Simply put, Steve Miller likes to tinker.
Once Steve gets an idea in his head, he’s not letting it go until after he’s studied it closely, taken it apart, reassembled the pieces, and see if he can’t make it perform better. He’s not afraid of getting a little dirt under his fingernails in the process. The Boynton Beach, Fla., registered nurse created his own small business success in his spare time simply by chasing his ideas.
“When I started in nursing, more than one of the other nurses told me that I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer because I couldn’t remember step-by-step procedures and had to write them down on three-by-five cards.” said Miller. “So instead of letting their negative remarks get to me, I started to view myself as a really good spoon and not a knife. I realized I needed to find a role where spoon qualities were essential because I considered myself the best there was.”
Miller’s first foray into the business world was establishing a 16-page health resources magazine that combined both holistic and mainstream medical resources. He talked to magazine publishers and did the research. A publication like that just didn’t exist before and Miller saw a need for people to be aware of all options in order to make better health decisions.
“I started the business in my spare time. I didn’t make much money and I eventually sold the magazine.” said Miller.
Working as a registered nurse paid the bills until one day when one of his businesses ideas would take off. After leaving the hospital at the end of the day, is when Miller truly went to work. Needless to say, days were divided by work and sleep but Steve didn’t see it that way.
“I was doing something I enjoyed. So working an 80 to 100 hour week did not seem like it was work. Anyone who is considering opening their own business should pursue something they have a passion for because then you won’t notice those long hours,” said Miller.
Following his own passion for the sea and sailing led Miller to open his own south Florida charter sailing business in south Florida. For someone raised in Boulder, Colo., this was truly someone not afraid to chase a dream. He learned to sail, bought a sailboat and after a few years was running family and couple charters to the Bahamas.
“That was the happiest time of my life,” he admits. “People came from all over the country to do something they dreamed of doing. They were so appreciative and I loved teaching, sharing, and showing off the coral reefs, islands and the ocean.”
Many entrepreneurs imagine turning a personal passion into a personal business. Like the Chinese proverb that professes: “Find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life,” Miller was living through that principle. But his passion didn’t blindfold him from one important reality: he wasn’t making much money.
“I was a contract nurse between charters and that’s what allowed me to keep my charter business.” explained Miller. “That’s how I managed to keep it going. When I didn’t have a charter, I returned to nursing at local hospitals. I was getting older but I was not saving money for my future. “
With the realization of the cold, hard facts before him, Miller made a very difficult decision. He gave up his charter business and went back to nursing full time.
“Sailing around the Caribbean was a great experience for me. You’re a part of a special community where everyone comes together when someone else is in need. You fix things on your own and if you don’t know how to do something, there is someone else who is willing to help and show you how to do it.”
It wasn’t long after he was back to working full time as a nurse when Miller came upon a business idea that was the inspiration for his next company. Having worked at dozens of hospitals in several states over a few decades, Miller turned his attention toward medical waste and how hospitals recycled the precious metals from used in cardiovascular devices.
“Being the seat-of-the-pants type of guy I am, I wanted to figure out how the cardiology recycling process worked. The various companies involved with recycling provided poor service and I thought that I could do better.”
Admittedly, Miller tried some “do-it-yourself” home recycling projects to understand the complexity of the process. But that was just the type of thing you’d expect from someone who likes to tinker.
Miller also received some sage advice and direction from a no-cost business mentor program through south Florida’s SCORE network.
“Herb Douglas was my business mentor and his guidance and input was crucial,” said Miller. “Small business capital was not my concern as working out of the home minimized costs, but I don’t think I would be where I am now without Herb’s mentorship and input from the other great staff at SCORE.”
Through his own efforts and a lot of research into recycling and refining processes, Miller formed Electro-Physiology Reward or EPreward. Unlike other medical waste companies, Miller says his EPreward is structured like a co-op for purchasing medical catheters from hundreds of hospitals and then provides rebates in a very transparent transaction.
“The most rewarding part of my business is having employees who are successful. I can leave the office and do other things and I know my employees are collaborating and being productive. I see one of my main roles as a business owner, is to provide them with everything they need to do their job as best as they can. We also have a profit sharing program where everyone benefits from business success, and our least paid employee makes over two-and-a-half times the minimum wage.” said Miller.
Building a successful small business seems only natural for a person who likes to disassemble and reassemble components to work a certain way. Miller thinks all small business owners are problem solvers of sorts but not everyone can do it. He says his employees are the foundation of his success and picking the right ones is as important as selecting the right parts to build an efficient machine.
