Dane County Small Business Awards: Spotlight on small business

Award-winning small businesses took on the pandemic and emerged stronger than ever.

Since the recession-wracked year of 1982, the Dane County Small Business Awards program has put a spotlight on small businesses and the contributions they make to the local economy and community.

Those contributions have been made in good times and bad, but never have they been made during a pandemic that shuttered many businesses for several weeks and, thanks to public orders that were based on progress in fighting COVID-19, limited their capacity to serve customers in person.

The eventual winners of this year’s awards offer testimony to the resilience of small business operators. Whether they dealt with the possibility of financial failure, or the emotional toll caused by the deaths of elderly clients, they were able to pivot and recover.

As was the case in past years, applications were evaluated on three main criteria: company growth and success since inception; the benefit package that applicants provide to employees; and the impact the company makes in the community.

To be eligible, applicants had to be a for-profit organization headquartered in Dane County and employ between three and 50 full-time equivalent employees. They also had to be providers of a responsible and rewarding workplace environment and they had to support local nonprofit organizations.

A panel of five judges met virtually in late April to decide which of the nominees were most deserving of this recognition. Judges included Chad Sorenson, president, SunPeak; Steve Grundahl, president, Midwest Prototyping; B.J. Pfeiffer, CEO and president, Enterprise Solutions Technology Group Inc.; Jon Konarske, publisher, In Business magazine; and Joe Vanden Plas, editorial director, In Business magazine.

They selected five winners, including:

  • Automation Arts;
  • Cairasu Home Care;
  • Custer Financial Services;
  • Firefly Coffeehouse & Artisan Cheese; and
  • JLA Architects.

Not only are the winners celebrated on these pages and in online features during the month of July, they will be honored during the 39th annual Dane County Small Business Awards program — in person but with attendance limited to 150 people — on Wednesday, July 14, from 4 to 6:30 p.m., at the Marriott Madison West, 1313 John Q Hammons Dr., Middleton. Register today.

Firefly Coffeehouse & Artisan Cheese

Oregon’s living room

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Thanks to a monthly living allowance for full-time workers, staff at Firefly Coffeehouse & Artisan Cheese have a stake in the community of Oregon. (Photo by Becca Dilley)

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic is gradually fading and public orders are being relaxed, Firefly Coffeehouse & Artisan Cheese in Oregon appears to have emerged from the challenging pandemic period better than an eatery has a right to. In 2021, it’s on track to break all previous sales records, and co-owners Jeanne and Uriah Carpenter are sharing their success through new quarterly bonuses and surprise paid holidays.

Jeanne Carpenter attributes that in part to an ever-adapting business model that has changed to offer online ordering, no-contact pickup, safe takeout, and exceptionally safe indoor and outdoor seating. “This award means the world to us, especially following a year that started with such emotional and economic despair, and then gradually transitioned into a success story where our team adapted to a completely altered workflow without ever missing a beat,” she states.

Firefly Coffeehouse & Artisan Cheese is a community gathering spot that is affectionately known as “Oregon’s Living Room” and pays living wages. Its full-time employees make between $37,000–$48,000 a year.

Regarding Firefly’s benefits package, one thing that stood out to DCSBA judges was the monthly living allowance of $150 to full-timers ($1,950 a year) who choose to relocate to Oregon, the rationale for which is the high rents in Dane County. For eight years, Carpenter served as a trustee on the Oregon Village Board, and for the past two years she served as village president. Building affordable housing was her No. 1 priority because she could see what a tremendous benefit it was to having employees live where they work.

“We wanted our full-time employees to have the chance to put down roots like we have, send their kids to a good school, and enjoy a stable, well-paying career with full benefits. That’s the American dream, and everyone deserves a chance to live it.”

The Carpenters view this compensation as a key to her low staff turnover — nearly 0% among full-time employees. “Before we purchased the Firefly in 2017, we had been loyal customers for 10 years,” she explains. “A few of the baristas back then were long-timers, and we enjoyed getting to know them and feeling like we were part of their Firefly family. We wanted to continue that tradition and build on it.”

In 2020, Firefly hosted a “Love Your Library” event on Valentine’s Day to kick off a community library fundraising campaign to build a new $12 million library. Firefly pledged to donate 50% of that day’s sales ($6,000) to the Oregon Library Campaign, and its barista team donated all of their cash tips (over $1,200) to the cause.

Carpenter attributes part of the success of that fundraising idea to the fact that Firefly incentivized its employees to live in Oregon through the monthly living allowance, helping to give them a real stake in the community and services like a new library. “Because so many of our employees have worked for us so long, Oregon has literally become their hometown,” she states. “They naturally want their hometown to be the best.”

Cairasu Home Care

Taking COVID’s best punch

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Cairasu staff, from left to right, includes Fatou Sonko, Absa Ceesay, Fatou Ceesay, Yero Sabally, Gaelle Kane, and Momodou Lamin Sanneh. (Photo by Sankulay Jallow)

Healthy aging is the focus of Fatou Ceesay, owner of Cairasu Home Care. As its name suggests, the business is focused on helping the elderly live their best at home, but the pandemic threw a wrench into the services provided by her licensed caregivers.

