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Forbes Small Giants: The Best Small Companies Of 2019 – Forbes

When is bigger not better? When you value greatness over fast growth. These 25 companies are all privately owned and closely held, and they share a commitment to being the best at what they do, providing stellar service to customers, offering employees fulfilling, rewarding work and being vital members of their communities. They include a leading website for how-to advice, a Texas remanufacturer of oil drilling rigs, a burgeoning chain of “hyperlocal” newspapers, and a game company that has spawned an international community of more than 200 million players. Read and be inspired.

Greenville, South Carolina

FOUNDERS: Steve Brindle and Paul Cowley

2018 REVENUE: $13 Million

EMPLOYEES: 67

Advoco, which keeps track of equipment for the likes of PepsiCo and Starbucks, has every new employee sign a promise to be courageous, driven, innovative, honest, confident and knowledgeable. “If we don’t challenge our people to live those values, then we become just another consulting firm,” president Marty Osborn says. They also enjoy fitness challenges that raise funds for charity, annual wine-making sojourns in Sonoma and paid trips for the whole company to vacation together. Company profile

Jessica Rovello

New York City

FOUNDERS: Jessica Rovello (CEO) and Kenny Rosenblatt

2018 REVENUE: $15 Million

EMPLOYEES: 89

In 2001 husband-and-wife team Jessica Rovello and Kenny Rosenblatt founded Arkadium, a creator of interactive content for digital publishers, and soon acquired a gaming studio in Crimea, where costs were low. When Russia invaded in 2014, the studio and everyone in it relocated to a nearby Russian city. “It’s not that often that companies have to move their entire staff from one country to another,” Rovello says, but “our employees are not cogs in a wheel.” Company profile

Houston

FOUNDER: Art Saxby (CEO)

2018 REVENUE: $13.1 Million

EMPLOYEES: 70

Chief Outsiders’ network of 65 CMOs-for-hire take on as many projects as they want and keep 50% to 85% of what their clients pay, guaranteeing them flexibility and control over their jobs. They also get a long-term incentive plan that can earn them equity. The company could grow further by offering CFO, CIO or CTO services, but CEO Art Saxby has refused: “We have decided to stay focused on what we know best and where we think we can offer the highest value.” Company profile

Sidney, Ohio

FOUNDER: Tony Schroeder

2018 REVENUE: $7.7 Million

EMPLOYEES: 45

Company president Matt Hoying turned down a million-dollar contract with a city in Ohio at his civil engineering firm partly because his employees would have lost control over their work. He allows all of them, even part-time ones, to own shares. “We could go backward and be a $5 million company and still be successful, as long as we were true to our purpose, vision and mission,” he says. Company profile

Pflugerville, Texas

FOUNDERS: John (CEO) and Jennifer Garrett

2018 REVENUE: $27 Million

EMPLOYEES: 220

In 2005, John and Jennifer Garrett started a newspaper in their home in Texas. Today they publish 30 editions in 50 small communities from Arizona to Tennessee. The papers feature hyperlocal articles, and advertisers find them better for reaching customers than online alternatives. The company has done so well that the Garretts have opened their own plant, which not only prints newspapers but also keeps busy handling all kinds of jobs for other customers. Out front a sign says: “Print Ain’t Dead.” Company profile

Phoenix

FOUNDERS: Bruce Pomeroy and Andrew Skipper (CEO)

2018 REVENUE: $100 Million

EMPLOYEES: 54

Whenever real estate developer Evergreen invests in a new project, every employee can invest, too. Some staffers may retire as millionaires thanks to that policy. It’s no surprise, then, that almost a third of the workforce has been there for over a decade. They also enjoy profit sharing and annual trips abroad to support struggling communities. “We want to reap the benefits of being in business long-term, and not take short-term profit,” Andrew Skipper says. Company profile

