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They've grown over six generations from a row crop farm in far northeast Nebraska into a modern example of green, sustainable agriculture, tripling revenues since 2000 under the leadership of family patriarch Doug Garwood (pictured). And now, Cardinal Farms, a family-owned agricultural firm in Dakota City, has been named the Cornhusker State's Small Business of the Year for 2014 by the Small Business Administration. The company, run by Garwood, who serves as president and chief executive officer, and his son Scott, who serves as vice-president and chief operating officer, last May used an SBA loan to help finance a new $1 million fresh fish production facility.
Cardinal Farms was chosen as the state’s top small business based on its history as an established business, growth in number of employees, increase in sales and unit volume, response to adversity and innovation in products and services offered. They were nominated for the honor by Loren Kucera, Director, Nebraska Business Development Center, Wayne, and have been invited to attend the culmination of National Small Business Week in Washington, D.C., and will compete against candidates from all 50 states and territories for selection as the SBA’s National Small Business Person of the Year.
As part of National Small Business Week, the Small Business Administration will take the opportunity to highlight the impact of outstanding entrepreneurs and small business owners. More than half of Nebraskans either own or work for a small business, and these firms create about two out of every three new jobs in the state each year.
Cardinal Farms, which traces its family ownership back six generations to 1868, develops crops on 1,400 acres of northeast Nebraska farmland, and hauls manure through its trucking operation for global food conglomerate Tyson, Inc. With six full-time and six seasonal employees, they also offer pesticide-free, home-grown tasty tomatoes and cucumbers grown in its warm hydroponic greenhouse for sale in grocery stores throughout the Siouxland area.
The family business took a big step forming Cardinal Farms Aquaculture in South Sioux City, using an SBA 504 loan to purchase two enclosed systems of six 10,000-gallon fiberglass tanks each with a capacity to raise some 20,000 tasty Barramundi sea bass up to two pounds each to be sold to restaurants and grocery store in the area—and beyond. The goal is to expand to 24 fish tanks within a few years; the facility will add three additional full-time employees to the company workforce.
The 504 Loan Program provides approved small businesses with long-term, fixed-rate financing used to acquire fixed assets for expansion or modernization. These loans are made available through Certified Development Companies (CDC), SBA's community-based partners for providing 504 loans. This program calls for the participating lender to provide half the financing, with the SBA offering 40 percent of the costs financed through the CDC to help economic development, something Garwood strongly supports.
Garwood founded and presently serves on the board of directors of Siouxland Ethanol, where he developed an idea to help save the environment and provide fresh, Nebraska-grown fish. Two years ago, Garwood announced a partnership with a Maryland-based company to use cow manure and leftover grain sorghum from area ethanol plants to create algae. Using only sunlight as the energy source to create it, the algae would be used to make biofuel and feed the farm fresh fish.
“This unique enterprise will supplement the fresh fish market,” Garwood said, “which we believe is growing and underserved locally. There’s real potential here and a demand well outside the Midwest. Since our system is reliable and operates year-round, as opposed to an open-air pond, we can offer consistent taste and quality with our fish.”
“This is our home. This is where my children and grandchildren have been raised,” Garwood added. “This project is about investing in our community and will hopefully contribute to both our community’s, as well as my family’s economic well-being.”
The aquaculture facility also will use sustainable techniques, capturing the exhaust from the fish building to help heat the tomatoes in the hydroponic facility, saving heating costs and improving tomato production.
In addition to running Cardinal Farms, Garwood serves on several local community service and committees and boards to promote small business growth, and was crucial in contributing to the start of College Center, a joint venture between Wayne State College and Northeast Community College in South Sioux City. The center not only gives students an affordable value pursuing an education but provides area businesses and industry a well-educated potential workforce in return.
Think Tank Loves Monday Mornings
Who loves Monday mornings? Noble Studios does. The reason they say is “Passion. It's more than loving what we do. It's about looking forward to a new week, working alongside people we call friends.”
This creative atmosphere, fostered by founders Season and Jarrod Lopiccolo brought this company from a small beginning to a strong, remarkable group of 38 driven, innovative minds that include entrepreneurs, strategists, creatives, developers and account managers.
The little company that started in Carson City, Nevada in 2003 as a two-person, home-based web and marketing company has become one of the region’s fastest growing tech companies. It’s grown from a small boutique digital agency to a multi-million dollar tech company with a client roster of global brands – Asics, Autodesk, Barnes & Noble, Cisco, Farmers Insurance, Ford, HTC, Wildfire by Google, Verizon and Paramount Pictures.
