Leaders Bank Helps Chicago Start-up Moon Meals Eclipse Expectations

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Nicholl Doggett, assistant vice president of mortgage lending at Oak Brook-based Leaders Bank, poses with Chicago-based Moon Meals’ founder and CEO LaForce Baker.


When LaForce Baker, 30, founder of Chicago start-up Moon Meals, needed financing to promote his food product, he turned to Oak Brook-based Leaders Bank. In July, Leaders Bank furnished the company a loan through its Small Business Microloan Program. “The Leaders loan was a working capital loan that . . . enabled us to appear at trade shows, which can be rather costly,” Baker says.

At the time, Moon Meals’ all-vegan grab-and-go Fiesta Wraps were already sold in deli sections of all 189 Jewel supermarkets The company’s goals are even more ambitious – and national in scope. Before revealing them, let’s trace the humble origins of this innovative food manufacturer.


Plant-based pioneer

Growing up in a “food desert” on Chicago’s South Side, Baker discovered at around age 15 he could prepare healthy vegan versions of his grandmother’s tasty specialties. Several years later, as a late-night food industry worker, he found few healthy options. He began selling his healthy items to people working late evenings, spawning the name Moon Meals.

“I started wholesaling to mom-and-pop coffee shops, and got it up to 10 shops,” he recalls. “From there, I had the data to go to my first major retailer, Jewel.”

 Jewel opted to give Moon Meals a tryout in three Chicagoland supermarkets. The product sold well, leading Jewel to roll it out to all locations. “We offer the Fiesta Wrap, which retails for $6.99,” Baker says. “It has a meaty-cheesy, spicy profile, but it’s all vegan. Featuring our own meat alternative, it offers 22 grams of protein.”


Accelerating growth

Baker is a past participant in Family Farms’ Good Food Accelerator. This educational program trains people to enter food manufacturing, connecting them to wholesalers and distributors. Leaders Bank is a corporate participant in the program.

“That’s where we met LaForce, at the most recent class in the spring of 2019,” recalls Nicholl Doggett, Leaders Bank assistant vice president of mortgage lending.

Backed by a Leaders Bank Microloan, Moon Meals is on its way. Says Baker: “The big dream is over the next two years, to be in at least 3,000 locations nationwide, with four items: Fiesta Wraps and three new products under development.” 


Read more from our Blog:

Business Academy Helps Make Chicagoland Entrepreneurs' Outlooks a Bit Sunnier

Latest Trends in Performance, Pay and Employee Benefits

What R&D Extension and Apprenticeship Tax Credit Means for Illinois

Manufacturers face substantial expense when they invest in research and development progra 19-LB-560 Blog photo2ms.

Yet it’s a necessary cost in
introducing new and improved products. Training new employees represents another costly venture for manufacturers. In an era marked by a steadily shrinking labor force, however, it is an expense that must be borne.

Illinois-based manufacturers confronting the harsh reality of these daunting expenses were cheered in May, during the final week of the 101st Illinois General Assembly. That's when the legislature passed, and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law, the Research & Development Extension and Apprenticeship Tax Credit.

The new law will extend the sunset date on the Research & Development (R&D) Tax Credit for an additional five years, from tax year 2022 to tax year 2027. The law’s second component establishes a new apprenticeship tax credit, inte
nded to provide a much-needed tax break to manufacturers investing in their current and future workforce.


R&D Extension

“Rationale for extending the tax credit was to bring more stability to any entity involved in research and development activities in Illinois,” says Jim Nelson, vice president, education and workforce policy, with the Oak Brook-based Illinois Manufacturers Association (IMA). The final bill, SB 1591, passed both the Illinois House and Senate unanimously. Passage is an indication legislators recognize R&D helps expand work activities and supports continuation of current employment levels, he adds.

19-LB-560 Blog photo1The extension of the R&D tax credit means manufacturers will be able to reclaim a portion of the dollars they have expended on research and development activities to ensure new and improved products continue to come to market, Nelson says. “It's really expensive for manufacturers to engage in R&D activities because there's no separate revenue source for those activities,” he reports.

