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"Inspiring stories of two homegrown entrepreneurs": Recognizing business excellence, legacy

Stories of success and community strengths went hand-in-hand during the Brainerd Lakes Chambers of Commerce event Wednesday to celebrate excellence. About 450 people attended the chamber's event at Cragun's Resort. The evening highlighted the sto...

Steve Clough (left) and Cindy Clough accept the Business Excellence Award from Brainerd Dispatch/Echo Journal Publisher Pete Mohs Wednesday during the Brainerd Lakes Chambers of Commerce Celebration of Excellence at Cragun’s Resort. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery
Steve Clough (left) and Cindy Clough accept the Business Excellence Award from Brainerd Dispatch/Echo Journal Publisher Pete Mohs Wednesday during the Brainerd Lakes Chambers of Commerce Celebration of Excellence at Cragun’s Resort. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery
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Stories of success and community strengths went hand-in-hand during the Brainerd Lakes Chambers of Commerce event Wednesday to celebrate excellence.

About 450 people attended the chamber's event at Cragun's Resort.

The evening highlighted the stories of small business success and specifically awarded two entrepreneurial efforts that grew into major businesses with a reach well beyond their Brainerd area roots-in Just For Kix and Stewart C. Mills Jr.




Just for Kix - Business Excellence Award  

Stewart Mills Jr. - Business Legacy Award



Matt Kilian, Brainerd chamber president, described the award winners as "two awesome and inspiring stories of two homegrown entrepreneurs."

The businesses represented entrepreneurs with imagination and an ability to take risks.

The chamber presented the fifth annual Business Excellence Award to Just For Kix, which was sponsored by the Brainerd Dispatch, and recognized the outstanding contributions of an individual in its first Legacy Award to Stewart Mills Jr., in an award sponsored by RiverWood Bank.

Both award recipients received standing ovations.


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KLICK! Photo Gallery - Brainerd Lakes Chambers of Commerce Celebration of Excellence - 31 photos

KLICK! to VIEW! - Celebration of Excellence at Cragun’s Resort
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Nate Grotzke, Close-Converse and a member of the chamber board of directors, said 10 individuals met for a day to go through 15 nominations for the business excellence award and nine for the legacy award. Each nomination was scored, ranked and submitted for multiple rounds of discussion and debate until winners were chosen unanimously.

Both award winners paved new ground and created their businesses from determination and hard work. Both were willing to put in the long hours to create their companies. And neither were afraid of taking risks, stretching into new territory, or expanding product lines. They said a key was not being afraid to fail. They've reached out to try new things. And they shared a desire to focus on both on customer service and their employees' well-being.



Just For Kix, Business Excellence Award winner

The Brainerd Lakes Chamber Business Excellence Award spotlighted an outstanding business for its entrepreneurial spirit in categories of leadership, workforce and innovation. A highlight of the event included a performance by Just For Kix dancers.


Just For Kix started in 1981 with youth dance team classes. They expanded into multiple companies as they sought to meet the needs of customers and their own growing business. Just For Kix now serves more than 23,000 dancers each year, distributes one million catalogs internationally with its own custom design label dancewear, creates custom apparel with the Teehive, and has supplied costumes for the halftime show at the 2011 and 2013 Super Bowls, as well as costumes for the opening ceremonies at the 2014 Olympic Games.

The Cloughs credit their teamwork in making it work. Cindy Clough had the creative aspect and vision for the company and Steve Clough kept the business and financial side going.

Recently, the Cloughs said a key was in not being afraid to fail. They've reached out to try new things, not everything worked. After success with "hip hop boots," the Cloughs decided to expand into the shoe business. They created a dance shoe with the potential for broad appeal that lit up as a dancer's feet touched the floor. But the shoes didn't stand up to the workout and never took off. Buoyed by the success of their catalog business, they looked at an untapped opportunity for cheer teams and the cheer industry. Success never materialized and they pulled the plug on the investment.

After all the hard work to create and grow the business, the Cloughs said there isn't much time left to take stock of where they've been and how far they've come. But they know where success may be measured most-from the cards and letters of former students who tell them without Just For Kix they wouldn't have stayed in school, or the letters that note their self-confidence to tackle careers and life's challenges came from their experiences in dance with Cindy Clough. Now the Cloughs and their three grown children and their significant others all work in the family business.

"Cindy and I are very humbled and honored to receive this Business Excellence Award," Steve Clough said Wednesday night. "We couldn't have done it without all the great employees that we have."

The Cloughs started their business in their early 20s. Steve Clough said they worked together, believing in hard work, work ethic, humility and honesty.

"Because of that we've seen a lot of success and we appreciate that," he said. "... I think I've been blessed to work side by side with my best friend both in life and in business."

The Cloughs recently celebrated 35 years with Just For Kix.

"Our work could have taken us many places," Cindy Clough said. "Once I was offered to move to LA and work at a thing out there. But we always wanted to stay in Brainerd. We love Brainerd. We both grew up here. We're both born here. Our families are here and we love Brainerd."

