Small-business owner Dave Wirig would blend in well at any business luncheon. Scott Kadrlik looks like you’d expect a managing partner in an accounting firm to look. Tabatha Erck’s appearance is perfectly congruent with her role as CEO of a thriving chiropractic network.
Looks can be deceiving. After shedding their business attire, one of these three executives dons a wig and spandex and transforms into a rock musician. Another grabs a microphone and hits Twin Cities stages as a stand-up comedian. The third guns a BMW and races around Brainerd International Raceway at 140 miles per hour.
Are they the exceptions or the rule among the seemingly staid world of corporate America? It’s hard to know how many high-level execs are living double lives, but we’ve found a bunch of them.
Rock God / Dave Wirig
Co-founder and CFO of Medical Solutions, Inc., a provider of new and reconditioned medical equipment (medicalsolutionsinc.com)
Plays guitar under the alias Davey Roxx for heavy metal band Hair Metal Mania (hairmetalmania.com)
When Dave Wirig, 44, and his lifelong friend, Dave Delgado, decided to start a business of their own in 1996, they had two criteria: It should have controllable outcomes and be in an industry that could withstand tough economic times. “Dave and I were trained in sales,” Wirig says. “We knew we would do well if the company was direct-sales-oriented. We chose the medical field because it’s so interesting; there are always cutting-edge breakthroughs and new products coming out.”
The two Daves ended up founding Medical Solutions, Inc. Medical Solutions purchases new equipment directly from more than 50 manufacturers, but also buys used equipment from medical facilities throughout the country. The bulk of the company’s sales come from surgical tables, stress-testing systems, EKG machines, and autoclaves, but they’re willing to buy whatever comes their way. “We may get a call to liquidate a metropolitan-area clinic,” Wirig says. “That equipment, which may be outdated for that owner, may be perfect for a rural clinic or hospital.”
Much has changed in the 16 years since Wirig and Delgado opened up shop. Revenue has surpassed $2 million, and in 2007 the pair purchased a 12,000-square-foot commercial building in Maple Grove. One thing hasn’t changed: The two of them are still the firm’s only employees, handling everything from sales to shipping. “We had salespeople, but they lacked incentive,” Wirig says. “We learned that bigger is not necessarily better.”
Medical Solutions is all that Wirig hoped it would be. Even so, he felt that something important in life was missing. “When we started the company, I put my guitar down,” he says. “I didn’t pick it up again for eight or nine years. One day, I finally sat down and listened to what my body and soul were telling me. I was missing playing the guitar and the way it helped me express my creative side. Once I started playing again and making music, it was so wonderful I didn’t want to stop.”
What Wirig also missed was the euphoria of performing for a live audience as he did in his college years. Feeling the itch to join a band, he turned to Craigslist and quickly connected with a group in need of a guitarist. For a couple of years, the band played soft rock and pop under the name Hard to Handle. Then, at Wirig’s urging, they morphed into an ’80s rock tribute band called Hair Metal Mania, with a set list that includes greatest hits from Poison, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, et al.
The members had to look the part. Add a wig and Spandex, and balding, mild-mannered Wirig was transformed into Davey Roxx. “When I put on that wig, Dave Wirig ceases to exist,” he says. “The only person present is Davey Roxx, rock god.”
As Roxx, Wirig goes all-out to embody the persona. “I was in theater in high school so I have a background,” says Wirig, who also supplies back-up vocals. “Playing the part is as much acting as it is guitar performance.”
The band’s biggest gig was headlining at St. Croix Casino in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, last summer, but no matter where they perform, Wirig marvels that the audience always buys the act. “What amazes me the most is that people listen with their eyes as much as they do with their ears,” he says. “When they see someone in rock star garb with a rock star persona, they have trouble distinguishing whether it’s a real rock star or just a medical equipment guy with a wig. That speaks to the authenticity of the show.”
Indeed, Wirig doesn’t just view Davey Roxx as a fun alias; he’s fully committed to the identity, even speaking about him in the third person: “He is a perfectionist and wants to play and perform as authentically as possible. Even though I’m 44, I’m still interested in getting better. Putting in all that time and repetition to learn and perform the songs has definitely helped me be a more patient person in every aspect of my life.”