“It takes a lot of planning, and the R&D tax credit takes some of the burden of those activities off manufacturers' shoulders.”

The R&D credit is often viewed as among the more complicated credits available to manufacturers, Nelson says. But multiple studies have confirmed when the credit is available to offset the costs of new product development, 80 cents of every dollar spent on R&D is spent by manufacturers. “The legislation will promote new product development by Illinois manufacturers well into the next decade.”


New Apprenticeship Tax Credit

Slated to go into effect with the start of the new tax year on January 1, 2020, the new apprenticeship tax credit will allow manufacturers that participate in registered apprenticeship programs to claim a tax credit against funds spent on Related Technical Instruction (RTI) for their apprentices, Nelson explains.

Customarily, RTI is provided by community colleges. This tax credit will offset some of the cost of the tuition paid by the employer for the RTI.

Apprenticeships are a blend of on-the-job training that is aligned to RTI. “There's an on-the-job training component that features skills, and the RTI teaches the theories behind the skills,” Nelson says. “Not only would apprentices learn pneumatic or electrical engineering in an on-the-job setting, but they would absorb the Related Technical Instruction in the community college setting. The two are provided simultaneously. Most apprenticeships operate with three days on the job, two days in the classroom. The classroom instruction is immediately put into practice on the job.”

Manufacturers are justifiably concerned about training expense, because each registered apprentice can cost an employer between $25,000 and $35,000 a year, including salaries, benefits and lost production time. The new law permits Illinois employers to claim a $3,500 income tax credit to help offset the educational costs of an apprentice that the employer has paid to a community college on behalf of its apprentice.  

“Once employers recognized they were already spending significant dollars in their existing employee training, they understood the value of the apprenticeship programs,” Nelson says. “Sometimes, apprenticeships are viewed as a ‘shiny new bauble’ since they had not been used as a workforce model since the 1950s. However, more and more employers are looking to registered apprenticeship as a means of improving their talent pipeline at a time when the total labor force is shrinking, not only in Illinois but nationally.”

The establishment of the new apprenticeship tax credit, he adds, is well timed given the Prairie State is projected to have 335,000 fewer workers by 2025 than it does today.

“We thank the Governor for his support of the manufacturing sector,” says IMA President and CEO Mark Denzler, “and further applaud his commitment to workforce development.”


Located at 2001 York Road in Oak Brook, Leaders Bank is a premier commercial bank catering to private business owners, their families and other entrepreneurs. Leaders Bank offers a full spectrum of traditional and customized banking services, Internet-based banking, and online bill payment. To contact Leaders Bank, call (630) 572-5323 or visit www.leadersbank.com.

Business Academy Helps Make Chicagoland Entrepreneurs' Outlooks a Bit Sunnier


Leaders Bank assistant vice president Nicholl Doggett discusses the bank’s microloan program for entrepreneurs with Skye Frank, MBA, of Sunshine Enterprises’ Community Business Academy.


Skills and capital

    In underserved Chicago-area communities, residents frequently struggle to find goods and services they need. Entrepreneurs in these communities want to fill that void and provide jobs, helping make their neighborhoods safer, brighter places to live. But they often lack access to both the business skills and working capital their start-ups require.

    The Community Business Academy (CBA) from Sunshine Enterprises strives to help these entrepreneurs and revitalize their communities. The Woodlawn-based academy provides a 12-week course featuring weekly three-hour training classes in business fundamentals, including budgeting, marketing, bookkeeping and cash flow analysis. Classes are held on Chicago's South Side, the West Side and in west Evanston.

    “The academy serves the needs of entrepreneurs who need a leg up,” says Joel Hamernick, Sunshine Enterprises executive director. “Many don’t otherwise have access to business skills development. They really profit from Community Business Academy’s education.”


Microloans, major benefits

     With the help of Oak Brook-based Leaders Bank, CBA addresses the entrepreneurs' need for cash infusions. Leaders Bank provides microloans of up to $25,000 to entrepreneurs involved in the Community Business Academy.

