Wild ambition. Gratitude. A desire to give back.
Each of the professionals honored with the Small Business Development Center at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Distinguished Entrepreneur of Southwest Florida awards runs distinctly different businesses. Yet, they share the three distinct qualities above. It’s not that you need to have all these things to be successful. But when you do, you become more than the business you’ve created. You develop into a shining example of what it means to serve your community.
Lois Knox, regional director of the business development center, says those are precisely the type of people the center chooses to honor with its annual award series, now in its eighth year.
“We always look for the business that’s well-rounded,” Knox says. “We feel the business owners of Southwest Florida are even more dedicated to being successful for their employees and community because they’re an important economic part of Southwest Florida. Small businesses are the largest sector of employers in the country, and since we don’t have a lot of big-business industries here, those small businesses are so important to us.”
A six-judge panel selected this year’s winners from 51 nominees and 19 finalists. The 2019 honorees are: Ryan Carter of Scotlynn USA (Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year); Brian Rist of The Smart Cos. and Storm Smart (Innovator of the Year); and Rafael Feliciano of Food Idea Group and Sizzle SWFL Restaurant Week (Advocate of the Year).
Please read on as we share each winner’s rise through one of the most difficult—but rewarding—adventures there is: entrepreneurship.
Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year: Ryan Carter
Company: Scotlynn USA
Years in business: 9
Number of employees: 215+
Challenges: When you launch a business in the months lingering after the Great Recession, you’re going to have to get over some hurdles. Ryan Carter had quite a few to get past when he started Scotlynn USA, a trucking and brokerage company that ships perishable products across the country, with his partner, Scott Biddle.
“It was a very challenging time to start a business for any sector, but for transportation and trucking, in particular, it was a really challenging time,” Carter says.
Businesses were sticking with whom they knew.
“A lot of companies wouldn’t work with a new business like ours for about two years,” Carter says. “That eliminated about 15 percent of the trucking companies we could even do business with.”
So, they took chances to gain trust. Sometimes that included prepaying truck companies to deliver shipments, which made money tight for some time.
“It was a good three to four years before we really started turning a profit and seeing our reputation grow,” Carter says. The team worked tirelessly, often 60 to 80 hours per week for the business, which Inc. later recognized as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.
Part of what helped Scotlynn stand out in a saturated industry was its commitment to customer care—the kind Carter used to deliver as a logistics professional before starting the company just three years out of college.
“If we applied the same hard work ethic we knew with communication and high-quality service, we knew we’d be successful,” Carter says.
Successes: Last year, Scotlynn USA made around $192 million in sales, and Carter expects 25 to 38 percent in sales growth this year. When Carter first started the company in his mid-20s, perhaps this would have been his biggest bragging right. But his priorities have changed with time.
“I grew up working very hard my whole life and wasn’t as privileged as some people out there. The things I really liked cost money, so it was very important to me to make money and have that independence,” he says. “Entrepreneurs dream big, and starting a business can fulfill a lot of those dreams, but once you get in it, the things that are important to you change. You want to watch other people flourish and be happy and enjoy the people they are working with and for. It’s definitely the most important thing to me now. Making money is kind of a byproduct to creating a great culture and company.”
Scotlynn has high employee retention rates, Carter says, with a hardworking, happy staff. The firm hosts several major employee events through the year—from trivia nights to bowling—and gives workers 16 hours of company time per year to volunteer. If they choose to volunteer on weekends, they get paid time off.
“A lot of times, they do more than what’s asked or find another calling outside of work where they feel very fulfilled,” Carter says. “It’s a very positive thing that benefits us internally, not only the community.”
Future: Carter is preparing for the next era of the transportation industry. “Part of our plan is to quickly adapt to the changes technology is bringing,” he says. He hints at autonomous trucking and expanding to air freight and container shipping. “In the next five to 10 years, I think our industry is going to transform into something completely different, and it’s hard to say how we will be doing business [in that time].”
For now? “We’re sticking to our fundamentals and a great culture of positive, hardworking and proactive people,” Carter says. A larger headquarters is also on the horizon.