Normally, supportive home care includes services such as personal care, meal preparation, and escorts to medical appointments, but COVID-19 initially made seniors, who were most vulnerable to the virus, afraid to let people into their homes. Given what the company and its clientele went through in 2020, a Dane County Small Business Award means a great deal to Ceesay.

“As we all know, 2020 has been a tough year, an especially tough year for the elderly that we serve,” she notes. “As an agency, we’ve been lucky to not have COVID deaths within our clientele, but we did experience COVID illness within our clientele and within our staff, so it’s been difficult either way.”

To prevent emotional and physical pain, Cairasu Home Care produced videos about caring for the elderly at home and preventing them from getting infected. With the help of the videos, Ceesay kept in touch with people back in her native Gambia, where families take care of their seniors rather than hire professionals to do it.

“Even during this COVID time, one of the things I frequently do is put out videos to talk to people about how to better care for their people at home, and that is both for our Wisconsin community but also our Gambian community,” Ceesay states. “I do different kinds of videos. I do videos in English, and I also do videos in Mandinka, and the reason is that I want to reach out to all of these communities to be able to give them hands-on information that they can use at home.”

Ceesay lists diversity and inclusion among the company’s benefits. As an immigrant, she prioritizes it, and she can offer advice to other employers about the business benefits. “It is so important to be inclusive within your company because everybody brings a perspective, and everybody’s point of view is valued … people like to see that their contributions do matter by implementing them, and that gives them the drive to share more, to feel like they are part of this company or this team and that their contributions do matter.”

Cairasu also has given back to the community with its new Aging Well Summit that was done virtually in its inaugural year. Since seniors are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, that was a strong motivator for this event, but it’s about all the aspects of senior care.

Since the company’s inception, it has grown to report $3 million in annual revenue, even with an early pandemic lull, and to 15 full-time and 42 part-time employees. Now that the pandemic is gradually fading and public orders are being relaxed, Cairasu will continue the gradual process of, as Ceesay puts it, “getting out of the pandemic slowly.”

Custer Financial Services

Recovering from pandemic toll

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After a year of pandemic relocation, the staff of Custer Financial Services has returned to their Madison office. Standing are Kaitlyn Senn and Earle Smith. Sitting are Betty Harris Custer, J. Corkey Custer, and Alex Thairuammit. (Photo by Bill Fritsch)

Betty Harris Custer is the first to acknowledge that 2020 was a particularly difficult year for her “little entity.” Harris Custer, founding managing partner and owner of Custer Financial Services, was not speaking in terms of finances because while March 2020 was a rocky time, the stock market recovered and so did her firm.

Nor was she necessarily referring to her succession plans, which “blew up” when the pandemic caused a potential buyer to back out, sending the 73-year-old executive and husband J. Corkey Custer, the firm’s managing partner, back to square one.

What Harris Custer was talking about is the emotional toll of losing 40 valued customers who happened to be in the age group that was most vulnerable to COVID-19. In her 50 years in the financial planning industry, it was the single worst year she’s ever had in terms of client deaths. In a line of business where establishing close relationships is the real coin of the realm, these weren’t distant tragedies.

“Only a couple of them were directly COVID-19, but I think a lot of them were indirectly COVID, people who were isolated, depressed over not seeing family, and just so many circumstances,” she explains. “So, it was a horrific time to go through.”

Harris Custer points to relationship building as the key to success in her industry — relationship building with clients and employees. Custer has built a large client portfolio, but she also has recruited most of the broker-dealers in the organization. As she recruited people, she stressed good communications skills, which lead to strong relationships, and being a good listener.

DCSBA judges were impressed by Custer Financial Services’ overall solid package of employee benefits, but Harris Custer is particularly proud of the bonuses it provides. A number of years ago, when her own compensation and that of her husband and others in financial planning roles went higher because of changes made by the parent company, she set up a bonus system for the staff to share it. On a quarterly basis, when the firm derives the largest amount of revenue, financial planners get a significant bonus.

The 40-year-old firm also is in a position to devote at least 10% of its profits, and some years closer to 25%, to charitable organizations. In 2020, which will forever be known as the “COVID year,” its contributions were closer to 25% because the need was so great. The areas it has emphasized most have been social concerns, the arts, and special programs that were deemed vitally critical at any point in time. While it has given to national organizations, most of its charitable endeavors have had a Buy Local theme.

Whatever the case, “It’s always with the idea that this is a profession that pays well if you work hard and do the right things and if you build the trust that is critical for the clients,” Harris Custer explains, “and so it seemed it was critical for us to give back to areas of the community that matter to us.”

