Raised on a steady diet of strategy games like Risk and Stratego, Tom Stewart has his father to thank for his meticulously logical and thorough network of neural connections. Rather than learning the licorice ropes of Candy Land or the surprisingly uninformative business transactions of Monopoly, the future Lansing entrepreneur was forming the groundwork for life.
Whether dealing with the challenge of a new consulting gig as the CEO of a company he founded, building a new small business incubator from the ground up or running for an at-large seat in Lansing’s City Council, the framework for meeting the challenge stems from the time spent on the floor with his father.
“I relate business to board games,” explains Tom. “The ideals and strategy needed to succeed always stay the same, but the rules change. Once you understand the rules, though, and know how the strategy works, you can be successful at anything.”
Born in Bath and a product of Michigan State University’s psychology department, Tom certainly was not always on an entrepreneurial path. After graduating, he worked the store fronts of several East Lansing businesses before enrolling in the University of Phoenix’s online course for an MBA. But it was a path he never finished walking, due in part to an internship he landed in the Human Resources department of Neogen Corporation.
For the first time, Tom was given complete freedom on a project. He was responsible for the research, development and execution of a training curriculum for employees. Though the company didn’t have a full-time position for him after it was completed, they were impressed enough with his work to keep him on part-time as a consultant, and Tom’s first consulting firm was born.
Over the next couple of years, Tom helped with similar work of organizing thoughts and ideas into executable plans and communications for the State of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources and the MSU Fish and Wildlife division. But the doors to his first private enterprise closed when he was hired by the Demmer Corporation, a major outfit for military vehicles. However, just two years later, the position turned out to be a bad fit, and Tom began looking to reopen his consulting business.
Though he wanted to help small business in Lansing thrive, there was a major obstacle.
“Small businesses have a hard time hiring consultants because there’s no shared risk,” said Tom. “They can like what I tell them to do or hate it. It can work out well or it can fail miserably. But either way they owe me money for my ideas.”
The solution was the consulting firm Commonwealth Enterprises, founded in 2009. Instead of money up front, the agency negotiates for a small share of ownership of the company.
A year-and-a-half later, Commonwealth Enterprises has four businesses under contract with another two on the way. One company – The Rock Star Factory – is spearheaded by Tom’s former boss at Demmer. The company’s goal is to match job seekers with job openings based not only on their technical skills, but their fit with the company’s culture and climate.
Or as Tom puts it, “It’s like eHarmony for jobs.”
Other ventures include a local video production company called Good Fruit Video and Tom’s own baby, the Center for New Enterprise Opportunity, or NEO for short.
NEO is the result of an attempt to build bridges and communications between the different business incubators in Lansing. As Tom soon found out, however, there was a glaring problem; there was really only one already operating in Lansing.
So he set out to build another one for small businesses.
Currently under construction at 934 Clark Street, the NEO Center already has commitments to fill the top floor of the facility that features shared business services like consulting and legal advice as well as shared physical services like printing and a giant slide.
Hey, everyone needs a break now and then.
All of these experiences have led Tom to take one more step in his quest to serve his community; he’s running for an at-large spot on the Lansing City Council. His decision to run was not an easy one to make, but it’s one he stands firmly behind for all of the same reasons that he’s still in Lansing in the first place.
“I feel it’s time for new leadership in the council; new perspectives and more professionalism,” says Tom. “I currently see a lot of personal agendas being put in front of service to Lansing, and I feel it needs to be cleaned up a little.
“Win or lose, I’ll still keep doing what I’m already doing. I feel running for City Council is just stepping my commitment to Lansing up another notch. It’s a lot of time and hard work, but it’s worth saying yes to the opportunity for the sake of Lansing.
“I don’t think Lansing is the place for someone who just wants a job. It’s not for someone who’s content with being just another face in the crowd. Between its proximity to cities like Detroit and Chicago, to great beaches around the state and to educational opportunities at LCC and MSU; it’s a perfect storm. And we need to figure out how to make all of that work for the city again.
“There’s a spirit in Lansing; a change in the winds. Our generation is taking action; inspiring each other and feeding off each other. The more people start walking the walk, the more people start to catch on. There are friendly people and great neighborhoods here. The night life is growing slowly but surely. There’s a lot of momentum, and I want to do everything I can to make sure people notice and jump on board.”
And remember to vote for whoever you want to represent you in City Council at the primaries on August 2.