Advice: When you start a new business, before you build a team, you have to be the team. “You’ve got to be all in, for everything,” Carter says. “You need to be the person who takes calls through the middle of the night, the person who picks up the trash that’s laying on the ground, and if the janitor doesn’t show up, maybe you’re cleaning the bathrooms or replacing light bulbs.”
Once the team is in place, they’ll need someone to trust in. “You’ve got to be willing to do whatever it takes because the people who are working for you early on have to believe in the person leading the company,” he says. “They have to believe you’re going to do whatever it takes to make the company successful because it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Innovator of the Year: Brian Rist
Company: The Smart Cos., Storm Smart
Years in business: 23
Number of employees: 200+
Challenges: “Businesses don’t fail; people quit.” That’s the piece of advice Brian Rist, executive chairman of The Smart Cos., repeated to himself during the slow, uncertain days of running Storm Smart, The Smart Cos.’s largest subsidiary.
Storm Smart, now considered Florida’s largest manufacturer and installer of hurricane protection products, started slowly in the late ’90s, with little funding to promote its cutting-edge concept of treating a whole home for hurricane protection, instead of focusing on windows and shutters like other companies were.
Instead of expensive advertising, Storm Smart partnered with Emergency Management personnel from Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties, along with several local broadcast meteorologists, to hold regular seminars on hurricane preparedness for audiences ranging from one dozen to one thousand.
“One thing led to another, and people started to turn to us as experts for what we were doing,” Rist says.
Inc. caught on to the growth, naming Storm Smart one of the fastest-growing privately held companies in America multiple times. But more business meant more challenges for Rist—including having to say goodbye to some original team members in order to manage new heights.
“Sometimes, sadly, the people who help you get started with 15 employees aren’t necessarily comfortable when you become a bigger company of 150 employees,” Rist says. “We don’t all grow at the same speed.”
He talked to those employees with courtesy and honesty, and he believes he was able to end the relationships on good terms. “In reality, you find out those conversations are often a lot harder on you than them, because chances are they are not really comfortable with what’s going on,” he says. “We all spend more waking hours at work than probably anything else we do, so if you’re not happy anymore, it’s not good for anybody. Life is too short.”
Successes: Rist is proud of Storm Smart’s connection with customers. Today, 63 percent of its business comes from referrals, with about 80,000 clients served in all.
Rist bases his success on people. He beams when talking about team members who have found purpose through their employment, like the group of young adults he hired about 15 years ago, who were coached by one of his employees on a Pop Warner team. College wasn’t in the cards for them, but Storm Smart taught them trades they could use to make a living.
“Today most of those kids are still with us,” Rist says. Many are now homeowners with spouses and children. “From a business owner’s point of view, watching them go from kids who were probably not going to go in the right direction to very outstanding parts of our society is probably one of the most rewarding things for me.”
The Storm Smart team has staff members who have been with the company for over a decade, and even a second-generation employee, whose dad used to work for the business.
“It just makes our company so much more powerful because we all know each other and what we stand for,” Rist says. “We’re all focused on the same topic: We want to make Southwest Florida a better place to live and help people.”
Future: Much of Storm Smart’s success came from reinventing the wheel, like taking a holistic approach to hurricane protection and finding free marketing opportunities before social media existed. That won’t change anytime soon, it seems.
The company pays team members to take classes related to the industry, and Rist is working toward a master’s degree so he can continue learning as well. Employees regularly discuss and implement new ideas, with a high focus on technology.
“Not everything works, but you never know until you try it,” Rist says. “It’s very much about collaboration.”
Rist also has concrete expansion plans for the company. Three years ago, they began manufacturing products for Storm Smart of Southeast Florida, a licensee, to install, service and sell. In 2020, he plans to open several more Storm Smart branches throughout Florida. The business will also emphasize energy-saving solutions to appeal to markets across the country.
Advice: When it comes to building a business, “you really need to find something you truly love that really solves a problem or makes the world a better place,” Rist says. “If your only goal is to make money, you’re no different than anybody else out there.”
When you succeed in that business, Rist says you’ve got to give back. (Storm Smart is most involved with children- and veteran-based charities.)
