Vermont Small Business Persons of the Year celebrated

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Vermont Small Business Persons of the Year celebrated

Wed, 06/18/2014 - 4:59pm -- tim

by Danny Monahan Twelve years ago a fledgling brewery in Burlington consisted only of a lone brewmaster crafting an unfiltered ale for a few select bars in the area.  Today, Switchback Brewing Co. is one the most heralded breweries in Vermont selling its beer throughout the Northeast to restaurants, resorts and stores. The brewery’s owners, Bill Cherry and Jeff Neiblum, are awarded the Vermont Small Business Person of the Year, for growing their brewery, expanding the brand and increasing sales. Cherry and Neiblum were joined Tuesday evening by the Vermont SBA advocate winners (The Bees Knees, Grow Compost, Super Thin Saws, Sidehill Farm and Vermont Bean Crafters) to be recognized for their accomplishments by Governor Shumlin, friends, colleagues, family and business associates at the Shelburne Museum.

Cherry and Neiblum (pictured with Governor Shumlin), who have been friends since college, always talked about opening a brewery. After all, Cherry had experience working for both a microbrewery and large American brewing company, and Neiblum had experience running his own company. 

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In 2000, the job that brought Cherry to Vermont ceased production, so he began developing a business plan. By 2002 Switchback was up and running.

“What started as a mostly empty 5,000 sq. ft. facility has expanded to a 20,000 sq. ft. space, still at the original location in Burlington,” said Cherry.  “The brewery used a series of SBA guaranteed loans to expand the facility steadily over the years.”   

The series of loans are part of the SBA’s 7(a) and 504 loan programs. A 7(a) loan is the most basic and most commonly used type of SBA loan. The financing can be used for variety of general business purposes, such as working capital, machinery, equipment, furniture and fixtures. A 504 loan is an economic development program that supports an existing small business’ growth through expansion and job creation. A 504 loan provides long-term, fixed-rate financing for purchasing and renovating land, buildings and equipment. 

As part of the brewery’s expansion and to meet the public’s demand, Switchback began bottling its ale in 2012. Previously it was only available in kegs which were sold to bars and restaurants. 

“The launch was a huge success,” said Cherry.  “We released it on bottle in conjunction with our 10th anniversary. We sold 100,000 bottles in the first five days.” 

As for job creation, the brewery has steadily added employees the last decade. In 2002, Cherry was the sole worker performing all the labor. He was buying the ingredients, brewing the ale, selling it to his customers and cleaning the kegs. Today, it employs 18 people, including a plant engineer, marketing specialist, accountant, retail manager, financial manager and brewers. 

“In addition to increasing employees, we have increased employee benefits as well,” said Cherry. “Switchback offers an exceptional health care program, retirement savings matches and profit sharing.” 

Each year since 1967, the SBA has awarded Vermont Small Business Person of the Year. Switchback joins the ranks of other notable recipients, including Pete’s Greens, Vermont Teddy Bear and Ben and Jerry’s.

"I'm excited to accept this award for Switchback,” said Cherry. “Switchback would not be in this position if it wasn’t for Jeff convincing me to start a brewery, great employees brewing a Vermont ale and the SBA backing loans, so the brewery could expand.”  

Cherry and Neiblum and the advocates were recognized during the 2014 Vermont Small Business Awards Ceremony cohosted with Vermont Business Magazine at the Shelburne Museum Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education located in Shelburne. 

“The SBA has had a long relationship with Switchback,” said Darcy Carter, SBA Vermont District Office Director. “It has obtained several SBA loans throughout the years to expand the brewery and hire more employees. Bill and Jeff are very deserving of this award and we’re excited to present it to them.”  

Cherry and Neiblum are confident about their brewery’s future. They believe that sticking to the approach of not oversaturating the market with Switchback leads to slow but lasting growth.  

Super Thin Saws

A small business in Waterbury has been named the 2014 Vermont Exporter of the Year. Super Thin Saws produces and exports thin circular sawblades. The thinner blades reduce waste when cutting raw materials over that of traditional thicker saw blades, which saves companies money and resources over time.

“Being named Exporter of the Year is absolutely terrific,” said John Schultz, Super Thin Saws president. “It is of course, a very nice image to portray to prospects, but perhaps more importantly, it also serves as a confirmation to us that we are on the right track with our business plan.”

