From the lightest white cakes to the heaviest stone, from consulting expertise to healing fields, the 2004 Salt Lake Chamber Giant Step Small Business Award winners span Utah's business spectrum.

From humble beginnings, each of this year's winners has risen to success. To do so, they've shown willingness to change course, capitalize on new opportunities and create new markets for their products.

The 2004 Giant Step Small Business Award winners, who will be honored at a March 30 luncheon, are:

Cuisine Unlimited, Salt Lake City — small business of the year.

Delta Stone Products Inc., Heber City — entrepreneurial success award.

Colonial Flag, Sandy — community service award.

Turning Point Inc., Draper — home-based business success award.

"All four of these companies are unique in that they're not real young companies," said Salt Lake Chamber president Lane Beattie. "They are examples of people who have persevered through difficult times and have come out on top."

Small businesses are the bedrock of the local and national economy, said Mark Knold, senior economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services. Nearly 90 percent of all firms in the state have fewer than 100 employees. While big companies often get the attention, Knold said, small companies drive the economy.

In Utah, Beattie said, the state of small business is strong.

"We get a lot of criticism here in Utah, over and over again, because of the number of bankruptcies filed. But people fail to look at the other side of that equation, and that's the number of small businesses started," he said.

"Overall, I'd say we're doing very well. We're definitely on the increase, feeling the energy and enthusiasm of our small businesses. That's really where it's at. Small businesses are our innovators. They're the ones that take our ideas and our economy forward."

Cuisine Unlimited

Cuisine Unlimited and its principal owners, Maxine Turner and Marvin Turner, are no strangers to the business spotlight. The company has been featured in local and national publications, and in 2002, Event Solutions magazine named it the industry's national Caterer of the Year.

Cuisine Unlimited has catered events at Lincoln Center in New York City and the U.S. Open Golf Tournament. It also provided catering services at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and has contracts for the Games in Athens and Torino.

Despite the accolades, Maxine Turner said the company remains close to its roots, which trace back 23 years to Turner's first gig: catering small events at her synagogue.

"We started out eating with sterling silver given to us at our wedding. That's how poor we were," Turner said. "I got into the catering business as a means of subsidizing a family income."

From catering bar mitzvahs and weddings, Turner said her interest and passion for the trade took off.

"Something internal was sparked that said 'I love this.' It's very theatrical. Every day is a new show, a new performance," Turner said. "There's that surge of energy that I'd imagine comes with being on stage."

From its start with two employees, Cuisine has grown to now employ more than 30 people full-time, with an additional 40 on-call and the ability to call on more when the situation requires.

And the demand for the company's services has resulted in the birth of another company, Culinary Expressions International. Cuisine handles the local events and, Turner said, will always be headquartered in Salt Lake City. Culinary Expressions handles larger national and international events, like the Olympics. That company is licensed out of New York.

"We're a Utah company and considered a small company," she said. "We've been around awhile, but just like every small business, we've had experiences — economic ups and downs, the financial obligations, the challenge of knowing when to expand and when one should really hold ground.

"At the same time, I think it's a small company with incredible vision. Now, (through Culinary Expressions) we can do events nationally and internationally. That, I think, makes us much more progressive than other companies in comparably sized cities."

Throughout Cuisine's 23-year history, including the rapid rise of the last few years, Turner said the company has remained focused. Cuisine still caters events every day, from dinners-for-two to company picnics and gala events.

"For us, it comes down to the fact that (the company caters) events that are important to people," she said. "It doesn't matter if it's the company picnic or a gala fund-raiser. They're equally important to the people involved. And because we touch their lives personally, there's a lot of responsibility."

Delta Stone

Delta Stone Products co-owner Paul Ballif still thinks of himself more as a mason and stoneworker than as a corporate bigwig. He credits his business partner, Robert Hicken, for handling the operations side of their three companies (of which Delta Stone, founded in 2000, is one).

But both Ballif and Hicken talk with equal parts joy and humility about the growth of Delta Stone, about the fun of finding better methods and creating better products.

"We went from cutting stone by headlight with a gas-powered handsaw to an $80,000 saw to a block saw," Ballif said. "Our building went from a 30-by-50 to a 60-by-80, and now we just added another building that's 30,000 square feet. At the same time, in terms of growth, it's hard for us to look at, because we're still not where we want to be. We still have dreams and aspirations of bigger things and better equipment."

