FWBP honors business leaders at Top 100 event

Top 100 MC Richard Connor and Rising Star honoree Jiles Clark. (Photo by Amber Shumake)

From a young author not yet old enough to drive on his own to a company that started in a garage and now makes $16 million annually, the Fort Worth Business Press honored 11 award recipients as part of the FWBP’s annual Top 100 celebration Thursday (Feb. 9) at the Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth.

FWBP President & Publisher Richard Connor, always a popular master of ceremonies at these events, began the evening with a confession: “I never go by the script, by the way.”

Of course, the audience wouldn’t have it any other way. Connor’s off-the-cuff wit is a big part of what makes these happenings more than just dinner, drinks and a few speeches – though there was plenty of all that, and the steak and wine were fabulous.

Connor explained where he came up with the idea for the Top 100. He said after purchasing the Business Press years ago he simply went around watching people and events to get ideas of what the public preferred most. After seeing an event similar to the Top 100 in Baton Rouge a couple decades ago, Connor said, “I came back and said, ‘We need to do that.’”

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So, in 2005, the inaugural list of Top 100 private companies was published. Compiling the first list was nothing short of a challenge, Connor said. Since, however, the list, along with the accompanying ranking of leading public companies, has become indispensable information for and about businesses in the area.

“We had to really struggle to get 100 companies,” Connor continued, explaining the first Top 100, “But we did, and we had the event.”

The top 100 private companies were listed in the program each attendee received at Thursday’s event. Wholesale food and beverage distributor Ben E. Keith Co. topped the list with 1,818 Tarrant County employees and 6,212 company-wide, and revenue of $5.16 billion in 2021. FORVIS, a financial services company, was second with $1.40 billion, 254 Tarrant County employees and 5,500 company-wide.

“The top 100 recognizes the public and private companies in Fort Worth and Tarrant County that contribute so much to the economic vitality of North Texas,” Connor said. “All of us who live and do business here owe these businesses, their executives and their employees a tremendous debt of gratitude.”

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Of course, successful companies are the direct result of successful people, and the evening honored the tops among those.

“Getting here is no small feat,” said Rob Opitz, a partner at FORVIS, the evening’s Presenting Sponsor.

The Gold Sponsor was BMO Harris Bank and the Bronze Sponsor was North Texas Community Foundation. Sustaining Sponsors were Kimbell Art Museum, United Way of Tarrant County, and Rod Patrick Boots.

Before presentation of the awards, Connor provided another reminder of why FWBP parties are popular with attendees.

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“When we announce the name of the winner you’re with, we want you to be raucous,” he said – and the crowd responded accordingly.

A highlight of the evening was presentation of the Rising Star Award to 15-year-old author of three books Jiles Clark, owner of Books by Jiles and a student at I.M. Terrell Academy For Stem and VPA. Connor read Clark’s description of a good leader:

“I think a good leader is someone who helps the people they are leading. A leader isn’t someone who bosses people around, but someone who serves and builds people up. A good leader listens to people.”

After which, Connor said: “He’s 15, folks!”

When Clark came to the stage in his dapper attire, Connor said, “You’re gonna wow this crowd, if not with your words, with that bow tie.”

Clark delivered a double wow, offering inspiring words as he explained how, at age 11, his writing journey grew out of wanting to help a friend who was struggling emotionally in elementary school.

“It’s all about purpose,” Clark said. “Joy is inside you.”

Anyone interested in checking out Jiles’ books can visit his website.

The evening’s honorees incuded several women, with Connor stating, “It’s tougher for women in business than men. I’ve seen examples of it.”

Female winners on the evening were Kari Crowe-Seher, Woman-Owned Business, Melt Ice Creams; Sunitha Vegerla, Executive Leadership Award, Aircraft Seating Americas; Rose Brandshaw, Top Nonprofit CEO, North Texas Community Foundation; and Debbie Cooley, Top Private CEO, M-Pak.

Before presenting the award to Bradshaw, Connor said, “She has raised the level of the North Texas Community Foundation. A few years ago a lot of folks didn’t know it existed.”

“The challenges before us are exceeded by the opportunities that lay ahead,” Bradshaw said. “The future of Fort Worth depends on all of us being brave enough to tackle the issues ahead of us.”

In presenting the award for TOP CEO Realtor to Ty Williams, Connor noted Williams’ belief that “mistakes are an opportunity for growth and improvement.”

Williams delivered the night’s most emotional speech as he paid tribute to his late father, Ray J. Williams. He explained how every day he would go into his dad’s office and watch his father, who was 59 when Williams was born, work hard: “My dad was my hero, and he continues to be.”

His father would hand-write paychecks, Williams said, and Ty would often help hand them out to employees. One day he asked his dad why a particular check to a salesman named Don was so much. His dad replied that he actually should be paid more, saying, “It’s never about the money, it’s about the people. If you take care of people, people will take care of you.”

Seven years later his father died and Don knocked on Williams’ door. He wanted to pay for the funeral, saying Ty’s father had saved his marriage and his life.

“I’ve worked my entire life to help others, built on my dad’s legacy,” Williams said.

Greg Zimmerle, honored as Best Tech CEO for My IT.com, said he was inspired by an incident with his son’s soccer team after the team’s best player moved up to a higher level. Still optimistic, his son said he believed they would win a championship and if they did the team would get to shave his dad’s head.

“Long story short, we kept winning. These kids kept doing things we taught them year after year,” Zimmerle said. “If you take average players, average employees, average people and give them a goal, you can get extraordinary things done.”

The final presentation of the evening was the Top Private CEO Award, which went to Debbie Cooley. The honoree used her life savings of $10,000 to start M-Pak Inc. in her garage in 1999 and the company now has annual revenues of $16 million.

“I promised I’d get you out of here by 9,” Connor told the crowd as he introduced Cooley. “Debbie, the pressure’s on you.”

Cooley came close. It was a few minutes after 9 when she finished, but it was worth the extra minutes to hear what she had to say.

“My generation was told you don’t brag on yourself, but I’m going to do that. It’s not just me, it’s my group,” she said, adding with a chuckle, “I read where people my age are supposed to be depressed. I had a couple drinks and got over it.”

Then, appealing to folks to volunteer, she said: “Fort Worth’s stronger, mighty and healthy, but it can be stronger and we haven’t even scratched the surface of our potential.”

Here is the complete list of Top 100 honorees:

  • Family Owned Business, Teague Lumber.
  • Wildcatter Award, Bradley Bruce, mForce Capital.
  • Rising Star Award, Jiles Clark, Books by Jiles.
  • Top CEO Realtor, Ty Williams, RJ Williams & Company Real Estate.
  • Best Tech CEO, Greg Zimmerle, MyIT.com.
  • Woman Owned Business, Kari Crowe-Seher, Melt Ice Creams.
  • Entrepreneur of the Year, Jamey Ice, 6th Ave Homes.
  • Executive Leadership Award, Sunitha Vegerla, Recaro Aircraft Seating Americas.
  • Top Nonprofit CEO, Rose Bradshaw, North Texas Community Foundation.
  • Top Public CEO, Pedro Fabregas, Envoy Air Inc.
  • Top Private CEO, Debbie Cooley, M-Pak.