Here’s how local business leaders got their starts

Above: "While in high school in New Jersey, I took a drafting class,” says Barry Chasse, founder of Chasse Building Team. “Hooked day one, I went so far as to intern for a real estate developer right after graduation.” (Photo by Mike Mertes, AZ Big Media) Business News | 26 Dec, 2018 |

Ever wonder about the how and why Arizona’s emerging and veteran business leaders got into the fields that they did? We asked a variety of leaders – from industries ranging from construction and law to tourism and nonprofit – to share their stories:

Craig Leonard, Vice President of Pioneer Title Agency: “Growing up, it was just my Mom and I. I watched her grow her career and become a very successful branch manager/commercial escrow officer. Her start from nothing was so inspiring. After school, I decided to follow suit. After 34 years in this business, I can still say that her hard work and loyalty to those around her still inspires me. I love what I do and the title and escrow business has been wonderful to me and my family.”

Chad Barnett, President of Foods 2000, Inc.: “My story starts with a lot of moving around. At 19, I worked in operation management for TCBY. Newly married, we moved from Texas to Arkansas to Indiana and finally to Phoenix when TCBY expanded into the juice market with its Juice Works concept. We fell in love with the Valley of the Sun and decided this would be our home.  In 2000, I met Rick Ueable, who owned about a dozen Subway franchisees in the Valley and Northern Arizona. He and his partner were looking for someone to assist in operations management, and I was tired of moving around. Over the next 18 years, we would work together to expand the business up to 45 franchises and counting.”

Joyce C. Grossman, Executive Director for the Arizona Association for Economic Development: “The Arizona Association for Economic Development is the reason for my career. Colleagues at the City of Phoenix suggested I join AAED.  I found the field exciting.  It was after taking the Arizona Basic Economic Development Course, providing me not only with basic tools but also the confidence in preparation of attraction presentations, and a lifelong network of colleagues that I was ready to leave a management administrative post to be an economic developer.”

Barry Chasse, Founder of Chasse Building Team: “While in high school in New Jersey, I took a drafting class. Hooked day one, I went so far as to intern for a real estate developer right after graduation. This led to me moving  across the country to Arizona in 1987 – site unseen – to take advantage of Arizona State University’s award-winning construction program (now called the Del E. Webb School of Construction at ASU). As a college sophomore, I jumped at the chance to intern early yet again, this time for a contracting company. I ended up staying there 17 years before founding my own firm.”

Daniel Leidenz, Branch Manager at Washington Federal Tucson: “Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated with homes – having seen them everywhere from jungles to islands growing up. I was actually born in Venezuela and also lived in Margarita (an island, not the drink) before coming to Arizona as a teen. My dad worked for oil and mining companies, so I always asked how things got done – how homes were sold, how things were built. As it turned it, it was through finance! I was hooked and have been doing it since college as a result.”

Sally Shaffer,  General Manager at the Boulders Resort & Spa: “Growing up in a military family and moving all over the United States and Far East gave me great exposure to many different aspects in life. Upon graduating from Florida State University, I continued this movement for 17 years with Marriott International and ultimately landing in Chicago. Loving the city but hating the cold weather my family and I moved to Scottsdale with Marriott and Hilton Hotels.  My passion for the hospitality industry, service standards combined with my diverse experiences, led me to becoming the General Manager for one of the top luxury resorts in the country.”

Kirtus Brustman, CFP, AAMS, Financial Advisor at Wilde Wealth Management Group: “I grew up on a farm, watching my parents work hard, slowly and methodically building both their business and retirement over decades. When a tax mistake resulted in them losing much of their hard-earned savings nearly overnight, our lives were forever changed. I got into the industry due in large part to my desire to help others avoid the undue stress and strife that my parents had to endure.”

Cathleen Yu, Chair of Investor Services Team and Business Law Partner at Quarles & Brady LLP: “In college, I volunteered as a translator for lawyers assisting undocumented immigrant children who came to the United States alone. I saw how knowledge of the law can allow you to make a difference in peoples’ lives and was inspired to attend law school. While I now work primarily with businesses and institutional investors, I still get to spend my time solving problems and helping make others’ lives easier.”

Jason Caballero, Lead Sommelier at Bourbon Steak by Michael Mina: “My father was an engineer, and I initially planned to go in that direction. So much so, I double majored in electrical engineering and physics in college. By year five of six into my studies, I just knew it wasn’t the right path for me. Being a big guy, I got my start in the hospitality industry as…a bouncer and server. But, I quickly learned that I loved being around people. My first big break came when I went to work for Olive + Ivy in 2006. They had an Advanced Sommelier on staff, and he was kind enough to take me under his wing.”

Dominic Miller, LMSW, MPA, Vice President of Outpatient Services – Maricopa & Gila County for Southwest Behavioral & Health Services: “I was raised in a middle-class family, where hard work and perseverance were rewarded. Weekdays were spent at school, doing homework, running around the neighborhood, and enjoying soccer.  Weekends were spent at my grandparents’ home in Maryvale.   And those weekend visits were what ultimately inspired me to make a difference. I saw firsthand our community’s most vulnerable population and how there are policies and systems in place that uphold oppression. As a Mexican-American who felt deeply connected to this community, I was compelled to make a change. A college counselor pointed me in the direction of social work as a career choice.”

Lorrie Henderson Ph.D., MBA, LCSW , President and Chief Executive Officer of Jewish Family & Children’s Service: “After a short football career that ended by an injury I was asked to go speak to a group of troubled kids. It seemed like I really reached them so I was asked to do it again and little did I know that would launch me into a long career of behavioral health and healthcare. Following those experiences I was very motivated to help and went back to school and finished my bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in social work, an MBA and a Ph.D. During those years of studying I worked full-time in the field and haven’t stopped since. Now 30-plus years later, working in this field is as exciting and interesting as ever and I don’t know of any work I could be doing that provides so much satisfaction and fulfillment as I get from helping all those we serve.”

Robert Livingston, Regional President & General Manager of Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino: “I earned bachelors and master’s degrees in accounting from the University of Mississippi. After five years in public accounting, I decided I wanted to work for one of the larger companies in Memphis.  I landed a job with Promus, formerly Holiday Corporation.  In addition to hotels, we also had five Harrah’s casinos.  That was 1991…at that point in my life, I had never stepped foot into a casino. Not long after that, Harrah’s Tunica offered me a position as Planning & Analysis Manager.  I learned as much as I could about the business.  Nine moves later, here I am….Regional President and GM at Harrah’s Ak-Chin.It’s a great business.  Something new and challenging every day.  I love the people side of the business.  I appreciate the passion that I see in the great folks that I get to work with.  We never stop trying to get better.  And, we try to have fun along the way.”

Joe Cunningham, Co-founder of Sunny Energy: “Four years of hard work for a degree in engineering told me I did not want to be an engineer, but it taught me very valuable skills in critical thinking.  I’ve been involved in several different disruptive industries:  PC computers displacing mainframes, pre-Internet online services, competitive cable TV against incumbent cable systems, early Internet service provider businesses, wireless services displacing land-lines, and now, solar PV displacing total reliance on utility companies.  These business experiences taught me that consumers want choices, low cost, independence and a good experience.  Solar is very similar, as a disruptive business to incumbent utility companies – we help people develop their own personal energy source.”

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