WHEN IT COMES TO RUNNING A BUSINESS, failure is not an option for Kelly Mendell, president of MIKEL Inc. in Middletown.
That’s according to Mark S. Hayward, Rhode Island district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration, who recently named Mendell the state’s Small Business Person of the Year.
“She has this unique enthusiasm that’s infectious,” Hayward said in a recent interview about Mendell. “Kelly is one of those people [for whom] failure is not an option.”
A trained engineer, Mendell earned an MBA from Babson College. She spent nearly a decade working at different companies, including Polaroid Corp., Gillette and The Raytheon Co., before giving birth to a daughter and deciding in 2003 to join her father, Brian Guimond, who had recently started MIKEL.
“He started getting more work and I was at a time in my life when I had my daughter and didn’t know if I should work, or not work,” Mendell said.
MIKEL, a hybrid of Kelly’s name and her brother Michael, grew quickly at the beginning, with Mendell handling the administrative end of the business. Mendell’s father had worked as a tactical analysis director for the underwater fleet in Pearl Harbor. He managed the technical side of the business.
“It was easy to grow at first because he had tremendous expertise in underwater technology,” Mendell said. “But it started getting more difficult and we had our ups and downs.”
Mendell took over the company in 2008. At the time, it had grown to about 50 employees. The work, however, was predominately tied to defense contracts, which were tough to win as a developing company lacking a long-established reputation.
“I felt we needed to bring some stability into the business and I wanted to have some recurring revenue,” Mendell explained.
MIKEL started providing engineering services and contracted those services with the U.S. Naval War College in Newport. Mendell now hires and trains employees who work alongside Navy officials. They support the submarine community with technical and logistic expertise.
The move to expand services helped fuel renewed growth. The company today employs about 185 people and is hiring more.
“I interview everyone who comes into the company and I always tell them that we need to maintain and work on our credibility,” she said, when asked about maintaining success. “We can’t have anyone who is sub-performing. I hope that’s how we’re regarded, and I hope that’s what the customer sees. We are high-end but not expensive, and we care and work hard because we want to make sure the work is done right.”
The mind frame and work ethic are not lost on the regional defense community. Molly Donohue Magee, executive director of the Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance, has a lot of respect for Mendell, who joined the group’s board of directors.
“I can attest to the leading-edge technology that Kelly and her company provide,” Magee said. “She’s an amazing woman, an amazing president and she’s done outstanding things with her company, creating [more than] 100 jobs in just the last few years. She’s one of the few women-owned small businesses that’s involved in advance technology for submarine systems.”
‘We’re afraid to lose business and jobs, but you have to maintain your entrepreneurial spirit.’
KELLY MENDELL, MIKEL Inc. president
Mendell also helps other companies within the SENEDIA community, which helps strengthen the overall defense industry on Aquidneck Island, Magee added.
“She’s willing to devote time to her company and make sure the whole cluster is strong and working,” Magee said.
Mendell, who lives in Massachusetts, said it’s important her business remains in Rhode Island because she feels the state truly values the industry. One of her biggest challenges, she added, is finding talented workers who can pass rigorous security clearances. Nonetheless, she’s committed to creating opportunities.
“I want to provide high-paying and challenging jobs in the state,” she said. “It’s a small community and [elected officials] understand how important it is and that’s what we want. We feel valued here.”
Mendell is hopeful the SBA recognition will help her continue building MIKEL’s reputation. In winning the Small Business Person of the Year Award, Mendell joins an elite group of Rhode Island business owners who have succeeded locally since the award started in 1963. She’ll now compete for the SBA’s national award.
When asked what other small-business owners might learn from her experience, she stressed the importance of taking risks.
“So many times we’re so conservative and we’re afraid to lose business and jobs, but you have to maintain your entrepreneurial spirit,” she said. “There are ups and downs and you have to ride them out. … Just keep your head straight and keep going.”
SBA recognizes small-business award winners
MIKEL Inc. President Kelly B. Mendell will be formally recognized as the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Rhode Island Small Business Person of the Year at Kirkbrae Country Club in Lincoln on May 11.Other award winners who will also be recognized include:
• New England Women-Owned Small Business: Carol Dancer, president of Absorbent Specialty Products LLC.
• Small Business Exporter: Michael Sigourney, CEO and founder, Anne Beaupre Sigourney, chief financial officer, and Rick Grundy, president of AVTECH Software Inc.
• Joseph G.E. Knight Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence: Christine Francis, owner of Carmen & Ginger.
• New England Financial Services Champion: Buck Harris, vice president of Community Investment Corp.
• Young Entrepreneur: Johnny Luo, president of Doctor’s Choice.
• National Subcontractor of the Year: Charles Dewey, CEO of Evans Capacitor Co.
• Jeffrey Butland Family-Owned Small Business: Lisa M. Sienkiewicz and Gail Parella, co-owners of Gil’s Appliances.
• Small Business Manufacturer: Donald J. Boyle, president of Jade Manufacturing Co.
• Minority-Owned Small Business: Alba Lucia Rios Puerto, owner of Spanish Wholesale Center.
• Home-Based Small Business: Kim M. Coulter, William A. Coulter, Nina L. Luchka and Joshua A. Coulter, partners of Stony Hill Cattle Co.
• New England Veteran-Owned Small Business: John Lindsey Shephard, CEO of Veteran Assembled electronics
• Microenterprise: Nancy Hatch Warner, owner of The Worm Ladies of Charlestown Inc.
The SBA also posthumously named the late Cheryl Watkins Snead, founder, and former president and CEO of Banneker Industries Inc., the Rhode Island District Director Award winner.