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Speakers at Minneapolis PowerHouse SMART Luxury Conference 2023

Photo Credit: Michael Alan Kaskel
Interior Design Photographer

Meet the 2023 Speakers

Holly Connaker

Holly Connaker

Founding Realtor

Holly has an unwavering dedication to providing her clients with an extraordinary real estate experience which has been the driving force behind her success. Renowned for her
unparalleled expertise in representing residential homes, luxury estates, new construction, lakeshore properties, and equestrian properties in the beautiful state of Minnesota, she has truly established herself among the elite class of local Realtors.

In 2022 alone, Holly and her esteemed team achieved an astonishing sales volume exceeding $70 million, solidifying their position in the top 1.5% nationally and an impressive 12th place in the state of Minnesota. As a founding partner at COMPASS, Holly possesses access to exclusive non-MLS and pre-market properties, ensuring her clients have unparalleled opportunities in the market.

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Raad Ghantous

Principal / Senior Designer, Raad Ghantous & Associates, and VP of Design, Identity Hospitality

Raad’s career spans 20+ years, which includes extensive experience working for design industry giants and architectural icons. Raad has had opportunities to work on projects in diverse global locations from California to Cabo San Lucas, Bermuda, Spain, Japan, China, Taipei, the nation island of Mauritius, and The United Arab Emirates. Along with a degree in design, Raad has a background in business, holding a degree in Economics from The American College of Switzerland and an MBA in Marketing from the Peter F. Drucker graduate school of business at Claremont Graduate University. From his international work and personal global experience, Raad seamlessly integrates creativity and design, with project management and business strategy.

Susan Thayer

Susan Thayer

Rabbit Creek, LLC

Growing up in Atlanta, Susan Thayer’s entrepreneurial spirit developed at an early age as she could often be found early Saturday morning rearranging her bedroom and selling what wasn’t wanted any longer at the end of the driveway. A true Southern Belle, the neighbors in her community found it hard to resist her charisma and personality.

Susan’s professional career began in downtown Atlanta with Georgia-Pacific Corporation where she worked for more than 5 years throughout many divisions of the company honing her sales and negotiating skills. Later in her professional career, she combined her love of home building and interior design when she created, developed and managed a 5,000 square foot showroom for a prominent national homebuilder creating a unique buying experience for homeowners selecting designs and finishes. Her reputation for service continued to develop and has become the hallmark of her success today.

Her experience in the residential home industry spurred Susan to continue her education in design and architecture classes. The furniture industry was fascinating to Susan, and she eventually came to Minnesota as a manufacturers representative for a large furniture company.

Susan is very active in the American Society of Interior Designers and has served on the Board of Directors. She is a member of the Women’s Presidents Organization and a Rotary Club International Paul Harris fellow. Her community involvement has centered on assisting those with special needs through Minnesota Independence College and Community.

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James McNeal

Owner/Principal Architect
James McNeal Architecture and Design

James is owner and Principal Architect with 41 years of experience in residential and commercial architecture. He is well known for his captivating ability to draw works of art in front of his clients in three dimensions - most of the time during a meeting taking place. This gives him the advantage to clearly communicate what the spaces and exterior design will look like before the beginning design phases are complete. He is an active participant in the whole design process from beginning to end. 

James is a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), is licensed in MN, WI, CO, FL and AZ and is NCARB Certified.

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Duane Draughon

VizX Design Studios

Duane Draughon is a well-known and highly respected outdoor living designer with over 20 years of experience in the industry. As the owner and lead designer of VizX Design Studios, he has gained national recognition for his cutting-edge outdoor living designs that incorporate a modern design style. Duane's designs are unique and breathtaking. Duane began his career as an apprentice with a local landscape design firm in Columbus, OH, where he started designing outdoor living spaces in 1998. After working for Talk Landscape Design for a few years, he decided to start his own outdoor living construction company called PaverStone Design Group. Duane's unique and cutting-edge design style quickly gained attention, and his company went on to win multiple awards and be featured in local and national publications. During his time at PaverStone Design Group, Duane realized that clients were interested in his design style and wanted to see what they were ultimately buying before the project even started. This led to the birth of VizX Design Studios, where he could present his designs in 3D and capture clients across the United States. Duane took a significant risk by closing his construction company and moving to Chicago, IL, to pursue his dream of running an Outdoor Living Design Firm. This decision paid off, as VizX Design Studios has grown into a highly successful business that has received national recognition. Duane's background in engineering and architectural drafting, as well as his years of owning his own construction firm and attending seminars, and completing elective coursework, have provided him with a wealth of design experience. His work has been featured in numerous publications and media outlets, including CNN, Inc. Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and other local newspapers and magazines. Duane is passionate about outdoor living and enjoys sharing his expertise with others. He is dedicated to empowering contractors and designers in the outdoor living space. With his extensive knowledge and experience in the industry, Duane continues to push the boundaries of outdoor living design and inspire others to do the same.

Nancy Nelsen-Flom

Nancy Nelsen-Flom

 Founder/Showroom Manager Intersource by Stark

Nancy Nelsen-Flom is a proud ASID Industry Partner member since 2004 and living her passion for design since her first “crush” on the color orange, circa 1974.

It was a dash of nature and a pinch of nurture t
hat led her to a design career. Her father owned a floor covering dealership—her own personal textile playground to explore my natural interests. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Science in Interior Design in 1988, she spent five years in commercial interior design and two years at her father’s company learning technical aspects of flooring. She ventured out on her own to create INTERSOURCE, Inc. a through the trade commercial and residential full-service floor covering dealership that 26 years later, lives by the tagline exceptional flooring solutions and extraordinary service.

