The life of an entrepreneur comes with risks, challenges, failures and rewards. The cycle is enough for some to give up. But others, the ones who stick it out, can do powerful things.
The accomplishments of three such high-achieving and long-standing business owners were celebrated at the seventh-annual Distinguished Entrepreneur of Southwest Florida awards in May. The event, put on by the Florida Small Business Development Center (FSBDC) at Florida Gulf Coast University, honored them for their company’s growth, innovation or advocacy. The winners—Scott Fischer of Scott Fischer Enterprises (Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year); Jeff Poirier of AXI International (Innovator of the Year); and Amanda Jaron of A. JARON Fine Jewelry (Advocate of the Year)—caught the eyes of a five-judge panel, which selected them from a pool of 53 candidates and 23 finalists.
And while the winners lead in different industries, they share an important commonality.
“We found that this year’s applicants were a coterie of owners and advocates,” Lois Knox, regional director for the FSBDC at FGCU, says. “Their small-business advocacy positions them as a collective voice that can be translated into empowerment as both change agents and strong economic drivers in the Southwest Florida business community.” She continues: “Because America's small businesses are the backbone of our economy, [we] use this event to inspire them to keep going, as their wins are a win for our common prosperity and economic vitality.”
DISTINGUISHED ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR: SCOTT FISCHER
Company: Scott Fischer Enterprises
Years in business: 32
Number of employees: 150
SUCCESSES: Scott Fischer went from pushing the broom around a motorcycle shop at 15 to lead- ing several Harley-Davidson dealerships across the U.S. under Scott Fischer Enterprises, which has sold more than 60,000 motorcycles and generated $1.5 billion in total sales. Fischer, the company’s founder and CEO, didn’t find the recipe for success in a college textbook (in fact, he skipped college completely), but by investing in “organizational health,” or the well-being of his workers. “One of the things I’m very proud of is the investment I made in employee development at the peak of the recession,” Fischer says. He chose to close some dealerships down and invest instead in his staff to establish better trust and communication, with professional leadership coaching, workshops and more. Looking back, it’s one of the best things he’s done for the company, he says. “Our organizational health is what we consider to be our greatest competitive advantage. It drives our purpose and our values.”
CHALLENGES: Scott Fischer Enterprises has experienced slow seasons and operational issues just as any large-scale retail operation would, but Fischer’s biggest challenge ironically came at the height of the company’s success around 2004. “We were at the peak of our business. We had multiple import stores and multiple Harley-Davidson stores; we had the highest profit timeframe of my career with significant growth, and I was miserable,” Fischer says. “Customers hated us and we had all this turnover in the staff.” That’s when Fischer decided to get serious about the company’s human resources side. “Our management performance now is based first off of health and second off of financial targets.” The company now goes by four key disciplines: having a cohesive team by eliminating politics and promoting trust; creating clarity within that team by defining its purpose and behaviors; over-communicating clarity on multiple mediums; and reinforcing clarity through rewards and more. “There’s a lot of training in our organizational health,” Fischer says. But the payoff has led to happier employees and a heightened customer experience, he adds.
FUTURE: After 44 total years in the motorcycle business, Fischer has pulled back to enjoy what he calls an entrepreneur’s succession phase. Scott Fischer Enterprises sold its Naples and Fort Myers Harley- Davidson dealerships to TMCFM Inc. in January but continues to own two shops in New Mexico and one in California. Fischer now focuses on sharing his business strategy with other entrepreneurs and organizations. In addition to working with places like the FSBDC at FGCU, Fischer supports charities such as Junior Achievement and Blessings in a Backpack of Southwest Florida. “My goal today isn’t about how much money I can make from this, it’s continuing to share what we [as a company] have learned and to be a mentor,” Fischer says.
ADVICE: A business with low morale can still be profitable, but a great company needs wits and well- being, Fischer says. “It is more important to have a healthy company than a smart company; invest first in the health of your company and your employees.” As a leader, Fischer says, continue to surround your- self with smart people and always be a student of the business. Be strategic, and don’t forget to plan for the future, including your retirement period. “Entrepreneurs need to have succession, because if they don’t, they think and work so hard that they can never get out.” And what’s it all for if you can’t step aside to enjoy what you’ve created?
