Joe Lillard relocated to the Berkeley Springs area 35 years ago from the Washington D.C. metro area to try his hand at farming. But it was farming that eventually directed him to homeopathic medicine and entrepreneurship. That journey from country farmer to small business owner resulted in Lillard, president of Washington Homeopathic Products, being named the West Virginia 2009 Small Business Person of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Lillard attended the 46th annual National Small Business Week Celebration in Washington D.C. and was presented with his award by SBA's Administrator, Karen Mills, as was entrepreneurs from each state of the union. Lillard was also recognized as Small Business Person of the Year at the 2009 West Virginia Business Awards Celebration on Wednesday, June 17, 2009 at the Tamarack Conference Center in Beckley.
As a farmer, Lillard soon discovered the cost of veterinary care generally outweighed dollar value of his livestock. In order to curb costs, he began looking into homeopathic medicine. A neighbor, who happened to be a veterinarian, had a goat with an abscess that wouldn’t heal. After trying conventional medicine, which didn’t seem to be helping, they concocted a homeopathic remedy which worked. It was at this point Lillard became a homeopathic believer.
For the next two decades, Lillard made the daily commute to Bethesda, Md., to work at a homeopathic pharmacy and study the benefits of homeopathic medicine. When an opportunity to purchase the business, then called Washington Homeopathic Pharmacy, arose in 1991, Lillard jumped at the chance.
After years of commuting, Lillard decided to move the business a little closer to home and opened his Washington Homeopathic Products storefront in historic downtown Berkeley Springs. In 2004, he moved the entire operation to West Virginia.
Since purchasing the company, Lillard has transformed it from a five employee business with an annual income of $150,000 into a multi-million dollar operation with over 25 employees.
Homeopathic medicine is a form of alternative medicine that works on the principle of stimulating the body’s natural defenses to fight off illness and disease. It is not only for use in the veterinary field, but used by people throughout the world.
Washington Homeopathic Products has over 65,000 customers in more than 20 countries. Their clients include pharmacies, retail stores, practitioners, midwives, veterinarians, distributors and the general public. The business continues to grow as a result of web-based sales, superior quality product, and an excellent reputation for customer service.
Lillard has also utilized the services of the West Virginia Small Business Development Center to enhance WHP's workforce, more specifically their training grant program. The program provided funding to train key staff on crucial programs inherent to the homeopathic industry.
West Virginia SBA Director Judy McCauley said the company epitomizes the criteria for the Small Business Person award and is an excellent representative for small business success in West Virginia.
Lillard was nominated by Misty Householder, marketing director for Washington Homeopathic Products.
Scott Hedges and Mike Grady make a powerful team. As president and vice president of Power Sonix Inc., located in Martinsburg, this dynamic duo has designed and manufactured the most effective aircraft loud hailer systems available, gaining them a worldwide reputation.
It is this distinction that has led to Hedges and Grady being selected as the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2010 Small Business Exporter of the Year for West Virginia.
Power Sonix originated in 1997 in the basement of Hedges’ home under the name Applied Electro-Mechanics Inc. Both men were previously employed at Applied Electro Mechanics Inc. in Point of Rocks, Md., Hedges as the plant manager and Grady as director of research and development.
“We tried to keep our new name similar to that of the original company so we could continue to do business with the foreign companies we were dealing with through our overseas agent at the time,” Hedges said. “We just added a hyphen to the old name.”
In 1995, Grady developed the world’s first, light-weight neodymium magnet, compression driver for high-powered speech projection devices used on ships and aircraft. The device was the precursor to the current technology used in the hailer systems now manufactured at Power Sonix.
It was just after the design of the light-weight driver that the company was sold to a British multi-national firm allowing Hedges and Grady to strike out on their own as entrepreneurs.
“The firm wanted us to go to work for them but we decided we could do better as their competitor,” Grady said.
What makes the loud hailer system so attractive to those in the aviation field is the minimal weight, compact design, and compatibility with most cockpit audio controllers. The system is engineered to project extremely clear speech and sounds over the noise of engines, rotors and other conditions at distances over a mile.
“A good example of the effectiveness of our system happened in Oregon in March,” Grady said. “A 4-year-old girl was located in the rugged terrain around her home after being missing 28 hours when she recognized her grandmother’s recorded voice being projected from an airplane circling a quarter mile above her. That gives you an idea as to the clarity of the speech projection capacity of our system.”
“We are probably 95 percent recognized as the world leader in this type of technology in speech communication,” he added.
The company exports to over 20 countries worldwide which accounts for nearly 95 percent of their business. In the United States, sales have been primarily airborne law enforcement organizations in seven states, but domestic sales are steadily growing as a result of word of mouth and reputation.
“The airborne segment of the law enforcement is a small community and a niche market,” Grady said. “They talk among each other at trade shows and via the Internet and those with our system tell others ‘if you want to talk to someone from the air, you need a Power Sonix system.’”