     "When businesses are just starting out, they often don't have the collateral or experience to get larger loans," explains Nicholl E. Doggett, Leaders Bank assistant vice president of mortgage lending.

    "But they still need money to create inventory and opportunities to grow their businesses. They require facilities, staff and raw materials. The microloans we provide are smaller-scale loans that allow them to do these things. In a microloan, we don't require as much financial background from the borrower."

    Leaders Bank provides two microloan products: a three-year fully-amortizing loan, and a five-year fully amortizing loan, Doggett says.

    Leaders Bank has provided microloans to start-up bakeries, software firms and pest control operations, among others in the program. "I really enjoy meeting the different business owners, hearing their dreams and watching them grow with the microloans we supply,” she adds. “One pest control company needed a small loan. That loan allowed them to expand. They generated so much revenue, they paid off the loan early."

Latest Trends in Performance, Pay and Employee Benefits

Offering employees the right blend of equitable pay and attractive benefits has always been a key to retaining staff, and ultimately critical to long-term organizational success. But in this current full-employment environment, with joblessness recently dropping to its lowest level since December 1969, creating a strategy that presents employees with a package of appealing pay and benefits has never been more essential. Whitepaper


Linking pay to performance

For years, linking pay with performance has been debated by human resources experts. A recent study found 74 percent of employers offer some type of variable pay. Of these, 64 percent provided individual bonuses, and 25 percent bestowed team bonuses.

Naysayers argue pay-for-performance programs can lead to poor teamwork, spur a greater focus on quantity than quality, and are plagued by problems in performance measurement. But most team leaders remain convinced pay and performance should be tied. They point to several best practices. These include ensuring incentive budgets are matched to sales or productivity growth, creatively structuring base and variable pay, and keeping bonuses for past results separate from incentives linked to future sales or productivity benchmarks.

Among those arguing today's full-employment economy demands employers align performance and pay is Leaders Bank customer Janice Y. Burnham, CEO of ROC Group. Chicago-based ROC Group is a human resources firm focused on conveying the nuances of employment value, HR programs and change management.

"I see so many industries operating with thinner margins than ever," Burnham says. "So it's incumbent upon companies to make sure pay and performance are linked. What's in it for employers is clarity in what drives the economic engine for that business. When they're linking pay and performance, they become very knowledgeable about how best to run their businesses.

“What's in it for the employees is the answer to the age-old question of, 'What do I need to do to get a raise?' Linking pay and performance clearly says, ‘the more meaningful your contribution, the more you can be paid.’ That's emotionally satisfying, and it helps employees know what they need to do. If they don't know, they're not satisfied and not effective contributors to the business."


Trends in benefits

Of course, benefits are as big and often bigger a contributor to talent attraction and retention as pay. Popular benefits include paid leave, flexible schedules, allowances to care for aging parents and health care related perks like health savings accounts.

Among major trends in benefits strategy is aligning it with Employee Value Proposition (EVP), Burnham says. EVP calls for companies to get "very intentional" about why they are great places to work and what they can bring to employees' lives and career development. Employers are urged to become, she says, "More conscious, intentional and vocal about what used to be called the employer-employee contract.

"If you know what you're doing and why, and employees know why they're there, you wind up with the type of employees you want. You create an affinity with the organization."

Today’s youngest workers currently have the luxury of focusing on how their jobs align with their values, Burnham says. As they grow older, their focus will shift to health care and work-life balance. "But at the same time, I don't think you'll see them turn away from the drivers of their 20s," Burnham says. "I think this generation will continue to have an eye out for how a company's values align with their own."

She sees employees seeking perks from employers that include providing ways for them to advance their careers, as well as help in navigating student debt.

"One of our clients is among the first to recognize that, while employees are paying off student debt, they should still be able to build toward retirement and get a company 401(k) match, even if they themselves can't contribute," Burnham says. "The company will still make a match. The forefront of benefits is in finding ways like that to help employees deal with their student debt."

Employers are also helping staff navigate toward financial as well as physical wellness. "Employers are really shifting to encompass a broader definition" of well-being, she says. "And Millennials are going to be more engaged because of it. They're very interested in their financial well-being."