Cindy Clough in now in her 40th season of coaching kids at Brainerd High School.

She said as a child she thought others were smarter and better than she was because she couldn't sit still. Now, she said, she sees how an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can allow a creative side.

"I see it as a gift rather than a detriment-sometimes," she said, getting laughs from the crowd. "Some of the times I think you normal people think things through too much and the trend is gone by the time, you know, you could have done it. So that ship has sailed. So people like me just do it and try to figure out how to do it later."

Previous winners of the Business Excellence Award include: 2012, Widseth Smith Nolting; 2013, Crosswoods Golf Course/Whistling Wolf Mini Golf; 2014, Grand View Lodge; 2015, Ultra Paws.

Stewart C. Mills Jr., Business Legacy Award

Ben Thuringer, Madden's on Gull Lake and Brainerd Lakes Chamber board member, said the Legacy Award is the chamber's highest honor. This is the first year the chamber has honored an individual with this award. Thuringer said they looked for an exceptional business success and a key influencer in the industry, as well as someone who invested in the power of people in creating quality jobs and with an outstanding philanthropic impact.

Thuringers said Mills fulfilled all those and more.

Marisa Mills accepted the award on behalf of her father, who was not able to attend the dinner.

"Thank you for honoring my dad like this," she said. "I truly feel he deserves this even though he may not. ... I feel extremely humbled to be able to do this on his behalf tonight."

Stewart Mills Jr., 88, spent 60 years in business growing Mills Fleet Farm from a couple of employees in one store to more than 7,000 employees in 35 stores across four states in the Midwest.

Marisa Mills noted her father always says he didn't do anything to deserve awards and he truly feels that way. He credits the roles his grandmother and father played in his life.

"There is nothing about him that feels that he's done anything to deserve an award," Marisa Mills said. She said her father lived from a sense of duty and purpose and wanting to honor his grandmother and his father.

"I really think his legacy has deep, deep roots in his past, that is why he had purpose," she said. "... He wanted to truly be the best he could be for them."

Marisa Mills said her father's legacy has brick and mortar but it's has more to do with who he is and how he's lived his life. She said her father is a great visionary and has a brilliant business mind, but would much rather talk about how many times he was expelled from high school than talk about his own accolades.

She said her father's daily purpose and passion is for doing something productive in society, adding value to others and for community.

"He is that kind of a man," she said. "... He really is a good decision maker even in the face of adversity or even at times-when I witnessed-people wronged him he still always does the right thing with a kind heart. He still always show up doing the right thing, which I think is an extreme gift of his."

Marisa Mills said another gift her father has is an ability to build and work with a team and build relationships. She said her father has a gift unlike any she's seen to draw in amazingly great people either to be on his team or as business associates.

"Because that is what it's about," she said. "His success has nothing to do with just him. That kind of success doesn't happen by one person, it happens by everybody. A great team. An amazing team."

Those relationships are probably his greatest legacy, Marisa Mills said.

If he were present he would say the award wasn't for him, but was for his grandmother, his dad or his team.

"And he's right, it truly is," she said.

Marisa Mills said she was inspired by all the success stories during the night.

"This is a truly inspiring community and group of individuals. ...This does speak to the success of the Brainerd lakes area and the community. This community holds space for success whether it be an individual or a collective group of people or whether it be personal, or professional or business, this community holds space for success unlike any other community and it's one of our gifts that we back each other up, we encourage success, we support success in one another, we congratulate success which I think in this day and age is crucial."

Marisa Mills said her father's success is truly a reflection of the entire community's success because it doesn't happen in a vacuum. She thanked the group for the award on her father's behalf and congratulated the Cloughs.

"Thank you on behalf of my dad with a very grateful and humble heart," Marisa Mills said.

Celebrating small business

The Brainerd chamber has more than 900 members and 75 percent of those members have fewer than 10 employees.

"This is really about small business," said Bart Taylor, RiverWood Bank, outgoing chamber board chair.

At the meeting, Taylor symbolically passed the gavel to incoming chair Kristi Westbrock, Consolidated Telecommunications Co., who addressed the gathering via video from a technology show in Las Vegas.

The event highlighted success stories with examples printed at each table. Kilian also pointed to inspirations from other members across lakes area communities who are growing their businesses-from Mike Higgins at the Brainerd Industrial Center to Jack Pine Brewery in Brainerd, MicroNet in Nisswa, Stepping Stones Childcare Learning Center Inc. and Boyd Lodge in Crosslake.

"Our success will always depend on each other, there is no doubt about that," Kilian said.

Lakes Proud, the buy local effort, and the Brainerd Lakes Blue Ox Business Academy, were some of the programs recognized, as were the number of volunteers who put time into the many chamber activities.

"We want to strengthen businesses that strengthen our communities," Kilian said, adding hopefully people see that in everything the chamber does.

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