La Crosse businessman Steve Cottrell looked as if an emotional double whammy had smacked him shortly after President Barack Obama praised his company’s rebound from two financial blows.
“It was very emotional,” a teary-eyed Cottrell said Thursday, shortly after the president cited Cottrell’s company, Authenticom, as an example that success flows from treating employees like family. “I was completely taken by surprise.”
Obama not only recognized Authenticom but also used it to fire up the crowd for the final point of his economic speech at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, bringing the standing-room-only crowd to its feet and sparking thunderous applause.
Obama chronicled Authenticom’s humble start in Cottrell’s home in 2002 to manage data for car companies and dealerships.
Employing a small number of people by 2007, Cottrell “then was hit with a double whammy,” Obama said. “The recession came, and the auto industry almost went belly up.”
Instead of giving up, Cottrell doubled down, investing in people and technology, committed to guiding his company through the roiling financial waters, Obama said.
In addition, government agencies “refused to walk away from people like Steve,” Obama said of state tax credits, and city and county loans Authenticom obtained, including one loan for $120,000 and another for $125,000.
“That shot in the arm, Steve says, was enough to keep his company’s confidence going,” Obama said.
“As the auto industry came roaring back, things began booming,” Obama said. “Since 2007, Steve’s revenue is up 1,000 percent. His company, Authenticom, has gone from 18 employees to more than 120.
“So this business that began in Steve’s son’s old bedroom is now one of America’s own fastest-growing private companies based in a historic building right here in downtown La Crosse,” Obama said of Authenticom’s two floors of offices in the old Doerflinger building.
“Now, I guarantee you Steve worked hard, he put everything he had into it. He took enormous risks,” the president said. “But he also is somebody who recognizes that he didn’t do it by himself.
“He’s proud of what he accomplished, but he also talks about how fortunate he’s been to be part of a community like La Crosse,” Obama said.
The president lauded Authenticom’s practices of paying fair wages, with paid sick days, treating employees like family and, “most important — free lunch Fridays,” drawing laughter and applause.
“You can’t always do everything you like, but if you treat everything like family, that’s good for us,” Obama, bringing the crowd to its feet as he wrapped up his address with the exhortation to treat all Americans like family.
Cottrell, who is president and CEO of the company, struggled with his emotions during a series of media interviews after the speech.
White House staffers had contacted him several days ago — he isn’t allowed to say when — asking about the company, Cottrell said.
Asked to attend the event, Cottrell was happy to do so but didn’t suspect that something else might be in store until he was ushered in to meet the president for a photo before the address.
“I knew that was very special,” he said. Then, he was surprised to be escorted to a front-row seat in the VIP section.
“That was when I thought something bigger might be in store,” Cottrell said, and Obama affirmed his suspicion when the president pointed him out, saying it might be embarrassing, before telling the Authenticom story.
“What we’re really proud of is that people see tremendous value in what we do — not with just a product but as an organization with a sense of family that has promoted us and helped us prosper,” Cottrell said.
Of the president, Cottrell said, “He’s quite a closer. Mom would be proud.”
Cottrell’s mother, Mary, lives at the Sterling House in La Crosse and wasn’t able to attend, he said.
Lest anyone think that Cottrell has taken advantage of government assistance, consider the fact that Authenticom paid the loans back early.
During an interview with the Tribune last fall, Cottrell noted that people sometimes ask him why he would do so.
He explains: “Those loans came at a critical time in our growth. It was specifically given to us to grow our business, and it did, making us very profitable. Although we enjoyed having the money, other people needed it more.”