For a little over a decade, Craig Hartzell has been looked to as a leader in the West Virginia technology movement. He’s extremely proud of his company’s accomplishments and successes, which he attributes to their involvement in the federal contracting arena.
Hartzell is Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Azimuth Incorporated, an electronics engineering, software engineering and logistics company with offices in Morgantown, Fairmont and Frederick Maryland.
Hartzell and partner Adam Macias, who met while serving together in the U.S. Army Special Forces, founded Azimuth in 1989. What began with one employee and annual sales of $15,000 has grown to nearly 80 employees and annual sales exceeding $7 million.
“Through our military background, we knew there were not many West Virginia-based engineering firms whose focus was the Department of Defense,” said Hartzell. “We knew that with a little experience, and a lot of hard work, we could make it work.”
It was about that time a few fortunate factors came into play. The first was the teaming with Electronic Warfare Associates (EWA), a large electronics and software engineering company based in Virginia and who had recently relocated to Fairmont. EWA “adopted” Azimuth and entered the pilot “mentor-protégé” program sponsored by the Department of Defense.
“The assistance we received from EWA was invaluable,” said Hartzell. “In fact, we probably wouldn’t be the company we are today without their influence and support. There’s a lot to be learned from companies that have been down the road before.”
Another factor that helped in the growth of Azimuth was the financial assistance they received from the U.S. Small Business Administration. “We’re a ‘hands-on’ company and knew that in order for us to be successful and able to compete for large-scale government contracts, plant and equipment was crucial,” added Hartzell.
Two SBA 7(a) guaranteed loans later, the company had the facility and equipment they needed. “In fact, most of the equipment that we purchased back in the early-90s with the SBA loans is still in use today,” said Hartzell.
Azimuth found that getting a government-backed loan wasn’t difficult. “The loan process was fairly quick and easy,” said Hartzell. “The lender we used was very knowledgeable about the SBA loan process and quickly dealt with any questions and concerns we had. We also found the people at SBA very helpful and supportive as well.”
Another reason that contributed to Azimuth’s growth was their participation in SBA’s 8(a) business development program. The 8(a) program was created to help disadvantaged businesses compete in the American economy and gain a foothold in obtaining federal contracts.
“I believe that we are an example of exactly what the 8(a) program was designed to do,” said Hartzell. “We didn’t rely on the program for our survival. The knowledge and tools we obtained while participating in the program provided us with the capability of becoming a very solid firm at the end of the 9-year program. The program assisted us with access to the right customers and enabled us to build our technical capabilities.”
Hartzell is also quick to realize that without the vision and support of West Virginia’s Congressional and Senate delegation, Azimuth wouldn’t be a player in what is now called the I-79 high technology corridor.
“The West Virginia business community is fortunate to have the support of visionaries like Senator Byrd, Senator Rockefeller and Congressman Mollohan. They’ve provided the groundwork for the development of the I-79 high technology corridor and we at Azimuth are proud to be part of the movement,” said Hartzell.
Hartzell has lots of stories and experiences he’s gathered over the years, but due to the nature of their work, most of them are classified. “In fact, some of our best work will never be shown or known,” added Hartzell.
Advocating for the rights of veterans is also one of Hartzell’s passions. In fact, he was nominated by Senator Rockefeller and appointed by the President of the United States to serve on the board of directors of the National Veterans Business Development Corporation, a position he still proudly holds. He’s also been involved in the development of numerous veterans’ conferences and offers support for West Virginia veteran-owned businesses.
Azimuth is known as a “little company” that isn’t afraid to stick out its neck to provide assistance to other companies that are looking to gain an insight into the world of government contracting.
“We’ve always been a strong advocate of the teaming concept,” said Hartzell. “It’s teaming that has gotten Azimuth to the point we are today and hopefully by continuing to utilize teaming, we can contribute to the development and success of other West Virginia firms.”
You know, he just might have something there.
For additional information on the SBA and its programs, visit the West Virginia District Office web site at www.sba.gov/wv or contact them at (304) 623-5631.
