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Second-stage business success stories

Training Troops

Elizabeth Burch
[Photo: Brook Pifer]

"Because we're small, we don't need a $100-million contract to survive."

- Elizabeth Burch, CEO

Dignitas Technologies
2010 Revenue: $4.6 million (up from $279,753 in 2007)
Employees: 31 (up from seven three years ago)

The military's commitment to providing life-like training for troops headed into war zones has helped fuel revenue growth of more than 800% at Dignitas Technologies over the past several years, earning the company a spot on the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing companies.

At any one time, the modeling and simulation software firm has between 15 and 20 contracts ranging from $60,000 to some worth a few million dollars, says CEO and majority owner Elizabeth Burch, who joined the firm in 2009 after working on similar systems at SAIC.

Dignitas' developers, including many recruited from the University of Central Florida, work on everything from software that interfaces with real equipment in mock combat scenarios to "virtual" domain, which involves real people in simulators. "We put them in Afghanistan. When they look out the top of that tank hatch they see that terrain and they know how to interact and maneuver on that," Burch says.

Dignitas also is developing software to work with mobile devices that would provide soldiers with better geo-specific information about their environment. The tools will allow soldiers to change the way an area is portrayed to better reflect what's actually there — if a new building has been constructed or a bridge is gone, for example.

Burch says being a small player has its advantages. In particular, her firm has been able to generate a lot of business through the Small Business Innovation Research programs, which are sponsored by the federal government and aimed at businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Also, the firm's size means it isn't as vulnerable to budget cuts. "Because we're small, we don't need a $100-million contract to survive. If we get $100,000 to $1 million, we're doing good as a small business."

Riding a Boom in the App Market

Jody Haneke
[Photo: Sean Deren]

"These types of services are in high demand across the country."

- Jody Haneke, owner

Haneke Design
2010 Revenue: Not disclosed
Employees: 14

A frenzy of activity in the mobile phone/device app market has created a sweet spot for entrepreneurs like Jody Haneke, who runs a design and development company focused on desktop, mobile and tablet devices. Business is booming, says Haneke, who cites "exponential growth" over the past two years. Though he declined to share revenue figures, Haneke, 38, says 2010 was the company's best year to date and that 2011 will be more than 25% better.

Haneke, a 1995 graduate of the Ringling School of Art & Design in Sarasota, launched his company in 2002 primarily as an interactive agency focused on website design and development. Several years later, he began specializing in work geared toward mobile phones. "We started, pre-iPhone, doing mobile websites." Later, when the iPhone came out and Apple announced it was offering a software developer kit, Haneke dove in headfirst. He ramped up the development side and hired staffers versed in mobile application development. His clients include AT&T and the New York Stock Exchange.

While much of the company's work is aimed at consumer mobile marketing, he's also worked with pharmaceutical companies to create an iPad app that works as a marketing tool for employees working remotely. "These types of services are in high demand across the country," says Haneke, who has relationships with advertising companies nationwide. "When those are your main sales channels, you don't go against the local competition too much. It's a nice situation."

With Forrester Research projecting a $38-billion app market by 2015, Haneke looks forward to continued growth in the mobile app niche. "There is still a lot of work to be done with a lot of companies to tap into that mobile channel. I see us staying busy for the next few years doing just that," he says.

A Fast-Growing Franchise

European Wax Center
2010 Revenue: $5.8 million (up from $193,274 in 2007)
Employees: 46

Of all the services people might be expected to forgo in tough economic times, spending money to get body hair removed from their underarms, chests and crotches would likely be at the top of the list. Despite the recession, European Wax Center, a chain of franchised salons dedicated to removing unwanted body hair, has kept on growing. Starting with a single salon in 2004, EWC has mushroomed to 161 stores throughout the U.S. — including three corporate-owned stores in Florida and a corporate-owned store on Long Island, New York — with 139 in development. One of the fastest-growing franchise chains in the country, EWC plans to expand to Canada this year.

The origins of EWC go back to the hair salon of Nelson Coba, a hairdresser in Aventura who turned his business — which included then-unprofitable waxing services — over to his two sons in 1993. The sons found a better-quality wax developed in Paris that adhered only to hair, not to skin, and could be applied at lower temperatures than other formulas. They also repriced the services, which they believed were underpriced, and refined the salon's environment, insisting on no sticky wax buildup on the floors and on-time performance. The first EWC opened in Fort Lauderdale in 2004. Free initial visits attracted a slew of new customers — and a membership program called the Unlimited Wax Pass, which allows customers to buy an unrestricted number of visits for a year, helped the Cobas to be profitable within the first month.

