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The U.S. Small Business Administration has selected Louis J. DeMent, CEO and vice president of Giovanni Food Company based in Syracuse, N.Y., as the New York State winner of the 2013 Small Business Person of the Year Award. Nominated by the Greater Syracuse Business Development Corporation, Giovanni’s was chosen for the award based on its growth in sales and employees, staying power, response to adversity as well as charitable contributions. Giovanni Food Company (GFC) has been making pasta sauces since 1934, when the DeMent family first opened their Italian-style restaurant in Oswego, NY. The DeMents started manufacturing pasta sauces on a larger scale in the 1950s and gradually expanded into other tomato-based product lines.
Second-generation owner Jack DeMent led the company through its early growth stages and navigated the certification process to make spaghetti sauce for the USDA Food for Kids and Needy Families Program. When Jack’s son Lou joined the family business as its first salesman in 1997, the company’s sales were largely dependent on the USDA contracts. Through Lou’s marketing efforts to private label customers, sales quadrupled in nine years from under $2 million to more than $8 million and by 2006 a larger plant was necessary to accommodate further expansion.
Jack and Lou guided the transition from their original 6,200 square-foot facility to a 60,000 square-foot plant in Liverpool, NY in 2006. The move from Oswego presented multiple challenges for the company. Reassembling the hand-fabricated production line caused unanticipated expenses and production delays. The company’s acidic discharges into the municipal waste water system required the installation of a $70,000 treatment tank. But nothing could have prepared Lou for the unexpected death of his father in April 2007.
Jack’s wife Mary became the sole owner of GFC and though she had always been involved in the company’s bookkeeping and personnel operations, she was unprepared to take on responsibility for full operations. After 10 years in the company’s ranks, 34-year-old Lou’s sudden leadership position was instrumental for the company to overcome this profound loss. Lou built a team of highly skilled key personnel to allow the company to move forward with growth and profitability, and has since become Chief Executive Officer, Vice President and part owner.
By 2009, GFC was bursting at the seams again, even producing some product batches at another Syracuse tomato product manufacturer. When that 67,000 square-foot facility was for sale later in the year, Lou recognized an opportunity. GFC used SBA 504 and 7(a) loans from GSBDC and NBT Bank to purchase the manufacturing plant and its food processing equipment, increasing capacity from its original, antiquated line to three modern production lines. While the original plan was to sell the Liverpool plant after the move to the Syracuse facility, the company’s continued growth has resulted in its use as a warehouse for finished inventory.
GFC has been successful by staying rooted to their traditional family recipe while developing gourmet and organic brands in order to accommodate evolving customer preferences. With the rising popularity of organic and natural products, GFC created a premium pasta sauce brand called Greenview Kitchen, with marinara, roasted red pepper, roasted garlic and spicy eggplant flavors. Earning certifications from Quality Assurance International (QAI) and the Orthodox Union has enabled GFC to meet the organic and kosher dietary needs for consumers worldwide. Their newest offering, Greenview Kitchen, can be found in some local independent stores such as Nichols, Natur Tyme, Vella’s, Spera’s, Green Hills, as well the following chains in the Northeast; Geislers, Dave’s Marketplace, and Roche Brothers. The distribution is continuing to grow with UNFI, North America’s leading distributor of natural, organic and specialty products offering the Greenview Kitchen Organic pasta sauces, pizza sauce, and bruschetta topping.
Lou’s commitment to the company is matched by his engagement in the local community. Giovanni’s has a corporate giving committee to find worthwhile causes for employee involvement and corporate sponsorship. Lou challenged GFC employees to participate in the American Diabetes Association’s “Tour De Cure” cycling fundraiser, which promoted fitness among the employees and raised nearly $5,000. GFC is also a co-presenting sponsor of a golf tournament for “On Point for College,” a non-profit organization that helps low-income Syracuse youth achieve their dreams of higher education. The tournament was able to raise over $50,000 to help many local young adults attend college. Throughout the year, GFC also donates its products to local organizations for fund-raising opportunities.
Today, Giovanni products can be found on grocery and specialty store shelves across the U.S. The company also packs pasta sauces, pizza sauces, salsas, and barbeque sauces for many private label customers who distribute products worldwide. Under Lou DeMent’s leadership, sales have increased 49% over the past three years to over $20 million dollars and the number of employees has nearly doubled in just five years, from 37 in 2007 to 68 in 2012. With foresight beyond his years and determination to overcome adversity, Lou has ensured that the Giovanni Food Company will continue the tradition of success for the next generation. Giovanni’s CEO Lou DeMent received the Syracuse District and New York State awards at SBA’s annual awards luncheon on May 6 at The Doubletree Hotel in Syracuse. DeMent will compete for the national award at SBA’s National Small Business Week celebration on June 21 at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C.
