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Rebels, Renegades and Pioneers: Takeaways from midstate leadership conference

Harrisburg Regional Chamber and Capital Region Economic Development Corp. hosted the half-day event

'Rebels, Renegades & Pioneers,' an inaugural midstate leadership event, invited six innovators and big thinkers from the Harrisburg area to talk about how essentialism guides them in their businesses and personal lives. - (Photo / Thinkstock)

Some of the most successful business owners in the midstate tried to be all things to all people or had trouble saying “no” to new commitments before they learned to focus on their core business.

They shared these and other key experiences Tuesday at the Harrisburg Regional Chamber and Capital Region Economic Development Corp. half-day leadership conference called “Rebels, Renegades & Pioneers.” It focused on the art of essentialism, or learning to find balance by doing less but better.

The inaugural event included six innovators and big thinkers from the Harrisburg area and how essentialism guides them in their businesses and personal lives.

Speakers included: Jen Delaye, CEO of the JDK Group; J. Alex Hartzler, managing partner and founder of WCI Partners LP; Jaime Novinger-Toigo, president of Service1st Restoration and Remodeling; “Merlot” Mike Wilson, partner at The Vineyard & Brewery at Hershey; Jeannine Peterson, CEO of Hamilton Health Center; and Adam Vasquez, president and CEO of Merit.

Here are some brief takeaways from the event, which was held at the Hershey Lodge in Derry Township and moderated by Harrisburg executive coach John Dame.

Because we can. Not!

  • “Because we can” is not a good reason to expand a business. Trying to be everything to everybody for daily catering and events hurt long-range planning and nearly led to bankruptcy for Delaye’s Cumberland County-based hospitality company. “We were living moment to moment,” she said. By focusing on doing the “right things” and pursuing passion projects, rather than saying “yes” to all opportunities, Delaye said she found balance and greater success.


  • Be willing to delegate responsibilities: As companies grow in size and leaders identify what they want their future to look like, they need to be self-aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and hire people with the passion and skillset that can do certain jobs better. Giving up control of something you built or delegating work is hard, the speakers said, but it can become necessary for companies looking to reach the next stage in their growth cycle.

Personal board of directors

  • Surround yourself with a personal board: Novinger-Toigo said it’s important for business owners to surround themselves with mentors or join leadership groups comprised of organizations that have achieved results they are striving for. Hartzler advised event attendees to have a personal board of directors, or informal sounding board of close friends and colleagues, that you can talk to before making big decisions.

A good crisis

  •  “Crisis sometimes can focus you.” After selling Internet advertising firm in 2005, Hartzler began investing in real estate. He lost money in some big-city markets during the real estate bubble of the last decade, which led to the recession. But that forced him to refocus his attention on Harrisburg and urban revitalization projects, which has paid off for WCI. Hartzler also said he tries to commit to no more than three organizations at a time for board service. Any more and it becomes hard to be effective. It’s OK to say “no” to community boards, Peterson added. It’s the “right thing to do,” especially when it’s not something you’re really passionate about to start.


  • Continue to reinvest: Now in its fifth year in business, The Vineyard and Brewery at Hershey continues to soar to new heights because its owners, including Wilson, reinvest every year. From product expansions and increased production capabilities to becoming an outdoor music venue, the business continues to evolve. “Complacency is the enemy,” Wilson said. 

Take that first step

  •  Don’t be afraid to take the first step: Everyone has big dreams and most will never realize them, Vasquez said. The biggest reason is that they are afraid to take the first step. If we’re able to take that initial step, which for him was quitting what he thought was his dream job, the next steps can become easier. He ended up getting a call from Nancy Sacunas about buying her business-to-business marketing firm. With every step, there is less fear and more confidence, he said. “Make sure you hold that vision. Take that first step. Take that second step.” And if you step in something, clean it off and keep walking.

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