Fargo, North Dakota

FOUNDER: Paul Wurzer

2018 REVENUE: $20 Million

EMPLOYEES: 110

Paul Wurzer started his business, which provides technology to support real estate transactions, in 1978. When it moved to the Web, he handed the reins to his son , Michael, to oversee the transition. Michael decided to emulate the partnership setup at the law firm where he had worked, and in 2005 he launched an employee stock ownership program. “We’ve grown much faster and better than if the employees hadn’t been invested,” he says. Company profile

Peter Hansel

Keene, New Hampshire

FOUNDER: George Kneuper

2018 REVENUE: $17.7 Million

EMPLOYEES: 95

Filtrine was born in 1901, in the garage of a Brooklyn inventor. President Peter Hansel’s family has run it since 1918. It makes custom water systems such as a chiller to cool a Boeing rocket and parts of Varian medical radiation devices. The company’s commitment to building its products in the U.S. and avoiding mass production has driven up its prices and cost it major clients like Coca-Cola and GE. “Maybe we’re foolish in that respect,” Hansel says, “but my family and I have never been willing to sacrifice quality to go after business.” Company profile

Cleveland

FOUNDERS: Pat and Dan Conway

2018 REVENUE: $45 Million

EMPLOYEES: 233

Last year at Great Lakes’ annual off-site ­summit, its two founders told all the employees, “Everyone’s a winner. So get in line to pick up your prize.” The prize: a new employee stock ownership program. “What a moment it was,” then-CEO Bill Boor said. “There were hugs and tears and high fives.” Great Lakes was the first craft brewer in Ohio and is known for its environmental initiatives, recycling more than 70% of its waste. Company profile

Rogers, Arkansas

FOUNDERS: Ross Cully (CEO), William Waitsman and Dan Arnsberger

2018 REVENUE: $15 Million

EMPLOYEES: 85

CEO Ross Cully worked for Procter & Gamble’s Walmart team before he and two colleagues left to start their own business managing small brands’ relationships with big retailers. “It’s more fun to know the people,” he says, and his emphasis on customer care is mirrored by in-house benefits. Employees get four weeks of paid vacation on starting, matching of charitable giving and profit sharing. “I hear from people, ‘My life is different, the benefits, the ­opportunities for my family,’ ” Cully says. Company profile

Houston

FOUNDER: Dan Henderson (CEO)

2018 REVENUE: $45 Million

EMPLOYEES: 175

Early on, some of his fellow oilmen found Dan Henderson pretty far out when he talked about running a “values-driven” company with a culture based on “integrity, truth and transparency,” but his 13-year-old business has thrived. In 2017 it acquired a drilling company and became a full-fledged rig remanufacturer and service outfit. “We’re changing the definition of what is a great service provider’s customer relationship,” says company president Jim Lank. Company profile

Jeff Snyder

Norwalk, Connecticut

FOUNDER: Jeff Snyder

2018 REVENUE: $71 Million

EMPLOYEES: 300

Jeff Snyder’s agency creates marketing stunts like a recent virtual Jeep ride at the Aspen Winter X Games that he calls “an immersive 4-D experience.” He makes the company culture immersive too, kicking off each year with a team-building retreat at a resort like Mohonk Mountain House and taking the staff to Mexico or Jamaica as a reward for reaching its revenue goals. “If we can make people happy and passionate about work, that will translate into the product,” he says. Every year the company conducts a competition in which employees pitch nonprofit causes to management. “The grand-prize winner gets full agency attention, complete with a series of events and fundraisers.” Company profile

Stillwater, Oklahoma

FOUNDER: Behfar Jahanshahi (CEO)

2018 REVENUE: $57 Million

EMPLOYEES: 171

Last year this IT and data consultancy’s revenue jumped 39%, but Behfar Jahanshahi keeps a close grip on growth. He gave up a large social media account that was too hard on his people and has let go of clients who were tough to deal with. He also has turned away many would-be investors since launching in 1996. “I want to be surrounded by people I can think of as friends,” he says. Company profile