The Small Business Exporter of the Year Award is presented annually by the Small Business Administration to an individual or individuals who own and operate a Vermont small business engaged in exporting. Nominations are primarily evaluated based on increased sales, profits and growth of employment because of exporting, as well as the company’s overseas marketing strategies.

“Super Thins Saws is selling its product all over the world and these exports are responsible for a large percentage of its profits,” said Darcy Carter, SBA Vermont District Office Director. “Due to its unique innovation in saw blade technology, it’s able to have a global reach.”

After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Schultz started Schultz Tool Sharpening in 1975 and began studying the vibration patterns of thin saw blades, which led him to change the emphasis of the company from sharpening to niche manufacturing. Today STS is co-owned by John Schultz, Dave Strom and Rob Bisbee, who started working at the company in 1978.

Super Thin Saws exporting spans the globe selling its products to companies in Europe, South America, Australia and Asia.

“We have a narrowly focused, niche market product. Our saw blades are very important to certain small sectors within the secondary woodworking industry,” said Schultz. “The companies that operate in these sectors are spread all around the globe, so exporting feels completely natural to us. In fact, Quebec, and even Ontario, are more geographically convenient for us than much of the U.S. Western Canada is almost as convenient, and Western Europe works out rather well for us too.”

Although exporting has proved profitable, STS has faced difficult times recently. When Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont in August 2011, Waterbury was struck particularly hard. STS experienced severe flooding, destroying much of the building and equipment. To get back on their feet, STS obtained an SBA Disaster Assistance Loan, which is low-interest loan provided to business to repair or replace property, equipment and inventory damaged in a declared disaster.

“Rob and Dave shouldered the burden, and the entire staff stepped up and did an outstanding job of getting us back on our feet,” said Schultz. “Within 30 days we were operating at almost 50 percent and within 90 days we were about 90 percent. Since then it's been a nice slow, steady growth. Our volume and our profit are as high as they have ever been.”

STS employs 18 people, with 8 of them being with the company for 20 years or more, and plans to hire more.

“Ultimately, it’s all about the staff here,” said Schultz. “We are able to sell in these markets because our product is truly superior for the niches we focus on. It is better because our product-designers and our production-floor staff take endless extra care with all the details, and our customer support people really care about the customers.”

Vermont Bean Crafters

They can lower cholesterol, build soil, and more than double in size when cooked. These are some of the benefits of beans, according to the founder and owner of Vermont Bean Crafters. For his efforts in fostering a more nutritious and sustainable food culture in the Northeast, Joe Bossen II, 27, is awarded the 2014 Vermont Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the Small Business Administration.

The annual award is presented to business owners under 35 who have had success in sales, profits, increasing jobs, having innovative business methods and demonstrating entrepreneurial potential necessary for economic growth.

“We make a wide variety of bean products from burgers and falafel, to hummus and cookies, all gluten-free, vegan, and nut-free,” said Bossen. “Our beans are mainly from organic farms in Vermont and New York, and most of our other ingredients are locally grown and organic as well.”

Vermont Bean Crafters produces its food at the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield, Vt. The Mad River Food Hub is a 4,000 sq. ft. food processing facility with kitchen space and cold storage for rent. Prior to the Food Hub, Bean Crafters operated from 2009 until late in 2011 out of Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland, a diversified organic farm and under-the-radar incubator of numerous land-based enterprises.

Bossen started Bean Crafters in 2009 after attending Green Mountain College where he completed a self-designed major: Sustainable Enterprises. Not long after graduating, he was offered a chance to head the new solar division of a Stowe-based construction firm, but was already discovering he enjoyed the daily reality of working with food and soil.

Starting out with only a few hundred dollars, Bossen decided to set out on his own. He started selling his burgers at local farmers markets in Rutland County. Today his products are sold throughout the Northeast in restaurants, stores, schools, hospitals and independent grocers.

Through Black River Produce, the 2005 Vermont Small Business Peron of the Year, Bossen has been able to branch out to New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York.

Distribution has been key to expanding this company. Partnerships with the likes of Black River Produce and the Mad River Food Hub has allowed Bossen to leverage those more established enterprises’ collective assets and networks, minimizing Bean Crafters’ fixed costs and capital outlays through these early years.

Of all his products, Bossen’s bestseller is his black bean burger.

