Leaders & Legacies: Heather and Joe Chura, entrepreneurs, community leaders, philanthropists
Entrepreneurs, community leaders, philanthropists
Leaders & Legacies: Stories of Local Impact is an ongoing series brought to you in partnership by the Daily Herald and the Legacy Society of DuPage Foundation. It highlights the inspiring stories of local individuals, families and businesses that have made or are making a lasting impact for our community through their generosity and leadership.
The series continues with Heather and Joe Chura.
If you hear a story about a young couple selling two businesses for $165 million, it's possible to think they must have had incredible luck, and that life dealt them a pretty good hand.
Like most successful entrepreneurs, the true story is that success was earned, not given. While Joe and Heather Chura's life story is still being written, its early chapters focus on the power of persistence, encouragement, and the desire to give back.
In fact, Joe Chura's journey to selling two businesses that were listed on Inc.'s 2017 list of fastest-growing companies was far from linear. At numerous steps along the way this story should have fallen apart. In Joe's words, "the dots connected in reverse."
Joe grew up in a working-class family in Calumet City. In high school, he was primarily caring for himself as his parents went through a difficult divorce. His plan to become self-sufficient was to go to college, get a job, and enjoy a corporate career. However, life had other plans when he and his high school girlfriend discovered they were expecting.
Joe dropped out of college and sought a job that provided health insurance. He accepted a United Auto Workers job at a Ford assembly plant on the South Side of Chicago. He had no idea that changing his plans to support his daughter, now 23, would lead him to connect his passions and create a company with 800 employees.
Joe's department was expected to work on 72 cars per hour on the assembly line. He wanted to learn each aspect of the plant and car assembly. Joe took every opportunity to talk with anyone who was in a higher position to understand more about the inner workings of the plant and position himself for growth.
Ford offered a tuition reimbursement program, and Joe attended classes in his free time. On the assembly line, he brought his textbooks and would read them during the 10- to 15-second breaks between assembling parts. Seventy-two times an hour, Joe would read and study for those few free seconds. By 2004, he graduated magna cum laude from Saint Xavier University in Chicago.
Degree in hand, Joe wanted to move from the manufacturing line to a corporate position. With a bit of luck, a supervisor at the plant, Willis Chen, allowed Joe to use his credentials to circumvent some internal controls and apply as an internal promotion candidate for a position in Downers Grove. After explaining why he applied under the name "I AM NOT WILLIS CHEN," Joe was hired for the job. He was named National Select Zone Manager of the Year within a year.
In his new role, Joe was responsible for selling cars to Ford's dealership network. He believed the internet could revolutionize how dealerships marketed and sold automobiles to the public. However, the auto industry in 2004 did not have a digital-first mindset. With an uncertain customer base and managers who said, "It's always been done this way," Joe was feeling uninspired.
By 2006, Joe met and started dating Naperville native Heather Artis, who had attended the University of Illinois and was enjoying her career as a marketing executive. They were married by 2008. Later that year, Joe left his corporate job and began managing a car dealership. This helped him learn the day-to-day ins and outs of running a business.
While Heather was pregnant and expecting the couple's first child, Joe injured his back while shoveling snow at the dealership. The injury aggravated a herniated disc and required immediate back surgery.
Lying in bed during his convalescence, Joe began to wonder if this was the best path for him and his family.
John Hennessy, a prominent Chicago area car dealership owner, shared the belief that the internet was an underutilized sales tool and believed Joe had the skills, passion, and motivation to get the job done. Joe took everything he had learned about the automotive industry and worked around the clock to help John launch a successful online platform for his dealership. As a result, John's online sales increased by more than 200%.
Heather encouraged Joe to use this experience and his passion for technology and cars to make something that would inspire him to live his best life. He never lost his habit from the assembly line, and whenever he could, he'd listen to podcasts, read books related to business and technology, and learn more about programming and website development.
In 2011, Joe was ready to make the leap and use everything he had learned, read, and heard to start his own business. With two partners, he started Launch Digital Marketing, which focused on digital marketing services. The bootstrapped business that grew out of Joe's basement began working out of the Naperville Public Library and had its own office within a year, with a growing staff and increasing sales revenue.
Launch Digital Marketing was growing, but Joe believed there was another untapped opportunity. Against the advice of trusted professionals who wanted him to focus on his one successful business, Joe decided to launch a software company, Dealer Inspire.
