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Surviving and Thriving During Hard Times

[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

Peter Wengert
Founder, president and CEO
Company: BioTraits
Location: Orlando
Founded: 2003
Employees: 7
Revenues: Almost $1 million in 2008

Description: Biometrics technology company specializing in software that uses personal identifiers such as fingerprints to track employees and document the time they spend on the job. The technology can also be used to control access to computers, networks and locations.

Biggest economic challenge: Securing the money to hire more salespeople, train them and pay them a draw until they can earn commission. “There are a lot of people who need jobs today, and you don’t have to pay them much if you have a good company and a lot of promise,” says Wengert, who started BioTraits with business partner Ricardo Aguilar. “We are a small company, and we’re just now hitting our stride. ... Funding for small businesses is dried up right now. All I need is to hire 30 people and train them. It would cost only $100,000 to get them going for two or three months, and we have a proven product, but it’s hard to get right now.”

Survival secrets: Future strategic partnerships with other businesses that cater to the same customers.

Challenges for 2009: Too many potential customers and not enough staff to bring them in. He plans to hire up to 15 people this year.

Advice for anyone launching a business today: “Stop building and go sell,” Wengert says.“

More advice: “Have a kick-butt website,” he says. “One of the biggest mistakes we made is we said, ‘We don’t have to have a super-sexy website. We just want people to know we’re here. We’re a solutions-based company.’ Have a website built by people who know what they’re doing. If it costs you $15,000, do it. ... You don’t need to be in front of a customer to sell a customer. You can do it on the web and save time.”

Buying a Built-In Customer Base

[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

Dr. Maria Mendez
Owner and orthodontist
Company: All About Smiles Orthodontics
Location: Orlando
Founded: September 2008 — Mendez purchased the practice from another doctor.
Employees: 11
Revenue: Not available.

Description: Orthodontic products and services, such as dental braces for children and adults.

Biggest economic challenges: Leaving an orthodontics practice with multiple offices in central Florida to start her own practice during a downturn in the economy. “People are coming in for new patient consultations, but it’s hard to persuade them to spend money at this time on straight teeth, which are not a priority in families’ minds right now.” Getting a loan backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration to purchase the business took longer than planned. “Every time we thought we had jumped the hurdle, they came back and required more documents.”

Survival secrets: Buying a thriving practice from another doctor who had two locations and was looking to sell one. The office was already running, so she incurred no startup expenses and opened her doors with cash flow and an influx of patients. Another survival tip: Finding a friend to mentor her through the SBA loan process. It was her first time applying for a business loan, and she wasn’t sure where to start. The friend, who had previously helped Mendez and her husband with a home loan, set up an appointment at his office with someone who came to see them from Banco Popular.

Results: She eventually secured a loan from Banco Popular just before the institution downsized its SBA lending program, and she closed on the sale Sept. 30, a month later than scheduled. Because of the economy, the process was tougher and required more documentation than usual. She had to obtain signatures from her husband, an oral surgeon, and his business partners to say she doesn’t benefit financially from their practice. Still, she says, “the SBA loan was the right decision. I don’t think it would have been any easier with a regular bank loan.”

Advice for anyone launching a business today: “Have a lot of patience and start early with the planning process. Count on spending more time than originally estimated.”

Catering to the Customer

[Photo: Daniel Portnoy]
Olga Ramudo
President and CEO
Company: Express Travel
Location: Miami
Founded: 1989
Employees: 32
Revenue: $23 million in 2007

Description: Travel management services, specializing in corporate, meetings and incentives, vacation, cruises and study abroad. Clients pay the company to make their travel arrangements, and the company can get them better rates or a higher level of product because it receives discounts, upgrades or both for buying “in bulk.”

Biggest economic challenge: Remaining competitive while maintaining growth and profit margins. Yesterday’s travel agencies have reinvented themselves in the past decade in an atmosphere where many people now make their own travel arrangements on the Internet. “When airlines discontinued commissions, the whole industry changed to services,” Ramudo says. “There are people who always pay to get things done. I can do my laundry or take it to a dry cleaner. I can cook or go out to eat. I can clean or pay someone to do it. That time element, now more than ever, is valuable. We sell time and we sell expertise. A friend told me, ‘You know why I use you and not the Internet? With the Internet, I’m never sure I’m getting the best.’”

Survival secrets: The company attracts new and repeat business by staying involved in the community, where Ramudo serves on six local boards, and educating people about what it does. Also, the company constantly keeps in touch with preferred clients and vendors, putting an emphasis on customer service. Express Travel has had the same staff since it was founded, and some accounts have been with the business for as long as 15 years.

Results: The company was on track for a $3 million increase in revenue in 2008, even in a down economy. Ramudo says vendors such as cruise lines were asking her, “What in the world are you people doing? Nobody is up.”

Challenges for 2009: Even though the business hasn’t felt the impact of the economic downturn, Ramudo is concerned about 2009 because of the forecasts. Her plan: “Continuing to motivate and reward our staff in order to give the great service that has earned our reputation and, in turn, continue to receive referral business.”

Advice for other business owners: “Continue to work hard, don’t be afraid of the long hours, believe in what you are doing and what you can provide your customers, and — last but not least — hang in there. This, too, shall pass.”

Reaching Out to New Markets

[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

Doug McCree
President and CEO
Company: First Housing
Location: Tampa
Founded: 1978
Employees: 50
Revenue: $6 million in 2007; $5.5 million projected for 2008

Description: Mortgage banking firm specializing in multifamily affordable housing, lending money to apartment developers through partner banks. The company also works with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on federal programs and financing, and works as a consulting firm for the state of Florida.

Biggest economic challenge: A virtual shutdown of credit markets. “All of the work we do through the FHA program is sold through issuance of Ginnie Mae securities, and that market has been very volatile, just like the other financial markets,” McCree says. “At best, it has raised the lending rates. Sometimes it hasn’t been open and you couldn’t get anyone to buy the securities. It scared some people away.”

Other challenges: A boom in single-family housing construction has left a glut of unoccupied homes on the market. Some renters are filling these, while other renters who have hit hard times are moving back in with family to preserve cash. The upshot: Traditional rental communities aren’t as easily able to fill their properties.

Challenge for 2009: “We’re predicting another very tough year,” McCree says. First Housing hasn’t laid off people, and that’s something he doesn’t want to consider. “In general, profitability is down, but we are monitoring expenses and staff levels. As people leave, we’re re-evaluating whether we can pick up that work through existing staff. We’re also looking to expand business relationships outside of our existing customer base, branching out into neighboring states.”

Survival secrets: Marketing the firm’s consulting experience to organizations that are not in its normal customer base. For instance, about 95% of the firm’s business is within Florida, but First Housing is now approaching other Gulf Coast states that receive federal aid for disaster relief and are not as in tune with government regulations. The firm also is considering providing construction financing and even getting into the property rental business by taking advantage of the depreciated market and acquiring apartment complexes and single-family homes.

Advice for other business owners: “Think outside the box as to who might benefit from your services. Market your expertise or product to that new end user,” McCree says. “It’s one of those things where it might not be as profitable, but it keeps the lights on and it keeps the employees in your shop and positions you to be ready to execute when the market does turn — and it will turn. We don’t want to lose our good talent.