Wirig, who dreamed of being a rock star as a guitar-obsessed teenager, manages to keep his double life in perspective. “It’s a different gratification to sell a surgical table than it is to play your favorite song onstage,” he says. “They’re both equally wonderful and neither can replace the other. Then again, I don’t have women screaming my name when I sell a surgical table.”
Jet Fighter Pilot / Dan Sullivan
Consultant to superDimension, a producer of medical devices (superdimension.com)
Charter member of the Hoppers, the first civilian formation team of MiG fighter jet trainers (hopperflight.com)
When Dan Sullivan was named CEO of Plymouth-based superDimension in 2006, he took revenue at the medical device company from less than $1 million to $30 million in 2011. “We pioneered a new market for the diagnosis and early treatment of lung cancer,” says Sullivan, who has continued to consult for the company after it was sold to Ireland-based Covidien in 2012. “By catching it early, the 10-year survival rate goes from 15 percent to 90 percent.”
It’s not surprising that Sullivan, 57, got superDimension flying high. He’s part of the Hoppers, a group of flying enthusiasts who stage air shows in four MiG fighter jet trainers. They were trained by a former F-15 instructor to fly formation to Air Force standards. “Flying a jet in formation is the most intense concentration you can possibly imagine,” says Sullivan, who owns three military jets. “The Hoppers are my second family. We literally trust our lives to each other. It’s a bond so deep, you can’t break it and you can’t describe it.”
The Hoppers make a special effort to connect with and inspire kids. “When a kid comes up to us at an air show with their eyes lit up, we love it,” Sullivan says. “Our goal is for kids to gain an appreciation of what these jets are about and walk away thinking, ‘I could do that too.’ ”
Semi-Cop / Joe Thornton
Senior director of brand management for Stream Global Services, which operates call centers all over the world (stream.com)
Member of the Woodbury Police Reserves
As the senior director of branding for Eagan-based Stream Global Services, which provides business process outsourcing (BPO) services primarily for Fortune 1,000 clients, Joe Thornton, 48, manages message development and strategic communications for the company, which has more than 50 service centers and 35,000 employees in 23 countries.
Thornton, a former news anchor and news director at KDLH-TV, the CBS affiliate in Duluth, assumed his current position in December 2011 after a five-year stint at St. Paul-based Lawson Software, where he was director of media relations.
After spending the day dealing with media and industry analysts, Thornton turns his attention to upholding the integrity of a very different brand. For one or two weekend night-shifts a month, he dons the uniform of the Woodbury Police Reserves, an all-volunteer team whose members function as uniformed officers representing the department. “I take this work very seriously because there’s a responsibility that comes with putting on that uniform and representing the police department,” Thornton says. “There’s a big difference between what reserve officers do and what sworn officers do, but to the community we’re cops. We wear essentially the same uniform and drive in marked squad cars.”
Reserve officers do not have authority to arrest or detain suspects, but they do assist with general patrol and hands-on activities such as transporting prisoners to jail, drunks to detox, and domestic violence victims to shelters; patrolling parks; assisting crime scene security; providing crowd and traffic management at community events; and helping with disaster response. “Transporting a prisoner or taking someone to detox can take a police officer off the street for an hour or two,” Thornton says. “If we can perform that function, the sworn officer can stay on the street to stop drunk drivers, respond to medical emergencies, and catch more bad guys.”
Serving in a law enforcement capacity had never been on Thornton’s radar until the summer day in 2010 when he picked up the phone and found himself speaking to Mark Buratczuk, who led the reserves at the time. Buratczuk had seen an email Thornton had sent on behalf of his family thanking all of the officers for the work they do. When Buratczuk suggested that Thornton consider joining the reserves, Thornton laughed. “I told him I was in my mid-40s and a PR guy by trade,” Thornton recalls. “I said he probably wanted someone who was younger and eager to become a cop. Buratczuk said, ‘No, we try to balance our program with people who are civically minded and have an appreciation for what law enforcement professionals do.’ ”
Given that reserve officers drive squad cars, carry Tasers, and represent the Woodbury Police Department, the application process included an extensive background check, psychiatric evaluation, and rigorous interview process. After being accepted, Thornton was trained in police procedure, self-defense, and how to respond to different scenarios in real-life settings. That training is ongoing, says Thornton, who now co-leads the 12-member reserves.
