Oct. 13, 2004 - Thirteen small business leaders, the best of the best among more than 30,000 locally owned businesses, marched to the podium Oct. 7 to accept their awards as standard bearers in the areas of business growth, community service, best places to work and leadership

The competition for the small business Wells Fargo Copper Cactus Awards was tough, with a record 428 nominations trimmed down to 51 finalists prior to the awards presentation ceremony at the Westin La Paloma Resort attended by more than 600 people, a record for the event inaugurated in 1997.

To qualify, businesses must be locally owned and operated, have fewer than 250 employees, be profitable and in operation for at least two years. The awards were broken into four categories - companies with one to 19 employees, 20 to 49, 50 to 99 and 100 to 250.

Les White, of S&W Food Services, owner of 27 local Subway franchises and winner for best business growth among companies with 40 to 59 employees, and Melanie Larson, publisher of the Northwest EXPLORER newspaper, which won for best community service among companies with 20 to 49 employees, illustrated just how tough the competition was.

White, a Texas native and former motorcross racer who gave up racing after breaking both legs in an accident, bought his first five Tucson area Subway franchises in 1995. Two years later he bought out his partner when the partner became frustrated about how poorly the business was doing, averaging less than $3,600 in average weekly sales volume and at the bottom of the heap in the Subway hierarchy. By 2002, with 18 restaurants under his ownership, average weekly sales had climbed to $14,796 and suddenly White's chain had become Subway's sales volume leader worldwide for owners of more than 11 stores. Between 1995 and 1999, from six to eight of his stores ranked in the top 10 out of more than 200 Subway stores statewide and with 27 stores now, he's at the top of the heap.

Training has been the key, said White in a telephone interview the day after the awards ceremony. "I develop leaders," with leadership counseling classes for his "associate" employees every week and manager meetings in which staff get together to talk about things such as what they want out of life for their families, their spiritual, business, personal and financial needs. "I try to give my people the skills they'll need to overcome obstacles so they can be what they want to be," he said.

At the EXPLORER, a 1998 award winner for the best place to work, Larson and Terry Brashear, her partner and operations manager, won their award for community service this year by creating a spirit of volunteerism among employees that led to workers donating 110 days to community service causes and the newspaper to contributing more than $80,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to that end.

"We are more than just a community newspaper; we are part of the community," Larson noted in a resume seeking the award. "We want to help make this community as strong and vibrant as it can be. We strive to do that both with newsprint and our time and money. As the oldest and largest locally-owned community newspaper serving Northern Pima County and the surrounding communities since 1993, we recognize the importance of giving back." The company has sponsored or promoted many local events including community festivals, charity fundraisers, and has supported events for both Northwest chambers of commerce.

In 1996, Larson was honored with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce's Athena Award for community invovement, development and business mentoring.

Other Copper Cactus Award winners and their categories included:

€ Business Growth: one to 19 employees, Imagine Internet; 50 to 99 employees, Triumph Builders Southwest; and ScriptSave, 100 to 250 employees.

€ Community Service: Tuller Trophy, one to 19 employees; AGM Container Controls, 50 to 99 employees; and Lovitt & Touche, 100 to 250 employees.

€ Best Place to Work: Dakotacom.net, one to 19 employees; BFL Construction Co., 20 to 49 employees; Engineering and Environmental Consultants, 50-99 employees; and Santa Catalina Villas, 100 to 250 employees.

Describing working conditions at Dakotacom.net, Tyler Kilian, technology director wrote about the company "being very much a family, all brothers and sisters vying for the attention of an unseen parent. We squabble, we laugh and we cry. We support one another when the chips are down …. We've seen both ends of life, from glorious beginnings to heart-wrenching endings… We've laughed, shared memories and somewhere, somehow, found enough time to be an award-winning Internet provider."

Joe Higgins of Sports Buzz Haircuts was named the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce Business Leader of the Year.

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