BRADENTON -- Four small businesses that clean up aspects of their clients' lives every day represent the most successful business enterprises in Manatee County.
On Friday, the Manatee Chamber of Commerce honored its 36th annual set of Small Business of the Year winners at Renaissance on 9th in Bradenton. The event not only acknowledged a pool of local businesses, but gave small businesses in general credit for the bulk of employment in the county and the nation.
"It's the engine, the grease, whatever term you want to use. It makes Manatee County run," said Bob Turner, publisher of perennial event host the Bradenton Herald. "Hard working, entrepreneurial, independent working people that create jobs and create cash flow in Manatee County and keep us moving forward have gotten us to where we are today."
The awards went to companies recognized not only for growing revenues, workforces and client lists, but also involvement in community projects, volunteer work and philanthropy.
The winners were divided into annual sales categories. They are: Overturf's Floor & Fabric Care, Under $600,000 gross sales; Clear Sunset Car Wash & Detail Center, $600,000 to $3 million gross sales; SouthTech Solutions, $3 million to $6 million gross sales; and CS&L CPA, more than $6 million gross sales.
Among the most grateful of the business owners to be in the position they are today were Jeremy and Stephanie Overturf. They started their business, Overturf's Floor & Fabric Care, after Stephanie was laid off from her job during the Great Recession. They went into business just to pay their mortgage and buy groceries.
They did all the labor themselves at first, building clientele until they were able to hire employees.
"The last couple years, it feels more like a business than a job," Jeremy Overturf said.
More than 80 percent of the Manatee Chamber's members are small businesses. The winners were selected from 20 finalists. Those finalists were then judged through secret ballots based on written and oral interviews with five judges.
Tony Milen, who owns Clear Sunset with his wife, Terri, said the Florida small business climate has allowed their car wash to grow quickly. Part of a Michigan chain of car washes owned by the Milen family since the 1950s, Clear Sunset made the list of small business nominees after growing its sales by 50 percent in the past three years.
"I didn't expect to win," Milen said. "We were just so proud to be nominated."
A theme common to many of this year's winners was risk taking. SouthTech, which once provided IT support for clients of its former parent company, Sarasota accounting firm Kerkering Barberio, went out on its own on the eve of the Florida housing market crash and the Great Recession. Since then, the company has steadily grown its workforce and office space.
Nathan Bailey, the company's vice president of business solutions, said SouthTech is fortunate to be among those honored by the chamber since 1984.
"It was really great to be on stage with companies that have won in years past," he said.
The biggest business among the winners was CS&L. The 60-year-old firm has more than 45 employees and recently opened its second branch office, this one in Tampa. Aubrey Lynch, a principal with the firm, said neither the firm's longevity nor its size would have been possible without the patronage it has had in Manatee County through the decades. "We started in Manatee County and we owe a great gratitude to everyone here," she said.
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses make up 99.7 of all employers in the nation. They provide 49.2 percent of all private-sector jobs in the country and 33 percent of the value of exported goods. The SBE defines small businesses as having fewer than 500 employees.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.