SCORE Southwest Florida gave virtual accolades to four area businesses that have achieved strong successes after working closely with volunteer SCORE mentors. The event also recognized three outstanding SCORE volunteers. The winners and honorees from today’s celebration are:

Business of the Year – Burma Spice 

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Owner Edward Brakus, Jr. started operations for his gourmet exotic spice e-Commerce company in his spare bedroom. His unique business model is based on working with Florida farms to produce and deliver high quality spices in just days compared with waiting 5-6 months to receive the same products from overseas. This farm to table approach helped Burma Spice to create its own successful brand. After four years, Brakus approached SCORE for help with financing and marketing to further expand the business.

Together, three SCORE mentors — Len Hendrickson, David Hamblett, and Raymond O’Brien — were able to use their talents to help Brakus secure a $250,000 SBA guaranteed loan for manufacturing equipment within seven days.  Within two weeks, the mentors had also arranged for a key meeting with the Culinary Manager at the Florida Culinary Accelerator in Immokalee. This led to important networking and raw material sourcing. 

“My SCORE Mentor team helped me navigate through financial restructuring decisions and acquire substantial SBA-backed funding through Anchor Bank which supported strategic growth options,” said Brakus. “Furthermore, my SCORE Team directly connected Burma with the Immokalee Culinary Accelerator facility in Collier County which has led to local agricultural product sourcing as well as exciting marketing opportunities.”

Burma Spice was also recently named the SBA “Rural Small Business of the Year.”

Entrepreneurs of the Year – Fieldr

Owners Connor Firmender (CEO) & Natalie Finazzo (COO) are two Florida Gulf Coast University Entrepreneur Alumni who saw a need to bridge the gap in how students connect with employers. They also wanted to provide students with meaningful, experiential opportunities to help them find career path.

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Fieldr is a web-based application that streamlines the student-employer connection by allowing students – at high school and college levels – to safely create profiles, register and apply to posted positions on an exclusive job board. Employers also register, create profiles and post a variety of positions ranging from volunteer work to internships to full-time jobs. The platform includes direct messaging, file sharing and advanced search capabilities. Within six months of launching the platform, Fieldr had about 500 users.

When these young entrepreneurs launched Fieldr in 2019, they knew that they wanted to bring in a strong business mentor, so they reached out to SCORE to ask for help with business planning and marketing.

“Our SCORE mentor Rob Grabel is a phenomenal listener and advisor,” said Firmender. “He really helped in the early stages of shaping the business model, especially helping shape our pitch deck.” COO Natalie Finazzo added, “We had multiple Zoom meetings and in person meetings. Robert helped us to prepare for some pitches for investors and he’s just given us a lot of support.”

What began as a partnership with FGCU in 2019 to help college students has expanded to the high school level in 2020 with a partnership with Lee County Public Schools.

Startup of the Year– Omeza

Omeza was launched in 2016 with the goal of using leading-edge biotechnology to help people to better deal with chronic wounds.  Founder & CEO Thomas Gardner is a seasoned healthcare executive who has developed critical partnerships to carry this mission forward.  He joined with Griscom (Chip) Bettle, a renowned chemical engineer, and Dr. Desmond Bell, DPM, CWS, a leader in limb salvage and lower extremity wound care, to develop the core biotech formulations for the Omeza product line.  

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In 2017, Gardner began working with SCORE and collaborated with a graduate student group to develop an initial financial forecast. That group of students included Sarah Kitlowski, who now serves as President & COO of Omeza.  The students chose Omeza for their capstone project, developing a comprehensive business and go-to-market plan.  

SCORE Mentor Pat Loftus was a judge at the capstone presentation where the Omeza project took top honors. Loftus has remained connected with Omeza, including a 7-month mentoring relationship assisting with strategic planning, key relationship building and preparations for a second capital raise.

“Our SCORE Mentor Pat Loftus has provided tremendous support during this start-up period,” said Kitlowski.  Gardner added, “Pat Loftus is thoughtful, articulate, and mindful of the various considerations needed to create a strategic plan and supplement operations.  She also supported corporate compliance matters as well as identification and mitigations of risks.”

The Sarasota-based firm opened its first office in 2018 with one employee; the company has grown to nine full-time employees and is organizing clinical trials in preparation for anticipated FDA clearance in early 2021.  Pre-clinical research as well as early clinical results continue to demonstrate the potential for Omeza to become a leader in advanced wound and skin care, as well as promising extension into the IDDS (Intradermal Drug Delivery System) category.  While awaiting FDA clearance, Omeza is launching its second consumer product to support skin and wound health online and in selected clinical locations.

Family-owned Small Business of the Year – Exceptional Aluminum Sales & Service

Dennis Britton decided to open an aluminum screen enclosure business with his wife Scarlet after working in the same type of business for his father for over 30 years.  Timing was everything. Exceptional Aluminum Sales and Service opened its doors just a few weeks before Hurricane Irma struck Fort Myers in 2017. Dennis brought in an experienced team and Scarlett worked the back office. From day one, the company was committed to providing an excellent customer experience, from the bidding process through permitting and high quality installations. This meant showing up on time, cleaning up well and always communicating with their customers.

