groundbreaking from the start: how local companies helped shape the world

Cleveland historically has been home to entrepreneurs with innovations that helped shape the world as we know it today. From Charles F. Brush’s arc lamps that illuminated the streets of Wabash, Indiana in 1880, making it the first electrically lighted city in the world, to Standard Oil’s domination of oil refineries in 1872 and subsequent establishment of the modern-day vertical business model, Cleveland has seen a lot of firsts in its time. 
Any entrepreneur, whether it’s John D. Rockefeller or a modern-day startup pioneer, starts with a good idea and runs with it. With any luck, the good idea fills a need or solves a problem and the company takes off. What begins as a startup can evolve into an industry leader. 
We take a look at some of Cleveland’s ground breaking companies -- some already are in the history books for their contributions, while others are just getting started -- to see what made/makes the company unique, how it achieved its success, and where it is today. 
The next time you paint a wall in your home, thank Sherwin-Williams for the concept of ready-to-use paint, which makes projects like these open to Do It Yourselfers. Founded by Henry Sherwin and Edward Williams in 1866 -- one year after the Civil War ended -- the company has created paint products that make redecorating easier. 
“Sherwin-Williams was founded on innovation and we have continued to be an innovative company for almost 150 years,” says vice president of product innovations Steve Revnew. It all started with pre-mixed paint, which was introduced in 1878. “Obviously, it opened up the ease of painting to more consumers,” he says. “Prior to that you really had to be a professional.” 
The introduction of the paint was revolutionary, explains John Grabowski, Krieger Mueller historian and associate professor of applied History at CWRU. “Before, paint required mixing your own pigment and binders,” he says. “Sherwin-Williams pre-mixed paint was different. It made it easy for someone who is not a professional painter to paint. They changed the way we see paint as paint consumers.” 
Other Sherwin-Williams innovations include the resealable tin paint can, paint roller cover and the first latex paint in the 1940s. Modern-day inventions include environmentally safe paints, precise color matching using a smartphone and odor-reducing paints. “We launch new products every single year,” says Revnew. “Today, you can pull a can of paint off the shelf, get the color you want and you’re off and painting.” 
Morgan Litho
Founded in 1866 as the W.J. Morgan Company, Morgan Litho has a rich history of being the first company to explore new concepts in printing. “Morgan Lithograph was one of the leaders of that entrepreneur spirit in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” says company spokesperson Dale Fellows. 
In fact, Morgan is known for printing the first modern billboard for Ringling Brothers Circus in the late 1890s. “The Horse Fair” was printed in sections -- first on the side of a rail car and then as a billboard -- and went on to win gold medals for large-scale printing at both the Chicago Exposition and the Paris World’s Fair. Original “Horse Fair” prints have been displayed at the Library of Congress and the Cleveland Historical Society. 
With the dawn of movies in the 20th Century, Morgan got into the motion picture business. “They were the premier printer of movie posters for decades, until the advent of television,” says Fellows. Today, the company prides itself on its billboards, bus posters and banners displayed around Northeast Ohio, using offset, screen printing, vinyl graphics and their signature large-format digital printing. 
Lincoln Electric 
In 1895, John C. Lincoln opened Lincoln Electric to sell his electric motors. By the early 1900s, younger brother James had joined the company as a partner and the product line included battery chargers for electric automobiles. And the company introduced the first variable voltage, single operator, portable welding machine in the world. 
To this day, Lincoln Electric is a world leader in new products, welding solutions and accessories. But perhaps what was most innovative in the early 1900s was the company’s transition to employee-owned status. It began with the establishment of an employee advisory board, with representatives from every department. That board still exists today. By 1915, Lincoln employees received life insurance, followed by paid vacations in 1923, one of the first companies in the country to offer those perks. 
By 1934, an employee suggestion program was in force and workers were receiving annual incentive bonuses. “Lincoln Electric was innovative in labor relations,” explains Grabowski. “When unions were forming and they wanted to avoid them, they came up with an employee incentive plan. If you did get hired there, which was hard, you became a part of the company.” 
And during economic downturns, Lincoln Electric avoided lay-offs by re-assigning employees to other jobs. During World War II, the company hired women and minorities to replace those employees who were drafted. “The company had an incredibly important product,” says Grabowski. “They kept up with the times and globalized and is now a billion-dollar company.” 
Nottingham Spirk 
Innovation runs through the veins of both John Nottingham and John Spirk. The pair has been inventing things since they studied industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Upon graduation 42 years ago, they formed Nottingham Spirk and put their talents to work as inventors of cool things for a wide host of clients. 