Hedges recalls an overseas incident where the Power Sonix system was being used to relay instructions at an event alongside of a competitors system. “The commander couldn’t understand what was being said through the other system but ours was crystal clear. Needless to say, we made a few more sales after that day.”
Both men realize they manufacture a well-made, successful product that fills a specific need in a niche market.
“It’s a great product when there is a need, but there has to be a need,” Grady said. “And with the durability of the system, they generally have a 10- to 12-year life span and a less than 1 percent return rate, it’s good in one sense, but in terms of resale, we don’t have as many opportunities to make a sale.”
As far as advice to other businesses looking into the world of exporting, Hedges and Grady offer the following: “Be realistic about your expectations; pursue quality and excellence in your products; make your customer relationships as personal as you can; persistence and believe in yourself is an absolute requirement; and deep pockets wouldn’t hurt either.”
As a small business owner since 2001, Diane Lewis measures success in various ways. The president of Action Facilities Management, a site support company based in Morgantown, has grown her business from a 2-person operation to its current level of 170 full- and part-time employees in just 9 years. But it’s the advice and support she provides to other entrepreneurs that really makes her feel successful.
This is what has made Lewis the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2010 Minority Small Business Champion for West Virginia.
“Being named West Virginia’s 2010 Minority Small Business Champion is awesome, but it’s also a very humbling award,” Lewis said. “The real reward is watching other minority-owned companies develop and become successful. I love sharing my business experience and growing pains to make things easier for them.”
Lewis’ nearly 10-year career as an entrepreneur started when she was a contract administrator for a small business. She was encouraged to delve into entrepreneurship when the owner became ill and considered closing the business. With her knowledge of government contracting, and support of husband, Ken Jackson, Action Facilities Management was created.
“Working in a small business support role, I never dreamed I would someday become an entrepreneur,” she said. “I was fortunate to have a good mentor in Ken and just followed his example.”
Even with all the encouragement in the world, becoming a successful small business owner doesn’t happen overnight.
“I was really nervous at first,” Lewis said. “I knew I had a good product and service to offer, but wasn’t sure I could sell it. Also, being a minority female in a male dominated field didn’t ease the anxiety,” she said.
But sell it she did. With prior experience in contract administration, Lewis knew the federal government sector was a good place to look for opportunities. She began focusing her marketing efforts on federal agencies in West Virginia and surrounding states eventually landing her first contract with the Center for Disease Control.
That contact led to more contracts and the opportunity to not only focus on work in West Virginia, but branch out to Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington D.C., and Colorado.
“As a site support company, our main focus is on security services, but we also offer support administrative services, janitorial and building maintenance services, which includes grounds,” Lewis said. “We recently branched into warehousing and will be looking into opportunities to expand into program management.”
Action Facilities Management (AFM) is also a participant in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 8(a) business development program — an essential instrument for helping socially and economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs gain a foothold in government contracting. The program helps firms build competitive and institutional know-how through sole-source government contracts as well as encouraging participation in competitive and commercial contracts.
“AFM wouldn’t be at the level they are today without the SBA’s 8(a) program,” Lewis said. “The staff at the West Virginia District works hard to make sure small businesses get their fair share of federal contracting opportunities. I use their expertise on a regular basis.”
She stressed the importance of providing assistance to other minority-owned companies on business related issues.
“I do it all the time,” Lewis said. “It is a way to help others avoid the pitfalls and problems I went through over the past 10 years as an entrepreneur. I really enjoy helping others succeed and making a difference in someone else’s life. It makes me feel like a proud parent. I am blessed to have a staff that does their jobs to the degree which allows me to help other companies. I know the company won’t suffer due to their expertise and support.”
She is also proud of that her children are both involved in the business and learning the ropes as well. Her son, Donald Hill is running the Washington D.C. office and has been able to secure two federal contracts. Daughter Stephanie works at the corporate office and is putting her recently attained college degree to work to ensure all potential candidates are able to meet our requirements.
Another project near and dear to her heart is her participation in the Members of Diversity group in the Morgantown area. As the group’s vice president, Lewis works with high school youth in grades 11 and 12 to provide “life skills.”
“About a year or so ago, Ken and I noticed a lot of local minority youth were getting in trouble,” Lewis said. “We teamed with the local Board of Education and went into the local high schools to provide 11th and 12th graders with such skills as going through an interview process, how to prepare a resume, how to fill out a job application, how to dress for an interview, and stressed how important it was to not have something in your background that might affect their future. It’s a way to demonstrate to them that someone cares and is paying attention to them.”
As far as advice for minorities and others considering venturing into the world of entrepreneurship, Lewis stresses to not only know your product, but know the paperwork that goes with it. Do your homework, learn about business planning, attend business related classes offered by the SBA and the Small Business Development Center, and know what you are getting into before taking that first step, she said.
Once you do become a small business owner, remember the other 125,000 West Virginia small businesses and support them by using their products or services in your business. “Don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk,” Lewis said.