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It's a growth environment for women entrepreneurs in Florida

Women are starting small businesses in Florida at a rate faster than the national average. The state has seen a 74% increase in the number of women-owned small businesses in the past 15 years, ranking Florida as the sixth-fastest-growing state for women-owned businesses.

Women's organizations have proliferated throughout the state and provide support for small-business owners. "It's really a great climate because we are champions for each other," says Pat Blanchard, director of the Jacksonville Women's Business Center. Coral Gables business coach Jody Johnson, owner of ActionCOACH, says women who run the more successful companies hire for the functions in which they lack expertise. "That's the differentiator."

Following are profiles of several successful womenowned businesses in Florida.

Five years ago, Natalie Boden participated in a national program for women who wanted to grow their businesses to at least $1 million in revenue. Today, she says she has surpassed that goal and has built her 7-year-old firm into one of the fastestgrowing U. S. Hispanic public relations agencies. "Our growth has been enormous this last year, and it has been really exciting," Boden says.

Boden says she has been able to grow because she targeted a niche — Hispanic females in the U.S. — and studied what drives them, looking at how companies can leverage social media to reach Hispanics. Her biggest coup came in July, when she landed Target, which saw Boden's ability to reach the U.S. Latina and gave her firm its multicultural PR account. Boden says her firm has a strong focus on reaching Latina consumers and understanding their mindset and relationship with brands. "U.S. Hispanics represent $1.2 trillion in purchasing power," she says.

Boden also recently landed Bacardi and AT&T's no-contract wireless brand, Aio Wireless. She adds those to a client roster that includes Delta Dental and United Healthcare. In 2014, Boden says she will focus on hiring. The firm will roll out a few new services such as helping brands engage with social media influencers. Boden says she has learned that growth requires more than just finding a niche. "You have to put scalable processes and systems together, and you have to hire well." The firm has 10 employees.

Meanwhile, Boden is monitoring the trends in marketing to Hispanics, particularly how brands interact on social media platforms with consumers. With a growing Hispanic market and an even faster-growing bilingual market, brands are looking to engage with Hispanics across segments — women, youth, millennials — and across platforms — newspapers, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit. "We are rethinking the entire spectrum of Hispanic PR. The press release is dead. We have to look at Hispanic PR in a different way."

A mother of two young children, Boden says she makes time to be part of the Latina Advisory Board of Girls Inc., the pre-eminent voice for the empowerment of young girls in the U. S. She says a percentage of the firm's yearly profits go to organizations that advance and protect the lives of at-risk girls. Although she previously worked at two other Miami agencies, Boden, a native of Honduras, says she always has had the entrepreneur mentality and comes from a family of entrepreneurs that includes her grandmother, mother and father.

After 24 years in the U.S. Navy as a registered nurse and a five-year stint as director of health services at Mayo Health Plan, Kathryn Murphy was searching for a business that put her nursing and leadership skills to use. She saw financial possibilities in buying a Jacksonville franchise of Comfort Keepers and purchased the in-home care franchise with the help of an SBA loan in 2002. As the field of senior care has expanded, her firm has grown from a staff of two to more than 75. She bought a second Comfort Keepers in Jacksonville five years later. In 2011, Murphy was selected as the U.S. Small Business Administration's Champion of the Year for the district and state.

"The demographics are all in my favor," Murphy says. "We're in an aging society, and Florida has a higher than the national average number of seniors." With intense competition in the industry, Murphy says some of the home health agencies in the area didn't survive the recession. "We think we made the right decisions not to be the fastest-growing or biggest, but to be the best." Buying a franchise gave her an advantage in terms of trademarks, a logo, budgeting and strategic planning, she says. However, she hasn't been timid about seeking support from the Small Business Development Center at the University of North Florida for guidance on future growth. "Health care is changing, and running a business is getting more and more challenging," she says.

While the majority of her business comes from seniors, Murphy says she is trying to expand her scope of services, marketing her caregivers to adults who have surgery or need help even for a short time to remain safe at home or marketing in-home safety inspections. "We can provide from four hours of help to around-the-clock help." Her company does not provide live-ins, a service she believes is about to get more complicated and expensive.

In 2011, Murphy was selected as the U. S. Small Business Administration's Woman Champion of the Year for both north Florida and the state. Last year, the Florida Commission on the Status of Women recognized her for her contributions in the enrichment of women business owners and volunteer work with young women in her community.

For Murphy, the greatest business challenge this year is hiring qualified caregivers. "I can train them with skills, but I can't train motivation."

Becoming an empty-nester left Donna Killoren, a former IBM manager and stay-at-home mom, feeling it was the ideal time to buy a business. After searching for a profitable company with growth potential, in 2006 she bought Ten Star Supply, a Tampa company that prints directly onto bottles, glass and metal. After only a few months as owner, Killoren realized she faced challenges in keeping the business profitable and increasing sales and turned to her local Tampa Bay Small Business Development Center at the University of South Florida for help. "I thought with my experience this would be a piece of cake, but there are challenges you face as a small-business owner when you don't have the resources or support structure of large corporation," Killoren says.

