11. Julie Rodriguez
47, president and CEO
Epic Divers and Marine, Harvey, Louisiana
Listening to the Sea
Julie Rodriguez isn't a diver. She has never even suited up. Despite that, she has built Epic Divers and Marine, her Louisiana oil-field-services company, from the small outfit she took over from her father in 1991 into a $24 million operation. What's she doing right? Listening and learning.
At first, Rodriguez knew nothing about repairing offshore pipelines and platforms, Epic's bread and butter. Working in her father's office, she took requests for new jobs and would call Epic's divers just to find out if the company was qualified to do the work. But she learned fast, listening to the company's accountants, picking up enough to take over the books herself.
Once in charge, Rodriguez started listening to her employees, using her divers as consultants to learn about where to expand and which new customers to pursue. Her listening skills proved vital in 1994 when an Epic diver was struck and killed by a loose underwater pipeline. The fatality stunned Epic's CEO. "I felt rotten. I kept asking myself if it was worth it," she recalls. She also knew the accident would make it difficult to land new contracts.
Determined to recover, Rodriguez set out to reform Epic's culture around safety. She started by discussing each job with the divers in order to anticipate what tools and procedures they needed to stay safe. The result was an extensive new safety program that's still in place today, emphasizing constant communication so that employees can continually learn from one another. When an incident does happen on a job, Rodriguez uses the error to teach other divers. "It's important to share your mistakes with everybody," she says. "They go in our manual and become training tools." Today, Epic has the top safety rating with all of its clients, including such industry giants as ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil.
Those customers are now pushing Epic to expand into deepwater work. It's more lucrative, but will require hefty investments in equipment, training, and licenses. And it could put Epic in the crosshairs of industry leaders like $1.24 billion Stolt Offshore. But Rodriguez is sure that if she keeps listening to her employees, her customers, and her gut, Epic will meet the challenge. —Lucas Conley
12. Gloria Bohan
Omega World Travel, Fairfax, Virginia
Gloria Bohan was inspired to go into the travel business during her honeymoon cruise on the Queen Elizabeth. Some honeymoon: Omega, which specializes in corporate travel and convention management, posts revenue of more than $1 billion. Bohan built the 32-year-old company by innovating early and often, opening one of the first 24-hour phone-reservation systems back in 1978, then becoming one of the first to launch an internal automated low-fare finder in 1991, long before Internet travel shopping became standard. — AO
13. Himanshu Bhatia
Rose International, Chesterfield, Missouri
When Himanshu Bhatia was growing up in New Delhi and dreamed of her future, she thought she'd be an architect. Little did she know she'd wind up creating computer systems, not skyscrapers. But after arriving in Missouri in 1987 to pursue a graduate tech degree, she was pleased to discover that designing information systems was similar to what she'd imagined designing buildings to be like. "I love the process of creating a design from start to finish—but here, instead of building a building, I was building a software package," Bhatia says.
The degree led to a job at aerospace giant McDonnell Douglas where, Bhatia says, "First I worked in the IT department, then I became the IT department." Soon she was also managing contractors for the company. "I began to notice there was significant room for improvement," she recalls, such as boosting the quality of their systems and customer service, making pricing more competitive, and creating new staffing models to make IT organizations more nimble. So she struck out on her own, founding Rose International in 1993.
Bhatia's focus on customer service in an industry not known for its friendliness has won her customers like the U.S. Army, Boeing, Toyota, and ChevronTexaco. Rose International's revenue topped $50 million in 2004, and Bhatia expects to nail the $100 million mark in 2005. —Alison Overholt
14. Pamela Chambers O'Rourke
President and CEO
Icon Information Consultants, Houston, Texas
Pamela Chambers O'Rourke knew it was time to strike out on her own when she was reprimanded by her last employer for treating IT clients too well. "They said I was spoiling my customers," she recalls. She launched her own IT consulting firm with $200,000 in startup capital from friends, local businesses, and many of those same "spoiled" clients. Its first year, Icon grossed $2.5 million. Eight profitable years later, it's a $33 million firm with more than 325 employees. Her secret? Stay hungry. "I pay myself on commission," she says. "It makes me want to get up and go to work." — LC
15. Victoria Buyniski Gluckman
53, founder, president, and CEO
United Medical Resources, Cincinnati, Ohio
Victoria Gluckman is a bootstrapper. She sold greeting cards door-to-door at age 10 to help "achieve a better life for my family and myself," she says. She skipped college and landed in health benefits in the early 1980s, just as employers began to face the complexities of managed care. By 1983, Gluckman saw her chance — to manage those complexities for companies. When she approached Stouffer's with a plan to save it more than $1 million, she had her first contract. Today, her company boasts 120 corporate clients and about $30 million in revenue each year. — RU
A version of this article appeared in the May 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.