Nottingham Spirk’s first client was Little Tikes, taking on everything from designing the company logo to the children’s toys that are so easily recognizable today. While they credit Little Tikes with earning them the reputation of world-class innovators, the company has since developed hundreds of products for other clients in its state-of-the-art innovation center at the top of Cedar Hill. 
The company employs a vertical innovation model by which one team handles an idea or concept from start to finish. “The idea is the easy part,” says Nottingham Spirk’s vice president of business development Steve Gary. “Money can be found. Bringing it to life, that’s the challenge.” 
The innovation center, which is housed in the prototype for Severance Hall, is an ideal location for the firm’s creative and logical minds. “You have Case Western Reserve University with its left-brained logical thinkers, and the Cleveland Institute of Art’s right-brained thinkers,” Gary explains. “The two sides creating magic is what made us great.” 
Great Lakes Brewing Company 
Beer was big in Cleveland in the 1870s. But by the 20th Century, no one was really brewing on a commercial scale. Then, in 1988, brothers Patrick and Daniel Conway saw an opportunity, took a risk on a neighborhood and opened Great Lakes Brewery in Ohio City’s Market Avenue. 
“At the time Pat and Dan founded Great Lakes there wasn’t a lot going on in this neighborhood,” recalls GLBC’s communication specialist Marissa DeSantis. In fact, legend says a fight broke out in the street when the Conways brought their wives to see the location they had chosen. “They were bringing brewing back to an area that once was a point of pride.” 
The Conways became part of what is known as “The Class of ’88” because so many craft breweries opened up that year nationwide. Today, the brewery is thriving, Great Lakes has won multiple awards and the Conways can boast that they led the way in some of today’s trends. 
Twenty-six years later, Great Lakes Brewing is known as one of the first craft breweries in the state and region. The company brews more than 125,000 barrels a year and distributes to 13 states and Washington, D.C. The Conways are an anchor in a now-thriving craft brewing district. And they support the local businesses around them. 
“From the beginning, Pat and Dan were focused on local food, local produce and urban gardening,” says DeSantis. 
IBM UrbanCode 
In 1996, Maciej Zawadzki co-founded UrbanCode as a software development company designing games and websites. The company evolved into consulting before shifting focus and filling a huge gap in the software industry. 
UrbanCode developed software for its own use, named Anthill, which made it easier for its employees to do their jobs. It allowed developers to easily associate changes made in the source code to a specific build of software. UrbanCode then developed and sold AnthillPro, which automates the process of building code into software projects and testing it to verify that project quality has been maintained. As the market and demand grew, UrbanCode developed three more products in the DevOps realm. 
UrbanCode’s software helps reduce deployment time from months to minutes, and has helped some clients save upwards of $2 million annually. “Companies were doing manual software deployments, which are very labor intensive and error prone,” explains Greg Wunderle, sales manager. “Our products automate the deployment and release process, enabling companies to develop software faster with fewer defects.”   
In April 2013, IBM acquired UrbanCode, strengthening IBM’s DevOps strategy and capabilities by fulfilling its ability to offer clients a holistic, comprehensive approach to the entire software delivery lifecycle. 
Today, IBM UrbanCode continues to grow internationally while maintaining a strong Cleveland presence. “The business climate is very accepting of new ideas,” says Tracy Gavlak, IBM UrbanCode’s business operations specialist. “There’s a real small business and entrepreneurial spirit here. Great energy in retail, tech, food, breweries… You name it.” 
BlueBridge Networks 
BlueBridge came into existence as a partnership between the former owners of the Sterling Building and a group of local, established technology entrepreneurs. The aim was to take advantage of an underutilized asset in the Sterling Building: a newly built $20-million Internet data center facility. 
BlueBridge has emerged over the past 10 years as a leader in data storage, becoming the first Ohio facilities-based data center to have connected facilities on different national power grids. With facilities in Cleveland, Mayfield Heights and Columbus, BlueBridge has what it calls the “Ohio Cloud” with its data management and cloud computing across networks. 
“Statistics taking their inevitable toll -- when one grid is down the other is typically still up,” explains BlueBridge managing director Kevin Goodman. “It is a terrific form of risk mitigation. One of the primary focuses we have as a facilities based operator is removing as many known single points of failure as possible from our landscape or equation.”
Today, BlueBridge is a leader in comprehensive data services. Customers such as Hyland Software, Brand Muscle and Rosetta rely on the company for its variety of services and reliability in hosting their data.

“One of our unique goals and mission has been to become a total IT solution for our customers, thus reducing costs and improving efficiencies while both attracting and retaining jobs in the region,” explains Goodman.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.