The Tampa, Fla., small business community has a designated hitter on their roster that is inspiring other entrepreneurs around south Florida.
Tampa’s Impact Industrial Supplies-owner John Diaz started down his career path as a supplier in tools, abrasives, adhesives and other supplies used in industry in the 1980’s. His dedication and the way he treated customers quickly advanced him to area manager several years later. But his career to a life altering turn when the company he worked for began to fail and long-time employees left for other jobs.
“I saw the writing on the wall and I left. The company is still in business there was a risk of closing. I had no job and four-month-old baby twins at home,” said Diaz. “I had considered a business before and the time to start was now. I had great relationships with customers and suppliers and thought by working at home, I would find the business-family stability I needed.”
Diaz set out to continue his relationships with previous clients and with a lifetime group of friends in his Tampa-hometown where he spent many days playing baseball. He launched his own business in his home, Impact Industrial Supplies relying on his previous experience as a supplier for products used in industrial companies.
“I had a staff of three people: my wife, sister-in-law and me. We had sales of $190,000 that first year,” recalled Diaz. “I’d make service calls during the day, come home for dinner with the family, and then go back to fill orders for the next day. “
As Industrial Impact Supplies grew, Diaz secured larger facilities. In 2001, he purchased a 15,000 square foot property in Tampa. But the business growth wasn’t without difficulties.
“Like many small businesses, I had challenges of establishing lines of credit and receiving credit from suppliers. But a customer of mine who I had known for a long time introduced me to some others in banking. There, I learned what could achieve with networking and managed to secure my first line of credit that became the foundation for strong growth,” said Diaz.
Diaz understands the value of strong business relationships. Diaz became involved with the Florida Minority Supplier Development Council at the same time he was starting Impact Industrial Supplies. Certifying his business as a Hispanic-owned company gave him an edge that other businesses lacked.
“Becoming a certified Hispanic-owned business gave me access to corporations that other businesses must spend more time and resources to access,” explained Diaz. “Once I start a business relationship, I value that relationship and deliver the best customer care I can.”
Industrial Impact Supplies customers include an 18-year relationship with Walt Disney World; an eight-year relationship with United Space Alliance; and Honeywell Corporation. It’s through these long term relationships centered on treating customers with respect that allowed the industrial supply company to grow from a $190,000 home-based business revenue over $6million.
“I recently found a list of my top 20 customers that I wrote down in 2005. Of those 20 customers, I’m still doing business with 11 of them,“ said Diaz. “Eight of the others are no longer in business. The other I lost to a national competitor. Retention in the industrial supply business is difficult and having retained those 11 businesses is a great accomplishment.”
While tenacity and learning the industrial supply business from the ground-up may explain some of Diaz success, education and learning business from the experts helped lead the way.
“I got my associates degree in business on a baseball scholarship at Hillsborough Community College. I continued my business studies, and played baseball, at Florida International University (FIU),” said Diaz.
But his business acumen didn’t stop there. Diaz attended the 2002 Annual Small Business Government Conference presented by Florida’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) that honed his entrepreneurial skills. Since then, Diaz estimates he has received more than 1,060 hours of consulting services and training from the SBDC.
The 21-year-old-company has realized a 21% growth over the last three years. Diaz continues to give back to his hometown community by supporting many child-support charities including Tampa’s Metropolitan Ministries, Big Brothers and Big Sisters and little league baseball. Diaz is still very active in the Florida Minority Supplier Development Council where he serves as the Minority Business Enterprise Chair and on the executive committee. He provides guidance to chapter members on how to maximize their minority business enterprise designation.
Being a small business owner in Tampa and contributing to the economy is something he is very proud of.
“We try to do more with fewer employees and pay above the local pay scale,” said Diaz. “The majority of my work force doesn’t have college degrees but I try to offer a competitive salary and a flexible schedule so they can find the opportunity to become successful. Two former employees were part time college students when they worked here. Today, they not only graduated but formed their own pharmaceutical company and I’m proud to know I could be part of their success.”
Creating that opportunity of success is important to Diaz. He admits his business philosophy comes from the baseball dugouts and the infield where he used to play. His dream wasn’t to be a small business owner but a third baseman in the major leagues. What he is quick to point out, though, is he had a plan when things weren’t unfolding as he hoped. He seized other opportunities when they arose.
