The Pittsburgh Smart 50 Awards recognize the top executives of the smartest companies in the Greater Pittsburgh region for their ability to effectively build and lead successful organizations. Here’s who we honored this year:
Honorees listed in alphabetical order by company
FlexScreen CEO Joe Altieri’s mantra is “What’s next?” Never satisfied with the status quo, he constantly looks forward, dreams big and brings innovation to life. So after 20 years in the window industry, Altieri was tired of flimsy, old-style aluminum window screens. Working in his garage, he emerged with a screen redesign that solved every pain point, a product that is durable, sleek and effortless.
Not satisfied with the window industry’s hesitancy to adopt new technology, Altieri pivoted from a strictly B2B business model to sell directly to homeowners. His fresh, unexpected approach to marketing began to increase sales and gained the attention of Shark Tank producers, who invited Altieri to pitch his invention on the show. With his innovative design, Altieri and FlexScreen are revolutionizing the window industry.
A spinoff of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, ProtoInnovations LLC over the past 15 years has developed novel technologies focused on high-performance prototype robots, autonomy software and mechanics development. Founder and CEO Dimitrios Apostolopoulos is a senior systems scientist at the institute and the National Robotics Engineering Center. His work focuses on using robotics for discovery and exploration and as a solution for hazardous duty or demanding applications.
Apostolopoulos researches and develops autonomous robots for mining noble metals, novel robotic mechanisms for all-terrain mobility and new methods for designing and prototyping crewless ground vehicles. ProtoInnovations software will outfit Viper, a 1,000-pound NASA rover scheduled to make its lunar journey next year to search for water or ice at the moon’s south pole.
Jenn Beer is president and CEO of Leadership Pittsburgh Inc. (LPInc.), dedicating her professional career to community development, government affairs, public policy and nonprofit management. Beer has successfully aided the passage of major state legislative initiatives that have improved and advanced Greater Pittsburgh. She enjoys working with C-level executives, grassroots community leaders and volunteers coming together for the betterment of the region.
Since assuming her role at LPInc. in 2022, Beer has utilized her leadership skills of communication, organizational savvy, integrity and creativity to formulate her strategy and vision for the future. She is passionate about being a civic leader and is putting her touch on LPInc.’s core programs. Looking ahead, she is working to make LPInc. more regional in scope, inclusive and collaborative.
As a family-owned business, ABARTA Coca-Cola Beverages is committed to putting people first and serving its customers with excellence and integrity. Led by CEO Charlie Bitzer, ABARTA Coca-Cola takes pride in partnering with and supporting its communities. With 14 distribution centers across Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, each location shows dedication to local events and organizations.
ABARTA Coca-Cola Beverages emphasizes a culture of engagement, with two-way, open and honest communication an essential component. The company has assembled teams of associates who strategize the best ways to foster continuous improvement and develop novel ways to gather feedback. Engagement surveys seek associates’ honest thoughts on employee experience and recommendations for making teams stronger.
In 2014, Nisha Blackwell was downsized by a local coffee shop. Spurred by a passion to build an environmentally friendly business, she started Knotzland, which repurposes high-quality textile discards to create bow ties, rescuing more than 7,200 pounds of waste over the past decade.
A self-taught seamstress, CEO Blackwell realizes the importance of educational opportunities. Knotzland trains and works with a dynamic network of women to share the gift of learning to sew. Her hyper-local production model has allowed Blackwell to ensure customers receive handmade products while investing in her community. Those who sew make an average of $54 per hour working from home, and to date, Knotzland has invested an average of $40,000 per year directly into the economic well-being of its “Sewcial Network.”
Mike Blehar grew up in Pennsylvania, working on a PennDot road crew, at a community pool and in a chicken plant. A Penn State graduate, he became a stockbroker in 1988, and by 1995, he and some coworkers had formed Fort Pitt Capital Group on a foundation of long-term financial planning and value-driven investing, with clients’ best interests at heart.
Today, Blehar and his partners manage $5 billion in assets and employ 70 people. He is the firm’s financial adviser, managing partner and chief growth officer, overseeing strategic plans for expansion.
