By Stuart Hirsch The Herald Bulletin, Anderson, Ind.
Bill and Judy Nagengast arrived in Anderson from Detroit 30 years ago expecting to stay a year.
Instead of leaving, however, the life and business partners started a successful company called Continental Inc. & Solas Ray Lighting that now employs about 500 engineers in three business divisions.
On Friday, the couple was presented with the Madison County Chamber of Commerce 15th annual Entrepreneur Award for success as business owners and their ongoing commitment to Madison County.
The award is given to local business owners to recognize their community contributions.
Mayor Kevin Smith presented the award, saying the couple has been at the forefront of Anderson's growth in recent years. One example is that Bill Nagengast joined Smith and the city's economic development team on a trip to China.
"These are real people who do real things and they don't seek any recognition for it," Smith told a crowd of more than 100 people who gathered at Anderson Country Club for the event where the where the Anderson University Falls School of of Business scholarship recipient was announced.
"Bill and I are very honored to receive this award," Judy said. "It does give you time to reflect back on your time in the community."
As often is the case with entrepreneurs, the path that brought the couple to Anderson, recognize an opportunity and act on it is full of twists and turns.
After graduating from Central Michigan University with degrees in chemistry and physics, Bill figured out he hated those disciplines, became a potter and began selling ceramics.
He made $300 the first year and was thrilled. The second year, after meeting Judy, he sold $3,000 worth of crafts. As Bill tells it, Judy noticed that his blue colored cups and bowls sold better and he should make more of them.
Then tragedy hit. Bill somehow managed to burn up his kiln, which meant he had to find a job.
He found work in the clay design studios at General Motors when a friend called and told him about a job in Anderson working for Guide Corporation designing headlights as a contract engineer.
That job eventually eventually led to an opportunity for the couple to start their own business.
Bill was working 100-hour weeks and the company still needed a lot of help, Judy Nagengast said.
"We were from the Detroit area and we had a lot of friends who were design engineers and we said we could bring them down and we started this little company," with five or six friends, Judy said. "Eventually, we ran out of friends and we had to learn how to recruit and we kept growing from there."
The company had a lot of great customers in Anderson and the company thrived. But as General Motors began pulling out of Anderson, the company had to reinvent itself.
"Things change and we had to change with it," Judy said. "There came a point where I realized one day that all our main customers had either shut down, gone bankrupt, or left town."
When that happened, she said, they began getting into LED lighting. They know a lot about lighting but didn't have expertise in electronics. But Anderson's workforce stepped up and helped provide the expertise to make that a thriving segment of the company's business, Judy said.
Anderson University graduate student Jordan Ball received the Falls School of Business/Dickmann Scholarship Award of $5,000.
An Anderson native, Ball will receive his MBA in 2016 with a concentration in forensic accounting. After graduating he plans to become a certified public accountant.
With some encouragement from AU President John Pistole, who served as keynote speaker of the event, Ball thinks he might pursue a career in the FBI.