When a fire on Sept. 12, 2003, destroyed the three saw mills that constituted the heart and soul of Mill Creek Builders Supply, it was a big blow, not only to the company, but also to the town of Mill Creek, W.Va. This small business, with approximately 80 employees, situated in the timber-laden hills of West Virginia is undoubtedly the single largest employer in this small Randolph County community of 650.
Even before the fire was extinguished, Charlie Bell, president and CEO of this small family-owned sawmill founded by his father, Clyde in 1961, was thinking about ways to rebuild. “We actually started the rebuilding process once it was safe enough to bring in equipment to start clearing away what was left of the mills,” said Bell, a veteran of the timber industry with nearly 30 years of experience.
Of course, a project of this magnitude required a lot of capital to accomplish. That’s when the local lending community stepped up to the plate. “The fire happened on a Friday afternoon and the next morning, Jim Schoonover from Davis Trust Company in Elkins was here offering any assistance he could to help rebuild the mill,” added Bell.
“Charlie was going to need a lot more capital than our local community bank could provide in order to rebuild,” said Schoonover, senior vice president of loans at Davis Trust. “We were familiar with the SBA’s 504-Certified Development Company Loan Program through dealing with Tony Benedetto from the West Virginia CDC in Charleston, W.Va. It was a perfect fit for Mill Creek Builders.”
The 504-CDC program is a long-term financing tool for economic development within a community. The program provides businesses with long-term, fixed-rate financing for major fixed assets, such as land and buildings. A CDC is a nonprofit corporation working with the SBA and private-sector lenders to provide small business financing.
A complete 504 project includes a loan secured with a senior lien from a private-sector lender covering up to 50 percent of a project, a loan secured with a junior lien from the CDC (backed by a 100 percent SBA-guaranteed debenture) covering up to 40 percent of the cost, and a contribution of at least 10 percent equity from the small business concern.
“We wouldn’t be in business today if it wasn’t for the 504 loan program,” said Bell. “Jim was a tremendous help coordinating the required paperwork and Tony made it work. He and Rob Neal from the West Virginia Capital Corporation made several trips from Charleston to help prepare the 504 application and that really made the process much easier.”
One of the main features of the 504 program is its association to the economic development of the community, the key word is ‘community’. It takes more than one individual or organization within the community to make a 504 project work.
“There must be a good economic support network for any business to succeed; a network that understands the importance of what small business mean to the community,” said Bell. “We have a tremendous economic development network within Randolph County. People like Jennifer Giovanniti at the Randolph County Development Authority, Jim Schoonover at Davis Trust, Citizens National Bank who provided the interim financing, and, of course, the small business owners all work together to help improve the economic environment in the community.”
Finding the funding along with designing and building a new saw mill are not easy tasks, but Bell was up to the challenge. “Charlie, who immediately began working on plans for the new saw mill, had design ready in about two weeks,” said Schoonover.
Once the design was on paper, Bell enlisted the services of a local small business, Reckart Equipment Company in Beverly, W.Va., to begin immediately working on the new mill equipment and structures.
Bell was in danger of losing many of his key employees who were crucial to the successful operation the mill without an operational saw mill. That is when Bell came up with an idea which not only kept the employees on the payroll, but actually sped up the construction process. “I didn’t want to let anyone go, so we actually turned people with years of saw mill experience into metal fabricators,” said Bell. “We used our own labor force to construct the building and install the new equipment and didn’t have to rely on contractors during the months of construction.”
His mother, Ella, also helped during the construction. “My mother lives just next door and serves as the company treasurer,” said Bell. “She was here every day during the construction keeping the hot food and coffee going.”
In a little over a year after the devastating fire, a new state of the art saw mill was back in operation and just about every employee back on the job. “It took a tremendous team effort to make finish the project,” Bell said. “The 504 program helped a great deal. We wouldn’t have been able to rebuild without it.”
For more information on the 504 loan program, the SBA and the resources available to assist small businesses, contact the West Virginia District Office at 800-767-8052 extension 8 or by email at email@example.com, or visit their website at www.sba.gov/wv.