In 1986, innovator Karen Goetz saw a business opportunity to transform the way event tickets were sold in the arts, sports and entertainment industries. Her developers created graphical seat-selection software for PCs, unimagined at the beginning of the PC revolution during the 1980s. Goetz’s startup company was the first to the marketplace with a color-coded, interactive seating chart that made selling tickets not only user friendly for the entertainment venues that were her customers, but also able to capture important data on who their customers were who were buying tickets. TicketsLive grew rapidly from three employees to 125 in five countries. In 1995, Goetz and her team foresaw the growth of the Internet as a marketplace, and began transforming the company from solely a provider of computerized box office ticketing systems to one of the most advanced Internet ticketing companies and networks in the world, with a base of 150 million tickets available for sale on the Internet from customers in the U.S. and four international subsidiaries. In 1996, TicketsLive was the first company in the world to sell tickets, live, over the Internet, demonstrated at the New York State Fair in Syracuse, N.Y. After building TicketsLive from the ground up for 13 years, Goetz sold the successful company to a competitor in 1999 and planned to savor an early retirement. But walking away from entrepreneurship wasn’t as easy as she expected.
“When you’ve been working to build a business and traveling all over the world, to just sit at home was not what I wanted to do after all. I love running businesses for two reasons: I love figuring out solutions that really help our customers and I love seeing my employees grow,” she says.
Goetz’s problem-solving curiosity was rebooted in 2000 after she and her family members witnessed several instances of experienced physicians not having critical medical history information available when needed in order to make critical and timely decisions for other family members with cancer. She was amazed that the healthcare industry still kept track of its patients with paper charts that were not easily accessible or searchable by the physicians and staff trying to provide excellent care to their patients.
“Medical practices were investing in diagnostic equipment to provide better diagnosis and treatment but they remained reluctant to invest in the running of their office, which would enable them to be more efficient and provide better patient care,” explains Goetz. “My goal was to help practices make that move from paper charts and paper forms to electronic versions of those charts as simply and easily as possible so that they could be more efficient very quickly.”
With that goal in mind, Goetz purchased a medical transcription company, an electronic prescription company, and an Internet document management company in 2000, merging them into what would eventually evolve by 2009 into an electronic health records (EHR) company. This creative approach was the opposite of Goetz’s first foray into business, requiring her to deconstruct multiple, long-established companies into a single cohesive venture. Originally called HealthCareOne, Goetz changed the company’s name in 2009 to Inforia, Inc. The name Inforia represents her team’s vision for a company that helps customers achieve ‘information euphoria’.
But the Syracuse-based company’s mantra of “no paper, no problem” wasn’t going to be an easy sell. From the very beginning, a significant challenge for Goetz’s company has been the negative perception of traditional EHR systems in the marketplace. Medical practices are reluctant to make the move to paperless office systems for two main reasons: The cost barrier to purchase expensive proprietary software systems and negative drastic changes to the functionality of the office, such as learning all new forms and programs, hiring more administrative staff to input patient documentation in the computer, or reducing the number of scheduled patients to compensate for the office’s lower efficiency.
To overcome this perception, Inforia’s mission is to offer an approachable, adaptable and affordable solution. Her programmers developed software that uses the customer’s unique forms in the way they are already using them, eliminating the need to learn a new program that is one-size-fits-all. The software seamlessly integrates with the customer’s existing practice management software as well as hospital systems. Another of Inforia’s competitive advantages is to offer the software on a subscriber basis, which allows customers to pay for the system incrementally and enables automatic upgrades as the software is continually enhanced. Inforia’s customers do not have to invest in expensive computer servers since Inforia is an application service provider (ASP) and maintains servers in a Rochester-based data center. All data stored off-site on Inforia’s servers is automatically backed up and mirrored, so that the information is secure, encrypted and protected from loss from natural and man-made disasters.
Today Inforia offers a range of paperless products beyond its original product, eDictation, now an App for iPhones and iTouches downloadable from the Apple Store. Its other products include eLabs, eScripts, and its popular EHR software, CaregiverDesktop. Customers can use the software on their PCs, tablets and mobile devices. With over 2,000 users from its base of 150 customers mainly concentrated in the Northeast, Goetz’s company is committed to “software usability” by soliciting and incorporating customer feedback into every software upgrade.
With a B.S. in education from Indiana University, Goetz had no formal business training before starting her first company. The opportunity to get intensive business training through SBA’s e200 Emerging Leaders Initiative was one she couldn’t pass up. The MBA-style curriculum was taught during evening classes, enabling Goetz to attend while still running her business full-time. Goetz graduated from the e200 Syracuse Class of 2012 in November with a three-year Strategic Growth Action plan and has already felt the impact on her 13-year old business.