One thing's for sure. Employees look to their pay and benefits as a means of gauging employers' interest in them. "They want to feel valued at every level," Burnham says. 

When Talent is Tight, How Can Manufacturers Find Qualified Employees?

Today, a hiring “perfect storm” confronts the manufacturing sector. The booming U.S. economy has generated hundreds 19-LB-558 Whitepaper1 Photo


thousands of new manufacturing positions that must be filled. Yet, for a variety of reasons, it’s tougher than ever for manufacturers to locate qualified workers.

In 2018, the U.S. economy added 264,00
0 new jobs in manufacturing. That brought the total number of manufacturing jobs in the country to 12.84 million. It was the eighth straight year that the number of manufacturing jobs increased. This string followed a streak of 12 years of decreasing job numbers.


Crying need

Unfortunately for the nation's manufacturing companies, finding qualified workers to fill those positions has proven exceptionally difficult. One individual who understands that better than most is Steven Pagliuzza, who reports “there is a crying need for well-trained employees” in manufacturing.

The president and CEO of Addison, Ill.-based Dial Tool Industries, Pagliuzza struggles to staff his plant with qualified, experienced employees. The task is not easy, he says. He must strive mightily and display ingenuity to add skilled workers to the payroll.

“In this job market, I can’t imagine why any tool and die maker or mold maker would not be able to find a job,” he says.

Several factors account for the shortage in qualified manufacturing workers. First, the huge Baby Boomer cohort reaching retirement age has started to leave the workforce. Manufacturing workers are among those Boomers retiring.

Second, though the manufacturing industry has savored growth it hadn’t witnessed in decades, there’s been no corresponding surge in numbers of young people entering the field, nor training programs equipped to train them.

A compelling reason for the shortfalls: The dozen years of declining manufacturing jobs mentioned above. “Around the turn of the century, high schools had to cut back on shop programs,” Pagliuzza says. “Precision machining, wood working, electrical, they all had to be cut because no one was signing up for them, and programs are expensive. You actually must have the equipment in the room to be able to train the students.”


Secrets to hiring

Pagliuzza has identified two keys to staff in tight labor markets. Adopting apprentice and training programs that continually turn out skilled workers represents one.

Dial Tool Industries' apprentice program features five years of on-the-job paid training, along with three concurrent years of classroom training through the Technology and Manufacturing Association, TMA. “We like to keep two apprentices in our facility, one just starting out and the other just finishing up,” Pagliuzza says. “We also have two-year training programs in molding and punch press set-up.”

Apprentices and trainees are recruited from area high schools, as well as local community colleges. “Some students do not want to go to college,” Pagliuzza says.

“They're better off in an apprentice program. We train them right here on the job. If they want to learn, we have the facilities and resources to train them.”

Recruiting from within exists as a second strategy, one Dial Tool Industries invariably attempts to employ, Pagliuzza says. “We have people come in to the company in another area, and then say, 'I'd like to learn to work the punch press,'” he reports.

“And we'll train them on that. We like to recruit from within – all companies do – because we know the people we're recruiting, and they of course know our processes.”


Additional hiring tips

Leverage strong social media networks. If seeking younger workers with years to give your company, social media channels have emerged as a natural choice. LinkedIn and Facebook feature groups focused entirely on the manufacturing sector. Developing a strong social media network of brand evangelists can help attract would-be recruits.

Make applying easy. Savvy manufacturers ensure the hiring process remains as easy and streamlined as possible. That means making applying as simple as picking up a smart phone or tablet to apply online.

Invest in employees. Creating employee development programs and maintaining competitive pay and benefits packages attract capable candidates to your company.


Hiring qualified workers in the manufacturing sector has never been more daunting. But Pagliuzza and others have shown with the right strategies, it can be done. 


Located at 2001 York Road in Oak Brook, Leaders Bank is a premier community commercial bank catering to private business owners, their families and other entrepreneurs. Leaders Bank offers a full spectrum of traditional and customized banking services, Internet-based banking, and online bill payment. To contact Leaders Bank, call (630) 572-5323 or visit www.leadersbank.com.