The center worked with her on how and when to increase prices, manufacturing capacity issues and how to put in systems (the previous owner had kept his customer records on cards). Through networking, Killoren landed new clients, including a women-owned St. Petersburg life sciences firm, Dermazone Solutions. "We do bottles for them and for those companies they manufacture for, so as they have grown, we have too."

Killoren also instituted a quality control process and used a training grant from Workforce One to hire and train a new production manager. She has carefully cultivated her niche: "If someone needs a million bottles, they are not going to come to us, but we can do a relatively small volume with a quick turnaround." She says her company also markets its ability to fill larger orders for customers who want the bottles in batches. "We will warehouse the bottles until they send us orders to print them, and we don't charge a fee."

Now, her company has a promotional products division that prints on everything from jars to irregularly shaped objects of all kinds — including appliances, instrument panels, industrial instruments, specialty products and automotive parts. She recently hired a salesperson to promote the new division. Customers have included the University of South Florida Alumni Association, which hired her to create custom-designed basketball and football promotional purses.

Today, Then Star has nine employees and may hire more this year. Killoren says revenue has doubled since she bought the company. She has moved the company into a larger facility and purchased equipment that allows her to increase output. Killoren's husband, Jack, who had a background in engineering and quality control with companies such as Monsanto and General Electric, oversees technical operations. "Now that we have diversified and started a promotional products division, we are looking into other ways to diversify and engage employees," Killoren says. "We are nimble That's the beauty of a small business."

Maggie Thompson took over as owner and CEO of Accessibility Services in 2009 after her husband, Fred Thompson, who had founded the company in 1989, decided to retire. Thompson quickly put the company on a growth path, tapping financing for growth, adding staff and introducing new products.

The central Florida company's core business is making and selling high-tech "environmental control units" for the disabled that are voice- or switch-operated. The devices give users increased independence at home, hospitals or rehabilitation facilities by allowing them to control and operate everyday items like a television or computer easily and effectively without their limbs.

In the last few years, Accessibility Services developed an updated version of its environmental control units that replaced a box with a tablet and new software. Users can turn on a television, surf the web or play computer games by sipping and puffing on a straw or using a head tracker or touch or voice commands to navigate the tablet.

One area for growth has come from providing services to injured and disabled veterans. In 2012, Thompson won a $700,000 contract to install 60 machines in the Memphis Veteran Administration Medical Center's Spinal Cord Injury Center. "It was a good start for us. In Memphis they worked with us and showed us how we can improve what we offer. Training is a big portion of it."

Thompson saw her chance to bid on a large-scale federal government contract when the VA Center for Innovations put out a request for proposals. Navigating the process of applying for a multimillion-dollar contract was a challenge, she says. She turned to consultants at the Small Business Development Center for help with the 126- page request for proposal.

The help paid off. Early last fall, Accessibility Services scored big, landing a multiyear, $18-million contract from the VA Center for Innovations that Thompson Maggie Thompson Accessibility Services Homosassa TECHNOLOGY believes can move the company in a new and lucrative direction.

Accessibility Services will supply 207 units to four VA medical centers in the first year of the contract. The second year calls for supplying 453 units to nine centers on the East Coast. In the third year, the company will supply 350 units at nine centers on the West Coast.

Thompson says building the units, installing them and training VA staff to use them has her scrambling to hire and train workers. She just hired a director of operations, Marshall Lawrence, a former master chief with the U.S. Navy Submarine Service. She also signed a deal to buy a warehouse/office building in Citrus County. "There is no doubt in my mind that this business will continue to grow and support disabled veterans," Lawrence says.

The company also continues to sell and service automatic door openers for the disabled, one of its original products, which are installed in Macy's stores throughout Florida. However, Thompson says the company no longer actively is marketing the door openers. Instead, it will concentrate on selling more environmental control units to individuals, commercial facilities and veteran centers and work with therapists, case managers and care givers and facility managers to ensure they are used effectively.

Inside the Contour Day Spa, LuLu Cosmetics sells a full line of makeup products made without perfumes, fillers or parabens under the name LuLu Cosmetics. The company originally launched in 2004 in a small spa called Pamper Me in Plantation. It represents an evolution into retail for Carola Seminario, a native of Peru and formerly a national makeup expert for Chanel and an international expert for Revlon's Marcella Borghese line.

In addition to the store inside Plantation-based Contour, Seminario sells her Lulu Cosmetics through her website, at trade shows, conferences and in Flamingo Beauty Supply in Miami, where they are marketed to distributors for stores and spas in South and Central America. Seminario says she named the makeup line after the nickname for her daughter, Luciana.

Like most entrepreneurs, Seminario she has learned from experience and mistakes. "When I first started, I had 200 colors of eye shadows, and now I have 18 colOrs. Little by little I have learned to manufacture with better quality and narrow the choices." Today, the Lulu cosmetics line includes makeup products, skincare items and candles. The best sellers, she says, are her lipsticks, baked mineral powder and concealers.