“My advice to other entrepreneurs is they need to develop productive paranoia. There is no point in dwelling on failures and you shouldn’t dwell on your successes either,” Diaz explained. “Baseball is like that because one day you can go hitless and the next day go four-for-four. Be bullheaded; follow your gut instinct; don’t let events set you back and don’t let adversity slow you down.”
When she graduated from West Virginia University (WVU) with a degree in business in 2002, Anu Madan was undecided what the next step in her life was It turned out the next step was onto a flight to Spain.
I didn’t know what to do so I traveled to Spain to study Spanish,” said Madan, the owner of Anukshah, an Indian-inspired resort and beachwear clothing wholesaler. “I love to travel and I fell in love with Spain when I spent a summer in Europe as part of a business school exchange program at WVU.
Madan said her parents ran their own small business accounting firm near her alma mater but she wasn’t decided on entering the world of small business quite then.
Though she mastered Spanish, the European adventure didn’t lead to any serendipitous revelations on a lifetime pursuit. She returned to the U.S. and moved to Palm Beach, Fla. where she had family.
“I enrolled in the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale (AIFL) because I always loved fashion. I never studied it but it was something I had a passion in.”
Little did Anu know but her education, love of travel and fashion, and family connections were all pointing her way to the successful business she has today.
“My parents had their own accounting company and my father often times gave me advice. He saw what I was studying and took me to India to meet with his relatives who ran their own clothing businesses. My parents came from there and I hadn’t visited since I was a young child. After about a week, he left and I stayed where I learned about dyeing and beading.”
When she returned from India, Anu said she began selling Indian clothes and accessories at AIFL. She’d bring in jewelry and clothing from her family connections in India and sell them to students as well as faculty at student art fairs. It was then she realized this was something she not only enjoyed but more importantly, could be a small business idea she’d enjoy pursuing.
“It was fun and I saw people were interested in the clothing and accessories I was selling. But I did not have the knowledge to sell in bulk.”
Anu decided then to learn the wholesale clothing business through experience.
“I got a job with a t-shirt manufacturer for Wal-Mart,” said Madan. “I was a project manager and took care of their sourcing for their clothing. That gave me experience and insight into the wholesale clothing business.”
Though it might seem Madan’s experiences and passions were incrementally transforming her into a small business owner, she found assistance and an ally in the U.S. Small Business Administration. Madan found sound advice from the Miami SCORE chapter and took a couple free workshops to broaden her entrepreneurial skills.
“I took a couple free workshops and talked to the instructors who were either owned or managed their own businesses. It was a great resource for me.”
But like the small business owners she met as volunteer SCORE counselors, her father was there to offer his experience and sage wisdom.
“My father is an accountant and I worked in the family business as I grew up. He advised me to set up a limited liability corporation for what I wanted to do to start my own business. He said I could change my organization as I grew but I knew this was the best way to start. ”
She named her new business “Anukshah,” which is her full Indian, first name
As many small business owners will attest, starting off is hard work and it wasn’t any different for Anu despite her education and family connections.
“I started by walking into stores and asking them if they would buy my Indian-inspired women’s clothing and accessories. I found some buyers and many who didn’t buy my clothing gave me contacts to other people and shops to talk to. I listened to their advice and found more buyers. I started using student interns from a nearby language school where I taught part time, to help me out. In 2008, I went to my first trade shows in New York and Las Vegas.”
But no sooner as Anukshah started to grow, Anu met a challenge face-to-face which she had no control over: the economic downturn that hit south Florida and the nation, hard.
“I was teaching while trying to grow my business so I had a fall back plan,” she said. “Up to this point I used my own money and personal connections but the banks weren’t lending. I couldn’t find capital.”
Thanks to a re-tooled SBA 7A Community Express loan program designed to stimulate the economy by increasing federal loan guarantees to 90% and reducing lender risk, Anu was approved for a $25,000 loan from Borrego Springs Bank in November 2009.
“The loan helped me expand my business as well as to hire three employees. They are my sales representatives who pack and ship orders as well as go to shows to help grow the business.”
Three years later, the Anukshah clothing line is carried in recognized shops at Walt Disney World resort as well as the Marriott and Hilton hotel. Anu says she isn’t done expanding her business yet and is investigating other ways to go using SBA as a springboard.
