BRADENTON -- For 35 years, the Manatee Chamber of Commerce has made a big deal out of small business.
On Thursday, the chamber honored five more Manatee County businesses as Small Business of the Year winners, giving a big nod to a sector of the economy that employs nearly half of all people working in the U.S. private sector.
The awards went to Manatee companies recognized not only for growing their revenues, workforces and client lists, but also involve themselves in community projects, volunteer work and philanthropy.
Honorees this year include the second annual winner in the "green" category, Anna Maria Historic Green Village.
The other winners were divided into annual revenue categories. They are:
Grapevine Communications: More than $3 million
Gator Air Conditioning: $1.5 million to $3 million
Duncan Real Estate: $500,000 to $1.5 million
Leadership Simplified: Less than $500,000
Perhaps the most surprised and excited winner at the lunch event -- which attracted about
230 people to the Renaissance on 9th in Bradenton -- was Angela Massaro-Fain, co-owner of Grapevine Communications. Her company took home the award in the highest revenue category after being a finalist for the small business award five other years.
Massaro-Fain said the award is extremely meaningful because the core of her company's business is in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
"To be awarded something by our peers in this community is what makes it special for us," she said. "Because it's not just that we won another award. It's that we won it from our peers in the community we live in and we work in."
More than 80 percent of the Manatee Chamber's members are small businesses. The winners were culled from 16 finalists. Finalists were judged through secret ballots based on written and oral interviews with four judges.
Darcie Duncan, owner of the winning business Duncan Real Estate, said the value of longtime small business owners cannot be overvalued by entrepreneurs like her.
"If I didn't have the support of other business members in the community being mentors, I wouldn't be where I am today," she said.
Another winner, Anna Maria Historic Green Village co-owner Mike Thrasher, said the future of some small businesses in a green and sustainable economy may depend on developers like him. Thrasher and business partner Lizzie Vann have invested about $4.5 million in rehabbing several historic buildings on Anna Maria Island and converting them into commercial and residential rental properties that produce more solar electricity than they require from the power company.
Earning about $200,000 a year in rental income, the village will recoup its investment in green power in about a decade. Because of the long time frame, he said, small businesses wanting to go green may choose to seek out a development like his.
"It's a long-term investment," he said. "The idea was to demonstrate even to just homeowners that even just a few solar panels can make a difference."
The smallest business among the winners was consulting and training firm Leadership Simplified. Business owner Doug Van Dyke said that even though his company earns less than $500,000 a year, he and his wife and business partner, Veronica, moved the business out of their home and bought an office property in Bradenton in 2011 to better connect with clients and their volunteer efforts.
"At the same time, it gave us a sense of place and an opportunity to get involved in the community," he said.
Humility was a common thread among all the winners. Michael Wick, one of the owners of Bradenton-based Gator Air Conditioning, said success as a business boils down to doing good work and having loyal clients.
"We have a great team and we are dedicated to this community," Wick said. "We wouldn't be there if it wasn't for our customers."
Judges for this year's set of awards were David Spire of United Systems Computer Group, Larry Woodham of Bunker Hill Vineyard and Winery, Steve Litschhauer of S2 Timing and Carol Zoellner of Dieter's Sod and Landscaping.
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses provide [SoftReturn]49.2 percent of all private-sector jobs in the country and 33 percent of the value of exported goods. The SBA defines small businesses has having fewer than 500 employees.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.