SMALL BUSINESS ADVOCATE OF THE YEAR: AMANDA JARON
Company: A. JARON Fine Jewelry
Years in business: 14
Number of employees: Two full-time, with a team of 25 independent contractors
SUCCESSES: Jewelry designer Amanda Jaron started A. JARON Fine Jewelry in 2004, in the midst of a recession, and she’s managed to turn a profit every year since day one. “One of the things that helped me get off the ground during that time was bartering,” Jaron says. She exchanged jewelry for skills customers could provide, including marketing, sales assistance, signage and even furniture for her business. With the company’s revenue already doubling what it was in the first half of last year, Jaron now appreciates the ability to give back. She launched The GLITTER Foundation Inc. in 2013 to help raise funds for arts education and therapy and has sold thousands of $99 rings with her charitable collection, A. JARON Cares, over the past 10 years. “Art therapy is a very important tool to recovery on so many levels and funding for the arts is always cut, so arts education is also really important to me,” she says.
CHALLENGES: A fine-jewelry designer can’t skimp on luxury materials, and that can be tough on a small operation like A. JARON. “I have no big money behind me, and the biggest challenge is competing with the very well-established jewelry stores in town,” Jaron says. How has she found success despite the big-budget brands? “My strategy was to make $100, save one dollar, and spend $99 on my business to continue to build it one dollar at a time.”
FUTURE: A. JARON moved to the Bayshore Arts District in Naples last year, and Jaron’s trying to bring the area more opportunities and creative minds. “This section of town is really ready to have other artists here,” she says. “I’d like to make my studio more interactive by allowing clients to take more jewelry or rendering classes and have lectures.” Having a calendar full of creative events within the district is the dream, she says.
ADVICE: Jaron urges professionals, especially right-brainers, to be persistent. “It’s hard to believe the saying ‘do what you love and the money will follow’ when you’re just starting out and don’t know where your next dollar is coming from, but the fact is it has and it does. If you’re good at what you do and are passionate, honest, loyal and consistent, the money part follows.” She adds: “I hope I can be an inspiration for the young artists out there that are always told they need to have something else to fall back on.”
INNOVATOR OF THE YEAR: JEFF POIRIER
Company: AXI International
Years in business: 24
Number of Employees: Nearly 40
SUCCESSES: Many industries are powered by diesel fuel, but its quality can degrade when stored over time, leading to system wear and failures. Mission-critical facilities like hospitals and data centers can’t afford for that to happen. “[For places that] have people on life support or need to run credit card transactions, time is of paramount importance,” says Jeff Poirier, chief operating officer of AXI International, a fuel management firm in Fort Myers. In the last five years, the company has focused more on these businesses, providing them with a line of services that keep fuel clean and stable. “For us, it’s all about how we can better manage fuel, so in the event that a facility needs to go off-grid, there is no hiccup, there is no shutdown. The facility can have power regardless of what happens.” Since refocusing its customer base and adding more technical support, AXI has nearly doubled the revenue from its last fiscal year. But from a more humanistic point of view, the company’s efforts potentially mean greater safety for whose lives depend on stable power sources.
CHALLENGES: “Fuel, for a long time, was treated more like a commodity,” Poirier says. Fuel quality wasn’t a big focus when AXI launched, but that’s starting to change, especially as engine technology continues to advance. “There are a lot of companies jumping into the game,” Poirier says. What keeps AXI competitive, aside from its head start? Education—for customers and employees alike. The company teaches clients about the consequences of using bad fuel rather than coming at them with a hard sales pitch. As a staff, AXI employees are always researching and developing emerging technologies. “We try to be a year to a year and a half ahead of the game in technology improvements so we have something new to put out all the time,” Poirier says.
FUTURE: Since AXI strives to stay on the edge of the market, Poirier can’t offer many details on future products and plans. “We don’t let anyone really know what we’re doing,” he says. But he hints that there’s far more to come. “We’ve got some stuff on the horizon.”
ADVICE: Education has always been the driving force for Poirier, who holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maine and an MBA in finance from Davenport University in Michigan. It’s how you stay ahead, he says. “On a daily basis, we have people doing research and development because if you halt, you’re going to fall behind at some point. Always learn.” If you’re an entrepreneur, you need to have passion for your project so it doesn’t become a grind, he adds. You can even enter a different and unfamiliar field if you apply your problem-solving skills in new ways. “There’s a lot [of opportunities] out there in matters of technology,” Poirier says. “You can tackle really any path you want, but find something you’re into that relates to how you investigate things.”