3 Deadly Sins That Make Financial Data Vulnerable to Hackers

One of the greatest threats to companies these days is their vulnerability to cyberattacks from hackers.  And it’s no longer exclusively large companies at risk. Even small and medium-sized companies are targets these days, with an average loss of $2.2 million.

IStock-467163236As devastating as these losses can be, they pale in comparison with the impact resulting from loss of clientele and reputation. Companies are legally mandated to disclose data breaches to each customer affected.  Research indicates up to 60% of small businesses that are breached shut down within 6 months.  

Several “deadly sins” can help make it far more likely hackers will succeed when launching cyberattacks on companies' financial data.  To sharply reduce those odds, avoid the following errors committed inside large and small companies.

  • Phishing attacks. Almost 7 in 10 IT directors report phishing and other malicious email attacks get past spam filters. More than a quarter of company officials have fallen for malicious emails. Lesson: train users in spotting and avoiding phishing and scam emails.
  • Unprotected smartphones. Mobile devices are lost all the time. Yet seven in 10 people fail to password protect their smartphones. And nine in 10 finders of lost smartphones look into the phones for sensitive data. Lesson: Password protect.
  • Beware the Wi-Fi. The number of Wi-Fi deployments across the country grows yearly, and many are subject to malware designed to ensnare travelers. Yet less than one in five (18 percent) take proper precautions when using public Wi-Fi. Lesson: Use VPN tools when accessing public Wi-Fi.

Small to medium-sized companies face extreme danger from cyberattacks, up to and including going out of business. Given that danger, doesn't it make sense to learn as much as possible about how to avoid deadly sins that lead to data breaches?

Ask about our complimentary 45-minute data breach seminar. You and your employees can gain valuable techniques to guard against costly data breaches.

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Keep Key Employees during a Merger/Acquisition

Many companies involved in mergers and acquisitions offer retention bonuses to key employees to ensure they stay put.  But consultancy McKinsey & Company has learned many would have stayed without bonuses. A better approach? Customizing packages of financial and non-monetary incentives to each crucial staffer’s goals. A European firm using this strategy slashed its former cash-based retention budget by 75 percent. IStock-695603474

It’s natural for key employees to feel fearful after a merger or acquisition. It’s also natural for them to consider taking their talents elsewhere. A study two years ago found just 45 percent of companies successfully retained employees through a transition. To help ensure your organization fares better, focus on the following strategies.

  • Don’t rush the process. Taking time to understand the corporate culture, values and talent base of the other company helps in retaining key employees. Why are the other company’s employees happy with their job situations? What makes the company successful? These are keys to creating a retention strategy.
  • Communicate clearly. Open lines of communication are critical to building trust among key employees in the conjoined team. Broadly conveying your company philosophy and goals represents one step, and meeting one on one to communicate on a personal level with important staff about their concerns is another.
  • Identify cultural similarities, differences. Where do the two companies find common ground? Where are the important differences that must be bridged? Knowing the similarities and differences can help you avoid key staff defections.
  • Invest in your employees. Career development initiatives reflective of the newly-constituted company’s goals impart a message to critical staff that the company cares about their professional growth and wants them to stay.

A cohesive, well-orchestrated blueprint for the transition, and full participation by the united HR team in making the transition work can help companies overcome talent defections following a merger or acquisition.

How has your company managed to keep employees during mergers and acquisitions?

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Evaluating Community Banks? See What Their Customers Have to Say

Are you considering taking your company’s banking business to a community bank? If so, you’ll need to weigh a number of

considerations about the bank before making that move. Don’t overlook one of the most important criteria. That of course is
how current customers view – and what they say about -- the quality of service they receive.

IStock-517491962Banks differ widely in their levels of personal service, from standpoints of both one-to-one personal attention and technological capabilities. No one is better equipped to discuss those service levels than their own business customers. Those customers can speak from personal experience about lending ease, attention to detail and business banker accessibility, experience and expertise, among other criteria.

Here are three best practices you can use to determine how current customers view a bank’s service.

  • Review customer testimonials. Many community banks have a testimonial page featuring customer comments about the bank and its services. For instance, on Leaders Bank’s Testimonials page, one customer lauds the bank for its “level of attention and personal service,” another for “always-personal contact.”
  • Network with current customers. It’s likely you’ll meet current customers of the bank at regular meetings of the local chamber of commerce or other business organizations. Don’t hesitate to ask these customers how well the bank measures up on various yardsticks, including loan availability, mobile banking services, knowledge of the local business environment and simple friendliness.
  • Call current customers. Many banks list some of their more prominent business customers on their websites. Call these customers, ask if they can spare a couple minutes and directly ask if their bank’s service meets their expectations.

In addition to other measuring sticks you use, the views of a bank’s current customer base offer essential insights. Seek these expert views early, to aid in your evaluation.

What methods do you find helpful in evaluating community banks? 

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Show Customers Appreciation with Warm, Friendly Holiday Traditions

One Ontario, Canada home supply products company conceived an inventive approach to remembering customers each holiday season. The company gives favored wholesaler and contractor customers business tools they know will not only be used, but will remind them of the gift giver. One season, the company provided an iPad featuring installed programs likely to help in the wholesalers’ and contractors’ businesses. The tool makes recipients’ day-to-day operations easier, while reinforcing their brand loyalty. 18-LB-563 stock photo

As this example shows, signaling appreciation to customers with friendly holiday traditions remains important. Just as key: Really thinking about how the gift or gesture can have lasting, post-holiday significance.  Consider some of the following ideas.

  • Holiday direct mail. Send a holiday-oriented direct mail piece to thank customers for their business.  It might be a discount off a purchase or offer redeemable in the New Year. It’s a holiday greeting, an advertisement and a business promotion, all in one.
  • One for the books. Each year, your customers work on growing their companies and make them more profitable. Every year, business books debut that provide excellent guidance in doing precisely that. Pick one from the best-reviewed titles, include a personal holiday message in the fly leaf and send to customers with your compliments.
  • Brand your gift. Customers love free items, and could even love them more when your brand’s logo is discreetly sewn onto the gift. A holiday gift of a warm item of clothing such as a cap or scarf is always appreciated. And each time your customers don the items, your logo will remind them of the giver.

Keep your theme consistent year after year, and you may find customers will look forward to your warm, friendly holiday tradition as much as they do egg nog, sleigh rides and tree trimming.

What is the most memorable holiday tradition with customers that you recall? 

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Sneak Preview of 2019 Commercial Loan Trends

18-LB-560 stock photo
Next year, your company may need a commercial loan for a new facility or equipment, expanding inventory, or possibly a lucrative growth opportunity. You’ll have many options including large multi-national banks, as well as local banks with deep roots in the communities they serve. 


Before you make that important decision, keep in mind that in the most recent bank customer satisfaction survey, community banks gained the highest scores.  The following trends will also influence small and mid-size companies’ borrowing decisions in 2019.

·         Both mid-size and small companies have become increasingly disenchanted with multi-national banks’ impersonal nature. Result: They are seeking alternatives such as progressive community banks which place a strong emphasis on personal banking relationships. The banks’ decision makers live in the same community as their customers, and focus their attention on meeting local needs.

·         In this digital age, large multi-national banks’ substantial bricks-and-mortar presence carries less weight than it once did. Most community banks possess the mobile capabilities and digital banking prowess of their larger brethren. In addition, they provide a high level of responsiveness, transparency and local commitment.

·         While big and small banks have both grown their percentages of loan applications approved, look for small banks to approve a higher percentage of applicants in 2019. Big banks currently grant new business loans to about 25.3 percent of small business applicants; small banks approve about 49.1 percent. 

In today’s expanding business climate, you can expect proactive companies to take advantage of these trends to maximize growth in the upcoming year.

What business goals will drive your quest for commercial loans in 2019?

For related content, check these articles:

·         What’s the Best Debt-Equity Ratio for Your Company?

·         The Commercial Loan Term Sheet: An Important Step Before Getting a Loan

·         Debt Ratio’s Crucial Role in Landing Business Loans