamble, and the Internal
Revenue Service. Melbourne sees growth on the horizon in the form of
foreign government clients. While much of TimeVision’s success stems
from its software—OrgPublisher, Mobile OrgPublisher, and OrgBuilder, to
name a few—the company is innovative in that it provides tech support
to customers during a trial period, before they ever spend a dime.

Alex Chang, 30
FRIENDZY.COM AND ONE TECHNOLOGIES
“Go out and do what you dream of doing,” says Alex Chang, who bases his newest project, Friendzy.com, on the theory behind Six Degrees of Separation.
“Every person you meet is a door to a new world,” he says, describing
the online meeting ground (à la Friendster.com) as a “credible way to
build a vast social and professional network.” His first venture, after
quitting his lucrative position as a stockbroker, was One
Technologies—developed to increase web site traffic. He started the
company in his San Francisco apartment with his brother, with less than
$2,000 in seed capital. Born in Taiwan, he arrived in the United States
at age 5 and grew up in Dallas, graduated from UT Austin, and returned
to this area after his stint in California. He feels the Internet is
still in its infancy, and he wants to help shape it, as well as act as
a positive Asian role model. “Ever since my dad told me I wasn’t going
to grow up and be the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys,” he says, “I
just instinctively knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur.”

Randy Eisenman, 28
HANDANGO
If
you use anything like a Palm, Blackberry, or even a mobile phone,
you’ve almost certainly rubbed shoulders with Handango. Randy
Eisenman’s brainchild, which he launched when he was only 23, is the
world’s leading provider for mobile downloads, software applications,
and digital content for handheld devices. As a venture capitalist in
1998, Eisenman was pondering the “next big thing,” and his instincts
pointed him toward handheld computing. Instead of merely investing in
an existing company, he surrounded himself with key business leaders
and industry pioneers. Handango was born.

His charisma and
energy are contagious; he’s determined to make Handango the “world’s
greatest place to work and do business with.” And he’s associated with
the best: Motorola, Verizon, Nokia, Microsoft, Sony Ericsson, and the
like. He has been praised for his business innovations, and Hurst-based
Handango was recently named to the Dallas 100 as the
10th-fastest-growing company in the area. It also was named a Rising
Star in the Deloitte & Touche Fast 50 in 2003.

Born and
raised in Forth Worth, Eisenman attended UT Austin, double-majored in
business and finance, is a self-described “homebody,” and says the most
important aspect of his life is his family. But his local ties won’t
stop Handango from expanding into an international presence and
dominating this ever-growing niche. 

Chris Wilbratte, 36
Quantum Pension Services

At
24, Chris Wilbratte was a long way from retirement when he founded
Quantum Pension Services, a company that specializes in retirement
options for educators. Since then, Wilbratte has overcome hardships and
sped ahead. In 1995, Quantum’s sales manager walked out with a
significant number of staff and client files. Soon afterward, the
company battled a statewide bill that would have forced Quantum to
become a nonprofit organization. Wilbratte joined his competition in a
letter-writing campaign and a series of meetings with local
politicians. The collaboration paid off, and the bill was amended.
Quantum is now looking at expanding into Oklahoma and Louisiana, and
Wilbratte recently co-founded the real estate venture New Urban Renewal.

Chuck Lande, 39
Rowlett Family Entertainment
The
leap from hard drives to bowling balls seems like a long one, but for
this entrepreneur, it was a matter of following his bliss. Chuck Lande
founded Landec Computer in 1996 by buying secondhand products from
local computer retailers. In a small warehouse, he fixed them up and
put them back on the shelves for sale. Sales managers passed his name
along to corporate executives, and Lande was soon buying direct. Once
he discovered online stores like eBay, Landec Computer burst into the
global marketplace. He sold the company in April 2002 and began his new
venture, Rowlett Bowl-a-Rama, a retro-styled, family-oriented
restaurant/bowling alley that cleverly combines 1950s sensibilities and
high-tech fun.

Brian Schultz, 34
Studio Movie Grill

During
his 1992 campaign trail, Sen. Arlen Spector suggested that he and Brian
Schultz, who worked for the lawmaker, unwind with dinner and a movie.
As innocuous as that suggestion seems, it gave Schultz an idea. “At
that moment, I knew what I wanted to do,” he says. “Good food, served
fresh, while watching a first-run film.” He ran the Granada from 1994
until 2000, when he launched Studio Movie Grill. His toughest challenge
is maintaining quality food and service despite the onslaught of
orders—a good problem to have. Schultz does it with the aid of chef
Thad Kelley, a capable staff, and world-class management. His two
Studio Movie Grills, located in Addison and Plano, boast
state-of-the-art sound and projection equipment and are a fresh angle
on the Saturday-night standard: food and a flick.

Drew Clancy, 38
PCI: The Data Company
Drew
Clancy knows the satisfaction of mixing business with goodwill. He
purchased the majority of PCI in 1995 and in 1999 assumed his father’s
role as president, because he saw an opportunity for growth and to make
a difference in alumni relations at universities across the country.
PCI manages alumni data for 20 of the top 25 colleges, including
Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, as well as Baylor, SMU, and TCU. But
Clancy’s ambition goes beyond basic business; PCI regularly contributes
to organizations such as Hearts & Hammers and the Susan G. Komen
Foundation. Clancy aims for PCI to someday make Fortune’s list of “100
Best Companies to Work For.”

Dean McSherry, 39
Preferred Restaurant Services
Dean
McSherry has been in the restaurant business for 18 years, long enough
to know a thing or two about the industry. He owns and operates
Preferred Restaurant Services, a nationwide consulting company for
small to medium-size restaurant groups. PRS offers numerous services,
including payroll management and employee benefits packages.

A
co-founder of the company in 2001, McSherry purchased his partner’s
holdings a year and a half later and became sole owner of the venture,
which handles some of Dallas’ most renowned restaurants: Al Beirnat’s,
Javier’s, Maguire’s, and Consilient (Cuba Libre, Sense, and Candle
Room), to name a few. He also has offices in Dallas, Miami, Phoenix,
and Chicago. He believes that “although being an entrepreneur involves
risk-taking, the rewards truly outweigh those risks.”

Credits