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SBA Selects Giovanni CEO as New York State Small Business Person of the Year

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.