Automation Arts

Growing with staff

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Automation Arts President Shaun Trudell gives his staff credit for the company’s growth, but he knows it must diversify to keep growing. (Photo by Automation Arts)

Not many companies with less than 50 employees have their own university, but then Automation Arts LLC, a commercial and residential audio and video firm, was in a unique and somewhat vulnerable position just a couple of years ago.

Automation Arts LLC, founded in 1993, has established Automation Arts University to promote diversity and inclusion, a recognition that the audiovisual industry is male dominated. It is actively working with the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County to help develop an internship program for young adults, with the hope of building a more diverse workforce.

The majority of its interns and newer talent were coming from the Madison Media Institute, and when the institute went out of business, the firm’s talent pool dried up. President and owner Shaun Trudell says the collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County and the launch of Automation Arts University did not happen as a result of the George Floyd tragedy, but it was already in place because the firm realized it had to reach beyond white males in order to grow.

“At that point, we had to figure out how we’re going to continue to feed our need for quality talent and people coming into the industry,” Trudell says, “and there is no real vocational school that you can go to for audio-video installation or any of that. So, we realized that there was a hole that we had to fill.”

The social unrest sparked by George Floyd’s police-involved death gave the effort new urgency, but Trudell and his management staff knew right out of the gates that the audiovisual industry lacks diversity. The internship program gives Automation Arts the best opportunity to find diverse, young talent and, according to Trudell, “truly get them in, give them a feel for what the AV industry is about, introduce them to Automation Arts, give them the best tools to succeed, be what we call an entry-level installer, and then be able to join our team and grow their skill sets from there.”

Automation Arts changed ownership in 2012, ushering in a period of strong growth. In terms of revenue, the company grew from $775,000 to $15 million in annual revenue, and it consistently has seen 8–9% net income growth per year. Even with the demise of the Madison Media Institute as a feeder school, the Automation Arts workforce has tracked right along with revenue and net income, starting at four and growing to 46, and the firm now has three locations: in Madison on Voges Road, on Canal Street in Milwaukee (opened in 2015), and a new Fox Valley location in Appleton.

Given its future focus on diverse staff development, the Dane County Small Business Award means a great deal to Automation Arts. “It really reinforces what we’ve been striving for — to create a business that can rapidly grow but stay very focused on customer service,” Trudell says, “and then build a culture within our business that can embrace that.”

JLA Architects

Inclusive culture drives performance

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JLA Architects, led by Joseph Lee, engages its staff in the company via influence groups and in the community through JLA Give Back. (Photo by Anthony Cooper Sr., It’s Possible Photography)

After the year we’ve just had, the Dane County Small Business Award recognition means a great deal to Joseph Lee, owner and principal of JLA Architects, because it offers reinforcement for the team’s operation and gives his team a sense of pride.

As an essential business, JLA could continue to operate in the early stages of the pandemic, and Lee attributes the firm’s growth to a team that has ample opportunity for operational input. “It’s one thing to talk about a workplace that’s inclusive, but to be successful you need a team that really embraces that approach,” he explains.

One internal program that stood out to DCSBA judges is JLA’s influence groups, in which employees are encouraged to help shape JLA by participating in think-tank groups, which has resulted in various improvements. These spheres of influence have improved workflows, procedures, and standards — giving employees a stake in improving company performance.

Another unique performance tool is JLA University, or JLA U., a team-directed practice where team members educate their peers. There is some similarity to influence groups because the architecture profession is so dynamic and complex, it requires lifelong learning, and that learning should be shared with colleagues. “People in our profession have such a wide variety of knowledge bases, interests, and backgrounds, and we believe everybody, no matter how many years they have been in the profession, can learn something they don’t know,” he explains. “On the flip side, we believe that even the youngest people in the profession can teach something to those of us who have been in the profession for a while.”

JLA Give Back is the umbrella name for various team-directed initiatives that are part of the firm’s philanthropic efforts, including Dollars for Doers. It’s a program that encourages employees to volunteer their time outside of normal work hours, and JLA matches their volunteer hours with a monetary donation. The firm also offers volunteer time off to every team member to volunteer for a nonprofit or a cause of their choosing during business hours. A third program under JLA Gives Back, also directed by team members, enables quarterly team volunteer activities.

Through JLA Give Back, employees have volunteered with over 35 different organizations since 2018, and it has provided pro bono architectural services to nonprofits such as One City Schools, Shelter from the Storm Ministries, and River Food Pantry.

Having grown to 33 full-time and two part-time employees, its project portfolio ranges in size from small commercial remodels to large and complex multiuse facilities. Among its notable projects are The Current, Buck & Honey’s in Monona, and Garver Point. The firm’s expansion into different types of buildings has been one of the most gratifying things that has occurred since its founding. “When we started out in 2007, my background was multifamily, mixed-use projects, and it’s still a good portion of our portfolio,” Lee notes, “but as we’ve strategically added people of different backgrounds and different experiences, it has allowed us to branch out in terms of project types and client types.”

The Dane County Small Business Awards are presented by Bank of Sun PrairieM3 Elevate, and Madison Gas and Electric.