“Find something you love to do,” advises Neil Peters-Michaud, Wisconsin School of Business MBA ’99 alumnus and owner of Cascade Asset Management, a full service IT asset retirement solutions company, when I asked him about being an entrepreneur. “Focus on the people, not just the numbers. Build relationships.”
I thought Neil’s advice was very poignant, as it sums up what I have learned and loved in business school. I can appreciate that relationships and people are what he likes most about being an entrepreneur as I have come to the same realization throughout my career. Neil was kind enough to share with me about what inspired him to start his own company and how he managed the challenges of growing Cascade Asset Management.
Neil Peters-Michaud was inspired early in his life to be an entrepreneur by his great-grandmother, Grace Michaud. In the early 1920s near Boston, Massachusetts, Grace helped her husband run a shoe shop. She eventually started her own home heating oil company, Michaud Oil. She was later honored by the local Chamber of Commerce for the impact her business and her work in the community had on many residents. While Neil remembers others describing Grace as a go-getter with lots of initiative and who wouldn’t take no for an answer, he remembers her as a very sweet woman.
Neil started his company, Cascade Asset Management, in 1999, as part of a year-long WAVE class when he was an MBA student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He started the company because he saw a need for large organizations to safely and responsibly dispose of technology while he was working for the Wisconsin state government. As a result of being a part of the WAVE program, Neil obtained funding to launch the first location of his business in Madison.
Even before WAVE, Neil was making strides in starting his company. He was sponsored by a market research professor to look at the electronics recycling market in Wisconsin and performed a market feasibility test that involved surveying hundreds of businesses to assess the opportunity. At the time, the rate of retirement of computer equipment was 20% to 40% every five years. Believe it or not, published research predicted that there would be no new computer sales after 2005 – at that time, everyone who needed a computer was predicted to have one. Luckily for Cascade Asset Management, this prediction was completely wrong.
Neil’s original business plan called for opening new locations in nearby cities and states every year. But he quickly discovered that he didn’t have the management systems in place to expand so rapidly. The company’s first expansion in Milwaukee closed in 14 months.
Neil turned to the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship to recruit a student to develop a plan for growth. The student identified that Milwaukee was too close for expansion and that Cascade Asset Management could service clients in the Southeastern Wisconsin area from the Madison location. A better strategy would be to expand far enough away where there would be no overlap. By 2006, Cascade Asset Management was ready to re-expand, this time into Indianapolis, Indiana.
A couple years later, Cascade Asset Management was pushed into growth as it obtained major national customers. The company rapidly expanded to six more project-based locations. It was insanely successful, but very stressful. Neil has found that he would rather have planned, methodical expansion that could be controlled. Rapid growth could be less profitable than controlled growth and Neil now plans to grow the company methodically.
It was a great opportunity to learn from Neil’s experiences. I also wanted to meet and talk with Neil because I was selected as the recipient of the Grace Michaud Fellowship Fund for the 2014-2015 academic year. This fund was established in 2004 by Neil and his wife Jessica (also a UW alum) in honor of Neil’s great-grandmother, Grace, who, as mentioned earlier, was a prominent business leader in her community and one of the first successful women entrepreneurs. The Grace Michaud Fellowship Fund provides support to a graduate student through the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship. I am honored that I am the recipient of their generous donation.
As I start the WAVE class myself this semester and work on a start up, I will be inspired by both Neil and Grace’s experiences and keep his advice and lessons learned in mind. I am grateful not only for the donation Neil and Jessica made in his great-grandmother’s name, but for the relationship I was able to foster with him and for the opportunity to be as successful as his amazing great-grandmother Grace.
Nathan Allman, a BBA student and a top finisher in the 2013 G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition, was featured along with his father in a Wisconsin State Journal article on Sunday, July 20, 2014, regarding their business, Chefs for Seniors, a first-of-its-kind grocery shopping and in-home meal preparation service. John Surdyk, faculty associate and director of INSITE, was also quoted.
Three students from Mike Williams’ Venture Creation course, Dylan Jordee, Noe Vital Jr., and Nicole Zeprich, proposed architectural lighting for the Bolz Conservatory at Olbrich Botanical Gardens for their class project. The result was the unveiling of these lights in an evening of fun and live music called Light Up the Night! Dylan (a part-time employee at Olbrich), Noe, and Nicole proposed the lighting project to increase the conservatory’s presence at night.
Michael Fishman and Austin Stoffers – second place finishers in the 2011 G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition and two of four cofounders of Pure Fix Cycles – were recently featured in a Forbes article, ‘2014 30 under 30: Energy & Industry.’ Bicycle sales surpassed the $4 million mark in 2012.
Matt Howard, Eric Martell, and Alex Wyler, UW-Madison alumni and co-founders of EatStreet, were featured in Inside UW-Madison. EatStreet is a coast-to-coast online restaurant ordering system that has doubled its list of customers and received a $6 million investment.
Joe Kremer (WAVE ’97), CEO of Isomark, received funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) to help support a 110-patient study of the company’s non-invasive Canary breath analyzer. Read the articles from WisBusiness and the Wisconsin State Journal.
Kiernan McGowan of Quantitative IP (WAVE ’14), and Jared Burris and Jared Sandlin of Deneb Outdoors were invited to participate in the Madworks summer accelerator program that can provide up to $10,000 in funding and $15,000 in support services to startup companies seeking commercial viability.
Andrew Mclean, former Entrepreneurship Residential Learning Community resident, has been working hard on developing an event calendaring solution for campuses. Mclean and his partner, Jacob Schieber (Electrical and Computer Engineering), placed highly in several UW-Madison competitions this year, including the Burrill Business Plan Competition. John Surdyk, who leads the ERLC and Burrill Competition, accompanied the students to the Distance 2 Learning Fusion 2014 conference in Nashville, Tennessee, where they debuted Zuntik.
Maya Warren (WAVE ’13 and WEB ’13) along with fellow food science graduate student Amy DeJong, are one of 11 teams participating in the upcoming season of CBS’s The Amazing Race. The 25th edition of The Amazing Race will premiere on Fridays this fall from 7-8 p.m. The two were also featured in a Wisconsin State Journal article on September 22nd but didn’t give away any secrets as to how they finished in the race.
Ankit Agarwal (WEB ’09), Founder and CEO of Imbed Biosciences Inc., has been awarded a $1.5 million competitive Small Business Innovation Research Phase II grant from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.