Sussex County holds 22nd Today & Tomorrow Conference

By Lynn R. Parks

The theme of this year's Sussex County Today and Tomorrow Conference, the 22nd such conference sponsored by Delaware Technical and Community College in Georgetown, was Innovation. Guests, including keynote speaker Sam Calagione, founder and president of Dogfish Head Brewery, described how they are being innovative in moving their businesses forward.

Calagione, who majored in English at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., started off his presentation with a quote by American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."

That quote "is a rallying cry for any entrepreneur," Calagione said. "Find an innovative way to go on your own path. Find your own definition of goodness, and a group of people will find value in what you are doing and will go with you on that journey."

In his case, he added, Emerson's writing translated into the Dogfish Head slogan, "Off-centered ales for off-centered people."

The conference was held last Wednesday, Oct. 28, on the Del Tech college campus.

Calagione's was the last speech of the day. He closed it by quoting songwriter Warren Zevon, who in 2002, just months before dying of lung cancer, told late show host David Letterman that his experience with a terminal illness had taught him that we should "enjoy every sandwich."

"I love thinking about innovative practices," Calagione said. "I want you all to get to work and think about what you've already embarked on, about what's already been done in the world today, and then go deeper."

The conference also featured a panel of five business people, talking about how innovation makes a difference in what they do.

Eric Christianson is senior vice president of marketing for Perdue Foods. "Some might wonder, 'What's innovative about a chicken?'" he said. Well, for one thing, there was long-time Perdue head Frank Perdue, Christianson said, who used advertising to convince Americans that they wanted chickens with yellow skin. Today, the company is using innovation to make certain that it provides what consumers want, including organic and humanely raised birds. "People want food that is consistent with their values," he said.

Dr. Jeffrey Cooper is owner of Enhanced Dental Care in Rehoboth Beach. Dentistry has moved far away from the days of the white porcelain spit bowl, he said.

New diagnostic techniques allow dentists to better locate problems and fix them. The techniques also mean more comfortable and accurate treatment, Cooper said. The practice of filling a mouth with "goo" to get a mold for a cap, for example, has been replaced with high-tech photography. "It's a much more pleasant experience than before, as well as more accurate," he said.

New technology doesn't replace the need for effective workers, though. "I make every effort to surround myself with an enthusiastic team," Cooper said. The right team "follows your lead," he added. "Do your work with enthusiasm and your team will catch whatever it is that you have."

Lisa St. Clair is founder of Tail Bangers, which makes home-made and hand-cut dog biscuits.

"Our business is all about celebrating your relationship with your dog," she said.

St. Clair said that she wants to be the "Otis Spunkmeyer of dog treats." (Otis Spunkmeyer, based in San Leandro, Calif., makes cookies and muffins.) Her dog biscuits, available in 2,000 stores nationwide, are displayed in baked-good cases. The Tail Bangers Facebook page, with nearly 4,000 followers, invites dog lovers to post pictures of their dogs enjoying Tail Banger treats.

Bryne McDowell is vice president of quality and regulatory insurance at Dentsply International, of which the Caulk division in Milford is a part. Like Cooper, McDowell said that innovation is driving change in the dental industry. "It's the foundation of what we do on a daily basis," he added.

Dentsply introduces about 30 new products each year. Engineers come up with new ideas by visiting dental offices and watching dentists and hygienists at work and by looking at what the competition is doing. A portal on the company website allows people to post ideas that they have for possible development.

"We listen to the silent voice of the customer," McDowell said. For example: "Nobody ever asked for a smart phone," he said. "But developers understood that once they were available, people would love them. That's innovation based on the silent voice."

Reese Bogle is vice president of business development for Discover Bank in Greenwood. The biggest innovation in the history of his industry is mobile banking, he said. By 2020, the world will have 10 billion people using 50 billion connected devices.

Challenges associated with mobile banking include finding ways to provide cutting edge technology while at the same time remembering traditional bank users who still prefer to talk with a teller, Bogle said. And of course, security is a big concern. With face and voice recognition in the works and touch identification already available, "our goal is to eliminate the use of passwords," he said.

Following the panelists' presentations, attendees were able to sit in on two of three breakout sessions. One featured the five panelists answering questions. In another, Valerie Cordrey of the East Coast Garden Center near Millsboro advised business owners to "be open to diversity." Her company, which she and her husband, Rick, started 25 years ago and which had three landscaping jobs in its first year, now has, in addition to 70 greenhouses, a container gardening center, a retail shop, an events center and a "secret garden" for weddings and parties.

In another breakout, Jack Berberian with Delmarva VOIP advised listeners to "be responsive to technology."

"Get out, talk with others and make sure you are always learning," he said. "Embrace technology, even if you don't like it."

At the same time, he suggested that sometimes leaving the cell phone behind is a good idea. "Always remember to unplug," he said. "Enjoy your family when you can."

Campus director Ileana Smith challenged conference attendees to take lessons that they had learned back to their work places.

"This has been an awesome conference," she said. "The challenge is for all of you to act. We already have this great county. It is up to all of us to make it even greater."

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