Joe approached several potential investors, and only one came through. That investor lent the startup company $300,000. Joe used the money to hire people who were smarter than he was. In the first two years, he never took a paycheck, and the business was running on fumes.
After earning the business of customers and winning some well-deserved awards, revenues at the businesses began steadily increasing.
In 2018, less than a decade after leaving his corporate job, and less than seven years after founding the companies, Cars.com acquired both Launch Digital Marketing and Dealer Inspire for $165 million. The investor who put $300,000 into Dealer Inspire earned $10 million, a return of more than 3,200% in just a few years.
The acquired companies merged into one entity, Dealer Inspire, which today operates in three countries with 800 employees serving thousands of clients. Joe stayed on as CEO, but he will soon be moving to a new role as chief innovation officer for Cars.com.
The buyout provided resources that Joe and Heather never dreamed they would attain.
But rather than sit back and live a passive life, the couple focused on giving back and inspiring others.
At Dealer Inspire, Joe began hosting an annual summit, REFUEL, as a way to share inspiring stories from people from all walks of life. More and more people began to ask for tickets, and now the event draws thousands of listeners.
Joe and his team turned the event into a fundraiser for Loaves & Fishes Community Services and, to date, the event has raised more than $200,000 for the Naperville-based nonprofit.
REFUEL also led to Joe launching his own podcast, "Not Almost There," (www.notalmostthere.com), which provides listeners with motivational and inspirational content.
"It's pretty clear that life is messy," Chura said. "We are not simple beings, nor is the world we live in. No matter what our circumstances are, we are capable of change, and that change begins with one single step."
The Churas believe that health, wellness, and fitness play a big role in individuals' ability to change their lives or the lives of those around them. The pair think that fitness is supposed to be fun. Both just completed monumental races that test stamina, endurance, and strength. Joe completed the Spartan Ultra Race in Lake Tahoe, and Heather completed a race aptly named The Beast.
Out of their focus on health and wellness came the idea for the Churas' next venture: Go Brewing. The couple will open Illinois' first nonalcoholic, low-alcohol craft brewery. The 7,000 square-foot brewery and taproom will open in the spring of 2022, with a line of five beers that provide all of the taste but fewer calories and minimal alcohol.
"Go Brewing is for people like us who love their beer but don't like the aftereffects of consuming alcohol," Chura said. "We're focused on developing the best-tasting alcohol-free, low-alcohol beer on the market and providing a best-in-class brewery experience, where great-tasting beer and socialization -- not alcohol -- is the focus of your experience."
The Churas are once again at the forefront of a major industry shift. Alcohol-free or low-alcohol beverages are among the fastest-growing segment in the industry. The brewery will even have a studio where Joe can produce his existing podcast and he's going to share his experience launching the brewery via a new "Go Brewing" podcast.
Looking back on a career that started on the factory floor, Joe remains humble about the success he's achieved.
"My advice to entrepreneurs and friends isn't profound, but it's worked well for other successful people and for me," Chura said. "You can't go around whatever may be holding you back; you just have to embrace going through it and see where life takes you."
While they maintain a busy life with their family and businesses, the Churas remain committed to being involved in and giving back to their community. Joe serves on six community boards, including Turning Pointe Autism Foundation in Naperville, One for the Kids in Lombard, Loaves & Fishes Community Services in Naperville, DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville, Naperville Police Foundation, and the advisory board of KidsMatter in Naperville.
Joe has told the story of how he leveraged 15 seconds on the assembly line to change his life and the lives of others. For Joe and Heather, the best part of achieving business success is obtaining resources that they can direct back into the community.
• The Leaders & Legacies series is brought to you by the Legacy Society of DuPage Foundation. Suggestions for future stories can be sent to Alice Wood, director of gift planning, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Interested in learning more about how you can make an impact or create a legacy for your community and favorite causes? Visit www.dupagefoundation.org or call (630) 665-5556.
2021 REFUELWhat: Livestream of annual summit hosted by Dealer Inspire and benefiting Loaves & Fishes Community Services
Featuring: Jocko Willink, author, podcaster, and retired U.S. Navy officer; Cal Fussman, journalist, author, corporate consultant, and podcaster; Angela Manuel Davis, fitness evangelist and motivational coach; Jim Kwik, brain performance and accelerated learning expert; and Amy Purdy, actress, model, para-snowboarder, and clothing designer
When: 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 15, online
To sign up for livestream: dealerinspire.com/refuel/
To donate to Loaves & Fishes: loaves-fishes.org