Working with and alongside sworn officers has deepened Thornton’s respect for what people in public safety do. “My appreciation for police officers has been multiplied many times over,” he says. “There are exceptional people doing exceptional work out there. The importance of their work becomes even more evident when you get a firsthand look at what goes on in the middle of the night in a Twin Cities suburb.”
Racetrack Legend / Tabatha Erck
CEO of Chiropractic Care of Minnesota, Inc. (chirocare.com)
Performance driving at racetracks
As CEO of Shoreview-based Chiropractic Care of Minnesota, Inc., Tabatha Erck, 44, oversees the nonprofit’s flagship product, ChiroCare, a chiropractic network with 1,600 providers. ChiroCare is hired by insurance providers to perform many of the same functions that insurance companies do, but with an exclusive focus on chiropractic benefits, practitioners, and clinics. After launching a new acupuncture network called AcuNet on December 1, Erck has shifted into overdrive to get the network up to speed.
Shifting and speed are right in Erck’s wheelhouse. Erck, who joined the BMW Car Club of America eight years ago, trains with professional drivers at the Dakota County Technical College on its driving track in Rosemount and at Brainerd International Raceway, reaching speeds of up to 140 mph. In her first session, she had to navigate through a slalom course of orange cones. “The first couple of times I hit every single cone,” she says. “Within an hour, I was able to go through at 60 miles per hour without touching the cones, but moving them because I was that close.”
A passionate advocate for car safety, Erck volunteers for the Tire Rack Street Survival teen driving program, teaching teens how to drive at the Dakota County track. “We teach them everything about driving, from adjusting their mirrors to handling their vehicles on icy roads,” she says. “That is five times more rewarding than anything else I do.”
Stand-Up CPA / Scott Kadrlik
Thirty years ago, the night before Scott Kadrlik took his CPA exam, he lay awake all night thinking about the test. He also imagined himself performing stand-up on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He passed the test the next day, but kept his comedy aspirations to himself for the next 23 years.
In the meantime, Kadrlik, now 53, forged a successful and rewarding career as a CPA. In 1991, he became a partner at Eden Prairie-based Meuwissen Flygare Kadrlik & Associates, a 15-person full-service firm offering audit, accounting, tax, and consulting services. Kadrlik also is a personal financial specialist (PFS), one of only 5,000 CPAs in the United States to have earned that designation.
Kadrlik’s comedy dream lay dormant until the summer of 2004, when he heard a radio interview with local comedy legend Louie Anderson. Anderson announced he was staging a contest for aspiring comedians and that the winner would open for him at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis on New Year’s Eve.
Kadrlik set his sights on the following year’s contest. Determined to learn both the business and art of stand-up comedy, he began attending workshops and seminars. “They all said the same thing: ‘You can’t learn about comedy from a class,’ ” Kadrlik says. “ ‘Get three minutes of material and find an open microphone.’ ”
Encouraged, Kadrlik spent months crafting a solid three minutes of “wacky accounting humor.” When fall rolled around, he was ready; unfortunately, Anderson scrubbed the contest. Then shortly before Christmas, in an article about open mic nights, he read that first-timers were guaranteed to go onstage at Acme Comedy Co. in the Warehouse District. “I told my wife we were going down to Acme on Monday so I could perform,” Kadrlik says. “She thought I was nuts. She had no clue that this was one of my dreams. Nobody did. But she came along, as did my two daughters and one of my best friends and his wife. They all wanted to see a train wreck.”
That Monday, “it all ended up going as smoothly as I hoped. Looking back, it really wasn’t a very good three-minute bit, but people laughed in all the right spots and that’s all that matters.”
Hooked, Kadrlik signed up for a workshop with local comedy veterans Scott Hansen and Dave Mordal, where he studied the mechanics of joke writing. Five years after being bitten by the comedy bug, he achieved his original goal: opening for Louie Anderson.
