CHAMPAIGN — Horizon Hobby employees once staged a tricycle race between the company's founder, Rick Stephens, and his brother Larry.
As Larry recalls it, he was a half-wheel ahead when Rick stretched out his leg "and kicked my tricycle over."
That escapade, he said, illustrates the bulldog determination that helped make Rick Stephens a success in business.
Stephens, who co-founded Horizon Hobby 26 years ago, was honored Wednesday as the V. Dale Cozad Entrepreneur of the Year by the Parkland College Foundation.
About 270 people turned out for a banquet at the Illinois Conference Center that raised $50,000 for entrepreneurial scholarships at Parkland. Altogether, $425,000 has been collected for scholarships, said Greg Cozad, son of the late businessman for whom the award is named.
Today, Horizon Hobby employs about 650 people, 425 of whom work in Champaign. The company designs, manufactures and distributes hobby products and has facilities in California, the United Kingdom, France and Germany.
At the banquet, Cozad called Rick Stephens "a visualizer" and "an actualizer who makes things happen."
First Busey Chairman Greg Lykins, a friend for 38 years, said Horizon got its start in Rick Stephens' basement.
"The whole family bet the farm. The first year was profitable, the growth was remarkable and they never looked back," he said. Larry Stephens explained how the company got a fast start out of the gate. One of its minority shareholders was their dad, who told the boys, "If you two lose my money, I'll kill you both."
Joe Ambrose, Horizon's CEO, said a lot has changed since those basement days, but some concepts have remained part of Horizon's culture: namely, the Golden Rule, the notion that the customer is boss and that leaders lead by serving.
Tim Johnson, vice president of field ministries for the Fellowship of Christina Athletes, said Rick Stephens has an "attitude of gratitude" and "believes all good things come from above."
Explaining Stephens' perseverance, Johnson added, "You can't shake a guy who already knows he's won."
Rick Stephens said the tribute focused a lot of attention on him and "I usually prefer a lower profile." He thanked many people including his wife, daughters and co-founders.
Stephens said his life and career "seemed all planned out."
He went to Northern Illinois University, where he found his faith; to the University of Illinois, where he switched majors from finance to business administration; to Research Press, where as warehouse manager he learned behavioral psychology; and to Great Planes Model Distributors, where he learned the hobby industry.
"I couldn't have written that script," Rick Stephens said. "I think God could — and He did."
Stephens also recalled Clint Atkins, the 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year, who died this spring.
"He'll be remembered forever ... the jobs he provided, the visions he had," Stephens said. "He was a rock in the community, and we miss him greatly."
Calling for the pursuit of excellence, Stephens cited the Biblical prophet Jeremiah as an example of someone who persevered.
"It's easy to fall back into the arms of the average," he said. "Do you shuffle along with the crowd or run with the horses? I want to run with horses."