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Uplifting stories exist if you look

It’s easy to see lots of negatives these days in the business world. So much so that they easily can overshadow the upbeat, inspiring stories that business owners are creating.

I ran into a number of these positive stories during the recent Manatee Small Business Awards luncheon, which celebrated its 30th year. The anxiety and worry felt by business people in the room as they battle the economic downturn were overshadowed by the successes that many have had despite the adversities.

Take Mary Bennett, owner of Campus Books. She and her husband Mac founded the store in 1998. The founding was a fulfillment of Mac’s dream of operating his own bookstore. Their first employee was their youngest son, Nick. The off-campus store carries textbooks and other book supplies geared at helping students of Manatee Community College. Despite the economy, the small company has seen sales increase an average of 10 percent during the last three years.

Mary, a former teacher at Bayshore High School, used to joke with her husband that if something ever happened to him, she would hang an “out of business” sign on the door. He would retaliate with “Don’t you even think about it, promise me you won’t do that.”

Then tragedy struck. Mac unexpectedly died only a month before the store’s 10th anniversary last June, on the last day of their one-week vacation.

Despite her grief and fear of facing the future without her life partner, Mary continued on.

“There were things he did he never showed me,” she said. “It was scary, but I said let’s give it our best shot. Our goal was just to stay open and keep our heads above water.”

Miraculously she and a former math student, Jessica, promoted to store manager, made it work. They were ready in the fall for the next semester’s book-buying rush. Mary never considered closing the business — she felt she owed it to Mac to keep the shop going, continuing his dream.

It all paid off June 4 when Campus Books was honored with a Small Business of the Year Award. Mary accepted in tears.

The perseverance and sheer guts it takes to make a small business successful was evident in many of the finalists and award winners. If they faced an obstacle, they found a way around it. If their efforts failed, they came up with new ideas. They made it work.

And so did the 13 public and private companies in Manatee and Sarasota counties listed in the just-released list of top companies in the state by Florida Trend Magazine.

The top four public companies on the list from Manatee/Sarasota are No. 26 Roper Industries with a revenue of $2.3 billion in the production of industrial equipment and components; No. 61 Gevity, the professional employer organization which just merged with Tri-Net of California; No. 90 Sun Hydraulics, an hydraulic equipment manufacturer with $178.3 million in revenue; and No. 136 Teltronics, with $34.6 million in revenue.

The nine private companies making the list included No. 20 Bealls, No. 27 Boar’s Head Provisions, No. 49 FCCI Insurance Group, No. 58 Progressive Employer Services, No. 99 W.G. Mills general contractor, No. 117 Clockwork Home Services, No. 159 Dental Care Alliance, a dental practice management company, No. 164 Kellogg & Kimsey, general contractors, and DooleyMack Constructors, No. 190.

I’d say we had a good representation from our two-county area. Although some of the companies reported drops in revenues and profits, they had the tenacity to hang in there and persevere.

What more can you ask?