Right before going onstage at Edinborough Golf Course in Brooklyn Park, Kadrlik spent some time with Anderson talking about comedy. “Louie asked me if I was nervous,” Kadrlik recalls. “I said, ‘No, I’m not nervous.’ He said, ‘Well, you should be.’ At which point I was instantly nervous.
“I walked downstairs to perform and completely forgot everything I was going to say. I didn’t even remember my name. Fortunately, it was a momentary panic. As soon as I heard my name announced, I was ready to go and had a great set.”
Kadrlik has gone on to open for Anderson several times, including a show at the Louie Anderson Theater at Palace Station Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. After performing at all the comedy clubs around the Twin Cities, as well as a number of accounting conferences and corporate events, he has nearly 30 minutes of material at his command.
“Ultimately, I want to put together a corporate hour that I can carry around and perform for large companies,” he says, “because that’s where the money is in this business.”
Kadrlik’s comedy career is gaining momentum, but don’t expect him to give up his pencils and spreadsheets. “Comedy is strictly on the side,” he says. “Being a CPA is what I’ve worked for all my life and I really enjoy the accounting business. Besides, some of the funniest people I know are accountants.”
Power Lifter / Bob Krowech
Founder and CEO of Heat Recovery System Technology, Inc., a supplier of consulting services to the power and steam generation industry (hrstinc.com)
Bodybuilding and powerlifting veteran who’s set numerous state, national, and world records.
When Bob Krowech, 68, founded Eden Prairie–based Heat Recovery System Technology, Inc. (HRST) in 1998, he resolved to create an environment in which every employee felt valued, motivated, and committed to the firm’s success. “A lot of corporations will say, ‘We’re all in this together,’ ” he says. “But what they really mean is, ‘If things go bad, you’ll get laid off, and if things go good, we’ll get rich.’ I wanted HRST to be the antithesis of that mindset.”
The strategy worked. HRST was listed among Inc. Magazine’s fastest-growing companies in 2008 and 2009. The $10 million company has five satellite offices in the United States, one in Switzerland, and does business in Vietnam, Bangladesh, and South America. “We do the overseas work primarily for the ‘adventure factor,’ since there is plenty of work here in North America,” Krowech says.
Krowech is not only a business builder, he’s a bodybuilder. He’s a two-time winner of the Over 50 division of the Mr. Minnesota bodybuilding contest; while in his 50s, he also took first place in the 35 and Over category in three other state bodybuilding contests, edging out competitors who were young enough to be his children.
Krowech had been lifting weights for decades before deciding to compete. While his high school buddies in Roseau were playing hockey, he preferred hoisting dumbbells in the school gym. “I remember seeing the Charles Atlas comic book ads,” Krowech says. “When I saw it I knew I wanted to be that guy.” Except for a year of military service in Vietnam, he’s been lifting ever since.
At the age of 54, Krowech transitioned from bodybuilding, which values looking as good as possible, to powerlifting, which values lifting as much weight as possible. “In bodybuilding, I had achieved as much as my genetics would allow, and the intense dieting regimen had a negative effect on my disposition,” he says. “A friend I was training with said, ‘Why don’t you do a powerlifting contest? Hardly anyone has a title in both bodybuilding and powerlifting.’ So there was a challenge for me.”
In no time, Krowech was setting state, national, and world records, including the national record in his weight class for dead-lifting 611 pounds. Krowech performed this feat of strength—which involves picking up a loaded barbell from a bent-over position, lifting it with straight arms to a standing position and then slowly lowering the weight back to the ground—five years ago, at the age of 63. What’s even more impressive is that he hoisted that record weight three years after being diagnosed with tonsil cancer and a grueling regimen of chemo and radiation.
A year after his diagnosis, Krowech was competing again. As he slowly regained weight, he set one record after another in weight classes he never dreamed he’d be competing in. “The lifts weren’t up to my standards, but it was good to be back in the game,” he says.
Krowech is equally at home at the gym or in the office, noteworthy considering that the former is an individual pursuit while the latter is a total team effort. At HRST, he and his staff of 30 engineers are paid the same salary and share equally in the profits at year’s end. In January 2012 every employee, including the administrative staff, received a bonus check averaging $22,000. In December the company formed an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) so employees could buy company stock with pre-tax dollars. “When we get together for our semiannual meetings,” he says, “the spirit of cooperation and enthusiasm actually brings tears to my eyes.”