Seminario, a licensed esthetician and makeup artist, says she also offers makeup instruction and application. A single mom, Seminario says the business generates enough sales to support her family, with an average ticket between $80 and $300. "Customers usually come back because they like the feel of the makeup," she says.

Fanit Panofsky, owner of Contour Day Spa, one of the largest free-standing day spas in the country, says she has been impressed with Seminario's customer following. "People come from all over to buy her makeup and have her put it on. She also sells a lot online — UPS is here all the time. But what's important is that people like her product. She has a lot of repeat business."

Mettron Contracting's handiwork is both visible and invisible throughout the campus of Florida A&M University. Tallahassee-based Mettron has provided plumbing, fire lines or underground utilities work everywhere from the multipurpose center to dorms to sports fields. In some instances, Mettron has worked as the subcontractor; in others it serves as the primary contractor. Over the last three years, it has served as construction manager in a joint venture for the remodeling of the $10.5-million Gore Educational Complex.

Sharen Parrish Hannah, president, and her husband, Caleb, vice president, founded Mettron Contracting, a certified minority-owned business, 12 years ago. Hannah, a civil engineer and attorney, says her husband works at job sites while she runs the administrative side of the business, overseeing project management and safety and quality control. The company survived the recession that wiped out some of its competitors by preparing for the downturn and rightsizing in advance. Fortunately, she says, some prerecession projects provided work during the slowdown for her small crew. Hannah isn't convinced the recession is completely over and projects that the economic rebound will take hold this year in Florida's construction industry.

In late 2013, Mettron had four ongoing projects for Florida A&M and the city of Tallahassee. Those included the university's new pharmacy school and its new 800-bed dormitory, both multimilliondollar projects. The challenge for the company, Hannah says, is staffing and keeping the workflow consistent. "We always have a ready supply of laborers. The issue is trying to make sure when a project is ready you are ready." The company has several possible large projects that could come through this year, including one for the Department of Transportation in the Orlando area, where the firm recently has reopened an office it closed in 2008.

Before the economic downturn, Hannah says the company had revenue of more than $2 million and dozens of projects, including site work and utilities for Windsor Park Office Plaza in Orlando and the Florida A&M University Development Research School. Mettron nearly hit the million-dollar mark again in 2013 and hopes to see revenue rise this year.

Derek Wallace, chairman of Construct Two Group in Orlando, a construction management firm that Mettron has subcontracted work from, says what distinguishes Mettron "is that if anything unforeseen comes up, I know they can handle it. No project goes perfect, but with them, I feel confident they will get to the finish line on time."

The idea to launch Encompas Unlimited, which makes and sells endoscopy products, started with Marybeth Flynn's mom, Mary Elizabeth, an emergency room nurse who spent more than a decade working in hospitals. Mary Elizabeth designed her first product in 1977 — an instrument rack to hang endoscopes straight on a wall. The instruments allow physicians to see inside a person's upper gastrointestinal tract. More than three decades later, the hanging rack continues to be a top seller in the Encompas product line.

Flynn, who has been at the helm for nearly two decades, says the last few years have been challenging for the Sarasota company due to increasing global competition and changes in health care. She differentiates herself, she says, by offering great customer service, shipping on demand and by touting her company as woman-owned and her products as latexfree and made in the U.S.

"A lot of our customers have been with us for 30-plus years," Flynn says. "They know we make a quality product and have never had a problem. They know they can depend on us." Flynn says she has decided to keep her business relatively small and focus on customer service. "So far, we found by doing that people will be loyal to you." The company generates more than $1 million a year in sales and has five employees, she says.

Flynn says her products are made, packaged and shipped from a warehouse/office in Sarasota to users in the United States and distributors in Canada and Europe. While a small sales team reaches out to customers, the company's most effective marketing is done at trade shows and conferences, where it displays products and distributes catalogs — its main source of marketing — Flynn says. Along with its core products, Encompas' product line now ranges from bite blocks (for patients' mouths) to equipment cleaning supplies, sponges and transport bags.

Flynn says her company became certified three years ago as a women-owned business by the National Women Business Owners Corp. The designation, which allows her to bid on certain contracts, has been a good marketing tool. "People really like to see that."

Boden credits her mastery of a niche market — Hispanic female consumers — with fueling her company's growth.

Florida ranks as the 6th-fastest-growing state for women entrepreneurs.

"The demographics are all in my favor," says Murphy, who owns an in-home care franchise.

Killoren turned to the Tampa Bay Small Business Development Center when she felt overwhelmed.

Thompson's recent contract with the VA Center for Innovations takes the company into a potentially lucrative direction.

"Little by little I have learned to manufacture with better quality and narrow the choices," says Seminario.

Hannah says her company survived the recession by preparing for it and rightsizing in advance.

"A lot of our customers have been with us for 30-plus years. They know they can depend on us," says Flynn.