Blehar is a powerful force in the investment industry, winning awards and making Barron’s Top Financial Advisors Ranking list multiple times. A four-time Vistage Worldwide MVP awardee, he exemplifies the firm’s ideals and enthusiastically strives for excellence.
Bradigan’s Incorporated has operated since 1952. Andy Bradigan became owner and president of this third-generation family business in September 2022.
Bradigan’s core business is distributing petroleum products, servicing 11 counties around Pittsburgh. The company also runs seven KardGard refueling stations and operates a fleet of 14 tractors and tankers, delivering fuel to customers at competitive rates.
About half of Bradigan’s employees have been with the company for more than 10 years, many for 20 years or longer. Bradigan’s positively impacts its employees and community, retaining talent and developing future leaders through assigning mentorships.
Bradigan and his team create a family-oriented business culture by getting to know each employee. His guiding philosophy is that when you care about people, they will want to do business with you.
For over five decades, Management Science Associates (MSA) has used analytics and informatics to provide insights and solutions for industries including consumer packaged goods, media, metals and advanced manufacturing. MSA analyzes data and creates IT infrastructure to help inform decision-making, forecast outcomes and automate customers’ workflow and processes.
MSA’s goal is to identify new and challenging problems that require original solutions. This informs the company’s approach, influences its new product and service developments and creates a culture of innovation.
Under the leadership of Senior Vice President Mario Cafaro, MSA is the definition of a smart organization. The company operates a leading-edge big data innovator with predictive analytics and international information processing.
Christina Cassotis is CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport. She joined Pittsburgh International in January 2015 and has become a fixture in the regional and global aviation industry as a dynamic, change-making, people-focused leader. With Cassotis at the helm, Pittsburgh International has experienced record growth after US Airways abandoned its hub, recruiting multiple domestic and international carriers, including during the pandemic.
Cassotis is redefining the role airports play in the passenger experience. Her goal is to make the aviation industry more efficient, resilient and focused on being in the business of people. Her leadership has led to the development of the billion-dollar Terminal Modernization Program, which broke ground in 2021 and is scheduled to open in early 2025.
John Chamberlin started the YaJagoff blog, humorously highlighting yinzers who made parking and driving mistakes and Western Pennsylvania criminals who embarrassed the 412 and 724. The blog quickly became recognized, begging for expansion. The YaJagoff podcast became the first to be onsite, mobile and magazine-style, generating revenue as other podcasts struggled.
Seven years later, the YaJagoff brand has grown into a media company creating daily blogs, videos and a weekly podcast. Additionally, Chamberlin and his team execute social media, marketing, public relations and community collaborations for over 20 clients on monthly retainers. YaJagoff Media LLC produces multiple recognizable podcasts and video series and hosts a daily radio show on Q92.9.
Creating original, Pittsburgh-centric content, Chamberlin operates the company as partner with an old-school approach to new media.
Locally founded, Food Rescue Hero combines technology, logistics and community engagement to create food recovery and redistribution networks that deliver fresh food to those in need. Since the app launched in 2016, over 46,000 Food Rescue Hero users have repurposed 160 million pounds of food. Currently, the network encompasses 15 partners in 25 cities.
412 Food Rescue COO Jennifer England has had a tremendous impact. In her previous role as senior director of partner success, England onboarded partners and helped them implement technology. She created Food Rescue University, an online resource to launch a food rescue organization. In 2022, she led the first-ever Food Rescue Conference, bringing together food rescuers nationwide.
With a goal to scale food recovery in 100 cities by 2030, England is spearheading the next era of expansion.
IPEG is a family of leading businesses serving the global plastics processing, waste recycling and industrial heat-transfer markets. Headquartered in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, the company employs over 700 people worldwide.
John Erkert is the CFO of Piovan North America LLC. Over the past six years, he helped IPEG Industrial Group buy three companies and sell another. Erkert is responsible for shared service finance for the group’s North American brands, including Conair, Thermal Care, Pelletron, Republic Machine, UniDyn, Doteco, Penta and Piovan. Piovan North America LLC was formed when Piovan Group acquired IPEG Industrial Group in January 2022. Piovan Group has been listed on the Milan stock exchange since 2018, manufacturing process automation equipment for global plastics processing, pneumatic conveying, and bakery and confectionery markets in facilities around the world.
