Business Awards Luncheon
May 3rd, 2023
The Park Event Center, Waite Park, MN
Meet Our 2023 AWARD WINNERS
2023 SMALL BUSINESS owners OF THE YEAR
rich & jodi erkens, Audio Video Extremes
Rich and Jodi Erkens have dedicated their careers to home entertainment. Rich started working at RadioShack when he was just 16, and spent a good portion of his career at Audio King, which was eventually purchased by Ultimate Electronics. “If people wanted to program multiple things together, like TVs in this room and speakers in this room, Rich was always that guy,” Jodi said.
In 2005, Rich could sense that change was on the horizon at Ultimate Electronics. He approached Jodi with the idea of starting his own operation along with two other business partners. Jodi told him he had six months to figure it out and make it work. The business worked out of a home office initially, eventually opening their first location in 2009. During that time, one of the business partners left, and Jodi did part time bookkeeping for the company. “After about five years of relatively stagnant growth since starting the business, I said to my remaining business partner ‘Here’s the deal, I have a plan to move us to the next level, do you want to be part of it?’” Rich said.
In 2012, the Erkens bought out their remaining business partner, split the ownership 50/50 between them, and implemented a much more aggressive business plan. Things started moving quickly. Audio Video Extremes moved into their new location in 2014, doubled their annual revenue in the first year, and by 2022 had tripled that annual revenue. They employ 20 people and will be opening a second location in Baxter, Minn. in 2023 with three employees. “We knew it was going to be good, we didn’t know it would be this good,” Jodi said of the Baxter location. The response and excitement has been more than they could anticipate.
Over the last 18 years, the Erkens have seen trends and challenges come and go. AVX operated a car audio department for several years but retired that service in 2021 – without losing any employees, and with minimal impact on the bottom line. They face a constant struggle with hiring, so they pride themselves in offering competitive pay and benefits and treating their staff of 20 like family. They had the foresight to see the potential supply chain impact of the pandemic, so some bulk purchasing early in 2020 left them in good standing inventory-wise during the last few years. They love giving back to the community, and have been involved with the Holly Ball, raising money for CentraCare Hospice, Coborn Cancer Center, the Central Minnesota Child Advocacy Center, and more.
The exponential growth they’ve seen, the exemplary service they provide, and their commitment to the St. Cloud community has earned Audio Video Extremes the 2023 St. Cloud Area Small Business Owners of the Year award by the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce.
2023 BUSINESS CENTRAL MARK OF EXCELLENCE:
women in business champion
mary hondl, regional diagnostic radiology
Mary Hondl always wanted to be a nurse, and she began working as a CNA as soon as she turned 14. She moved to Sauk Rapids in 1986 and worked a few different jobs in the healthcare industry. It was her position of executive assistant in the imaging department of the St. Cloud hospital where she got to know the radiologists, including the leaders of Regional Diagnostic Radiology (RDR), Dr. Nguyen and Dr. Simonson.
A few years later, she was approached by Dr. Nguyen and Dr. Simonson, who asked if she would be interested in managing RDR. Mary recalls doubting herself, at least at first. “I remember thinking, if Dr. Simonson and Dr. Nguyen asked me to do this, they must think I can do this, so clearly I can do this.” She has been with RDR since 2001, when there were three employees, eight radiologists and three contracted hospitals.
Her first task and one of her proudest accomplishments in her role as CEO was to internalize the billing for RDR. By internalizing billing, RDR saw a 30% increase in revenue. Since then, RDR has added even more capabilities to better serve their patients. The Vein Center opened in 2005, MedSpa opened in 2009, and Alliance Imaging – a partnership with CentraCare – opened in 2021.
Mary earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Scholastica in 2006 and her MBA from St. Thomas University in 2016. “I’m a lifelong learner,” Mary said. “I think it’s super important to keep yourself connected.” She prides herself on the ability to build relationships and meet people from all walks of life. “I love bringing on staff and growing and seeing what people were willing to bring to the table.”
RDR has always been a local group of physicians who live here and care about local causes. RDR has sponsored the new RDR Arena at the Scheel’s Sports Complex in Sartell, the local Boys and Girls Clubs, and new YMCA building. Mary has sat on the finance committee for the YMCA and the CentraCare Foundation. “We try very hard to keep our donations in the community and supporting the things that mean a lot to the community,” Mary said.
If you asked her back when she was an executive assistant, Mary would have said she never saw this career coming. “If I think back on the things that I’ve learned and what I’ve gotten to do, then it feels like 22 years,” Mary said. “I’ve worked in a lot of healthcare areas where there are women leaders – physicians, nurses and more – so I feel like I have a really good support system.” RDR now has 18 radiologists, three physician assistants, 54 employees and services ten hospitals and multiple clinics.
Mary’s daring leap into leadership, constant desire to learn and grow, and ability to recognize the strengths of others has earned her the 2023 Women in Business Champion award by the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce.
jay & tina mrozek, blacklight adventures
Tina and Jay Mrozek have always wanted to start their own business. About 13 years ago while on a work trip together for Tina’s role at a property management company, they visited a small, homemade family entertainment attraction and had a fantastic time together.
On the drive home, they couldn’t stop thinking about how St. Cloud could benefit from something like that. They attended a class about how to start a small business through the SBA that helped them create a business plan and it looked like it was really going to happen. Then, their son unexpectedly experienced some medical issues, and their business aspirations were on hold.
In the meantime, Jay went back to school for elementary education and started working at a church in the kids program, where he convinced Tina to join him and run the children’s ministry. Through working there, they realized that life tends to pull families apart. “Even at church, children go to kid’s nursery, parents go to big church. Kids go to school, parents go to work,” Jay said. “What if we created a place where they could enjoy recreational time together?”
Tina found their old business plan and they got to work. They did some SCORE mentoring with Dennis Miller from Falcon National Bank to update their business plan and utilized the Small Business Development Center for guidance. “Along the way we had a lot of encouragement,” Jay said. “And there were moments where we were told it wasn’t a feasible idea.” Overcoming that initial fear of sharing their idea with others was a challenge.
“Once we decided to go for it… we went for it,” Tina said. Blacklight Adventures opened in June of 2019. Everyone knows what happened eight months later. They were closed completely for five months, and open at limited capacity for 18 months though the COVID pandemic. “When you go through that as an initial challenge, every other challenge is really not that big of a deal,” Tina said. They say the silver lining was that they were able to totally reevaluate their business shortly after opening, which is a rare opportunity.
Today Blacklight Adventures has 14 part-time employees and one full-time. “When people ask what our number one attraction is, we tell them it’s our staff,” Jay said. “You can go anywhere for laser tags and escape rooms, but you can’t have the experience you have here because of our staff.” They credit that service to their “all in” program, which allows staff to reward each other with poker chips when they see someone going above and beyond and encourages exceptional service.
Jay and Tina have broken the mold of family entertainment centers with Blacklight Adventures. By offering clean, non-overstimulating fun and a staff that enhances the experience, they have successfully created a place that brings families together. Their success has earned them the title of 2023 St. Cloud Area Emerging Entrepreneurs of the Year by the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce.