Google his name. Vladimir Gendelman maintains a high profile in business and in social media. As Founder and CEO of Company Folders, Inc. – recognized for three years in the running among the Inc. 5000 roster of fastest growing companies in America – Vladimir has built a reputation for innovation in the print marketing industry working with clients such as Sony, Hallmark, Ford and other Fortune 500 companies. A board member of EO Detroit (part of a global network of entrepreneurs sharing their business know-how and expertise), he is sought after for interviews in many publications including Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur and Industry Week. With a voracious appetite for books, Vladimir speaks and writes with authority on best practices in small business management and maintains a blog with more than 100,000 readers each month.
From life in Russia onward
On his youth in Russia, Vladimir is philosophical: “I never really dwell on the past. For me, it’s always forward, forward, forward.” As Vladimir recalls, he was a restless kid, always challenging the status quo. “I was the one in the family who initiated our immigration from Russia.”
The only child of Anna and Yury Gendelman, Vladimir grew up in the city of Kharkov (now Ukraine). His father was a dentist, his mother a cytologist. With a mind for math and science, Vladimir spent three years in an archaeological tract that offered the rare opportunity for travel in Russia. It was a time when the Communist Party limited academic and career advancements of Jewish citizens. With a mindset to expand the family’s prospects for their future, Vladimir initiated the process of his family’s immigration in 1989.
In common with many Russian families coming into Michigan during the 1980s, the Gendelmans received help from Jewish Family Service, Hebrew Free Loan, as well as volunteers in the community. “We were told that what we received was given freely from the goodness of community donors.” Vladimir recalls. “The concept was foreign to me and overwhelming.”
From the start, the Gendelman family worked hard to achieve the American Dream. Yury never returned to dentistry, but successfully found work in a healthcare capacity; Anna returned to work as a cytotechnologist; and in serial enterprises to help support his family, Vladimir worked a string of odd jobs, studied sales and computer programming and opened his own computer repair company in 1999.
Company Folders, Inc. grew out a simple inquiry from a client asking Vladimir if he knew a source for branded presentation folders. Searching online, Vladimir discovered there were few choices available, so he decided to fill the need himself by opening his own boutique producing high quality, custom folders. Founded in 2003, Company Folders, Inc. – with more than 25 million folders sold to 10,000 customers – offers one of the largest selections of presentation folders.
A driven businessman, Vladimir maintains his balance as a family man, married to Janet. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Janet was raised in Detroit. A Microsoft Office Specialist with a Masters in Secondary Education, she teaches accounting and computer skills in Utica Community Schools; additionally, she is an active member of Tamarack Camps’ board. Residents of West Bloomfield and members of Temple Israel, the Gendelmans are the parents of Noa, 11 and Aaron, 8.
In conversation with Vladimir Gendelman
myJewishDetroit: Five words that describe you:
Authentic. Growth-oriented. Visionary. Mindful.
What is your definition of success?
Waking up happy and grateful every single day.
On life in the former Soviet Union and leaving it
As you wish, please share a little about your journey as an immigrant and coming of age in the U.S.
So, life in Russia (technically the Ukraine now) — was “good,” that is to say, not necessarily “bad” for our family. But in retrospect, as a teen, I always had the nagging feeling that things weren’t right and that there was more to life for me elsewhere.
The one thing I remember most vividly about the Soviet Union is that everyone has the same things. You’d go to a friend’s house, and it looked a lot like yours. You’d see the same wallpaper – because there were only a few patterns available – and that would go for the pots and plates and silverware in everyone’s kitchen and the clothes we all were wearing. It was the same stuff over and over. You couldn’t differentiate or diverge from the norm and, if you did, the government would knock you down.
In what ways did you experience anti-Semitism?
Anti-Semitism existed in both subtle and overt ways everywhere. It was felt on the government levels, employment levels, personal levels – even with friends. For example, innocently enough, (in what we call microaggression today) a friend would say, “You know what? Even though you are Jewish, you’re a nice guy.” Comments like that we took as a light tap on the shoulder. But anti-Semitism was an undercurrent everywhere.