“When we hire a new employee, we look at it more as an adoption into our work family.” said Miller. “I’m not looking for the best or most experienced person. Like Ted Turner looking for crew on his America's Cup sailboats, I’m looking for someone who can work well with others, who wants to learn and sees this job as challenge to rise up to. You can’t teach people to get along well with others, they either have that characteristic or not at this age, but you can teach them how to do specific tasks and their own motivation will move them beyond those functions to excel as an individual and a group.”
Miller’s nursing background, entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to tinker has led him to develop two medical devices that he has patented and is awaiting on FDA approval. And unlike television warnings not to try something at home, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Miller tested them on himself. He is also expanding EPreward into an unused medical product redistribution business to include unused materials that are nearing their shelf expiration date.
“Everything I learned from school, hobbies, sports, previous jobs and life experiences I consider as being a ‘tool’ for my next project.” said Miller. “People may reject a job or a task because they don’t see the way it will fit it to their plans. But you should take those opportunities when they come because they are a chance to add a tool to your personal tool belt. There will be a time down the road when that skill will be necessary. A person with a lot of passion but limited tools won’t succeed.”
When Lisa Hickey took over the ownership of her father’s business, Douglass Screen Printers in 1996, she not only faced a transforming industry driven by technology change but a more daunting challenge: being a female CEO in an industry where there were few peers.
“My father brought me into the business in the 1980s so I was very familiar with the screen printing business,” said Hickey. “When I took over as owner, I knew of very few women who owned businesses, and none like mine. It’s very important to have a network of trusted peers”.
Hickey accepted the challenge and moved forward to grow the business. Today, with three locations, employing more than 45 people and being ranked in the top 10% of all screen printing businesses in the nation, Hickey’s Douglass Screen Printers is a testament to success. She credits the company’s livelihood with taking advantage of entrepreneur programs at the Florida Small Business Development Center at the University of South Florida. There she realized something that she tells every new, small business owner.
“If you want to grow your business, the resources are out there,” said Hickey. “I did not have all the answers to lead this company when I took over but I reached out for assistance and ultimately I achieved better results.”
Hickey also sought to have Douglass Screen Printers designated a woman-owned business so she could expand through government contracting. Though she says the number of women-owned businesses are more numerous than when she came on the scene, they still aren’t noticed.
“I was in rare company back then but today women are on par with men in the entrepreneurial world and women-owned businesses are providing half the jobs in the U.S.” said Hickey.
Douglass Screen Printers became a certified woman-owned business in 2002 through the National Women Business Owners Corporation, who is inducting Hickey into their Hall of Fame this May. Other certifications followed. In 2004, she received certification through Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). The State of Florida’s Department of Management Services’ Office of Supplier Diversity Woman Owned gave her their certification also in 2004. Two years later, she self-certified as a Small Business Enterprise 8(m) Women Owned Small Business under SBA’s woman-owned small business contract program.
“These certifications gave me an additional competitive advantage as we began to bid for contracts in the public and private sector,” said Hickey.
According to Hickey, 30% of her business is with the Federal government and the balance is private sector.
“While many of the federal contracts are valued at $1000 or less, they do allow us to perpetuate long- standing relationships with the federal agencies. They know our capabilities and they come back to us with more business,” said Hickey, adding “in fact, we are the only screenprinter in the top 50 suppliers to the US Government Printing Office and have been for several years”.
Just as Hickey succeeded her father as the CEO of Douglass, she attained her own retirement goal and turned over the reins to her daughter. But before the leadership change, Hickey pointed the business in a direction of greater growth through exporting.
“In 2010, I took the International Trade Certificate Training through the Florida SBDC and the company received a State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) grant that produced a marketing plan to grow our export portfolio. The trick in our business is to maintain diverse product lines and markets so we can focus where the growth is.”
If you were to ask Lisa Hickey what advice she can give to future small business owners, she’s not afraid to share her experience. In fact, she is often asked to be a speaker at business conferences. There, she tells listeners about the “wisdom list” she shared with her daughter during transition.
“Business owners should have a sense of humanity, compassion, a focus on performance, and a written set of ambitious goals. Once you’re focused on a goal, your decisions will be driven by that focus. Don’t make a big deal or stress over day-to-day events or challenges. If your decisions are driven by your goal, then there is ultimately little to question.” She adds, “And if you treat others as they wish to be treated, then you will build a lifelong committed team.”
Being personally responsible for what your employees do and understanding your head may be on the proverbial chopping block can be a detractor for many entrepreneurs considering their own business, explained Hickey. But the positives outweighed any negatives in her career as a woman business owner.
“I enjoy ‘choice’ as a business-owner. That’s very broad but I can choose who I work with, who works for me, and what policies my business should have, but ultimately it’s choosing how I want to engage that makes being a small business owner worthwhile.”
By her own admission, Hickey is looking for the next thing to accomplish. Whatever goal she has her sights on, being a woman certainly isn’t going to distract her.
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.”