Big Applause for Small Business
Three entrepreneurs share how to survive, innovate and give back.
Lois Knox wants more entrepreneurs to be in the spotlight year-round in Southwest Florida and beyond. As director of the Florida Small Business Development Center (FSBDC) at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), she helped expand its annual award ceremony to honor three owners of small- and mid-sized businesses.
“Small business is our engine for economic growth. Southwest Florida embraces our small businesses,” says Knox, who is director of the FSBDC at FGCU.
For the fifth year, a small- to mid-sized business owner was selected as the Distinguished Entrepreneur of Southwest Florida for outstanding success and entrepreneurial spirit. Two new awards—Distinguished Business Innovator of the Year and Business Advocate of the Year—given at a May event recognize entrepreneurs for innovation and involvement with nonprofits.
Knox says. “We really wanted to look at businesses that are doing more than just opening doors every day and shutting doors. They’re very involved in growing their business and helping their surrounding community,” says Knox.
Any small- or mid-sized businesses are eligible, not just those who have participated in workshops or free confidential counseling from the FSBDC. This year’s nominees included more than 20 local businesses (whose applications are reviewed by a panel of judges), although Knox believes that number could be much higher. “I have a hard time getting them to apply because they don’t want the limelight,” she says.
The FSBDC has nominated the Distinguished Entrepreneur of Southwest Florida as the 2017 Small Business Person of the Year, which was awarded by the Small Business Administration.
“I really would love it if we can get one of our businesses recognized at the national level,” Knox says. “[I want to] keep recognizing our small businesses and to keep recognizing Southwest Florida as a place to do business.”
Christopher T. Spiro
Spiro and Associates, Brand Architects
Years in business: The Spiro Group was founded in 1987 and incorporated in 1989. The agency was renamed Spiro and Associates in 2002.
Number of employees: 16 full time, two part time
Successes: Spiro grew his advertising, marketing, public relations and branding firm’s gross revenue to $5.3 million in 2015, up from $4.1 million in 2014. Part of his ability to bounce back, Spiro believes, is saying “no” to clients where he can’t check off at least two of these boxes: have fun, make money and allow his team to do “killer creative” work. “We’re charged every day with coming up with creative ideas,” he says. The cleansing, as he describes it, happens typically in February.
“I have matured enough to walk away from business that’s not healthy for my firm,” he says. He’s so confident in his firm’s work that he trademarked the phrase “Brand Architects” in 2015. “[The concept] continued to give us a direction as to where we were taking the company,” he says.
The firm, located in downtown Fort Myers, spent about $90,000 to remodel its office in 2014 and fit a culture that appeals to millennials. It is the first office that is a true reflection of his vision, he says. “I knocked down as many walls as I could to create an open work environment. If you take a look and walk around my office, even [an] office with a door on it has a pane of glass. There are no closed doors here,” says Spiro.
Challenges: Spiro saw his business, which had grown to high of 34 employees, sputter after the housing market collapse and recession. “The new economy as of late has given me a master’s degree in business administration. I have learned financial lessons. I have learned juggling acts like I had never experienced in my entire life,” Spiro says. “It is so cumbersome learning the hard way.” The firm is still paying off debts, he says. “I’ll never do business again the way I did in 2008 2009,” he says. “I’m much more guarded. I’m asking for a lot more deposits.” He says he has no plans, either, to grow to 30 or more workers again, but to remain what he calls a “creative boutique.” “Instead of carrying that level of payroll … I have worked for years to form strategic alliances with those people who share similar values and who understand small business deadlines,” he says. Spiro says about four to six contractors on a regular basis assist with specialties, such as app development for clients. Spiro is in the process of determining its path for the next three, five and 10 years. A facilitator, Gary Gardner, founding partner of The Leadership Culture, is helping the firm map out a way to blend the old guard and new guard, Spiro says. “I’ve been frustrated with the process. I’m a make-thingshappen guy. Results won’t be there quick enough for me. My personal journey is learning patience.”
Advice: Even though entrepreneurs may feel as if they are always on the job, you can take time for family. Spiro says he missed only one of his son’s football games and one of his daughter’s karate tests because of work. “Having my own business gave me the opportunity to do things differently. It gave me the opportunity to be a better husband, to be a better father, to be a community steward. It gave me the opportunity to put my nuances on the advertising and marketing circles for Southwest Florida and beyond.”
Years in business: Benkert, a U.S. Air Force retiree, and his wife, Sue, who both worked for the National Security Agency, joined CPR Tools in 2004. They purchased the data recovery and data security business in 2011.