“I had always wanted to make time for professional development but I never had the free time to devote to go back to school full-time. I loved the idea of a concentrated program over eight months; the beauty of it was the assignments weren’t on hypothetical companies but geared to my own company. It’s a lot of work but it’s worth it because the time invested is directly applicable to your business,” says Goetz. “My management team and I have been working on evolving the company into a full-fledged EHR company, and this is the year I feel it’s all going to come together.”
For Heidi and Tim Sanders, the meat counter represents more than how their parents made a living or where they met and fell in love- it’s the inspiration for their second careers as entrepreneurs. Tim apprenticed for three years to his father, a butcher in Nashua, New Hampshire, before beginning a 30-year career in the supermarket field. Heidi’s mother worked in a meat market in Westfield, Massachusetts and taught her how to bake from scratch. To honor their history, both Tim and Heidi’s parents are featured in framed photographs on the walls of their successful startup, Sanders Meat Market.
During their time at Shaw’s Supermarket in New Hampshire, Tim worked in the meat department and then as store director for 11 years, while Heidi worked her way up from cake decorator to deli and seafood department manager over 22 years. Ready for retirement from their supermarket careers, the Sanders vacationed in the Saratoga area in 2008 and fell in love with the place and the people. They relocated to the area and worked for several months to stay busy, but Tim and Heidi quickly realized they didn’t want to work for anyone else any longer.
“With our skill set, we looked around and thought the area was ripe for a high quality meat market,” Tim recounts. “We used Northeast NY SCORE in Saratoga Springs to help build our business plan, working with counselors Bill Hunt, Bill Edwards, and Dennis Crimi. They were very knowledgeable about this particular area. We needed help putting it all down on paper to create a plan and pursue the financing.”
Heidi and Tim sought a startup loan during the credit crunch of 2009, and found that in spite of their extensive industry experience, their business loan application was turned down by several banks. The Sanders increased their equity investment and decreased the loan amount, trimming back the extras they could add later. Their revamped business plan was approved by Saratoga National Bank & Trust Company. The SBA-backed loan provided working capital for the Sanders to run their fledgling store, coming through the same month they opened the shop’s doors in February 2010.
The Sanders set out to create a local meat market that offered Ballston Spa area residents top quality meats previously unavailable, without steroids, hormones or antibiotics. Their slogan “A Cut Above” is more than just a marketing slogan-it’s a mantra. Tim’s longstanding relationship with distributors ensures the shop receives top quality cuts such as USDA Prime and Certified Choice. And if a cut of meat doesn’t meet Tim’s high standard, it’s promptly rejected and returned to the distributor.
“I’d rather have to tell a customer that I didn’t like the way something looked than sell sub-standard products,” explains Tim. “When people ask our customers where tonight’s dinner is from, I want them to proudly say Sanders Meat Market.”
Increasingly, customers are asking more questions about what is in their meat and where it comes from. Last year’s controversy over “pink slime” or lean, finely textured beef brought national attention to the content and quality of mass-produced meat products. The Sanders saw a dramatic increase in new customers as locals switched from buying their meat at regional chain grocery stores.
“The same day the news broke, our phone was ringing off the hook from people asking if we sold ground beef without pink slime,” recalls Tim. “We’ve never sold it and we never will. Ever since then, I sell more hamburger than I can possibly keep up with.”
“Our beef isn’t sprayed with ammonia or squeezed from a plastic tube into packages. You can’t get any fresher than our ground chuck and sirloin, which sits in the display case just 20 to 40 minutes,” adds Heidi.
Ballston Spa residents have discovered that Sanders Meat Market offers more than top quality meats; customers can pick up everything to make tonight’s supper in the store. The shelves are stocked with salad and bread items, appetizers, vegetables, drinks and desserts. The desserts are scratch-baker Heidi’s specialty, ranging from dish-size chocolate chip cookies to flaky apple pies just like her Grandma used to make. Customers who prefer ready-to-cook meals enjoy bacon-wrapped pork tenderloins stuffed with apricot and dates and savory chicken pot pies.
As their business turns three in 2013, Heidi and Tim are completely at ease in their second careers as entrepreneurs. With persistence and a great team of employees, the Sanders turned their passion into a successful small business. They haven’t had a second thought about trading the corporate pay, benefits and security for something they can call their own: “After years of being serious, now is the time to have a little fun. We’re free of the golden handcuffs and we laugh a lot here. It’s the best thing we ever did,” says Tim.