Small businesses are a big deal for the local economy. That's why we pay tribute to some of the most outstanding with our annual Small Business Awards recognizing small businesses up to 300 employees as well as a nonprofit. Read on to learn about our 2019 award-winning companies.
HR Business Solutions (1-20 employees)
HR Business Solutions began in 2012 with Lynn Talbott's laptop, helping heart and knack for numbers and efficiencies.
With a background in human resources, Talbott came to Chattanooga from Seattle for her husband's work as a physician and spent time raising her children until they reached high school, when she "had to do something with all her energy." She saw many local entrepreneurs thriving in Chattanooga, and soon joined them by turning her HR expertise into her own business.
"But everybody kept saying, 'Can you help me with my QuickBooks?'" Talbott says. "And I had been keeping books for nonprofits and schools for years and I love accounting. I kept helping people and helping people and then the phone just didn't stop ringing."
HRbiz went on to graduate from the INCubator in the Hamilton County Business Development Center operated by the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, and today is Chattanooga's go-to for QuickBooks help. From basic training to advanced setup or integration with other software, HRbiz supports CPAs, bookkeepers and entrepreneurs.
The primary mission? To bridge the gap between small businesses and their CPAs. They teach bookkeeping and use plain language to help entrepreneurs understand what information they need to make business decisions, developing reports and systems to bring them reliable data on time.
"Our entrepreneurs are often already nervous about their finances and afraid of what I'm going to find or that I'm going to judge them," Talbott says. "When somebody comes in, we say, 'Tell me about you. Tell me where you're struggling. What keeps you from being the best entrepreneur you can?' And it always falls back to lack of finance knowledge, which is where we come in."
Talbott volunteers at the Tennessee Small Business Development Center and INCubator teaching basic bookkeeping and QuickBooks. She also occasionally offers HR training when a business begins hiring.
Why the passion for entrepreneurs?
While living across the country 20 years ago, Talbott experienced a layoff from a corporate position while eight months pregnant with her first child, and gained a new career perspective.
"I decided that I would never work for anybody else who is in control of my destiny," Talbott says. "I would run my own business and I wouldn't treat women this way. We'd have a business model that works so that women don't feel bad because they have obligations at home."
And she's done exactly that. HRbiz prioritizes flexible and part-time scheduling for their team to balance work and family. Talbott encourages employees to work from home one or two days a week using protected, cloud-based applications that enable them to get the job done at home or on-the-go.
Talbott's advice for launching a business is twofold. "Surround yourself with good people. Everybody wants to give you random advice when you start, but you don't have to take all of it," she says. "Also, you cannot just write anything off through your business. I will show you the tax code. My job is to keep you focused on your finances and out of trouble."
Office Furniture Warehouse (21-50 employees)
When an Atlanta architecture client faced the prospect of spending $40,000 to trash $1.2 million of office furniture, JJ Jerman instead found a buyer. This eliminated disposal costs and kept waste out of landfills.
He then founded Office Furniture Warehouse (OFW) in Cleveland, Tennessee after relocating to the Chattanooga area to spend more time with his now wife and business partner Beverly.
From a gas station to the Hamilton County INCubator to today's Stuart Street location, 10 years later Office Furniture Warehouse is a one-stop shop for responding to growth, change and relocation, including new divisions of the company:
* OFW+Move supports office moves with sustainable hard shell plastic crates that can last 17 years
* My Chair Doctor focuses on refurbished seating, extending the life of many office chairs by 10 to 15 years at 20 percent of replacement cost
* OFW+Med helps health care organizations acquire and refurbish pre-owned clinical furniture, including reupholstering exam tables and waiting room seating
Office Furniture Warehouse's commitment to community and sustainability guides its growth. Jerman says his team listens to clients and closes gaps for businesses.
"We're a solutions provider. We're not just trying to sell. We want to be your partner," Jerman says. "We're unique with our broad range of clients. We do medical, office, but we also sell used furniture, re-manufactured furniture and new furniture, and we do services like office moves, re-upholstery, storage. Those were client driven. We grew organically. If a client says, 'Hey, Can you fix this?' A good entrepreneur's always going to say yes."
For example, My Chair Doctor evolved when OFW staff noticed most organizations have a 'chair graveyard' — somewhere in the office to shove chairs with issues. OFW can transform most of them by cannibalizing parts from the few that are too far gone for repair.