Providing office furniture nationwide, COE Distributing specializes in forward-thinking products for today’s work environments, from high-end executive offices to ideal work-from-home solutions. Chairman and CEO J.D. Ewing is an outstanding leader and motivator, and the cornerstone of his smart organization is people.
Ewing believes in recruiting, training and retaining A players who are dedicated to excellence in all facets of business. He sets standards of excellence and ensures the company’s strategic vision aligns with service to customers, employees and the community.
An innovator in every sense of the word, Ewing is responsible for growing COE over the past decade, achieving this by constantly adapting the company’s products and services to meet and exceed customer needs in the marketplace.
BlueTreeVC is a group of accredited investors that invests in regional, early stage companies. Managing Partner Sreekar Gadde leverages his background in engineering, law and business to identify and analyze early stage companies for potential investment opportunities.
He assists management teams of early and mid-stage companies in developing IP strategies that complement their business strategies. Gadde’s experience spans various fields, including artificial intelligence (Edge Case Research, Aspinity, TalkMeUp and Ariel Precision Medicine), medicine (Lindy BioSciences and CytoAgents), data analytics (BlastPoint) and consumer goods (Aeronics, Anglr and Crafty Counter).
Gadde works with companies to identify what differentiates them from their competition and determine what forms of IP provide the best strategic value to protect that differentiation.
Douglas Gebhard has dedicated his life to connecting underserved patients with much-needed therapies. He is president and co-founder of RareMed Solutions, the nation’s only concierge patient services provider. RareMed’s mission is to partner with biopharma, transforming the lives of patients afflicted with rare and devastating conditions by accelerating access to biomedical breakthroughs and treatment.
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, RareMed offers case management, co-pay, financial assistance programs, reimbursement support, nursing support, health care professional education, patient adherence and education, and noncommercial pharmacy dispensing services to all 50 states.
Gebhard leads over 200 individuals with a breadth of experience developing, launching and maintaining therapy-specific teams.
Beemac Inc. is a premier trucking and logistics company providing asset-based transport, warehousing and specialized services to customers throughout North America.
Since CFO Jeffrey Gilmore joined the company in 2018, it has grown 259 percent in revenue and related transactions. When he started, most procedures were completed manually, utilizing spreadsheets with keyed-in data. Financial statements and analyses are now produced via PowerBI and SSRS, along with daily dashboards that allow stakeholders to make critical business adjustments in a timely manner.
Gilmore reduced the accounting and HR staff from seven full-time equivalents in 2018 to five by 2023, while providing the same or better service levels. In addition, he navigated the company’s financial landscape through the pandemic, resulting in the company emerging financially stronger and poised to capture market share aggressively.
Led by President and CEO Jordan Golin, Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) of Pittsburgh provides innovative social service solutions to problems facing families and individuals.
In recent years, Golin and his leadership team became increasingly concerned about the rise in suicide and mental health issues among young people. In 2019, they started developing a model to expand mental health services and ensure that teens and young adults receive support before a life challenge escalates into a crisis.
During COVID, the isolation and stress young people experienced rapidly increased. Where others were discouraged, Golin saw an opportunity. Under his leadership, JFCS launched UpStreetpgh.org, believed to be the first virtual drop-in center to address mental health needs of teens and young adults. It found immediate success, connecting several thousand people with counselors.
John Graf’s journey into hospitality began with a vision to provide guests with unique and unforgettable experiences. As president and CEO of the Priory Hospitality Group (PHG), he has realized this vision and left an indelible mark on the industry.
With unwavering commitment to excellence, Graf has led PHG to numerous milestones. He came to this role in 2002 after a successful career as a corporate litigation attorney. PHG was already a family business, and Graf saw an opportunity to continue his parents’ legacy and further revitalize the North Side.
Graf provides visionary leadership for the hospitality teams at the Priory Hotel, Grand Hall at the Priory and Mansions on Fifth Hotel. His commitment to innovation is evident in his efforts to drive corporate strategy and grow the offerings of PHG.
Gupta Permold Corp./DiamondLife was founded in 1980, initially focusing on aluminum castings. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in mechanical engineering, Anil Gupta joined the company in 2005. His first role in sales set him up well to become CEO in 2012 as he learned the business and about marketing and consumer needs.
