Owners of the Playhouse Child Center in Brainerd and Little Falls made history recently.
Diane Mendel and Melody Peterson were named the Minnesota Small Business Persons of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. This is the first time in its 40-year history, a child care business received the award, Peterson said. She said their reaction was "it's about time."
Playhouse Child Care Center, based in Sauk Rapids, operates six child care centers, including one at Central Lakes College in Brainerd and one in Little Falls. The other operations are in Sartell, Monticello and St. Cloud.
The company provides education-based child care to more than 500 children daily, employs a staff of 100 and generates $2 million in annual revenues. Nicole Hinze, a Brainerd High School graduate, is the director of the Brainerd child care center.
While they knew they were nominated, Peterson and Mendel said they did not expect the call they were gaining top recognition.
"We were very excited," Peterson said. "I think we were very shocked, but we were also very elated not only for ourselves but for our staff -- it's a wonderful opportunity for our staff to be recognized in what they do in the day of the life of children."
Peterson said child care operations have a significant effect on other businesses that have employees with children. As a business that has been traditionally owned and operated by women, Peterson said people can have a tough time with the transition from what women often did for free with the business aspect.
"I think it's very different than what it has been perceived in the past," she said, noting the focus on early child education.
Mendel said the award is also a reflection of family support. Since the two opened their first center in 1991, they have experienced steady growth. It could be a volatile industry when they started. Later company layoffs had a trickle-down effect to child care. But Mendel said the effect was not significant.
When they started, Mendel said they thought the first center was challenging enough and said no more. By the end of the year they were expanding into Monticello. Mendel said if they waited until everything was perfect to take a chance, they would never get there.
For other women who may look to them as role models, Mendel said she would like to believe she fits that mold. Her tips for success include developing business skills and being willing to make sacrifices along the way, particularly financial ones -- at least in the beginning.
Business owners need to invest in people they are working with as employees, she said.
"And you can't have it all right away," Mendel said. "The biggest word when we started was perseverance -- one day at a time."
The Small Business Person is selected annually based on growth in sales or unit volume, increase in the number of employees, financial strength, innovativeness of product or service and evidence of contributions to community-oriented projects.
Mendel and Peterson were nominated for this award by Gail Ivers, vice president of the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce. Mendel and Peterson will go on to represent Minnesota in the national competition.
In other honors; Jill Blashack, founder and CEO, Tastefully Simple, Alexandria, was named Minnesota Entrepreneurial Success Award winner. This award honors companies that began as a small business, and with SBA assistance, have grown into a large business by SBA size standards.
Tastefully Simple is a national direct sales company offering upscale, gourmet foods and gift packs. Blashack started the business in 1995 with just $16,000 equity and a $20,000 SBA bank guaranteed loan. Nine years later, the company has 290 employees working in a 178,000 square foot facility located on a 79-acre site.
From first year sales of $100,000, the company now has annual revenues of more than $100 million. In 2003, Tastefully Simple was ranked 17th on Inc Magazine's list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in America.
Veronique Noel-Liebmann, owner of La Maison des Enfants-French School, Eden Prairie, was named Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year. La Maison des Enfants-French School is a French Language immersion program for children 3 to 7 years old.
All award winners will be honored at a May 7 luncheon ceremony in Minneapolis.
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