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Dr. Michael Bills

President at AtlasRTX & Executive In Residence at Mindshare Ventures

Entrepreneur and executive with deep understanding and experience in EdTech and higher education. Dr. Bills is a leading expert in using technology and data science to improve student learning outcomes. Prior to his experience in EdTech, Mike led a series of acquisitions of three underperforming businesses across a broad set of industries. As CEO, he led the turnarounds and negotiated and executed the sale of all three businesses -- two to strategic buyers, and the other to private equity.

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John Quinlivan

Gordon James Construction & Development

John has been in the construction industry since 2005, when he founded Gordon James. His background in the field: his father was a contractor, and he managed the construction of a Maple Plain coffee shop that he and his wife Kim owned for over 13 years. John spent the first 18 years of his career in telecommunications, ending as the Vice President of Sales for Qwest Communications. Eighteen years in sales and sales management taught him the value of attentive customer service. It was confirmed by an informal survey he conducted.

Whenever I was in the coffee shop, I would ask people who had built new homes in the area whether they'd hire the same contractor again." Out of 100 people queried: Thirteen said yes and eight said maybe. The 79 who said no cited late completions, over-budget expenses and unresponsive follow-ups. As a result, John formed his strategy for building Gordon James through word-of-mouth. Kim & John live in Independence with their two kids, Lauren & Ben. According to John, “Everyone knows I love spending time at the cabin with my family… what they don't know about me is that I'll get up early sometimes on Sunday mornings and watch re-runs of Dr. Phil. It makes me realize how good I've got it!”

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Sam Thompson

Transitions In Business

Sam Thompson is the president and founder of M&A firm Transitions In Business. He is a Certified Business Intermediary (CBI) and a Mergers & Acquisitions Master Intermediary (M&AMI) who has helped countless business owners successfully sell their company. Sam’s many years of experience help him seamlessly and confidentially guide business owners from the early stages of selling all the way through closing. Prior to becoming a business intermediary, Sam was the founder and CEO of a $16 million, 150 employee conference and event management company.

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Elizabeth Cohen

General Manager
Studio M Interiors

As a versatile and accomplished Sales and Business Manager, she has consistently achieved success in diverse sectors, prominently the luxury home furnishings and apparel industries.

She currently leads the business operations of a dynamic and innovative interior design firm.

Throughout her career, she has been recognized as a strategic thinker, adept at devising and implementing sound business strategies that drive profitability for both individuals and companies. Her track record speaks to consistently delivering profitable outcomes while upholding the highest standards of excellence.

Her leadership style is the cultivation of a thriving culture of excellence with a focus on people, processes, and projects. She takes pride in building and nurturing a respectful, healthy, and creative workplace environment.

She is driven to continuously contribute to the success and growth of the organizations I work with, leaving a lasting impact on both the companies and the people with whom I collaborate.

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Mark Benner

Mark Eric Benner - Architects, Ltd.

Mark Benner, AIA is the visionary force behind the inception of Mark Eric Benner — Architects, Ltd., a
dynamic architectural design firm committed to delivering unparalleled creative excellence to a diverse
clientele. Rooted in the belief that exceptional architecture emerges from a harmonious fusion of
innovative design concepts and masterful communication, our practice has meticulously crafted cuttingedge methodologies that seamlessly integrate state-of-the-art technology to maximize project potential and value.

Mark's professional journey was profoundly enriched as a principal and architect at Orren Pickell Designers and Builders, a prestigious luxury residential design/build enterprise in Chicago's northern suburbs. Since joining the firm in 1995, Mark spearheaded the implementation and
advancement of the company's pioneering CAD initiative, overseeing the realization of nearly four
hundred homes with a collective construction value exceeding $275 million. 

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Cathy Paper


Cathy Paper, M.A. is the founder of RockPaperStar, a consulting firm that specializes
in coaching and training for individuals, business owners, and executives by offering
creative programs to improve process and performance. Cathy has coached leaders at Best
Buy, Paramount Pictures, John Deere, Apple, and Zappos as well as many Minnesotabased privately held companies and service firms. With energy and enthusiasm, Cathy
shares her networking savvy, change management expertise and marketing skills to guide
dedicated leaders to define and reach goals for their teams and organizations. Her naturally
competitive nature—Cathy runs, played rugby and was a Minnesota State Tennis Doubles
Champion— is inspiring and contagious. Cathy earned her BA at Williams College and
holds a Master’s Degree in Organization Development from the University of St. Thomas.
She is a national speaker, a columnist for the American City Business Journals; a winner of
the National Association of Women Business Owners “Woman on the Way” award, given
to a woman business owner who has demonstrated ahead-of-the-curve achievement for
herself and her company; and Minnesota Business Magazine’s “Real Power 50.”

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Abby Lund

Showroom Manager/ Designer
DOM Interiors

Abby is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Stout, with a Bachelor of Fine Art in Interior Design. For the past 8 years, she has shared her design talents at Dom Interiors, where she is currently the Showroom Manager in Minneapolis. Her showroom is in the iconic International Market Square, where Abby works with a global network of architects and designers on private residences, workplaces, and multi-unit projects.

Abby will bring out the best that PHS MN offers. She is planning to pull together current members, new colleagues, veterans, and aspiring business leaders and owners to build a substantial and effective network in the Twin Cities and beyond. Her fresh approach will focus on Coming Together to Grow Together'. Look for meaningful local and regional events, collaboration, and connection between other PHS cities, and some fun along the way!

Meet the 2023 Experts and Moderators 

Emerging Leaders 2023

Ashley Holeton

Design and Project Development
Highmark Builders

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Luxury Conference
by PowerHouse SMART™

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