Gupta knows products can have short shelf lives, stating, “you must reinvent your business every 10 to 15 years.” Gupta Permold Corp./DiamondLife has evolved. Supplying mass transit business in the 1980s, the company added CNC machining and automated heat treating in the 1990s. In 2005, DiamondLife Gear was formed as an online consumer product line that serves institutional supply houses worldwide. Today, DiamondLife Gear is the world’s largest online metal pegboard retailer.
From age 13, Amy Hancock knew she would have a life-long career in the post-acute care setting. There was a nursing home at the end of her street where she often volunteered before becoming a certified nursing assistant.
Hancock became an occupational therapist, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with honors. Working for a contract rehabilitation company, she progressed to vice president of operations and eventually senior vice president of sales and marketing, with other national contract therapy companies.
Hancock then started her own company to offer more impactful contract therapy services to geriatric patients. She is the founder and CEO of three five-star companies: AdvantageCare Rehab, Advantage Home Health and Hospice, and Care Coordination Management.
Dena Haritos Tsamitis is director and founding dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s Information Networking Institute (INI). Haritos Tsamitis’ remarkable achievements as department head for the INI and her unique approach to management showcase her exceptional capabilities as a leader and demonstrate that running an academic department is analogous to operating a successful business.
Training the next generation of leaders extends far beyond the confines of a single business or institution. Its exponential effect ripples through industries, communities and the global landscape. When visionary leaders like Haritos Tsamitis invest in educating and nurturing young talent, they sow seeds of innovation, progress and positive change that can impact the organizations they lead and broader society. Under her guidance, the INI has flourished into a globally renowned institution.
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, Comfort Supply Inc. provides high-quality HVAC solutions to commercial and residential contractors within the Tri-State area, something the Heckler family has been doing since the early 20th century.
Frank Heckler’s grandfather and great-uncles were in the retail hardware business when central heating began to replace coal-fired stoves. Recognizing the shifting demand, the family manufactured and installed over 30,000 central heating systems.
In 1988, third- and fourth-generation family members Frank and David Heckler acquired 100 percent of the corporate stock, and Frank remained involved until his passing in 2013. Today, the company is owned and operated by President David Heckler. Under his leadership, CSI’s revenue has nearly doubled since 2014, and in the past five years, Heckler has opened two additional Pennsylvania sales locations.
Custom electronic manufacturing company Intervala LLC was founded in 2016 but traces its roots to the John A. Brashear Co., an optical instruments manufacturer founded in 1881. Following a series of mergers and acquisitions, the company was spun out of California-based Ducommum in a private equity deal spearheaded by Intervala President and CEO Teresa Huber.
Many of its team members worked together at previous iterations of the company and reunited to create Intervala. The name is derived from the word “interval,” meaning “the space between.” Intervala fills the gap for clients by taking care of their engineering and manufacturing needs. Huber says the company has worked with other companies to transition entire manufacturing operations to Intervala, while for others, it has redesigned their product to reduce cost, improve reliability or speed time to market.
WQED began in 1954 as an experiment — the nation’s first community-sponsored educational television station. The dream was to provide the community with educational instruction, fine arts and local programming to elevate public discourse and stimulate ideas free from commercial influence.
In its early years, WQED pioneered children’s television, classroom television instruction, live play readings and concerts. The 1960s led to the creation of PBS and the member station model.
As the region’s only community-owned multiplatform public media, WQED is a convener, a central gathering place and a conduit for other local nonprofit organizations. Today, President and CEO Jason Jedlinski is shifting WQED’s focus from operations to innovation, ushering in a new era of enhanced service to meet the community’s changing needs.
Founder and Chair Justine Kasznica’s leadership of Keystone Space Collaborative is a testament to her remarkable qualities and tireless efforts. At the core is her unwavering passion — this is not just a job for Kasznica but a personal mission.
She deeply cares about the Tri-State region’s growing space industry, and her commitment is inspiring. The way she approaches each day ignites others, motivating them to join her in making a meaningful impact. Moreover, Kasznica’s extensive industry connections are a testament to her leadership and influence within the space sector. Her role as outside general counsel to aerospace clients and her involvement in various industry boards and initiatives reflect her strong commitment to nurturing connections and leveraging them for the greater good of Keystone Space and the broader space sector.