By James Brooks, U.S. Small Business Administration South Florida District Public Affairs
Become a South Florida Small Business Success Story by learning about what the U.S. Small Business Administration's South Florida District can do for you at: www.sba.gov/fl/south.
Giovanni Suarez has always been entrepreneurial, but it was his military experience that made the difference when he decided to strike out on his own. He had been working for large defense contractor when he noticed the small business requirements the company needed to fulfill. That observation, coupled with his unique capabilities, industry certification, and appropriate security clearances, coalesced into the idea to start his own business-- National Information Assurance Corporation (dba NIACORP)-- offering information assurance, communications security, and operational support primarily to the federal government and national defense organizations.
As early as age six or seven, Mr. Suarez sold fruit from his grandfather’s farm, cleaned cars and helped his mother sell her baked goods just to have his own money. A member of a large family, he always looked for ways to have funds of his own and was willing to work hard to accomplish his goals. His parents say that even as a young child, he was always a leader, one who took initiative, and led others to succeed. Small wonder he eventually became an entrepreneur.
But before launching off on his own in 2005, Mr. Suarez joined the U.S. Air Force in 1991 where he served active duty until 1997. There, he learned many of the technical skills he would later use in his business. Still, today, he values and appreciates more “the structure, leadership, and other hard and soft skills [military service provides that] you just don’t get in an institution, college, or university.” He went on to serve an additional two years on the Georgia Air National Guard.
When he left the military, he worked as an Assistant Webmaster contractor for the C-130 System Program Office at Robins AFB. Because the web-based databases had to be secured, Mr. Suarez, a natural self-starter, started buying IT security books to learn how to secure the systems. A year later he was offered a network administrator position for the F-15 System Program Office supporting the F-15 Radar Engineering Organization. “That is where I truly learned the security niche.”
He found his niche in the marketplace while working on contract proposals for Raytheon, a large defense contractor. As Mr. Suarez read the small business subcontracting requirements, he realized he possesses the knowledge and skills to perform the work needed. Federal government contracts require prime contractors use small firms as subcontractors. Plus, “I also wanted to be my own boss and not depend on someone else to dictate my future and well-being of my family.”
But it wasn’t enough to have the technical and interpersonal skills and the drive to succeed in business; Mr. Suarez needed the infrastructure, too. “The challenges I had to overcome, because I lacked formal business experience, were the ones setting up the backbone of the company: payroll, benefits, taxes, etc. Later, I also needed help with strategies to expand my business." He largely attributes his success to his Office Manager, Mrs. Maryellen Mailhiot, who was instrumental in addressing the challenges NIACORP overcame; and to his technical staff for the outstanding performance, giving NIACORP its current reputation.
To get his business off the ground, he went to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s website where he used the start-up checklists. Then, he engaged the high-quality expertise of the Certified Business Analysts at the Small Business Development Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa who helped him develop strategies and steps to put together his business. In 2005 when he decided to enter the federal marketplace, his first stop was to the Procurement Technical Assistance Center at USF’s SBDC where he learned the nuts and bolts of federal government contracting as well as its nuances.
Thanks to the PTAC, NIACORP is in the SBA’s 8(a) Business Development Program where he competes for federal contracts. With help from the SBA and the Small Business Development Center, Mr. Suarez has grown his business from a one-man operation in 2005 to employing 23 full-time employees and sales of nearly $2M in 2011. Still, he cautions that federal contracting and the 8(a) program don’t ensure “easy money.” “On the contrary, the 8(a) program has helped me more after I performed well and established a strong relationship with federal agencies with real requirements. Once the trust exists, the chance to win a sole-source contract becomes easier.”
While he says starting and growing his business has been at times frustrating and tiresome, he acknowledges that some of his success is due in part to having an outstanding reputation as a diligent hard worker. He has been recognized for his good work in securing organization systems by the local chapter of The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) and he was nominated and awarded the SBA’s 2012 Veteran Small Business Champion of the Year for the South Florida District.
His aspirations and goals for his business are to “continue ‘managed’ growth for NIACORP and make it even more successful. I strongly believe my staff and I share the same vision to continue providing the most secure communications systems to our armed forces that exceed our national security goals.”
When asked “how did you do it?” his reply is always the same: “get help from the SBA! They have always been there for me.”