Whenever Denny Sponsel finds himself staring down the eye of a difficult business situation, he usually falls back on his Catholic education for guidance.
“The influence that my priests, nuns and teachers placed on values was profound to me,” said Sponsel, who purchased RJE Business Interiors in 2000. “I lean back on everything they taught me. Those lessons were the backbone of my upbringing.”
Sponsel attended St. Philip Neri, Latin School – an all-boys high school – and St. Joseph’s College.
And learning was not limited to the classrooms. “I look back on my coaches, and they taught toughness and discipline while instilling me with wisdom. They left a mark on me. I later realized that they had prepared me to deal with any challenges that might come up later in life. We learned a lot beyond reading, writing and arithmetic.
“I remember my eighth-grade basketball team being down by five baskets at halftime. Our heads were hung low in the locker room, and our coach explained the situation like this: ‘If we go out and get the tip to start the second half and score, we are only down by four baskets. If we stop them on their first possession and go down and score, we are only down three baskets ...’ ”
That little speech motivated Sponsel and his team so much that they went out and won by 10 points.
The lesson he learned: When faced with a difficult challenge, break it down into its simplest form. That way it’s much easier to tackle.
As with any business, Sponsel has his share of hurdles to bound in leading RJE Business Interiors, which is of the Midwest’s premiere sources for workspace furniture, designs and solutions.
Sponsel said his clients aren’t just customers – they are friends. “You’ll see this in every solution we sell. You’ll hear it in our voices when we speak to you. You’ll even smell it in the freshly baked chocolate cookies that await you in our showroom.”
With 90 employees, a team of 35 installers and 10 graduate designers, RJE has offices in Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Cincinnati and expanded to Louisville and Lexington, Ky., last year.
The company’s work includes the new Cummins headquarters in Downtown Indianapolis and the Farm Bureau facility on South East Street.
“We work with clients of all shapes, sizes and industries – including health care, schools, government and high-end residential,” said Sponsel, 62, who has four children, Deanne, David, Michael and Shelly, and nine grandchildren with his wife of 35 years, Cathy.
“In our world, good design is everything. Our designers intimately understand the nuances of a strategic, effective workplace. They create precise floor plans and digital renderings of space configurations. A seamless process keeps a project moving, and that’s why we work closely with all key stakeholders.”
And while Sponsel’s business can be demanding, he’s not sure if it’s any more difficult than his eighth-grade football practices were. “Coach Jim McGinley was so tough on us. His favorite saying was, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going,’ I think about that saying all the time, especially when I think about my responsibilities with the company. When a tough situation arises, you have to lean back and toughen up.”
Sponsel’s time at Latin School, where he led the Saints’ basketball team to its first winning season wasn’t any easier.
“We (the seniors) were goofing off one day and Father (James) Wilmoth, our athletic director, was upset with our behavior and called us out. ‘Leaders have responsibilities,’ he said. I have never forgotten that.”
And something else that he hasn’t forgotten is the virtue of being generous. “Catholic teachers always told us to be generous. And my company is. We are engaged in many philanthropic projects, and we are always helping the less fortunate.”
While most people feel ill at ease when addressing large groups, Sponsel welcomes the opportunity and can thank his grade school music teacher, Sister Mary Estelle, for that. “Before our recitals, which were performed in front of more than 400 people, Sister Mary insisted that we were prepared to play (Sponsel was a pianist). She placed so much emphasis on that. The same goes for addressing a group; you have to be prepared. I remember that she played and taught every instrument,” he said.
“I wouldn’t trade my Catholic education for anything; it groomed me for life and its challenges.”