Lester Thornbull

Jupiter, Florida

FOUNDERS: Dennis and Carol Berardi

2018 REVENUE: $38 Million

EMPLOYEES: 51

Life’s Abundance has been making and selling healthy pet food since 1999, and it’s never had a product recalled, a record that makes CEO Lester Thornhill, a native Trinidadian, proud. It relies on customers to market its products, as in multilevel marketing, but with a crucial difference: There are no quotas, and no one is required to buy or sell anything. That not only means a lot of repeat customers but also lets the company keep its goods out of big-box stores and Amazon, which is a matter of principle, Thornhill says, enabling Life’s Abundance to manufacture in small batches and guarantee freshness and quality. Company profile

Cambridge, Massachusetts

FOUNDER: Jeff Robbins (CEO)

2018 REVENUE: $4 Million

EMPLOYEES: 27

LiveData had been around for 22 years when Jeff Robbins’ son died, in 2013, and he changed the company’s focus to healthcare, because he wanted to make “something meaningful,” he says. Now the business concentrates on operating-room software and has taken on a partnership with Salesforce and a deal to supply Australian hospitals. Robbins wants his employees, who all own company stock options, to share in Live­Data’s success, and he has avoided accepting any venture capital. Company profile

Mark Aquillino

Manchester, New Hampshire

FOUNDERS: Michael and Dale Aquilino (CEO)

2018 REVENUE: $10 Million

EMPLOYEES: 72 full-time, 250 seasonal

The Aquilinos founded their landscaping and snow-removal business in 1988 and passed it on to their son Mark in 2015. Mark decided to focus on improving his people’s connections to one another and to their work, and as a result, annual employee retention has risen from 45% to 85%. “We really like to use Outdoor Pride as a vehicle to motivate others to give back,” he says, and he launched the Aquilino Foundation this year to support projects like a local literacy program. The company has also been investing in going green, turning to electric mowers and blowers and adopting a brine solution for snow removal to reduce salt consumption. “At the end of the day, we’re stewards of the Earth,” Mark Aquilino says. Company profile

Holts Summit, Missouri

FOUNDERS: Shawn (CEO) and Julie Burcham

2018 REVENUE: $64 Million

EMPLOYEES: 144

Shawn Burcham, 48, regrets that he didn’t start reading books until he was 40. Now he requires the senior leadership team at his food service company to read at least 12 a year. In 2011, inspired by The Great Game of Business, he switched to an open-management model. After reading Good to Great he restructured and made sure he had “the right people on the bus.” He also gives his staff awards for “ownership thinking” and helping others succeed. Company profile

Jeff Jordan

San Diego

FOUNDER: Jeffrey Jordan

2018 REVENUE: $68 million

EMPLOYEES: 180

Marketing firm Rescue Agency has come up with a unique way to deliver its public health messages. It studies the group it’s targeting and figures who can best speak to its values and priorities. Drag queens deliver its antismoking pitch to the LGBTQ community and rappers star in videos aimed at teens. Rescue’s customers include the FDA and state and local health agencies. “The people who see our ads see themselves in them,” says founder Jeffrey Jordan. Company profile

Brea, California

FOUNDER: T. Russell Shields

2018 REVENUE: $30.5 Million

EMPLOYEES: 454

Solugenix designed technology for fast-food drive-throughs, cellphone billing and more, and it hews to a “no bureaucracy, no drama” model, says CEO Shashi Jasthi. Last year, the company was about to acquire an IT consulting outfit, but “we realized their company had a really dog-eat-dog and sales-at-all-costs type of culture,” Jasthi recalls. “So we had to pull the plug.” Company profile

Chris Ruder

Chicago

FOUNDER: Chris Ruder (CEO)

