It was quite a journey, and James Cornelius never imagined that one day he would be the proud owner of a company. The 46-year-old Illinois native is the president and owner of U.S. Praxis, but after graduating high school, owning a manufacturing company was the last thing on his mind.
Cornelius is the son of a former roofing contractor. One day on a job, his father fell off the roof and was severely injured. Incapable of continuing with physical work, the family moved to Kentucky, where Cornelius’s father was originally from.
While attending Larue County High School in Kentucky, Cornelius played baseball and football. He didn’t seem to know what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, so, after graduating from high school, he decided to enlist in the Navy.
“Coming out of high school, I lacked direction. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was looking for something, though, and the Navy just seemed right,” Cornelius recalls. He spent five years in the Navy, specifically in aviation administration.
While in the Navy, he took some college courses. After his stint, he decided that he wanted to pursue a career as an aviation administrator. Unfortunately, there was not a huge calling for aviation administrators at the time, prompting him to move back to Chicago.
Cornelius got a job to support himself, and enrolled at DePaul University. He discovered an interest in accounting, and began to focus on becoming an accountant. Prior to graduating, Cornelius found a job that worked around his schedule at DePaul, working as an accountant for a manufacturing company. He soon found that he preferred to work for a larger firm. “I wanted to be in a larger company, where I could face greater challenges and gain more experience,” he said.
At this point, Cornelius discovered he was more interested in cost accounting rather than regular, run-of-the-mill accounting work. He wanted to be more involved with the manufacturing process.
So he left his job and went to work for Chicago Finished Metals.
He was brought in as a cost accountant, which fit in well with his plans. There, Cornelius worked to implement discounting cash flow models. It took him about two years to develop this model.
Cornelius liked the manufacturing business. He was offered the position as controller in a foundry and took it. In his second year, the foundry was bought out by another company, so he left. In 1997, he got an offer from still another company to become its chief financial officer (CFO). He worked there for seven years, at which time it was sold by the San Francisco private equity group that owned it.
This was his first exposure to venture capital groups. Surprisingly, though, he benefitted from this sale. “Because of the transaction, I accumulated enough money to buy my own business, which is what I had wanted to do for a while.”
In 2004, hoping to find a business to buy, Cornelius left the company he was working for and began searching. He knew that he wanted to purchase a manufacturing company with a patented product. He joined Midwest Business Brokers and Intermediaries. Through his membership, he found Praxis Illinois, which seemed to fit the bill exactly, and Praxis did not disappoint. Cornelius knew that Praxis was the perfect business for him.
The company already had a patent on a stump grinder, and was selling its product in different markets. Cornelius made an offer, and in about four months was able to close the deal. He became the proud new owner of Praxis Illinois, changing the name to U.S. Praxis.
Cornelius immediately had a vision and a strategy for Praxis. He knew that the company had a strong base in the rental and commercial contracting markets, and he wanted to build on those strengths. “My plan was to add a new product to our lineup every year for five years. Then, after the fifth year, we would start working on new systems and internal improvements,” he said. And he did a pretty good job of meeting that goal.
But Cornelius’s vision didn’t end there. He also wanted to sell his products into new markets. His current goal is to create a market for his products in the landscape industry.
Cornelius has high hopes for his company. “I’d like to be the number-one producer of stump grinders in the world. But I’d like to add more products for our customers as well. It’s important to maintain the customer base that we already have,” he said. “We’re not greedy; we just want to make sure that we’re a main player in the market for years to come.”
He also wants to do more educational stuff on the Internet. He remarked on how many people there are who don’t know what they’re getting when buying a stump grinder, or what size log splitter they need, or how long it takes to use a wood chipper.
There are challenges of owning and operating the Sycamore, Illinois-based company, Cornelius admits. But the process and competition fascinate him. “It’s interesting how you try and grow a business while making quality products. There’s a lot of competition out there, so you have to push to get your product to market. But sometimes in the haste, you find some issues with the products, so you have to retool and redesign to make them more efficient.”
Cornelius has been happily married to his wife Denise for 17 years.
They have two boys and one girl. Cornelius remembers how he met Denise, “Her mom was a secretary for one of the companies I worked for, and she was a flight attendant. When she got back from her flight to New York, her mother introduced us. We started dating in 1991, and a year later we were married. We’ve been together ever since.”
This has been a journey for Cornelius, but he realizes how all his previous jobs and experiences helped shape him to become the person he is today. From being in the Navy, to working as an accountant, as a controller, as a CFO, and finally culminating in ownership of his own company, U.S.Praxis. Cornelius has many life lessons and experiences under his belt.
That’s a pretty impressive resume, Jimmy.