“Each Black Bean Burger meets an impressive portion of your protein, iron, and vitamin needs,” he said. “When eaten with any grain, they make a complete protein that is free of cholesterol. We’re talking about shelf-stable staple foods you can eat locally year-round.” He has spoken about the benefits of beans to human health, the health of soils, and the agricultural economy at the University of Vermont, Northeast Organic Farming Association and his alma mater, GMC.

It’s that passion and drive that led to Bossen being nominated for Entrepreneur of the Year by Sam Buckley, Vermont Community Loan Fund Director of Business Programs. Bossen obtained an SBA microloan through VCLF in 2013. The SBA Microloan Program provides loans up to $50,000 to small business owners who are often startups or early stage microenterprises.

“I’m really excited for this young man,” said Buckley. “He’s earned this recognition because he’s not a businessman, he’s a truly an entrepreneur. He has taken his vision and turned it into reality. Today, Joe is running and growing a successful enterprise.” 

Bossen said the award makes him feel validated.

“I’m psyched to discover we are being taken seriously,” he said. “Sometimes it’s felt as though we’ve been working too far on the fringe of the mainstream American culture. I hope we can build upon this. Each dollar spent on any Vermont Bean Crafters’ product, is a vote for diversified organic farms, local economies, and good health. It’s a more significant and affective vote than one cast at a ballot box.”

In the future, Bossen has many ideas for Vermont Bean Crafters, including having its own facility, and a broader range of plant-based staple foods, such as nuts, pumpkinseeds and masa for tortillas.

“I want to be a good responsible employer. I want to grow the demand for more nutritious, soil building crops in the region. I want I want to be able to offer better pay and benefits, and I’ve discovered all these things necessitate a certain scale.” said Bossen. “I’d like to get to a place where I can take a financially sustainable salary working much more reasonable hours, so I can take time to play a greater role growing and selecting cultivars of our beans and other crops.”

The Bee’s Knees

A restaurant in Morrisville is named the 2014 Vermont Woman-Owned Business of the Year by the Small Business Administration. The Bee’s Knees, owned and operated by Sharon Deitz Caroli, is being recognized due to its business growth, success in sales and job development.

Deitz Caroli always thought about running her own restaurant because she liked the idea of being her own boss. It started more than a decade ago when she and her friend Jennifer Edwards hatched the idea to open their own café. With the assistance of Mary Johnson, an area business advisor at the time with the Vermont Small Business Development Center, they developed a business plan and looked for the right location.  They decided on an older building at the end of lower Main Street.

“When we walked through the building, any sane person would have nixed the spot. One side of the storefront had a boarded up garage door. The other side had an old furnace smack dab in the center of the room,” said Deitz Caroli. “But we purchased the building at a rock bottom price and started renovating. We worked for months and months while we kept part-time jobs, camping out in the apartment upstairs we renovated, and planned our coffee house.”

The excitement of opening a new restaurant was short lived. During Memorial Day Weekend 2003, Edwards suddenly died.

“The plan was to have a partner. The plan was to work crazy long hours together and figure out all the pieces as we went. It was a surreal situation, but there seemed to be nothing else to do besides continue as planned,” said Deitz Caroli.

On her own, she managed to open The Bee’s Knees in July. It started small with café basics such as coffee, latte, sandwiches and baked goods.

“I kept it simple at first, but it became clear that our community wanted food. Food was where the money was going to be. You have to sell a lot of $3 lattes to pay the bills,” she said. “We became more and more skilled at figuring out what food we could prep and that is when we started serving pot pies, burritos, quesadillas, and more.”

The restaurant grew modestly the first five years. With the exception of 2007, sales increased each year from 2003 to 2008.

In 2008, The Bee’s Knees built a dining room and obtained a loan from Vermont Community Loan Fund to purchase equipment. With the addition of a new dining area, The Bee’s Knees could accommodate 80 patrons. Sales spiked in 2009 and have been growing annually since.

“It became clear to me that the only way for this business to be sustainable financially and emotionally would be if it expanded,” she said.

The expansion has also been an asset to the local economy. Today, approximately 60 percent of the food served is purchased from more than 40 different local farmers and food producers.  The restaurant’s workforce has increased to 17 employees, some of whom are local students.

“Sharon employs numerous young people. Sharon offers them steady employment and provides them the opportunity to grow in their positions,” said Rachel Duffy, a teacher at Peoples Academy and frequent Bee’s Knees patron. “She has contributed greatly to Morrisville and deserves recognition.

