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SBA announces 2017 Illinois small business winners

Release Date: 
Wednesday, March 22, 2017

CHICAGO - The U.S. Small Business Administration’s Illinois District Office is proud to announce Sonat Birnecker Hart and Robert Birnecker, owners of Chicago’s Koval Distillery, have been named the 2017 Illinois Small Business Persons of the Year.

Each year, the SBA honors small businesses and small business advocates across the country who are creating 21st-century jobs, driving innovation, and increasing America’s global competitiveness. SBA Administrator Linda McMahon, in announcing this year’s Small Business Person of the Year recipients, has invited the winners from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands to attend ceremonies in Washington, D.C on April 30-May 1, where the 2017 National Small Business Person of the Year will be named. 

 “These small business owners define entrepreneurial spirit and best represent the 28 million small businesses that are the backbone and economic engine for today’s economy,” McMahon said. “I look forward to welcoming the winners to Washington next month when they are officially honored for their achievements.”

Koval was born in 2008 after Sonat and Robert relocated from Washington, D.C. to Chicago and launched the organic whiskey, liqueur, and spirit producer – Chicago’s first distillery since the mid-1800s. The couple was inspired by Robert’s family business, an award-winning distillery and winery in his native Austria.

Koval spirits are made from scratch (avoiding the common industry practice of purchasing and bottling pre-made spirits), and this “grain to bottle” approach allows them to certify their products as organic and kosher. The company has had success appealing to customers who want locally produced goods, as well as niche markets not addressed by their competition.

Since its inception, Koval has grown steadily, going from one building and four products to four buildings and 20 products. What started as a small family operation now employs more than 40 people in multiple states and countries. A recently acquired SBA-guaranteed 504 Loan will be used to centralize production, storage, and shipping, allowing the company to improve service and product availability while fostering domestic and international growth. Koval currently exports to more than a dozen countries.

“The SBA program is fueling small businesses with success and support,” Sonat Birnecker Hart said. “Receiving an SBA loan has not only been essential to our growth and ability to purchase the ideal factory for our business, it is an independent vote of confidence in all that we are doing and trying to achieve, for which we are truly grateful.”

In addition to the Small Business Person of the Year, other 2017 Illinois Small Business Award winners include:

  • Illinois 8(a) Graduate Business of the Year: Wilbur C. Milhouse III, President and CEO. Milhouse Engineering & Construction, a professional full service engineering and architecture firm, has offices in Chicago and seven other locations. Their projects address community needs in aviation, facilities, gas, power, transportation, water, and program management. SBA’s 8(a) Business Development Program helps small disadvantaged businesses compete in the marketplace and access government contracts. (Milhouse was also named 8(a) Graduate of the Year for the Great Lakes Region, which covers Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Ohio.)
  • Illinois Exporter of the Year: Fariborz Maissami, President. Denbur Inc., of Westmont, Illinois, makes products for the dental, hobby, beauty, and automotive industries, such as interdental brushes and picks, diagnostic instruments and light enhancing devices, makeup applicators, and more. Denbur exports products to nearly three dozen countries across five continents, capitalizing on worldwide trade shows and dental exhibitions to access marketing and networking opportunities.
  • Illinois SBDC Excellence & Innovation Award: Illinois SBDC at the Women’s Business Development Center (Karen Goldner, Director, and Meg Herman, Director of Entrepreneurial Projects.) Services provided by this Small Business Development Center, housed on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, have generated 24 business starts, created 93 jobs, and helped secure $2.3 million in debt and equity financing in the past year. Nearly 700 clients were advised in 2016.

Each year since 1963, the president has issued a proclamation calling for the celebration of National Small Business Week.  National Small Business Week is set as the first week in May, and this year the dates are April 30-May 6, with national events planned in Washington, D.C., New York City, Indianapolis, Dallas and Fresno, Calif. Networking events, trainings, and other programming to help prospective and current small business owners will be held throughout the week at the SBA Illinois District Office (500 W. Madison, Suite 1150, Chicago) and other locations throughout Chicagoland. Visit to learn more.

About the Small Business Administration

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) was created in 1953 and since January 13, 2012, has served as a Cabinet-level agency of the federal government to aid, counsel, assist and protect the interests of small business concerns, to preserve free competitive enterprise and to maintain and strengthen the overall economy of our nation.  The SBA helps Americans start, build and grow businesses.  Through an extensive network of field offices and partnerships with public and private organizations, the SBA delivers its services to people throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.