Chamber honors local small business leaders

NORWICH – Commerce Chenango honored six local businesses for their contributions to the community at its 2008 Annual Salute to Small Business Dinner Wednesday.

Those recognized were this year’s recipients of the Small Business Gems, Entrepreneur of the Year, Small Business Manufacturer of the Year and Small Business of the Year awards.

The event’s MC, Dennis Mirabito of Mang Insurance, explained the purpose of the evening as recognizing “unique individuals and unique businesses” in the local community.

“Chenango County is very fortunate to have many small businesses that help to drive our economy and make this a place we are all proud to live and work,” said Maureen Carpenter, president and CEO of Commerce Chenango.

2008 Small Business Gems

Carpenter’s organization selects three businesses each year to receive the Small Business Gem award. This year, the honor was given to Geri Barnes of Cafe Connection, Patti Lockwood-Blais of the Earlville Opera House and Bill Chaplick of Milford Academy.

“These gems manage their organizations with pride and achieve success in different ways,” explained Carpenter. “They contribute to our economy in a quiet way, but are valuable to what makes our county special.

The chamber executive commended Barnes on her effort to use local products and talent as well as the aesthetic she has created at her Norwich cafe.

“The atmosphere is cozy and alluring and makes you want to linger,” she said, adding that Barnes credits her success to her dedicated staff of 8 and recognizes the importance of customer service.

The second Small Business Gem was awarded to the Earlville Opera House and accepted by Executive Director Patti Lockwood-Blais.

Carpenter commended the organization on their innovation and success since the historic theater reopened in 1974

“Through the years, the Earlville Opera House has become the premier venue for family arts and entertainment,” Carpenter said. Performances routinely draw people from other counties and states.

According to Lockwood-Blais, the EOH’s summer program drew over 6,000 people, roughly 25 percent of which were from outside of Chenango and Madison Counties.

“We’re very proud to be bringing people here,” said the non profit’s executive director. “We’re very proud to be a destination for Chenango County.”

Bill Chaplick accepted the Small Business Gem award on behalf of Milford Academy. The prep school, which relocated from Connecticut to New Berlin in 2002, is currently ranked number two in the nation. Carpenter described the school’s mission as responding “to the needs of ... student athletes who require additional educational guidance.”

“Their enrollment consists of students from 18 different states across the U.S. with 98 percent of their graduates continuing on to college,” she added. More than 22 of those graduates have gone on to play in the NFL.

Chaplick said when Milford Academy first looked at moving to New Berlin, there was a misconception that the facility would be a reform school rather than a prep school. But the location has proved to be a good fit for Milford. Chaplick reported that since the move, the number of applications received each year has increased from 266 to over 1600. Only 70 students are accepted each year.

And the Sammy goes to ...

“Our Entrepreneur of the Year award was created to recognize the strong entrepreneurial spirit in Chenango County,” Carpenter explained. The annual award was first created to honor Sam Golden, founder of Golden Artist Colors. The plaque awarded to each year’s recipient features a likeness of Golden, complete with his signature cigar.

This year’s Sammy, as it is affectionately known, was awarded to Chris Ulatowski, CEO of the Label Gallery.

“An entrepreneur is an individual who efficiently and effectively combines labor, capital, intelligence, knowledge and creativity; talents that are the epitome of Chris Ulatowski,” said Carpenter.

These talents have enabled Ulatowski to grow his business over the last 15 years, said Carpenter. The Label Gallery currently employees over 30 people and records sales of $2.5 million per year.

She commended the Sherburne native not only on his business acumen, but also on his community involvement with organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Toys for Tots.

Small Business Manufacturer of the Year

“For a rural county, Chenango County is very fortunate to have a significant presence of Manufacturing firms,” said Carpenter. “These small manufacturers not only contribute to our local economy through job creation and local procurement, but often they contribute to other industries.”

These local manufacturers deserve recognition, she added. This year that recognition goes to Agro-Farma, Inc., the New Berlin-based producer of Chobani greek-style yogurt. The company was founded with just five employees in 2005 by Hamdi Ulukaya. In that three year time frame, Ulukaya has increased his staff from 5 to 80 employees and built sales to over $30 million.

“Agro-Farma donates 10 percent of their Chobani yogurt to charities nationwide,” said Carpenter. Roughly 30 percent of that amount is gifted to local charities, including product donations to Roots and Wings.

The dairy producer has helped revitalize the surrounding community, earning it the respect and admiration of other area businesses.

“They took an empty building and put in a thriving business. This means people stay in the area and raise their families and support other businesses,” explained Frank and Betsy Baio of NY Pizzeria in New Berlin.

Ulakaya credited much of his success to his staff, especially the five who helped him start it all.

“Today I am here because of them,” he said. “They believed that we could make it work.”

Small Business of the Year

“The Small Business of the Year recipient has a substantiated history as an established business,” explained Carpenter, explaining the criteria used to select the winner of this annual award. “This year’s recipient, Burrell’s Excavating, has more than exceeded this criteria.”

Originally founded in 1973 as a parking lot service, Dave Burrell and his family have grown the operation significantly over the years. “We can thank the company for their contributions to many local projects,” Carpenter said, listing notable accomplishments such as NBT Bank and Raymond Corporation.

Burrell’s Excavating is also well known for its contributions to local community events.

“Dave’s commitment to our community is a constant factor when it comes to many of our festivals and events, as well as other community needs,” said Carpenter.

“Dave started with little and has built a very substantial business, despite a few early set backs,” said Marty Dietrich of NBT Bank. “One of Dave’s secrets is that he has assembled a team of loyal employees around him.”

“I believe that behind every successful business is your employees,” said Burrell as he accepted the award on behalf of his family.

In addition to the Commerce Chenango awards, recipients also received commendations from Assemblyman Clifford Crouch, New York State Senator Thomas Libous and City of Norwich Mayor Joe Maiurano.

The 2008 Salute to Small Business dinner was made possible by the event’s corporate sponsors, NBT Bank and Mang Insurance, and by contributing sponsors Golden Artist Colors and Frontier.

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