Founded in 1918, Equipment Corporation of America (ECA) is the deep foundation industry’s premier provider of the world’s most advanced and reliable drilling, pile-driving, slurry cutting, soil mixing and stabilization equipment.
President and CEO Roy Kern’s grandfather, Lenard Kern, started with ECA in the typing pool in 1920. He advanced to Pittsburgh branch manager and was involved in three leveraged buyouts during his career; in the late 1950s, he came to own the company.
Kern has helmed ECA since his father, Al Kern, retired in 2000. ECA has expanded from branches in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., to 11 locations throughout Canada and the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. The company has averaged over 15 percent yearly growth over the past 23 years, employing over 150 people.
Knichel Logistics is a woman-owned and -operated provider of third-party logistics. Throughout President and CEO Kristy Knichel’s 25 years in the transportation industry, she has pivoted to steer her company through the annual peaks and valleys of the market. She has successfully grown Knichel Logistics from a small intermodal marketing company to a multimodal provider.
Knichel Logistics has been recognized as a key player in the industry through prestigious awards and customer referrals. Allocating resources to find and retain talented freight agents nationwide, Knichel has expanded into underdeveloped industry segments.
Faced with pandemic-related challenges to the transportation industry, Knichel excelled at turning a downward shift in market conditions on the intermodal side into an opportunity to regain a foothold in the classic services she built her company on.
Dustin Kuhlman, P.E. has helmed Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc. (CEC) since January 2022, becoming the first nonfounder CEO after more than 15 years with the organization.
Kuhlman joined CEC in 2006 as a civil engineering project manager in the company’s Pittsburgh headquarters. He was immediately drawn to CEC’s culture of client-first service through mentorship he received from the company’s founders and its senior leaders. Guiding more than 1,300 employees in 30 nationwide offices, Kuhlman has made it his charge to continuously improve CEC’s ability to produce favorable results for more than 600 employee-owners.
Additionally, Kuhlman has led the company through a corporate headquarters move, a novel Environmental, Social, and Governance strategy and record revenue growth.
Acoustic Research Systems (ARS) is an acoustic testing services company founded by Jeremiah Leiter and Eric Friedlander, a pair of ambitious industry veterans tired of seeing the same worn-out acoustic testing solutions shoehorned into newer, bigger applications. They saw an opportunity to create better acoustic testing systems for customers who could benefit from better technology, service and support.
A successful lifelong entrepreneur and motivational force, CEO Leiter brings over a decade of executive management experience and six years of experience with operational management of acoustic testing systems to ARS. Built from the ground up to solely focus on scientific and industrial applications of high-power acoustic output devices, ARS utilizes a combination of existing and new technologies and an industry-optimized business model to help customers meet their acoustic testing needs.
Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA) is a K-12 public cyber charter school providing no-cost, flexible, customizable education to students across Pennsylvania. Founded in 2003, CCA helped change the narrative on online learning during the pandemic and nearly doubled its enrollment from 10,200 students in 2019-20 to 19,200 students in 2020-21.
As of June 2023, CCA serves over 25,000 students and has expanded the school staff to nearly 2,000 employees statewide. CCA is now the second-largest K-12 public school in Pennsylvania and has been ranked as one of the Best Places to Work in Pennsylvania.
CCA’s service and commitment to students and families makes it unique. President and CEO Thomas Longenecker has positioned CCA as a nationally known thought leader in K-12 education and workforce development.
Baldwin-Whitehall School District (BWSD) is a regional K-12 district located in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, boasting the lowest per-student cost of all 42 regional districts.
BWSD serves more than 4,500 students across three elementary schools, one middle school, one high school and one cyber academy, and its student population is expected to grow 24 percent over the next decade. Several hundred students come from diverse backgrounds, and 42 percent of the population is low-income, making it imperative that BWSD provides an inclusive learning environment.
Under the guidance of Superintendent of Schools Randal Lutz, the district recently launched a four-year strategic plan. A BWSD graduate, Lutz is a purposeful leader, evidenced by his frequent and transparent communications with parents and other community stakeholders.