As for the future, Deitz Caroli said she has plans to keep expanding her restaurant, including remodeling the bar area, increasing its liquor selection and strengthening its farm to plate relationship through family farming efforts.

Grow Compost                                             

A pile may contain anything from beer to coffee grounds, food scraps and much much more. “The more diversity, the better. Companies, schools and farms have to get rid of these resources and we step in to rescue them and return them to the soil” said Lisa Ransom, referring to a compost pile.

Grow Compost of Vermont, founded and owned by Ransom and her husband Scott Baughman, has carved out a niche for itself assisting Vermont companies and citizens dispose of organic waste and turn it into rich fertile, living soil.

For its unique business approach, Grow Compost of Vermont has been selected as the Small Business Administration 2014 Vermont Microenterprise of the Year. A microenterprise is a business having five or fewer employees.

“The reasons for awarding Grow Compost of Vermont Microenterprise of the Year are many,” said Darcy Carter, Vermont District Office Director. “Offering paid sick and vacation days, it offers many benefits larger companies do not. The owners are involved in local schools educating students about the environment. In the last three years, it has increased its sales, employees and net worth, while still managing to be a socially responsible business.”

Started in 2008 on Ransom and Baughman’s farm in Moretown, Vt., the couple was able to achieve their dream by obtaining an SBA microloan from Vermont Community Loan Fund. The SBA Microloan Program provides loans up to $50,000 to small businesses and microenterprises.  VCLF nominated Grow Compost of Vermont for the award.

Since then, the company has grown in size and outreach. Beginning in 2012, it started offering a hauling service to restaurants, businesses and schools and removing their organic waste such as coffee grounds, wood chips, lawn clippings and food scraps.

Baughman and Ransom are very passionate about their company’s composting process. Composting is a natural process where organic materials such as grass, shrubs and food scraps are broken down by microorganisms.

“The work of microorganisms is very efficient,” said Ransom.  “The microbes carry out chemical processes that make it possible for all other organisms including humans to live because the composting process reclaims nutrients that would normally be wasted. Composting is recycling done nature’s way.”

The soil created is very pure because Baughman and Ransom do not allow for any contaminants, such as plastic or metal to be in the organics they accept. For their efforts they are accredited by Vermont Organic Farmers, LLC.

The future looks bright for Grow Compost of Vermont with the implementation of Act 148, a Vermont law which prohibits recyclables and organic waste from entering Vermont landfills.

“Commercial compost facilities, such as Grow Compost of Vermont will become even more crucial to businesses with organic waste because it is essential that these resources be returned to the soil in an environmentally conscious way.” 

As Vermont moves forward requiring its citizens to remove organics from the traditional waste stream, Baughman said people will need to be informed.  

As knowledgeable as Vermonters are about sustainable food systems, composting is still relatively new to them,” said Baughman. Educating children and adults alike about the importance and benefits of composting is an important part of our mission. That is why we spend 10 to 15 hours a week visiting classrooms, providing field trips and hosting workshops to teach Vermonters about the importance of composting.”

Sidehill Farm

Sidehill Farm, owned by Kelt and Kristina Naylor, is named the SBA’s 2014 Vermont Family-Owned Business of the Year. Sidehill Farm produces and sells a variety of jam, fruit butter and drizzle, which is a combination of maple syrup and fruit. The annual award honors a family-owned and operated business which has been passed from one generation to the next and is successful in sales, profits and increasing jobs.

Kelt’s parents, Ben and Dot Naylor, started the company in 1976 on their farm in Calais, Vt. and ran Sidehill Farm from their home for the next 24 years. The company was passed to Kelt and his wife Kristina in in 2000 when the two left their home in Boston to take over the family business. To be more centrally located in New England and expand the company, Sidehill Farm’s operations moved from Calais to the Cotton Mill in Brattleboro.

According to Kristina, better tasting products have built a loyal long-term customer base that understand and taste the difference.

“We slowly moved from selling at farm stands and local markets in Vermont to specialty food retailers throughout the Northeast,” said Kristina.

What makes their products expensive to produce and stand out is they do not contain any artificial ingredients or pectin, a thickening substance used often in jam.

“The jam is essentially made the same way my parents made it. We boil down the fruit, add sugar and then hand stir it,” said Kelt.