OFW is no stranger to the Small Business Awards. They first won in 2014 in the smallest category of 1-20 employees. Five years later, they earned this year's prize in the next category up — 21-50 employees.
Jerman's expert advice for launching your business idea?
"Don't tell your friends and family, because they're the first people who are going to discourage you from doing it," he says. "Secondly, if you have a business idea, take it somewhere like CO.LAB or the INCubator before you've put a lot of resources into it to make sure it's scalable and there's a market for it."
Hutton (51-300 employees)
Karen Hutton, President & CEO of Hutton, is a driven leader with a Southern drawl. She founded the company in 1998. Today it's a fully integrated real estate development, construction and investment company. They focus on acquiring, developing, constructing and managing high-quality single tenant, multi-tenant and shopping center retail properties across the country. They recently diversified into multifamily, self-storage and convenience store developments.
"Working hard and putting in the hours, it's what I do. It's what I'm made of," Hutton says.
Over the past 20 years, Hutton has completed nearly 1,100 retail developments, comprising more than 10 million square feet for more than 100 retailers, and holds a portfolio of 220+ developments across 34 states.
In the past five years, Hutton has more than doubled its employee count to 85. Their ability to pivot to attract new clients and enter new sectors with agility means challenging internal resources, as well as branching out. Hutton's recent senior hires of CFO, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Information Officer will be key navigators of the constant change in Hutton's world.
Hutton's employee engagement is evident in the laughter and energy you'll find with a visit to Hutton's Cherry Street office space with unique décor and giant first floor windows kept open on sunny days.
"Mentors are super important at all levels of growth. I have a mentor and I think it's one of the most important moves I've made," Hutton says. "If I only had an experienced colleague when I started my career, I would have dodged many challenges that come with growing and leading an organization."
Hutton's core values are rooted in customer service and giving back to the community. Each year, Hutton partners with local nonprofits including the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy (CGLA). Hutton works on multiple projects with CGLA including fundraising, mentoring and the Hutton Gym.
While it's true she's a woman in a largely male industry, Hutton says she doesn't think of it that way. "Just be good at what you do. Be diligent and be consciously assertive. Women know as much and can grow as fast as men, but seem to have a harder time finding their voice," Hutton says.
"With my team, it's clear that we want to hear what you have to say. But you're not always going to have others provide the best platform to build your confidence. If you are shy or intimidated by speaking up, it may appear you don't have much value to add, when more than likely you do. That's why you were selected for the team."
Signal Centers (nonprofit)
Signal Centers empowers our community by focusing on early childhood education, self-sufficiency and supporting those with disabilities.
Donna McConnico, Signal Centers CEO, shares two stories that demonstrate Signal Centers' impact. The first is Baby University helping a young mom earn her GED and begin college classes.
"We walk alongside people to help them accomplish their dreams and their goals," she says. "It's not our goals for them. It's their goals and dreams for themselves. We try to access all the resources they need to get there. So if they need help leveraging financial aid, finding child care, need transportation, we help. But they're doing the work."
She also highlights Signal Centers' vision program for people with low vision. An Apple certified teacher who's blind teaches a program called Jobs Access with Speech. Wearing headphones, participants learn to navigate the internet, use email and more via touch and audio feedback.
"We even help work with employers or schools to install adapted equipment onto a computer, so people with impaired vision can work or attend classes," McConnico says.
Signal Centers' robust program offerings may leave you wondering what they don't do.
Signal Centers offers the only social model day program in Chattanooga for adults with disabilities. Last year, 56 adults participated.
The organization is one of only five centers in the state to offer support with assistive technology, devices that help solve daily challenges related to disabilities. These might include a joystick computer mouse or various devices that alert with light instead of sound for individuals with hearing loss. Signal Centers served 711 assistive technology clients last year.
Signal Centers Children's Services include home programs for children with disabilities, and an Early Learning Center for both children who are typically developing and children with disabilities. Signal Centers served 202 children in the home and 172 in the Early Learning Center last year.
Last year, 40 clients completed Signal Centers employment programs and 27 clients who previously earned jobs celebrated one-year anniversaries.
"One of the great things about Chattanooga is that so many organizations, companies and philanthropic entities come together to make sure that resources are available," McConnico says. "At Signal Centers, we're partners with everybody. The other two finalists, Creative Discovery Museum and the Food Bank, had both served our clients in the past week when we received this award. Nonprofits are where everybody comes together. Regardless of their political persuasions, regardless of their beliefs, everyone in our community wants to be a part of making life better for Chattanoogans."