While still in his 20’s, Jarrod was named 2010 SBA Nevada’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Now in their 30’s, Jarrod and Season together with their partner Michael Thomas straddle a generational point of view influenced by a generation where relationships and referrals were the key to success, yet evolving quickly through a vital understanding and mastery of modern technology. The partners realized that patterning their company after a traditional full service agency was not the key to their long term success. So, they created a company focused on the digital space, specializing in web, mobile and social media. One client was so happy with the Noble-created social media application that they described it as “smooth as a gravy sandwich.”
Exponential growth: Noble Studios’ growth has been phenomenal. In 2013, Inc. magazine included the firm in its annual list of America’s fastest-growing private companies. From its humble beginning as a home based business, the company expanded in 2011 to downtown Reno into an 8,650 square foot office space where they are leading the charge to position downtown as a tech hub.
Noble Studios’ revenues grew at a 50% annual clip from 2003 to 2007, 44% in 2009 and 42% in 2010. The company saw an increase in revenue from $1.6 million in 2011 to $2.6 million in 2012, $3.5 million in 2013 and expects to reach $8.9 million by 2015. In 2014, the partners plan to grow the staff by 10%. Although the company has tripled its staff size in the past three years, it continues to operate without a single investor.
Adversity: the 2007 recession dealt a death blow to many small companies. Noble Studios responded by expanding its digital marketing brand and reach to the Bay area, targeting and securing service agreements with international brands. As a result, the company not only survived, but expanded in 2008.
It’s the team: Noble Studios cares for its employees and enjoys a low turnover rate. The partners believe in hard work and big rewards. The company pays 100% for medical, dental and life insurance for employees and their dependents. In addition to paid holidays, staff receives an initial 15 days PTO which includes “family week” for all at Christmas. Budget is allocated for a healthy workplace - healthy snacks, company-branded bicycles for employee use, company field trips to a climbing wall. The company regularly hosts catered meals for the team, a monthly massage therapist, retreats, barbeques and parties to encourage team building. Continuing education is encouraged, and reimbursed to foster innovation and leading edge practice.
And staff has a voice. First Tuesdays, an extended team meeting to shares new business, reviews current projects, celebrates milestones, solves challenges and exchanges ideas. On remaining Tuesdays staff gathers for knowledge sharing and team building.
Noble Studios team is heavily invested in the community. Led by its Community Outreach Committee, in 2013, the team donated more than $102,000 in services and funds and volunteered more than 1700 hours. Launched in 2014 is a program to offer $75,000 to $110,000 of pro-bono services to Nevada nonprofits and startups.
The partners are passionate about attracting new business to Nevada. In 2013 the team developed an award-winning interactive campus tour for the local university to attract young, tech-savvy and talented high school students. The agency also built websites for three northern Nevada economic development agencies to showcase the region’s favorable business climate.
Staff is encouraged to plan an active role in the business community. Collectively, the team holds 19 active board and committee positions throughout northern Nevada. Both Jarrod and Season judged the 2013 regional collegiate business plan competition.
Noble Studios has frequently been recognized for the quality of their work. In 2013, the firm garnered 45 industry awards. They are viewed as leading edge thinkers in northern Nevada and often in demand as speakers on digital strategy, marketing and entrepreneurship. Michael Thomas was recently tapped for an interview by MSNBC’s In Business in New York.
And they’re not nearly finished. In 2014 they’re targeting large Fortune 500 brands and will continue to position the company as a leader in digital marketing.
When she was a young girl, Tracie Malesa often played a game in her family’s electrical contracting business. She and her sister often would imitate her grandparents by holding imaginary business meetings of their own, pretending to schedule service calls and typing up little invoices, just to have fun.
There’s no playing around for her these days. Malesa grew up to run Du-Rite Electric, an Elkhorn-based family-owned company that’s seen revenues climb 25 percent over the past year, and should soon expect another $1 million in growth thanks to burgeoning federal contracting work and the rising popularity of green projects.
Getting involved with federal contracting jobs
Du-Rite Electric has served local metropolitan homeowners, builders and contractors since the company was founded by her grandparents in 1958, but becoming a contract holder of the General Services Administration schedule opened the company to work on government projects creating an additional revenue stream.