Auberle is a nationally recognized human services agency that annually serves 4,000 children and families in 26 program areas across Southwestern Pennsylvania.
John Lydon has been involved with Auberle for over 30 years, first on the board of directors and now as CEO. He received the Pittsburgh Business Times’ Diamond Award as one of the region’s Top CEOs.
Auberle’s services include workforce development, independent living, transitional-age programs, foster care, in-home intervention, drug, alcohol and mental health programs, education, residential care and emergency shelter. The organization has been recognized as an Agency of the Year by the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities for its delivery of consistently high outcomes in agency-wide programs and for successfully launching projects in a single year that significantly improved services for local children and families.
Every Child Inc. provides behavioral health and foster care services to children and their families throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania. When CEO Laura Maines arrived eight years ago, Every Child’s future was unclear. Relationships across the county were strained, commitments were unmet and employee turnover was unmanageable.
Maines thoughtfully built an executive leadership team to help revive the organization, drafted an aspirational strategic plan and began her transformation efforts. She stabilized contracts and funding sources while attracting top human service talent, and the organization flourished.
Maines continues to guide Every Child’s ability to be dynamically adaptive in an ever-evolving environment. Whatever the challenge, she is willing to listen to the collective knowledge of her team and adopt new organizational policies and programs.
TTG Imaging Solutions is a national leader in diagnostic imaging equipment. Its end-to-end product and service solutions include a full line of new and refurbished equipment, software, service, clinical applications support, turnkey diagnostic imaging and radiopharmaceuticals.
Matt Mastarone was appointed president and CEO by the company’s board of directors in 2021. He has been deeply involved in the organization’s daily operations and strategic decision-making while executing the robust mergers and acquisitions strategy that TTG has deployed.
Honored as the Pittsburgh Business Times 2019 CFO of the Year, Mastarone brings a tremendous wealth of accounting, finance and operations experience from his time at Resco Products Inc. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania and has over 12 years of public accounting experience, serving clients in the manufacturing, utility and health care industries.
Nexus Energy Services’ highly experienced leadership and tech servicing team offers customers a full suite of products and equipment for fuel dispensing, POS and fuel tank/line/pad construction and installation. It traces its roots back to 2008, and its mission, every day, is to provide unquestionably superior, professional service.
Nexus provides customers the latest technology to meet current and future needs, a range of products and services, practical solutions to problems and pricing that is fair. For its team members, it provides continuous training and education, an environment that fosters teamwork, rewards that share in success and the tools and processes that create a safe workplace. And for its vendors, it provides a partnership approach in its dealings and input and collaboration that together anticipates and satisfies its customers’ needs.
Larrimor’s has been Pittsburgh’s premier fashion destination since its founding as a family business in 1939. The company remains Pittsburgh’s only retailer to receive Esquire Magazine’s “Best in Class” award, honoring exceptional retailers that have endured the test of time and remain poised to do so well into the future.
When it comes to women’s clothing and accessories — contemporary, designer and couture — the company’s selection is unmatched. Men’s offerings include made-to-measure suits, custom dress shirts, formal wear and designer casual wear and accessories. Because great style is in the details, Larrimor’s prides itself on providing a personal shopping experience.
The company’s customer relationships span multiple generations. President Tom Michael leads a team whose collective efforts yield approximately 1,100 new customers each year.
For over 30 years, Bookminders has provided timely, accurate and cost-effective bookkeeping for nonprofits and small businesses. Bookminders adeptly cultivates and launches novel products, services and solutions that drive smart, transformative change.
Established in 1991, the company pioneered an employee-centric, remote-first approach that remains foundational to its operations. Despite the increasing demand for return-to-office across the economic landscape, Bookminders stands firm in its commitment to expanding remote opportunities rather than retreating.
Bookminders has successfully attracted top talent, who in turn champion the workplace as one of the best in the industry. This extraordinary culture owes much to the leadership of the company’s CEO, Jessica Minkus.
Headquartered in Cranberry Township, Nicklas Supply/Splash has been in business since 1956. The plumbing supplies distributor tailors its business to commercial and residential markets and is known for making the customer experience enjoyable for plumbers, contractors and homeowners. Five Splash showrooms are located across the Pittsburgh region.