Although Krowech’s two worlds appear to have little in common, he sometimes doesn’t know where one begins and the other ends: “It’s hard to tell whether my level of ambition and work ethic are part of my natural makeup or if they developed from my time in the gym.”
Kayak Roller / Christopher Crowhurst
Executive vice president of technology and partner at Marketing Architects, Inc., a direct-response advertising agency and product development company (marketingarchitects.com)
Founder of Qajaq Rolls, a company dedicated to passing on the Inuit art of Greenland-style kayak rolling (qajaqrolls.com)
At Marketing Architects, Inc., Christopher Crowhurst runs the company’s data centers and handles software development. The Hopkins agency also develops and markets its own products, including Stuffies stuffed animals and the HurryCane, an innovative walking stick.
What really has Crowhurst rolling is the business he started two years ago to disseminate information about kayaking, a lifelong obsession. His first product was a guidebook on how to roll your kayak. For non-kayakers, that means how to return to right-side up when you capsize.
Crowhurst, 43, a native of England, named his company Qajaq Rolls because “qajaq” is how Inuits of Greenland spell “kayak.” “Greenland kayak rolls are steeped in the history of the Inuit people, whose very survival depended upon their ability to roll up and recover while hunting,” he says. “The Inuit had about 30 different ways to do it, and I documented 25 of them in a waterproof book and companion DVD.”
Crowhurst is so passionate about kayak rolling that he helped train 150 people to roll in local lakes last year, gratis. “I developed my skills from people in the Inuit culture who wanted to share with me,” he says. “I’m just passing them forward to the kayaking community.”
Equestrian Adrenaline Junkie / Anita Janssen
Founding principal of 542 Global Foods, LLC, a producer and provider of food products.
Cutting-horse champion (janssenperformancehorses.com)
Anita Janssen had grown restless. After 15 years of owning Maxxum, Inc., an IT data and equipment disposal firm she had launched in her hometown of Rush City, her entrepreneurial itch needed scratching. She was also yearning to do work that fit who she was at her core. “As I matured in my career, so did my social agenda,” she says. “I had been raised on a farm, I still live on a farm, and even though I’m very corporate when I’m out and about, I have always felt a strong commitment to the ‘feeding the world’ part of agriculture.”
When an opportunity to enter the ag industry presented itself, Janssen, 44, jumped ship. She sold her stake in Maxxum in December and joined forces with two partners to launch 542 Global Foods, LLC, a producer and provider of food products for overseas markets and immigrant populations in the United States. The new company, which raises animals on a large scale for the Asian market, is negotiating with a group of investors who want to set up high-quality commercial hog production overseas. “We’re taking a global approach in a way that’s respectful to the earth, the communities and the people we serve, and the animals that ultimately become the protein sources,” says Janssen, who handles the business management and development side of the company.
When she’s not riding herd on underserved global food markets, you might find Janssen riding a cutting horse amidst a herd of cattle. Cutting is an equestrian event where a horse and rider are judged on their ability to separate a single animal from a herd and keep it isolated for a short period. While Janssen is modest about her prowess in the sport, she competes at local, regional, and national levels and has won a number of competitions and awards.
Janssen, who owned a horse during her high school years and returned to recreational riding in 1998, discovered cutting in 2001 and was instantly hooked. Five years later, through mutual friends, she met Bob Janssen, owner of Janssen Performance Horses, one of two full-time cutting-horse trainers in the state. In 2008, they married. The couple now own 25 show-caliber cutting horses and prospects, as well as 100 head of cattle. “A cutting horse is a highly trained athlete,” Janssen notes. “You can’t just take a horse out of your pasture and go do it. They go through two full years of training before they even get to a show.”
Given Janssen’s personality, she considers cutting the ideal sport for high achievers. “As a businessperson and entrepreneur, I have an active mind and tend to be wound fairly tight,” she explains. “Riding a cutter is a great way to escape. It’s a very physical activity, but also an intense mental activity. And I love learning. I’m never going to get to the point where there’s nothing more I can learn from this.”
Janssen has benefitted so much from cutting that she teamed up with Twin Cities business coach and entrepreneur Sue Hawkes in January 2012 to conduct corporate leadership training using cutting horses. “Cutting appeals to a lot of high-level businesspeople because it’s a huge adrenaline rush,” Janssen says. “Because it’s fast and very adrenaline-inducing, it attracts people who typically run pretty hard anyway. It feeds their competitive nature.”
In one memorable moment, a cutting horse changed Janssen’s life and the way she runs her business. “Whenever I walked into the stall of my third cutter, he would turn around and put his head in the corner,” she recalls. “The first two cutters I bought had done the same thing. I got frustrated and asked my trainer, ‘Why is it that I can’t get a horse that likes me and wants to hang out with me?’ He looked at me, said, ‘What if it’s not the horse?’ and turned around and walked away. It was an awesome light-bulb moment.”
What Janssen realized in that moment went far beyond her relationship with a horse. “That question taught me in an instant a whole lot about interacting with people, whether employees, clients, or vendors,” she says. “I’ve always been focused on the next task at hand and wasn’t taking time to be in the moment. I’d rush into that horse’s stall, halter in hand, and be ready to halter him up, take him out of the stall, and go to work. I never spent any time developing a relationship with him. So when my trainer said, ‘What if it’s not the horse?’ I started asking myself, ‘What could I do differently to make sure I’m as approachable as I need to be to be a good leader?’ I now joke with people that the reason I got into cutting is that horses are cheaper than therapy!”
Doctor of Systems / Ralph Bashioum
Plastic surgeon (nipntuck.com)
Microsoft certified systems engineer
Ralph Bashioum might be the only plastic surgeon who can give you a facelift or tummy tuck after writing the source code for your paperless office. Bashioum, whose plastic surgery practice has the perfect Internet domain name, nipntuck.com, is also a systems engineer and programmer who wrote his own EMR (electronic medical records) application.
When Bashioum, 61, moved his practice from Golden Valley to Wayzata 17 years ago, he envisioned a paperless office but couldn’t find an affordable network administration solution. “So I started doing that work myself but found that the only way to do it safely and efficiently was to become educated and certified as a MCSE [Microsoft certified systems engineer],” he says.
Bashioum now spends 20 hours a week on network administration above and beyond the 40 hours he devotes to patients. “The skill has served me very well,” he says. “We’ve gone through four iterations of hardware, and I’ve rebuilt the network each time.”
Looking forward to life after medicine, Bashioum plans on marketing his paperless office solution. Bashioum’s application runs on a simple Microsoft Office program and scales very quickly. “I like the problem solving in programming,” he says. “Unlike medical problem solving, there’s an exactness to it. It’s a nice avocation and a real joy.”
Humanitarian Personified / Ward Brehm
Founder and chairman of The Brehm Group, a Twin Cities estate and insurance planning firm (brehmgroup.com).
Nationally recognized leader in African humanitarian efforts (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ward_Brehm).
Ward Brehm, 61, founder of the Brehm Group, a Minneapolis-based boutique estate and insurance planning firm that caters to generationally affluent families, attributes his business success to a straightforward philosophy: “Rather than chase transactions, we build long-term trusted relationships.”
That innate sense for what matters guided Brehm to accept his pastor’s invitation to visit Africa in 1993. “I’ve never been the same,” says Brehm, who toured remote areas of Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania on that initial trip and since has visited every country in sub-Saharan Africa. “I saw people living in absolute squalor and children dying from fully preventable diseases. It just broke my heart. When a woman loses a baby because she can’t get to the hospital due to muddy ruts in the road, her pain and screams of anguish are exactly the same as they would be for our wives and mothers. But nobody hears her. I’m trying to do whatever I can to act as an advocate and be a voice for these people.”
That may be the understatement of the century. Brehm has visited Africa 35 times, was appointed chairman of the United States African Development Foundation by President George W. Bush in 2004, was awarded the Presidential Citizenship Medal in an Oval Office ceremony, and delivered the keynote address at the 2008 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. He is the author of two books on his experiences in Africa, Life Through a Different Lens and White Man Walking.
This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.