Jen Wagner Mauk
Five years after 9/11 attacks destroyed his dream, Appleton man has rebuilt his business.
Imagine you have amassed a diverse collection of professional work experiences during your career. You follow it up by launching the small business of your dreams. Your first, big project is enviable. The skies are blue. The birds are singing. Then, disaster strikes on an unimaginable scale.
Do you run or rebuild?
Steve Kuper worked for United Airlines for a dozen years, spending the majority of his tenure in corporate training. In 2000, he took the entrepreneurial plunge and opened a small business that specializes in corporate training, Kuper received his first project contract from an executive at United Airlines. He signed on to facilitate management education courses for three segments of the company's sizeable employee pool.
Kuper's weekly training sessions with United Airlines flourished until the morning of September 11, 2001. As the terrorist attacks played out, he and his team were sequestered deep inside the offices of United Airlines. At 5 p.m. that day, Kuper's group was safely escorted off the United Airlines premises. The day's catastrophic events had an immediate effect on the aviation world. As the airline industry began its dramatic nosedive, September 11 turned out to be the final day of Kuper's project with United Airlines.
Other than one client located in the Fox Valley, Kuper's fledgling business hinged on his partnership with the airline. His small business quickly started to collapse as workflow slowed to a trickle. Kuper said cold calling and knocking o doors became his modus operandi but nothing worked. No one, it seemed, wanted to hire consultants or trainers in the wake of 9/11.
Five years later, Kuper's business, Innovative Learning Strategies (ILS) in Appleton, has rebounded. Kuper said while he rebuilt his business, he subsisted without an income for more than a year. "I was offered lucrative jobs but I turned them down," he said.
Why didn't Kuper run after disaster hit? "You have to be convinced entrepreneurship is the route you want to go and then, stick with it," he said. ILS survived while many others failed because of simple referrals. "One by one it began to grow," said Kuper, "We've grown 99 percent from referrals."
The ILS client roster includes partners throughout Northeastern Wisconsin from varied markets such as healthcare, education, city government, engineering, aviation, food, advertising, and risk management. The aviation industry continues to rebuild and Kuper counts United Airlines as a current client once again.
He said he is fortunate his clients are senior-level executives, the true decision-makers. Kuper has turned down training and consulting projects because the senior team wasn't embedded in the plan. "It doesn't work if it's not supported by upper management," he said. "Because it doesn't become a part of the corporate culture."
ILS business offerings have expanded to meet the needs of its growing client list. Today, the company offers corporate training and consulting focused on enhancing performance and productivity. Training sessions include: Adaptive Leadership, Management 101, Building Your Team, Leading Change, Conflict Management, The Sales Connection, Valuing Diversity, and more.
Consultation services such as Internal Reality Assessments, Case Studies, Focus Groups, Corporate Culture Development, Executive Meeting Facilitation, and Customized Corporate Curriculums are also offered.
Kuper's style of training is professional, yet vibrant and fun. "I never talk for more than seven minutes at a time," said Kuper. This reflects the average adult's attention span. During sessions, he introduces a concept and then segues into an interactive activity designed to generate discussion. Some participants arrive with a less-than-enthusiastic attitude toward corporate training. Kuper said he appreciates the challenge of turning negative attitudes into positive actions by the time the session ends.
A short while ago, longtime client Bassett Mechanical Contractors and Engineers of Kaukauna contracted with ILS for eight hours of customer-service training. When Kuper arrived, he found his group was entirely male and not overly enthused about the imminent training session. By the end of the eight hours, he said 99 percent of the attendees personally thanked him for coming and asked when he would be returning for follow-up training.
Consulting services such as internal reality assessments and case studies are proving valuable to local companies looking to better understand their inner workings. An Internal Reality Assessment involves interviews with upper management and focus groups with team members. Follow-up sessions are held to help team members address points of concern and work together more effectively. Comprehensive Case Studies outline assessment findings and provide a customized roadmap to navigate through the identified obstacles to success.
Prior to launching ILS , Kuper's career path led him to reside in numerous urban areas across the country. In 2002, as his small business grew in the Fox Valley, Kuper decided to relocate to Appleton, his hometown. He expected a culture shock moving from a large metropolitan environment to the neighborhood of his youth. Kuper was pleasantly surprised to find the Fox Valley progressive-minded and open to change. "It is such an exciting place to be," claims Kuper. "Businesses here are very forward-thinking."
According to Kuper, one notable trend among area businesses is the increasing popularity of diversity training. Back in the mid-'90s, Kuper designed diversity curriculum for Untied Airlines. It was this work that encouraged his strong interest in the topic.
Kuper thinks the only way for local businesses to successfully compete in the global marketplace is to embrace diversity. This conviction also drives his participation in the New North, Inc. initiative. Kuper is a dedicated member of its diversity committee. He believes as more companies actively embrace diversity it spills over into the surrounding community allowing the arts to thrive and fresh ideas to percolate.
The cultivation of business and community is what keeps Kuper passionate about his work. He says, "When I partner with a company, I get to see important changes taking place. That is very rewarding."