I compare our circumstance to domestic abuse, where you don’t think the situation seems all that bad until you get out of it.
What changed and spurred you to leave?
I was in the eighth grade – going nowhere – and my friends started leaving for New York and Israel and I went kind of crazy. There’s an article in The Jerusalem Post about a promise I made and kept with my friend, Sergei. A few days before he left Ukraine for Israel, we were sitting on a park bench, talking about the likelihood of never seeing each other again. Right there, we made the decision that no matter what, we’d stand up as best man for each other’s wedding. And that’s what happened. In 2001, Sergei called with the news that he was getting married and, without hesitation, I flew to Israel to celebrate his wedding day. Four years later, he did the same for me. We have remained close friends ever since, and get together every year or so, as our busy lives allow.
How did you get out of the Soviet Union and what brought you to Michigan?
It was something of an ordeal. But when I started working on my parents for us to leave, my father found a way to submit documents, which included a written invitation from his uncle, through the American Consulate in Moscow. We started the process in 1989 and left by the end of that year. Our journey to America started first in Austria, where we spent two months, then on to Italy where we spent another four months.
As a family, I’m sure we each masked our own anxiety during that difficult time and dealt with our challenges in different ways. Through that experience, I got my first taste of free enterprise, making a little money on my own. I washed windshields on cars stopped at intersections, pumped gas and hustled on the streets, selling some of the things we brought from home along with items sold on commission from other immigrants.
On coming to Jewish Detroit
How did it feel to be welcomed into the Jewish community in Detroit?
It felt strange. We couldn’t grasp the idea that people just wanted to help us and give us furniture and clothing and all this free stuff. I might not be 100% correct on this, because I never thought this through – but I remember not understanding how to take all that was given so generously to us. In the Soviet Union, there was no culture in helping people with donations like that. Sure, we helped our neighbors and friends; we might even stop to help a stranger in need on the street, but that’s where it stopped. The Jewish concept of tzedakah or the idea of helping others on a collective basis through donations? There were no such things.
I was just a kid and for a while I held the mistaken notion that people were giving us things for something called a tax write-off – to make money. Years later, I got the concept of why, what and how to give back to the community. And then, finally, the connection clicked, and Hebrew Free Loan came back into the picture when Executive Director David Contorer reached out to me about five years ago with the invitation to join the board. That role has been very rewarding for me.
How did you meet your wife, Janet?
On JDate.com. We had our first date on November 16, 2004. I proposed on January 18, 2005 and we were married six months later on July 23. Janet‘s parents came to Detroit from St. Petersburg when she was two years old, so for all intents and purposes, she is a Jewish Detroiter.
Describe your journey with Judaism?
As a teen, I was connected to BBYO and NCSY (an orthodox youth group formerly known as the National Conference of Synagogue Youth) reached out to me. I had the chance to travel to various youth activities in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and New York. I confess that I didn’t take any of this activity all that seriously, but on one of the trips to New York, we visited this rabbi who was thought to be a big deal. I had no clue who he was. But it turned out to be the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson and, as some may know, he used to give visitors special dollars with his picture on them. I kept that dollar, and when I got involved as a volunteer with the Chabad to help with Menorah in the D, they went crazy to see it displayed in my office.
As one who never had a Jewish education, the main thing I’ve learned about Judaism and the Jewish community of Detroit is that I want my kids to be involved. In the Soviet Union, religion was considered to be all propaganda and it was never instilled otherwise in me. But I have the opportunity to turn that around for my kids and to see that they to grow up with a Jewish identity – and all the benefits of a Jewish education.
Both Janet and I view Judaism as a way of life and feel that it’s important to be involved in the Jewish community. Janet was a camper and counselor at Tamarack and now gives back with her contribution to the Board, in much the same way I am involved with Hebrew Free Loan and Menorah in the D.
On Building Branding in Company Folders
Describe the challenges in finding your career path
Suffice it to say, I’m self-taught in sales and have had lots of odd jobs along the way. Strange as this may sound, I was introduced to the art of sales by selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door-to-door for a great guy by the name of John Parker. He ran the office, and though I only worked for him for a short time, he recommended a book that helped me land a job at Clyde’s Carpet – a job I enjoyed. I was 24 when I got my first job programming computers, but quickly learned that I was far more interested in solving problems for customers than the repetitive work of programming. So, I started a computer network and repair company on the side.