President Mark Nicklas took the reins of the family business in 2013, and today, Nicklas Supply/Splash is employee-owned and -operated. Believing that “employees make our company,” Nicklas ensures everyone has a voice and shares in the company’s success.
Since moving to an ESOP structure, stock value has grown 200 percent, and profitability has increased 33 percent. Additional funds have enabled Nicklas Supply/Splash to invest in a new showroom, acquire companies and offer more opportunities to employees.
Ascender is a vibrant community of innovators that helps entrepreneurs start and build their companies by offering free educational programming, mentorship, expert coaching, incubation and a collaborative coworking space.
Executive Director Nadyli Nuñez is responsible for steering Ascender’s vision and direction by empowering the team, overseeing operations, fundraising and building strategic partnerships. She cares deeply about creating opportunities and pathways for others to realize their potential. As the daughter of Dominican immigrant parents and growing up in Harlem, she learned how mentorship could change people’s trajectories. As a result, Nuñez dedicates her time to helping others launch and grow their business.
Since taking the helm of Ascender in 2019, Nuñez has spearheaded the delivery of an impressive 182 programs.
Employing over 250 skilled professionals, General Carbide Corp. (GCC) manufactures finished tooling, wear parts and components for customers in more than two dozen market segments.
GCC was founded in 1968 by Premo J. Pappafava, Mona Pappafava-Ray’s father. Pappafava-Ray began working at GCC after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University. Having worked in every area of the family business, she was appointed president in 1997. Upon the death of her father in 2002, she became CEO.
It was evident from the start that Pappafava-Ray’s progressive ideas and commitment to excellence would propel GCC to become an industry leader. Never afraid to take a risk, the confidence she showed in her decisions carried over to the workforce, and the team believed in her ability to steer them into the future.
JWF Industries designs, manufactures and integrates metal-centric products. The company is dedicated to its employees, communities and global customers in the defense, energy and commercial industries.
President and CEO William C. Polacek has led JWF in becoming a pillar in the Johnstown community and surrounding areas. After acquiring his father’s welding business — Johnny’s Welding — in 1987, Polacek founded Johnstown Welding and Fabrication. Years of diversification led to a company name change, JWF Industries (JWFI), to enable expansion into new markets.
As of 2022, JWFI has become the first company in the region to fully manufacture a vehicle within its four walls after expanding its manufacturing relationship with Flyer Defense. The company now has over 400 employees and more than 1.3 million square feet of manufacturing space.
As the largest seed-stage investor in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Innovation Works’ portfolio spans key sectors of strength in the Pittsburgh region, including robotics, artificial intelligence, medical devices, retail technologies and enterprise software. Riverfront Ventures LLC is an early stage venture capital firm deeply rooted in tech, design and strategy.
Ven Raju is president and CEO of Innovation Works and managing director of Riverfront Ventures. Throughout his career, Raju has shepherded numerous companies. He has over 20 years of experience in venture capital and private equity investing, having led/co-led all facets of the investment process, including origination, due diligence, transaction structuring and portfolio management.
He also serves as an adjunct faculty member at the Lebow School of Business, Drexel University.
President and CEO Jason Riley joined Tickets for Kids (TFK) as its executive director in 2015. TFK works to close the accessibility gap that keeps at-risk and low-income children from participating in the arts, cultural opportunities, experiential education, sporting events and family entertainment.
During Riley’s tenure, the organization’s infrastructure has evolved from what was described as a “mom-and-pop operation” to one whose processes, policies and human resource practices reflect those of other national nonprofits.
TFK matches donated tickets from various venues to social service agencies, nonprofits, government programs and schools (Title I and Charter), providing experiences that inspire kids to think creatively, discover their passions and dream without limits.
Dr. Ariella Samson is the assistant executive director of Veterinary Care and Shelter Operations at Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh (HARP), one of the largest animal shelters in the region.
HARP operates two low-cost, high-quality veterinary medical centers. In an average year, over 6,500 animals are treated and more than 7,000 spay and neuter surgeries are performed in these facilities. In addition to caring for domestic animals, the organization remains committed to indigenous species and operates The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Verona, Pennsylvania. The fully licensed facility specializes in caring for sick, injured and orphaned wildlife.
