Difference Makers 2011
Posted by Crain's Cleveland Business
CEO, Youngstown Business Incubator
Jim Cossler doesn't spend his Sunday mornings delivering impassioned sermons to Northeast Ohio's faithful, but he does spend an awful lot of his time spreading the word—the word about Youngstown, that is.
As CEO and self-anointed "chief evangelist" of the Youngstown Business Incubator, Mr. Cossler has transformed what once was viewed as a glorified downtown renewal project into a bustling hub of software innovation that has brought millions of dollars and hundreds of new jobs into the region.
Mr. Cossler knew Youngstown couldn't compete with Cleveland for medical device and bioscience companies or with Pittsburgh for robotics technology. Youngstown doesn't have a major research university or a medical powerhouse such as the Cleveland Clinic that spins off new companies ever year.
Still, that's what makes the city prime real estate for software development. Location isn't what makes a software company successful, Mr. Cossler said, but rather the brainpower a company has in place.
"There isn't a software company anywhere on the globe that will tell you its front door is rushed every morning by users looking for the help desk," Mr. Cossler said. "If a customer says it's irrelevant where the software is coming from, why can't it come from Youngstown?" When sharing Youngstown's story, Mr. Cossler doesn't focus on the now-abandoned steel mills that once propelled the region's economy, but rather on the opportunities that exist in the Mahoning Valley for burgeoning software companies.
"People are actually excited to come back now," he said. "People are coming back, and we're hiring them with our portfolio companies."
The eight companies housed at the incubator's downtown campus brought in more than $60 million last year in global software sales, and Mr. Cossler said incubator companies have a "real shot" at bringing in $100 million in sales this year.
"That's $60 million in new dollars that came into Ohio and Youngstown," he said. "They created jobs, bought houses, bought cars, paid for restaurant tabs."
Cooperation is key
Starting each spring, Mr. Cossler organizes cookouts outside the incubator, but he offers one caveat for those participating: He doesn't want to see you talking to anyone from your own company.
"The day you're unwilling to help others, we'll kick you off or graduate you from the incubator," Mr. Cossler said. "You just tell me what you want—I've got somebody seasoned in the field and willing to sit down with you."
That sharing of knowledge and resources is what has made the incubator successful, said Mike Broderick, CEO and co-founder of Turning Technologies, one of the incubator's portfolio companies that has boomed over the last few years and brings in about $40 million in annual revenue.
“He's enthusiastic, and he's a real visionary for what he hopes to see here," Mr. Broderick said of Mr. Cossler. "You know, he's a little rough around the edges, but he's a smart guy who'll tell you clearly and without any sugarcoating how he sees it."
For a person with a degree in philosophical literature, Mr. Cossler seems to have taken to the business world quite well. Those who know him say he has an eye for identifying the companies that will succeed.
"To navigate those waters in what is undoubtedly a cutthroat and very competitive field and never lose sight of his commitment to this city and this area, I think is something he brings that is invaluable," Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams said.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, who has an office in the incubator, said Mr. Cossler was just what Youngstown needed—an honest leader who asks people to check their egos at the door. "The success is there, and it works," Rep. Ryan said. "Youngstown is the comeback city. You can say what you want about other communities, but no one has been dealt the negative hand that Youngstown has been dealt over the last 30 years."
More than a job
Formerly senior vice president for corporate services with the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, Mr. Cossler says something about startup companies always has intrigued him. Helping materialize the next great idea while simultaneously working for the betterment of the region, he said, has made his job with the incubator worthwhile.
"I love passionate people. You cannot be successful in a startup without being passionate," he said. "I like people who are willing to say, 'I'm going to pursue this dream.'"
Mr. Cossler's latest "evangelizing" has focused on a company called via680, which is located on the fourth floor of the incubator. Without prompting, Mr. Cossler took to a nearby whiteboard to illustrate the company's blossoming online communication platform much like a coach would plot an offensive formation for his football team. That intensity has translated into every aspect of his job. Those who work with Mr. Cossler say he doesn't play favorites and is willing to help anyone with a good idea. It's not about possessing the right business pedigree, but rather the idea that could help transform Youngstown.
Mr. Cossler, for one, took John Slanina under his wing while the latter was in graduate school and was working on an economic development report about the city. After leaving Georgia Tech and finishing up his graduate work at the Delft Institute of Technology in the Netherlands, Mr. Slanina said Mr. Cossler welcomed him back to the city with open arms. Now a senior analyst with Revere Data, a financial information service provider that has an office in the incubator, Mr. Slanina said Mr. Cossler isn't afraid to get a little dirty while doing his job. Each morning, Mr. Cossler gets there early and sweeps outside the incubator's complex and picks up every cigarette butt.
"Jim's not only willing to work with potential clients and people and staff, but also willing to put in the elbow grease to make the place look good," Mr. Slanina said.
By TIMOTHY MAGAW
4:30 am, May 16, 2011