The popularity of waxing hasn't waned despite the recession, they say. David Coba says that's because waxing has evolved beyond being just a momentary fashion trend. "It's not a luxury. It's almost a necessity. It's part of everybody's daily hygiene routine — either you shave or you wax, even through economic hardship."

David, Jessica & Josh Coba
From left: David (CEO), Jessica (CEO/director of franchising/education), Josh Coba (COO) [Photo: Eileen Escarda]

Recipe for Success

Maria Ibañez
[Photo: Daniel Portnoy]

"We haven't noticed a recession."

- Maria Ibañez, founder

Intermark Foods
2010 Revenue: $9.4 million (up from $3.7 million in 2007)
Employees: 22 (up from 20 last year)

Even as financially strapped consumers have cut back on their grocery purchases over the past several years, Intermark Foods has enjoyed meteoric growth by catering to an ethnic niche. The food distribution company, which distributes around 200 refrigerated and frozen foods under the El Latino brand, has more than doubled its revenue over the past three years and is planning to expand distribution along the east coast.

"We haven't noticed a recession," says Maria Ibañez, a native Colombian who founded the company in 2002. Ibañez, 58, credits her success to what she says is the superior taste of Intermark's products — including cheeses, breads, meats and smoothies — that she says appeal to Hispanic-Americans' sense of nostalgia.

For Ibañez, the food business is a departure from earlier ventures. Between 1980 and 1998, she launched and sold two international computer distribution firms with combined revenues of $87 million. After retiring in 2000, Ibañez says she grew bored. A 2002 visit to her hair salon sparked an idea. Another customer, she says, was talking about how the Central American cheese import business she worked for was unable to keep up with the demand of local Hispanic markets. Ibañez decided she could probably do a better job and hired the woman on the spot. She came up with the name El Latino, hired a designer to do labels and began importing a million dollars' worth of cheese. As her business grew, however, the unpredictability of the U.S. Customs process made it difficult to keep a steady supply of cheese flowing to the supermarkets that carried El Latino. Ibañez traveled to Wisconsin with a handful of recipes and found a supplier who could make the Central and South American cheeses she was distributing. Ibañez eventually grew her El Latino product line to include several types of sausages (all manufactured in Miami) and an array of other foods, ranging from frozen tropical fruits to arepas (a patty made of ground corn dough or cooked flour) and flan.

Today, El Latino products are carried by some 600 stores (including Publix, Winn-Dixie and Walmart) from Palm Beach to the Florida Keys. Intermark has two other distributors that supply its products to stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and Orlando, Tampa and Kissimmee — and Ibañez is looking for distributors to expand into North Carolina and Washington, D.C. She sees nothing but growth ahead for her company, which is expanding five times faster than companies in the traditional U.S. food industry. "The Hispanic market is growing so fast — and our products are making the crossover to the American consumer."

Security in Security

MBF Industries
2010 Revenue: $10 million to $12 million
Employees: 40 (up from 18 in 2004)

It has been a challenging few years for MBF Industries, which manufactures SWAT trucks, mobile crime labs, bloodmobiles, mobile banks/ATMs and a number of other specialty vehicles. Banks have purchased far fewer mobile vehicles, and sales of bloodmobiles and other mobile healthcare units have also slowed. The military and homeland security market, however, has remained strong and carried the company through these difficult times.

"We've gone through the recession. We've continued to grow. We're pretty much maxed out at our present facilities, and we've been able to stay at full employment all the way through this," says company founder and President John Baker.

Baker formed the company in 1992 after selling banks on the idea of mobile facilities to reach customers in areas where it wasn't cost-effective to build a branch. He first contracted with another company to build the mobile branches, then set up his own manufacturing plant.

As his mobile banking business grew, Baker diversified, building and refurbishing bloodmobiles and other medical-type vehicles. After 9/11 he expanded in the homeland security and military arenas, manufacturing forensic labs, bomb trucks with robots and mobile command units. Demand heightened even more after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Today, MBF Industries manufactures approximately 10 different homeland security-type vehicles, which can range from $100,000 to $1.5 million each, and the company is the largest builder of the heavy-duty mobile command vehicles, catering to federal and state law enforcement authorities, defense contractors and the military.

Baker says he could "double in size if the environment was right" but is waiting until he sees improvement in "the tax situation, the impact of medical care costs and all these things that are associated with running a business."

John Baker
Founder and President John Baker [Photo: Brook Pifer]