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Vermont manufacturer wins top SBA honors

When Rick Cochran was working with five employees in his basement in Walden, Vt., his dream was to find a way to provide advanced medical care to underserved areas, and build a company that could deliver it. The Vermont manufacturer of state-of-the-art mobile healthcare and diagnostic units was named 2011 National Small Business Person of the year by Karen Mills, Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration.  Mills made the announcement during ceremonies at SBA’s celebration of National Small Business Week in Washington, D.C.

First runner-up is Deborah Carey, president and founder of the New Glarus Brewing Company, in New Glarus in southwestern Wisconsin.  Second runner-up is Leigh Kamstra, owner and chef of Roma’s Ristorante in Spearfish, S.D., north of the Black Hills.

“The innovation, inspiration and determination shown by Rick Cochran and his employees have elevated his company, Mobile Medical International, to a level that is above and beyond the norm,” said Mills.  “These are the qualities that make small businesses such a powerful force for job creation in the American economy and in their local communities.  Rick had a dream and he persisted – creating jobs, winning the loyalty of his team, and filling a need in the marketplace that has taken Mobile Medical from his basement to a worldwide stage.  We are especially proud that when Rick Cochran’s company needed financing, he turned to the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the SBA was able to help him.

“I applaud Rick and his team, and I applaud the runners-up and their staffs, and all of the state small business persons of the year who are here today,” Mills said.  “We are all grateful for their contributions to our economy.  They are magnificent examples of the character of America’s most successful entrepreneurs.”

The National Small Business Person of the Year and runners-up were selected from among the state winners in 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and Guam.  All are being honored this week in Washington, D.C., as part of National Small Business Week.  The awards were announced at today’s National Awards Luncheon, sponsored by Sam’s Club at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

Cochran’s story

For Cochran the road began when he left a job at an advanced medical equipment provider to establish his first venture, Outpatient Services of America, a consulting firm specializing in planning and developing ambulatory surgery centers.  His plan evolved in 1994, when he researched and created an initial design for a mobile surgery unit and established Mobile Medical International, working from his basement with a staff of five.  By 1995, he had the capital, and by 1996, he had his prototype.

At first, he provided temporary solutions for hospitals undergoing renovations, but he was able to expand the business into broader commercial, military, and emergency response applications worldwide.  During one rough patch in 1999, much of his core team — inspired by Cochran’s perseverance, optimism and faith – worked without pay when financing ran dry and the company nearly closed its doors.  They were reimbursed later, when the company rebounded.  The company also secured financing support from three SBA-backed loans in 1997, 2005 and 2008.

MMI’s products include mobile surgical hospitals built into a semi-sized tractor-trailer and an inflatable hospital ward that fits into a trailer pulled by a Humvee.  To date, MMIC has 22 mobile healthcare units in its product line, including Mobile Breast Care Centers, Mobile Intensive Care, Mobile Laboratory/Pharmacy, Mobile CT Scan/Dental/Ophthalmology, Mobile Ophthalmology and Mobile Endoscopy Units.

Today, MMI’s staff has grown to 54, and net income — just $9,835 in 2008 — rose in 2010 to $1.68 million on gross revenues of more than $14 million.

How Carey started

First runner-up Carey developed her business plan for the New Glarus Brewing Company while her husband Dan, a master brewer, gathered the materials, grains and equipment needed for start-up.  In 1993 they negotiated to lease a warehouse in New Glarus, exchanging the lease for stock in the company.  They sold their home and raised $40,000 in seed money, yet still needed more cash to fund the startup.  Carey pitched her story to local newspapers, and the media attention brought in $200,000 from investors.

In the early days, the couple worked hard to establish the brewery’s reputation for consistent quality beers. Carey based her plan on developing a very loyal customer base.  She set up beer tasting classes along with offering brewery tours, and the brewery started to take off, attracting notice from distributors.  New Glarus Brewing Company has grown to 50 full-time employees, has registered growth in profits of 123 percent from 2007 to 2009, and is Wisconsin’s number one micro-brewery relative to sales volume.

Kamstra’s tale

Kamstra, the second runner-up, had been eyeing an old, dilapidated stone building that had stood empty while she was a college student attending Black Hills State University.  She didn’t know exactly at the time how or why, but she knew somehow her future would be in that building.

After earning a degree in business and 10 years in banking, Kamstra changed course and earned a degree in culinary arts at the Colorado Institute of art.  In 1999, with the help of an SBA-guaranteed loan, Kamstra leased the old dilapidated building, refurbished it and opened Roma’s Ristorante.  When the old building proved too small, Kamstra adapted, securing another SBA-backed loan in 2010 to finance construction of a new building, with more space.  Since then, sales have nearly doubled and staff has increased from 11 to 35.


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