Annually, more than 4,000 injured animals of over 100 species are admitted and treated by the center.
Regal Industrial Corp. is a full-service industrial sandblasting, liquid coatings and metalizing company headquartered south of Pittsburgh. Paul Sasko founded the company in 1974, and his untimely passing in 1981 left the young, struggling company to his family to operate.
Through hard work and determination, they found success by focusing on the industrial coatings field services market, concentrating on municipal water tanks and water/wastewater treatment plants. Offering onsite services throughout the U.S., they have developed a solid customer base and strong reputation in the industry.
After surviving several hardships and bad economies, the company continues to move forward. Today, CEO Matthew Sasko owns Regal Industrial with his brother, Jim, and longtime loyal employee, Kinsley Newton. They operate two shops in Donora and Allentown, with others in development.
Benjamin Shelton, the visionary COO of Argo Navis Technologies, is a shining example of effective leadership in the realm of smart organizations. Under his guidance, Argo has internalized and excelled in nine interlocking principles that form the cornerstone of a corporate culture focused on strategic decision-making and sustainable results.
These principles, including embracing uncertainty, open information flow, system thinking and developing a value-creation culture, have been seamlessly woven into Argo’s DNA, empowering the organization to make strategic choices with precision and foresight.
Shelton’s dedication to Decision Quality is evident in Argo’s approach to R&D planning, portfolio management and project and business strategies. His leadership in defining Argo’s purpose — to create customers and markets — reflects his understanding of the core functions of a business enterprise.
For some, fall means pumpkins, hayrides and football. For Pittsburgh native Scott Simmons, it is Scare Season. Simmons is the creative director of ScareHouse, widely considered to be Pittsburgh’s ultimate Halloween destination. His parent company, Undead Productions, is the umbrella entity that operates ScareHouse and two other entertainment experiences, Steel City Axes and Bold Escape Rooms.
Simmons’ lifelong fascination with Halloween began at a young age. In his role as creative director, he is known for his attention to detail, creativity, passion and knack for capitalizing on pop culture trends.
ScareHouse is one of the only independent haunted attractions in the U.S. outside of amusement parks that incorporates intellectual property and has worked directly with creatives from Universal Studios and Legendary Entertainment on the original immersive experiences.
Robert Stein is the associate vice chancellor for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence (IEE) executive director at the University of Pittsburgh.
Stein has over 20 years of economic development, entrepreneurial and technology expertise. Under his leadership in 2020, the IEE’s Small Business Development Center was named No. 1 nationally in economic development by the Small Business Administration and contributed to the university winning the Innovation and Economic Prosperity “Place” Award for the IEE’s work in the Homewood neighborhood.
A senior adviser with the IEE since 2005, Stein created a specialized information technology consultancy service and led the department in helping dozens of companies achieve multimillion-dollar growth. His extensive experience in project management and cost-effective integrated information systems has earned respect from long-standing tech leaders.
Nicholas Subich is president and CEO of YTS Wealth Management and LPL Financial. Subich started the firm in 2019 with $85 million in assets under management and one office in Export, Pennsylvania. Business has grown by almost 1,000 percent in less than four years.
Subich and his team are closing on their largest acquisition to date in the D.C. metro area, bringing the firm to just under $1 billion in assets under management and nine offices across the country. An independent firm through LPL Financial has created a platform to serve clients in every aspect of their financial life.
Subich was recently featured on Forbes magazine’s Top Next-Gen Wealth Advisor List Best-in-State. He was also featured in Johnstown Magazine’s 35 under 35 for 2023.
Nick Zapf’s journey at Dunbar, Bender & Zapf (DBZ) began as a familial one — his father was a founding partner. Early exposure to the firm’s operations set the stage for his future involvement.
After college, Zapf joined DBZ as a benefits analyst. He worked closely with employers to navigate the complex world of employee benefits. Zapf transitioned to external consulting and business development, enabling him to explore other facets of the business and broaden his skill set. This journey eventually led him to become a partner in the firm.
As president, Zapf leads a team committed to strategic short- and long-term growth. The firm maintains steadfast focus on its goals and continually improves automation and efficiency in its processes. These efforts are the driving forces behind their sustained success. ●