Entrepreneurship is a familiar word to Chirag Patel. He was just 5 years old when his parents, Pravin and Tara, relocated to West Virginia from New Jersey to open the Heldreth Motel and Restaurant in Kingwood. That small business venture has expanded to eight motels stretched over three states. His grandparents operated small businesses in Tanzania (Africa) and the Fiji Islands more than 50 years ago. Growing up the son and grandson of small business owners, and experiencing firsthand the rewards and benefits of small business ownership, Patel was destined to follow the same path.
Patel is currently President and Chief Executive Officer of DN American, an information technology company certified in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development and Small Disadvantaged Business programs. DN American is located at the West Virginia High Technology Park in Fairmont, W.Va.
During the short course of his entrepreneurial career, he has managed several small business concerns. “I actually started my first business, FITNETICS, LLC, a fitness center, soon after I graduated from West Virginia University in 1998,” said Patel. “I majored in business management and couldn’t wait to graduate and start my own business.”
Asked why he chose a fitness center as his first business venture Patel replies, “Fitness had always been a hobby. If I could find the right location, I knew I could start a successful fitness facility. The Morgantown area was saturated with fitness centers at the time and Fairmont seemed like the logical location, especially the area around the I-79 high-tech corridor.” Soon after opening FITNETICS he met and married his wife, Binita, who joined him in the day-to-day operations of the center.
Patel knew about the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development Program from his internships during college at DN American, then owned by cousin Nash Patel. “I saw how the government contracting program helped DN American grow and as a result, I knew that’s where I wanted to go,” added Patel.
The SBA is a federal government agency that helps maintain and strengthen the nation’s economy by aiding, counseling, assisting and protecting the interests of small business and by helping families and businesses recover from national disasters. The 8(a) program is an essential instrument for helping socially and economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs gain access to the economic mainstream of American society. The SBA has helped thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs over the years to gain a foothold in government contracting. Participation is divided into two phases over nine years: a 4-year developmental stage and a 5-year transitional stage.
Participants can receive sole-source contracts, up to a ceiling of $3 million for goods and services and $5 million for manufacturing. While SBA helps 8(a) firms build their competitive and institutional know-how, the agency also encourages them to participate in competitive acquisitions.
After certification in the 8(a) program, Patel turned the operations of FITNETICS over to his wife and concentrated his efforts on a new information technology business, Innovative Management and Technology Systems (IMTS). “I began marketing IMTS as an IT services company with the assistance from Nash at DN American,” said Patel. “That eventually led to a formal mentor-protégé agreement through the SBA’s 8(a) program. The agreement helped my business grow from one employee to 20 over the course of two years and led to two subcontracts through DN American with the Federal Bureau of Investigations and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”
More contracts soon followed, including their first prime contract with NASA’s IV&V facility in Fairmont. “We decided to sell the fitness facility and concentrate our efforts on growing IMTS,” adds Patel. “SBA’s mentor-protégé program enabled me to grow my company by marketing and providing services to the federal government.”
His entrepreneurial efforts drew the attention of Vanessa Schoetz, affiliated services manager at the West Virginia High Technology Foundation, who nominated him as SBA’s 2005 Young Entrepreneur of the Year for West Virginia; he won. “Receiving the Young Entrepreneur award is a very important milestone in my early career,” Patel said. “I’m very grateful for the support I’ve received, especially from my colleagues at DN American, the SBA, the WVHTF, and most importantly, my family.”
Patel is not slowing down; in fact, he recently acquired DN American. “I will continue to operate under the DN American name,” he said. “I want to build on the successful legacy that has spanned the past 15 years.”
That company, which is comprised of 150 employees in six states, continues to grow. “Our vision is to continue expanding into other regions of the country,” he adds.
Although Patel has demonstrated the potential to grow, he does not plan to move the company out of the state. “West Virginia is a great place to live and raise a family,” states Patel. “We have great employees at DN American. They are supportive, really enjoy their work, and are like family. I am not even thinking about moving the company, just to grow it.”
For more information on the SBA and the resources available to assist small business, contact the West Virginia District Office at 800-767-8052 extension 8 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their web site at www.sba.gov/wv.