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While experts at doing the work, the Brittons were new to the business side and approached Mentor Eileen Buchanan at SCORE in 2018 for help in managing the financial side and running a stronger operation. By 2019, profitability had increased, and established processes were in place to help the company to run smoothly.

“Eileen has been the greatest asset that our company has,” said Scarlett Britton. “Her guidance and advice, her gentle pushes, and her encouragement have been, without a doubt, the best thing that has happened to our company.”

For more on these exceptional businesses, go to: https://southwestflorida.score.org/success-stories

Mentors are the heart of the SCORE operation, volunteering their time and years of experience to help entrepreneurs and small businesses to grow stronger and to achieve their goals. Here are this year’s winners:

Mentor of the Year:  Ben Simmons

For over 30 years, Ben was a partner with the international firm of Deloitte & Touche LLP, one of the “big four” accounting, audit, tax, and consulting firms.  He served as the Partner-In-Charge of the Nebraska and Iowa region responsible for practice development, recruiting, staff development, quality control, and the execution of the firm’s audit methodology and firm wide strategy. Ben was a lead client service partner to clients ranging in size from Fortune 500 to small business in the areas of finance, capital formation and operations improvement. He served clients in a wide variety of industries with particular expertise in agribusiness, financial institutions, financial instruments and the service industry. 

Ben Simmons has been a SCORE mentor and very active volunteer since April of 2011. In FY 2019 and 2020, he led almost 200 mentoring sessions with a perfect Net Promoter SCORE (NPS). He has been a coach to many new volunteers and may have co-mentored more meetings than any other volunteer. Ben was a chapter treasurer, a member of the executive committee, and a workshop presenter. In June, he and Jim Bolinger presented our Chapter’s first ZOOM webinar – a workshop on the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) which received excellent feedback and then proceeded to answer many questions from attendees who emailed him afterwards.

Volunteer of the Year:  Sharon Schulman

Sharon Shulman holds a B.S. in Biomedical Communications, an M.A. in Communications and an M.B.A. in Marketing. She has held positions including Chief University Relations and Marketing at Stockton University and CEO of External Affairs & Institutional Research among others.

She joined SCORE in August of 2018. Shulman has a strong background in marketing, PR, business administration, non-profits, government, higher education, and utility operation and regulation. In the last 2 years, she has mentored almost 100 sessions, with a perfect NPS. Sharon presented at Bootcamp last January, presenting two workshops about “Marketing on a Dime” for our Chapter’s Series of “Close, Survive or Thrive”.  She has been an active member of SCORE Southwest Florida’s Outreach team, in meeting with chambers and economic development offices throughout the county.

Distinguished Service Award:  Pat Loftus

Pat Loftus has a B.S. in Nuclear Engineering from The Pennsylvania State University, an M.S. in Nuclear Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh. In April, she was invited to join the SCORE National Board of Directors.

Loftus has technical and business leadership and management experience with Exelon, Northeast Utilities and Westinghouse Electric Corporation combined with 6 years in the small business environment. Her corporate expertise includes federal regulatory affairs and compliance, independent oversight, strategy, marketing and business operations and financial management. She is currently a licensed real estate broker and an angel investor. 

Since transferring to Southwest Florida SCORE, Loftus’s contributions have been so significant that the Chapter created a special award for her – Distinguished Service. In addition to mentoring over 250 sessions in the last two years with a perfect NPS, Pat played the primary role in the fundraising for the chapter that brought in $16,500 in the last 12 months. Loftus set up a workshop schedule with speakers in 2019, organized and marketing the Digital Marketing Summit at Keiser University, and, with her networking expertise, she found the Chapter’s keynote speaker for the 2019 Annual Awards Luncheon. Loftus connected us with a PR firm that has helped our marketing efforts to bring in hundreds of registrations for our workshop series this summer.

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SCORE Southwest Florida is a local chapter of SCORE with more than 35 volunteer business experts. SCORE, America’s premier source of free and confidential small business advice for entrepreneurs and small businesses, is funded in part through a Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). Since 1964, SCORE has helped more than 11 million aspiring entrepreneurs. Each year, SCORE’s over 10,000 volunteer business experts provide hundreds of thousands of free small business mentoring sessions and local/online educational services to clients at all points of their business lifecycle through 300 chapters nationwide. 

In 2019, SCORE volunteers provided 4.9+ million hours to help create more than 29,600 small businesses and over 97,300 total jobs. In 2019, the Southwest Florida Chapter supported 24 new business starts and the creation of 257 non-owner jobs and continued to be rated highly rated for client satisfaction. In FY2020, SCORE Southwest Florida delivered 2,134 services to the community, mentoring 443 clients in 1,123 mentoring session with 56% in-business and 693 attendees at local and online SCORE workshops. Learn more: www.southwestflorida.score.org