“The programs were for projects to improve infrastructures, and in most of those projects, electrical work would be needed,” said Malesa, who turned to the Procurement Technical Assistance Center at the Nebraska Business Development Center’s Omaha office for certification help. “We saw it as an opportunity for a new line of work we hadn’t done before.”
Contract work will prove crucial; while the company’s revenues fell along with the rest of the construction industry during the recession, “it’s beginning to climb again,” she explained, “although we do have to do more projects now to reach the same revenue because our profit margins have decreased.”
Some of those projects include retrofitting light fixtures with state-of-the-art LED systems and other electrical projects in the Edward Zorinsky Federal Building and the Roman L. Hruska Federal Courthouse in Omaha, the Robert Denney Federal Building and Courthouse in Lincoln and the Nebraska Games and Parks Commission.
“We’ve seen a big demand for retrofitting fixtures from the traditional metal halides to LED, which is a greener version of lighting,” Malesa said. “Customers are seeing savings in utility bills as well as noticeable differences in the brightness of their lights.”
And not just for those government jobs. The company retrofitted light fixtures in a handful of hangars at a private airport in Minnesota, and did similar work for Westroads Mall in Omaha. They’ve also snagged jobs installing large exhaust fans for Planet Fitness, area colleges, the Washington County fairgrounds and several large manufacturing plants in the area.
Then there are several in-depth remodeling jobs for fast food franchises in Omaha and Fremont. “From the lighting right down to the electrical outlets to plug in the fryers,” she said.
The company continues to take on residential jobs, too. Malesa said the company has found a niche working with outdoor pools, spas and kitchenettes, sunrooms and home automation systems.
Staying competitive in a challenging industry thanks to SBA financing
“We don’t do any advertising,” Malesa said, proudly. “All business is referral or word of mouth.”
Visit the Elkhorn site during the morning rush—and it is a busy rush--and you’ll see one shift returning trucks, equipment and tools as another checks in for their assignments that day. With a grunt or two they’ll load up their trucks and off they go to job sites all over the area.
Although the company is faring well overall, there are continuing challenges in construction-related industries.
“Up until two or three years ago, once we had an established relationship with a builder, we didn’t need to continue bidding with them,” she said. “Now, with the volatility in the industry, the contractors have to do more bidding as well.” Subcontractors in all specialties, Malesa added, are dealing with more bidders for each job.
Cutting costs for the company isn’t just a smart thing to do; for Du-Rite Electric, it was a matter of survival in that increasingly competitive environment. Restructuring the company’s debt load was the first step beyond survival to thriving; for that financing, Du-Rite was approved for an SBA 7(a) guaranteed loan through Omaha State Bank (now Core Bank) in August 2012.
“We cut our interest rate, which gave us more operating income and more room to move financially,” Malesa said. And with that more comfortable operating margin, Du-Rite Electric could handle larger jobs, completing its move from chiefly handling residential work to larger commercial projects.
The loan approval did one other thing, she added.
“After we got the SBA loan, we added three apprentices who were learning the trade,” Malesa said, growing the company workforce from seven to 10 employees. “We taught them our way of doing the work and our habits.”
Growing a farm team of qualified electricians
Even finding three apprentices to bring aboard was hard. Malesa claimed Du-Rite Electric actually has had to turn down projects “because we can’t find enough qualified electricians. There is a large pool of kids not even interested in going into the trades. You talk with other people in the trades you find most of them are so busy right now they are running behind schedule. Like us, they are finding it a challenge to add qualified people to their teams.”
Malesa is doing something about that. Du-Rite Electric is working with the Association of Builders and Contractors, an industry organization group, to promote career choices for high school and college-aged young people, especially a school for at-risk kids in Omaha, to open students to the idea of pursue careers in HVAC, electrical, plumbing and other trades.
“We’re seeing if we can offer something back to the community,” she added.
Malesa, who owns equal shares in the company with her parents, left the family business for a while to work for a debt management company, but when her grandparents retired in 2006, she felt the pull to return, this time to run things. She soon brought the operation up to date, replacing handwritten, green ledger books with modern spreadsheet software. Seeking SBA financing to restructure the company debt, hiring new apprentices, and pursuing government contracting opportunities isn’t just good business, either.
“My family name is on the line here,” she admitted. “It’s rough when it’s a family business … my dad, my uncles, my brother, my sister, we’re all depending on this business. It takes all of us to get a job done. From the time my grandparents started this company, it has been through cycles of good times and bad times. If we can figure this all out and survive, we will be stronger, better and poised for the future.”