“It doesn’t always have to be money. It can be time or a lot of different things,” Rist says. “It just seems that the more that you give—for the right reason—the more you get. It’s just an amazing feeling, and an amazing chain of events happen once you start getting a little more involved.”
Advocate of the Year: Rafael Feliciano
Company: Food Idea Group; Sizzle SWFL Restaurant Week
Years in business: 3
Number of employees: 7
Challenges: Restaurants these days may be salivating at a chance to be a part of Sizzle SWFL Restaurant Week, but a couple of years ago, the response to Rafael Feliciano’s call for participants was as sorry as a bare pantry.
Just 23 restaurants participated in 2015, compared with the 69 restaurants featured this year, out of 96 total applicants.
“Restaurant Week was really hard in the beginning because first, we had to educate the whole community,” Feliciano says. “People didn’t understand what it was.” So, they targeted big names in Southwest Florida’s culinary scene. Once they obliged, others followed.
Feliciano and his business partner, Guy Clarke, paid out of pocket to get Sizzle SWFL Restaurant Week and their marketing business, Food Idea Group, off the ground, so they struggled somewhat with scaling.
“When you have someone else’s money, it’s very easy to make decisions,” Feliciano says. “With us, because we are self-funded, it’s always a little harder to spend that dollar.” It was especially scary hiring their first employee, Feliciano recalls. Now, they are up to seven team members.
“It’s still scary because every decision you make now doesn’t just affect you. It affects our employees. But it gets a little easier week by week,” Feliciano says.
Successes: Feliciano and Clarke have grown Sizzle SWFL Restaurant Week from a concept run out of a spare bedroom to nearly 100,000 dinners sold by area restaurants while raising more than $70,000 for charity. On the heels of its success, the pair launched the Sizzle SWFL Food & Beverage Scholarship Fund for local high school graduates enrolling in the Resort and Hospitality Management program at FGCU. Now, $1 from every meal sold during Restaurant Week benefits the fund.
In late 2016, the duo formed Food Idea Group, an award-winning marketing company, to help restaurants thrive in a challenging area.
“A lot of restaurants in Southwest Florida open and close faster than more places in the U.S.,” Feliciano says. “We took that void and created an opportunity.” The entrepreneurs created a marketing model specifically for restaurants, curating major Southwest Florida foodie events like BaconFest Naples, Everglades Seafood Festival and more.
That’s big-picture success. But when Feliciano won the 2016 Innovation Star award from Collier County’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, he realized just how far-reaching his business ventures were.
“A server submitted to them that Restaurant Week allowed her to have additional money before Christmas so she could get all of her kids gifts,” Feliciano says.
By advancing Southwest Florida’s culinary scene, Feliciano has helped produce a trickle effect that keeps businesses like restaurants, farmers and food purveyors busy even during the region’s offseason.
“No matter how you cut it, dice it or cook it, Restaurant Week is a big deal, and if the food scene is doing well in any economy, that’s good for the area,” Feliciano says.
Future: Feliciano, who’s personally involved in several charitable endeavors in the area, plans to continue finding ways to merge food and philanthropy for the good of Southwest Florida.
“My plans for the future are the same as they were four to five years ago,” he says. “To never be trapped between four walls and to be completely open-minded. To put the community first and philanthropy first, because when you put good out into the world, a lot of good comes back.”
Advice: Entrepreneurs can’t do it all on their own, so it’s essential to seek help whenever and wherever possible, even if it’s from unexpected sources, Feliciano says.
“The people I’ve learned the most from are not the typical mentors who are 30 to 40 years older. I learn from people who are my friends, who are just starting a business or working for other companies,” he says. “Once you get the idea out of your head that mentorship only comes in one way, you start looking at conversations differently, because now you’re trying to find value in every conversation, which means you’re actually listening more and talking less.”
Feliciano helped put Southwest Florida’s food scene on the map, and he urges others to make the change in the community they want to see.
“If we don’t invest in our community, who else will? You can’t expect snowbirds who are only here part-time to want to make a difference. They are doing great by spending money here, but the only ones who are really going to help it grow and flourish are the people who actually live here,” he says.