Unofficial Business: Grammys schmammys: 5 small Ga. businesses named rock stars

Five business dreamers in Georgia just got awarded rock-star status by the state.

OK, it wasn’t exactly the Grammys.

The winners — from local craft beer brewers to a husband and wife who make glittery plastic worm fishing lures — received glass stars during a baked-chicken luncheon in Atlanta.

Any attention is good for people with the guts to launch a business.

The annual Georgia Small Business Rock Stars honors are given out by state economic development officials to bring attention to small fries. Usually, they don’t get much love from local communities more focused on wooing big employers that have jobs by the ton.

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Except, those big newcomers generate only a fraction of the new jobs in the state. Most growth actually stems from new small businesses and expansions by existing employers.

Three-fourths of Georgia’s new jobs announcements involve companies already here, including small ones, points out Chris Carr, the state’s commissioner of economic development.

“These fabulous (small) companies are out there that need their attention, too,” said Mary Ellen McClanahan, who leads entrepreneur and small business efforts for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “We all need to serve what we have.”

So give a little fan love to the rock stars (and then let’s try to figure out why Georgia has seemed light in the last couple decades on local startups that grew into giant brands you’d recognize):

Creature Comforts Brewing Co. in Athens has three founders who built put their operation in a renovated warehouse/former car dealership. CEO Chris Herron, 35, was a finance director at Diageo, world’s biggest spirits maker, but had been aching to launch a craft brewery. “It was a dream,” he told me. Herron said he came back to Georgia because that’s where he’s from, though “it is not a favorable environment for our industry the way it’s set up today.”

(Craft brewers have lobbied for some changes in state law.) Creature Comforts has 20 full-time and 25 part-time employees and expects to produce nearly 20,000 gallons this year.

— Dennis and Joyce Montgomery have been working at this small business thing for about 40 years. First they had an appliance and Radio Shack business. But 19 years ago they put their focus on D&J Plastics in Georgetown, Ga., which if you’ve never heard of before makes two of us. It’s across the state line from Eufaula, Ala. (Got it now?) From a county with about 2,000 residents, they produce 750,000 plastic fishing lures a day. A day! They employ 85 people and hold various patents, including one for the glittery coating they put on wiggly worm lures.

— Stewart Rodeheaver retired from the Army at 57 as a brigadier general and thought he’d spend his time fishing. Instead, he got help from local economic development officials and launched a business from Eatonton in middle Georgia. ViziTech USA creates and sells training and learning systems using 3D and augmented reality technology. (Rodeheaver recruited an expert to handle the technology side of the business.) The first work was for the military, but it has since spread to colleges, school systems and corporations. Rodeheaver told me he has 15 employees and $6 million in annual sales, “but my business is going to be 30 people and $25 million in the next five years.”

— Jeff Kingsley was a doctor in Columbus when he and a colleague opened an office to conduct clinical trials for makers of new drugs and medical devices. “It was literally meant to be a hobby” and a way to let patient volunteers get free care, he said. Well, it got a little bigger than that. Now, IACT Health has nine offices around Georgia, 50 full-time employees, more than 50 independent contractors and plans to add 33 more full timers this year.

Reformation Brewery launched in Woodstock about two years ago. It’s a tiny craft beer operation with 15 full- and part-time workers and about 15 investors who helped launch the enterprise.

Georgia officials named these businesses rock stars, but that doesn’t mean these companies they are likely to get as big as past homegrown Georgia startups like Home Depot or Turner Broadcasting.

It’s hard to get that kind of mega star status.

We’ve see births elsewhere of giants like Facebook, PayPal, Snapchat, Airbnb, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram and Google.

But most of the Georgia startups that made it big in the past 25 years had behind-the-scenes technology you might not have heard of: Internet Security Systems (now part of IBM) and AirWatch, for example. There are exceptions. Earthlink got pretty well known for a while there. Sara Blakely founded and grew Spanx, the maker of slimming garments. Elf on the Shelf was created here.

Plenty of others stay small, quietly creating and sustaining jobs. Which is a beautiful thing, and worth celebrating.

More information about state help for growing a small business is available at http://www.georgia.org/small-business/

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Find Matt on Facebook (facebook.com/mattkempnercolumnist) and Twitter (@MattKempner) or email him at mkempner@ajc.com.

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