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America's leading small-business owners arrived in the nation's capital two weeks ago, anxious to learn who would be named Small Business Person of the Year. Their excitement was dampened, however, when it was revealed that the Small Business Administration's press office had released the names of the four finalists a few days earlier.
Several winners selected to represent their states in the national competition said they would have cancelled their trips if they had known there was no chance of winning the SBA's top honor. The SBA press chief defended the early announcement, saying his goal was to increase regional press coverage.
TAX MESSAGE. Still, all was forgiven by the time the winners and their families arrived at the East Room of the White House to be warmly welcomed by President George W. Bush. "The role of government is not to create wealth," Bush told the business owners. "It's to create an environment for people with a dream...and to put forth policies that enable the entrepreneurial spirit to flourish." Bush was applauded when he declared, "all [tax] rates need to be cut" -- not just targeted tax rates. The SBA winners also cheered when he announced his support for eliminating the estate tax. "We need to get rid of it, and we need to get rid of it right now!" said Bush.
It's no surprise that this year's winners would support elimination of the federal estate tax, which can make it very expensive for small-business owners to pass what they have built up to their children. Of this year's winning businesses, 56% are family-owned and operated, with 22% employing spouses, 13% employing daughters, and 28% employing sons. This year's Small Business Person of the Year, paving contractor Thornton Stanley, employs three children and a niece at his Huntsville (Ala.)-based company.
His daughter, Karen Stanley, explains that after spending far too many nights away from home when he worked for another road-building company, her father decided to focus on jobs within 50 miles of Huntsville so his workers could get home every night. Stanley Construction's focus on local projects paid off. Its revenues have expanded along with Huntsville, which Thornton Stanley notes has become a growing and prosperous city, in part because it is home to the Army's Redstone Arsenal.
SLEEPING ON THE JOB. "I knew at the get go that Huntsville was going to be a thriving place," says Stanley, who adds that 40 years ago it was just "a small cotton town." Stanley says the secret of his success is old-fashioned hard work. He gets up at 4 a.m. every day to devote an hour or so to paperwork. The rest of the day is spent visiting construction sites to supervise and encourage his workers. "I check on everything before the inspector checks on it," he says. "I try to teach my people that if you can see it [a defect], then someone else can see it."
And how, at 64, does he maintain his relentless pace? By taking a noon nap every day at his home, his farm, or "in a parking lot."
Georgia's state winner, Sandy Morris, has this advice for business owners: "Everything is twice as hard, costs twice as much, and takes twice as long" as expected. One key to her Atlanta-based firm's success, she says, is a willingness to ask for help, and the other is never thinking she has all the answers. Together with partner Shaun Bradley, she recently sought help at a local small-business development center, even though their firm, Bradley-Morris, which places former military officers and technicians in corporate jobs, is growing and profitable.
BIG CHEESE. Margaret Johnsson, Illinois' winner, left a high level strategic planning job at Kraft Foods to start her own consulting firm a few years ago. At Kraft, she was responsible for setting the course for a $17 billion division. After resigning to start her own firm, she recruited industry and technical veterans to work with her. "All of our people had been a client, and none had worked as a consultant before becoming one," says Johnsson, whose Chicago-based firm is growing at 100% a year. This year, she says, revenues are expected to reach $11 million.
Larry Shideler, president of Pro-Team Inc., was Idaho's winner. He is credited with changing the way commercial cleaners operate by pioneering the concept of "team cleaning." Pro-Team makes a lightweight, backpack-style vacuum cleaner that has been enthusiastically embraced by janitors across the country.
"We created the market for our particular type of equipment," says Shideler. "Now, 30 manufacturers make something similar, but we still own 50% to 60% of the market." Pro-Team, which is based in Garden City, Idaho, has about 100 employees and sales between $20 million and $30 million. The company, founded in 1988, also has a plant in Burlington, N.C.
NEXT GENERATION. Joseph Beckman, owner of Home Lumber in Crown Point, Ind., was happy to hear that President Bush supports the elimination of the estate tax on small businesses. "It would be very difficult to pass my business to my children," notes Beckman, who explains that his business is cash intensive "and we wouldn't have the money to pay the estate tax."
Beckman's son, J.W. Beckman, recently joined the family-owned company and is training to be a manager. "At 25, he's got a lot more skills than I have," concedes Beckman, whose great-grandfather founded the business in 1907. In 1983, Beckman bought out 64 stockholders to gain total control of the company, which has about 100 workers. Asked what he likes most about being a business owner, he had a quick answer:
"I have the freedom to do what I like to do," he says. "A good manager does the things he or she likes to do most and hires people to do the rest."
(For a complete list of the state winners, visit the SBA Web site: sba.gov) Succeeding in Small Business(©) is a syndicated column by Jane Applegate, author and founder of sbtv.com, a Web site offering free multimedia resources for business owners. For a free copy of her new workbook, The Business Owner's Check Up, e-mail your address to: firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail it to: Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham, N.Y. 10803.