2018 REVENUE: $19 Million

EMPLOYEES: 23

Chris Ruder fell in love with roundnet, an obscure volleyball-inspired sport with a trampoline-like net. Then in 2008 he raised $100,000 from family and friends to launch a company making equipment for it. At first he sent a personal note to every customer. In response, parents wrote back about their children’s passion for the game. Soldiers in Afghanistan sent him photos from the war zone. Before long he was watching tournaments spring up around the world and setting up an international Spikeball association. All that had big business benefits. “We don’t have to ask anybody to promote Spikeball,” he says. “They just do it on their own.” And now the sport has millions of enthusiasts around the globe. Company profile

Steve Palmer

Charleston, South Carolina

FOUNDERS: Mickey Baskt and Steve Palmer

2018 REVENUE: $50 Million

EMPLOYEES: 960

Steve Palmer began his group of 20 restaurants in the Southeast ten years ago, and after his fifth successful opening he started worrying about how to ensure growth in a high-failure industry. “I wanted my management team to drill down on how to better identify people,” he says. The company now looks for new hires with drive, a work ethic, curiosity and a collaborative spirit. He finds it crucial that he disrupt the traditional work-hard-party-hard restaurant culture, so in 2017 he helped launch Ben’s Friends, which hosts addiction support groups for restaurant workers: “We spend every night taking care of customers,” he says. “We are just now figuring out how to take care of each other.” Company profile

Addison, Texas

FOUNDER: Chris McKee (CEO)

2018 REVENUE: $5.4 Million

EMPLOYEES: 41

By 2016 Venturity was already larger than most accounting firms that serve small businesses, but it wasn’t making enough to invest in the solid growth that Chris McKee considered essential. He found the answer in an open-book management system developed at SRC Holdings—a 2017 Forbes Small Giant. Since then Venturity has increased its margins and doubled its net pretax profit while reducing ­client attrition by 30%. Company profile

Bridgeville, Pennsylvania

FOUNDER: John Waldron (CEO)

2018 REVENUE: $16 Million

EMPLOYEES: 50

John Waldron opened his business in 1995 with the idea that comprehensive wealth management should provide more than just investment strategy, so it advises on trusts and estates, business assets and other concerns. It now has 175 clients and $2 billion in assets under management—and turns down clients who Waldron feels aren’t “a good fit.” He says he never wants the business to be acquired: “As an independent company, we only have to serve our clients.” Company profile

Naperville, Illinois

FOUNDER: Eric Rieger (CEO)

2018 REVENUE: $2.65 Million

EMPLOYEES: 17

Eric Rieger says he gets five or six approaches a week from would-be acquirers of or investors in his IT services provider, but the company isn’t for sale and is already growing as fast as he wants. He does have a future buyer in mind, though: his employees, provided the company reaches certain targets by 2021. In 2016 he opened the books to them. “It has changed the culture and produced a much more engaged team,” he says. Company profile

Palo Alto, California

FOUNDER: Jack Herrick

2018 REVENUE: $5 Million

EMPLOYEES: 25

Men may dominate the upper echelons at most companies in Silicon Valley, but wikiHow’s CEO is an engineer named Elizabeth Douglas, and 55% of the staff is female. The shared goal of building the world’s best and largest how-to website—it now has 180,000 articles—has guided every major decision at the company, from turning down venture capital investments to walking away from tempting acquisition offers from larger businesses. When is bigger not better? When you value greatness over fast growth. These 25 companies are all privately owned and closely held, and they share a commitment to being the best at what they do, providing stellar service to customers, offering employees fulfilling, rewarding work and being vital members of their communities. They include a leading website for how-to advice, a Texas remanufacturer of oil drilling rigs, a burgeoning chain of “hyperlocal” newspapers, and a game company that has spawned an international community of more than 200 million players. Read and be inspired. Company profile

Reporting by Elisabeth Brier, Bo Burlingham, Tanya Klich, Christian Kreznar, Monica Melton, Karsten Strauss and Samantha Todd.

Photographs by Aaron Kotowski for Forbes

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