Sidehill Farm purchases the majority of its fruit from local farms and vendors. In 2013, the Naylors rolled out several new products, so they needed to purchase an additional 20,000 lbs. of local fruit.

“Not only has Sidehill Farm strengthened their business, they have increased revenues and markets for local farmers and strengthened the Vermont brand. Kelt and Kristina are the epitome of the Vermont entrepreneur. They are smart, creative and very hardworking.” said Debra Boudrieau, Vermont Small Business Development Center area business advisor in Brattleboro.  Boudrieau nominated Sidehill Farm for Vermont Family-Owned Business of the Year.

 The first nine years the younger Naylors were running the business, they experienced steady growth, but since 2012 the company has expanded to the point where they have been able to hire more employees and increase salaries.

“Our timing was good. We took over right as the local food movement in Vermont started to take off. As the local food movement grew in Vermont, so did we. We grew almost every year. In fact, the only year we did not grow was the year we were hit by Irene,” said Kelt, referring to Tropical Storm Irene, which caused statewide devastation in 2011.

Sidehill Farm has grown so much, the Naylors recently moved from a 4,000 sq. ft. facility to a 10,000 sq. ft. facility up the road in northern Brattleboro.

“We had completely outgrown our space,” said Kelt. “We couldn’t have produced more even if we wanted to, so we made the decisions that if we want to grow, we have to move to a larger facility.”

With a loyal customer base, new facility and Vermont-made products, the Naylors plan to maintain their momentum and grow their family-owned business for another 40 years.

SCORE celebrates 50 years of service

The counselors to America’s small businesses are celebrating their 50th anniversary.

In 1964 the non-profit organization SCORE, originally the Senior Corps of Retired Executives, began its mission to grow successful small businesses across America, one business at a time. Comprised of volunteers, SCORE assists small businesses through education and mentorship.

“I think this is an incredible service,” said Bertil Agell, Vermont SCORE District Director. “Statistically it’s been proven that people who have at least three sessions with a SCORE counselor have a 40 percent better chance succeeding in business. We serve as a sounding board for them to think out their ideas while assisting with business plans, marketing strategies and financing a business.”

Agell started as a counselor when he joined SCORE in 1991. Several years later he became the Montpelier Chapter Chair and then became director four years ago. During that time he has assisted hundreds of entrepreneurs.

Headquartered in Herndon, Va., SCORE has hundreds of chapters throughout the U.S., including Vermont’s Champlain Valley SCORE, located in Essex Junction and Montpelier SCORE. Vermont has approximately 50 volunteer counselors.

“Our volunteer counselors have vast business experience and they come from a variety of backgrounds,” said Agell.  “We have bankers, manufacturers, general managers, engineers and more providing clients with free and confidential business counseling.”

SCORE is able to offer free counseling because it is funded by the Small Business Administration. Counseling can be conducted in a number of ways such as at the place of business, a SCORE office, via telephone or online.

Among the thousands of Vermont business that have benefitted from SCORE assistance is Strange Dolls. Owned and created by Beth Robinson, Strange Dolls sells ghoulish figures made out of clay.

When Strange Dolls launched in 2003, Robinson said she didn’t how to approach building a solid foundation for her business.

“You are also overwhelmed by the amount of information out there and it is difficult to know how to prioritize your time or what to focus on. Someone suggested SCORE to me and it was a great way for me to get focused,” she said. “I met with my SCORE counselor once a week to flesh out my priorities, start looking at my challenges, and create projects that would get me to the next step the following week. But I felt like my counselor really tried to understand my situation and help me apply certain business and marketing solutions that would work for me.”

When applying for assistance, SCORE tries to match an entrepreneur’s needs with a counselor with a similar background, but Agell said it’s not vital.

“Our counseling is mostly of a general nature,” he said. “A toy maker’s underlying problems are the same as a resort general manager’s. It often comes down to the basics of marketing, sales and the day-to-day running of a company.”

SCORE has more than 10,000 volunteer counselors throughout the U.S., but is always looking for new ones.

“We need good people to share their knowledge and experience, but you must have the time, the attitude and experience to help small business owners, said Agell. “We offer no salary, vacation or benefits. However, we do offer great satisfaction to help people succeed.  It’s a very rewarding activity.”

For more information about SCORE or to register to become a volunteer counselor, visit www.score.org.

Danny Monahan is the SBA Vermont Public Information Officer.

PHOTOS by Vermont Business Magazine.