I didn’t know the first thing about folders until a customer walked in one day asking me if I could help him produce a company folder that reflected the pride in his brand. Of course! I said yes. And then quickly discovered that the folder business reminded me of the Soviet Union. Everything in the market at the time was the same. So here was a niche just waiting for me to fill. And simple as it sounds, the name Company Folders was available, so I registered the domain and opened shop.
It’s been almost 16 years, and I’m proud of our unique custom work, our new workspace in Pontiac, Michigan, our growing team that feels like family . . . and the fact that we’ve grown our company every single year by creating design innovations, solving problems and filling the needs of our clients.
Who do you count among your mentors?
I don’t really know if I had any mentors per se. However, there’s an organization called EO – Entrepreneurs Organization. Through them I get a lot of opportunities for learning. We have a forum of six in a mastermind group and we work together to share insights into running our businesses and to help one another with whatever issues that come up in our lives.
Describe what other influences in your life that have led you to your work and leadership role in the community
I believe in the Law of Attraction. In my experience, when I put energy into positive thinking about something that may seem out of reach, it manifests itself and it comes to me.
I also believe in the Power of Intention. It’s not as much about what you do, but about the intention behind your actions. It makes no difference whether you go to the right or the left or straight, you’ll succeed in your endeavor if your intention is right and pure.
I am convinced that both of those principles, the Law of Attraction and the Power of Intention – learned over my years of experience – have led me to my present role on the board of Hebrew Free Loan.
This year, I am moving from an advisory capacity to evaluating applicants for business loans. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to make an impact, not just in allocating funding for new business ventures in our community, but also to find opportunities to steer applicants in directions that might be useful for their growth.
What’s the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneur today?
Think long term. Since I started the company, all the decisions I make are for the long term.
Start with that basic principle and you’ll make good decisions every time. And that applies to everything in life – how you spend your money, how you spend your time, how you share your resources. When I was a kid and asked for one thing or another I didn’t really need, my mother used say, “We’re not rich enough to buy cheap things.”
Always think ahead for long-term investment. That’s probably the best advice I can offer. I get peace of mind, and I get to use a better quality of material, with a better value long term.
What advice do you give young entrepreneurs?
Have good intentions. Intentions are not enough, but the engine that drives you must be pure to get results you want.
On giving back
In your view, how has your role in the Jewish community grown over the years?
Janet and I try to give more every year. We talk about what we do in the Jewish community with our kids and we make a point of getting our kids involved in Jewish community volunteer activities, like Federation’s Super Sunday. Our reason for participating is to give our children a greater role in the community than we ever had as kids.
Restaurants: Streetside Seafood
Building in the Detroit skyline: Lafayette Building on the triangular lot (Michigan Ave, W. Lafayette Blvd. and Shelby Street.)
Places to take kids/ visitors: I love walking along the Riverwalk; Greenfield Village is also a favorite.
Vacation places: I like going to Israel: favorite places? I love Sfat, Jerusalem streets, the Wall, the shuk, the wineries, the contrasts . . . I love everything about Israel. I have been to Israel four times, once on an Aish Mission.
Sports: Cycling, skiing as a family. When I can’t bike, I walk everyday
Ways to unwind: Every morning, I either walk or bike for an hour, and while I do that I listen to books, business books, health books, self-help books – I’m “well-listened.”
Jewish food: In Russia there was no “Jewish” food—even matzo was illegal. So, my grandfather used to buy black market matzo and make matza brie. I grew up with that and it’s still my favorite.
Jewish holiday: Passover
Guilty pleasures: Knafeh in Israel – a Middle Eastern bird’s nest phyllo dough and cheese pastry like baklava (something I should never have).
READING/ LISTENING TO NOW: Baseline Selling, by Dave Kurlan
WORDS TO LIVE BY: We’re not rich enough to buy cheap things.