Ballif met Hicken at Brigham Young University in the early 1990s. Ballif wanted to be an architect/general contractor and did masonry work to earn money. Hicken said he liked Ballif's work ethic and his drive for excellence. When he started a masonry business, he contacted Ballif. The two have collaborated ever since.

"I think from when I very first started, I could see different ways to do things, better ways," Hicken said. "I always envisioned having a fabrication shop like we currently have. You just wonder when it will all come together. Honestly, I thought it might take longer to get where we are."

Combining the three companies, Ballif said he and Hicken have 80 to 100 employees. Delta Stone already has some impressive projects in its portfolio, including high-end stone construction work on investment luminary Charles Schwab's Hawaii home. The company aspires to be the premier supplier of architectural stone in the West.

"With stone, there's no end to what you can do, so it's a great business to be in," Ballif said. "It's fun, it's got age to it, and some new frontiers that we're looking forward to exploring."

Colonial Flag

When Colonial Flag opened in 1979 in the basement of his brother's home, Paul Swenson never imagined it would be the company that would help communities across the nation heal. But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, flags became more than just decorations for stuffy government buildings and the Fourth of July. For Americans, displaying the flag was renewed as a way to commemorate, communicate, honor and grieve.

For a company that specializes in flags and flagpoles, the months following Sept. 11 have been a complicated, delicate balance between satisfying demand for a product and helping a community.

"The thing we did not want was to commercialize what happened," Swenson said. "We don't want to make money because people died."

But after the initial rush to buy flags by customers all over the West, and the overwhelming emotion they communicated to Colonial Flag, Swenson knew he had been placed in a unique position.

"It was about Sept. 6, 2002, and I was flying back from Sacramento," he recalled. "It was a late-night flight, and I was reading a magazine article, commemorating the first anniversary of Sept. 11. It gave the number 3,412, the number of people who died that day. It was such a little number there on the page. I thought, 'I have to show how many people that is,' and I thought maybe we could do it with flags."

From that, the first "Healing Field" was erected in Sandy. The following year, Colonial Flag helped erect similar memorials in communities in Texas, Oregon and New Jersey. The flags from the memorials were sold, and the profits donated to local charities. This year, Swenson said he already has had inquiries from 200 communities. Two Healing Fields are planned this year in Utah — in Sandy and at Sugar House Park.

Colonial Flag has established a nonprofit organization that coordinates that effort and its other charitable work (including its "Fields of Honor," which Swenson said were established alongside the Healing Fields to honor those who have fallen in the war against terrorism).

"The most gratifying thing for me is to see families walking through it," Swenson said. "To see families talking together about what it all means. To have that time together — a quiet, peaceful time.

"I'm hoping it helps people remember the victims of that day (Sept. 11), and those who continue to fight the war on terrorism. But also to remember those who daily put their lives on the line to protect our communities and preserve our independence."

Turning Point

Kathleen Gage is used to landing on her feet. A professional marketing and promotions business adviser, keynote speaker and corporate trainer, she's adapted several times to the changing winds of business.

"Over the last 10 years, my own business has gone through a few rebirths," she said. "September 11 was a big one. Pre-9/11, I was primarily a corporate trainer within government agencies. After 9/11, that pretty much dried up. So it was either starve to pay the mortgage or figure something else out."

Turning Point emerged in the new economy as a home-based, multifaceted business services company. Gage is available as a trainer, consultant and marketing specialist. Her target market now is in the cosmetic dentistry and hospitality industries.

With a home-based business, Gage said, it's a little harder to gauge growth.

"I just made a move from Sugarhouse to Draper, and my home increased four times in size. So I guess that means my business grew four times," she joked. "As far as revenues go, we're having one of our best years ever. I'm getting more focused on the types of businesses I work with, going deeper with them to provide the services they need."

Gage also has diversified — with a publishing company, a growing line of products and an expanding array of services, including working with clients to put together conferences within their industries — so that "if one part of the economy collapses, it won't be a total collapse of my company."

It's all a part of being an entrepreneur, Gage said: taking calculated risks and maximizing opportunities.

"There are unbelievable opportunities out there," she said, "and luck has little to do with it."


E-mail: jnii@desnews.com