Number of employees: About 30
Successes: The company’s hard drive products have received industry acclaim, starting with DefenDisk, which in 2007 won a “best of” award for security hardware during FOSE, the premier annual government technology event in Washington D.C. (the event is now called Acquire). It was the company’s first attempt at making a product and publicly showcasing it to the industry, Benkert says. Through the response, he recognized being an innovator requires using your knowledge and going out on a limb.
Through CPR Tools and a sister company, Cybersecurity Defense Solutions (he is a co-owner), Benkert says he’s focused on creating easy, inexpensive tools that anybody can use, and providing data recovery, data and network security, and data eradication services and products.
Our claim to fame is damaged media,” he says. That includes recovering data on hard drives that have been buried underground for years, for government agencies. The company’s client base is now split evenly between government contracting— originally the majority of the business—and commercial clients.
Its 10,000-square foot office in downtown Fort Myers has the added benefit of being closer to law firms and clients seeking forensics work, which is a growing sector.
This summer, it planned to introduced Mimic, a piece of hardware that can be plugged into a tablet that allows CPR Tools access to the hard drive. “It’s a cool innovation,” he says. “Everything we do is done here, from the design to the building to the testing.”
CPR Tools in 2015 received an Enterprise Florida Gold Key/Matchmaker Grant to expand into South America markets. In the U.S., the average cost spent by customers is $499 for data recovery.
“Hopefully they’re not repeat customers, if you know what I mean,” he says. “We don’t just say, ‘We’ve recovered your data, here, go do it again.’ We say, ‘Here’s some backup solutions.’ We’re about providing information and helping you learn what the best ways are what the best methods.”
Challenges: CPR Tools’ workforce has nearly doubled since 2011, after the Benkerts decided to pursue the commercial sector while continuing to be a government contractor. “But it’s been a long process. It’s hard to find employees,” he says. “Especially in this area, it’s hard to find high-tech folks.”
Initially, he recruited people from outside of Florida and moved people from the Midwest and as far away as California and Hawaii. The move to Fort Myers was necessary because the staff had been in five different buildings in La Belle, which made it challenging to troubleshoot in person, and it also offers a more walkable setting that millennial workers, in particular, desire. He’s also adjusted perks, such as paid time off for volunteer work and team-based employee events, such as War with the Competition day where they give presentations about competitors (complete with camouflage shirts). He’s slowly started to find qualified workers within 100 miles, partly due to cultivating relationships with high schools and colleges in Southwest Florida. “I’ve gone around to just about anybody who will listen to me as far as the colleges and high schools,” he says. “I’ve talked about what we do, opportunities for engineers and programmers.”
Advice: Innovators cannot be afraid to fail. “Know that you are going to fail and it’s OK, as long as you learn from it and move in the other direction,” he says.
Spada Day Salon and Spa
Years in business: In 2011, Judy and husband Andrew Williams purchased the spa, which opened in 1999.
Number of employees: 53
Successes: Williams, who serves on the board of the PACE Center for Girls, has become savvy in raising money for causes, which also is part of her company culture.
Judy Williams’s annual Spada-thon, with spa and hair services, live music and catered bites, raises money for the PACE Center for Girls, Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida and Valerie’s House. In 2016, the event made over $33,000, exceeding the $27,000 goal. Her staff spent about 700 volunteer hours to make Spada-thon a success.
“We completely blew it out of the water this year,” Williams says.
She also holds a toy drive each year for the Children of the Heights Foundation and is a member of the American Heart Association Circle of Red, which helps raise money and educate people about heart health and research.
Challenges: Spada Day Salon and Spa provides pampering and relaxation for clients, but the rush of the season and the stress of the summer slowdown can be far from tranquil for small business owners.
A key challenge has been determining how fast to grow her staff at Spada. Williams estimates that during season she would ideally have about 60 employees, but in the off-season, about 45 could effectively serve their clients. That makes balancing work for her team of 53 full-time employees tough at times.
“Finding that balance between the team we have and the clients we have so you’re not overworking the team and you’re not underworking the team, that you’re able to support each one of their families, is one of our ongoing challenges,” says Williams.
A “gratitude board” in the spa’s break room is a spot where Williams and her employees can write encouraging thoughts, thank each other or post positive Spada reviews.
“Obviously winning this award is not just about what I do, but it’s about what my team does,” she says.
Advice: Just like an entrepreneur is passionate about his or her industry or business focus, identify what causes are most important to you. “Find your passion because that’s what you’re going to drive towards,” she says. “Don’t just want to give or do something when you’re not personally invested in it.”
As a mother of three, Williams said she picked causes that helped children.
“I just love being able to do something that I know makes a difference locally in my community for these girls that are our future,” she says.