3 from area in running for small-business award

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010

A dessert chef and two federal contractors on Tuesday will represent the Washington region's three main jurisdictions in what could be considered the entrepreneurial equivalent of the Miss America pageant.

The U.S. Small Business Administration will crown the National Small Business Person of the Year at a luncheon at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Southwest Washington, from a field of winners from all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico, Guam and a region that includes the District. The award offers no fame, no prize money, no budget for personal appearances around the country -- not even a sash or tiara -- only a trophy and bragging rights.

"I think small businesses deserve recognition," said Maryland winner Lily Bengfort, chief executive and president of Columbia-based CenGen, a contracting firm that provides wireless communication services to the Defense Department.

"We sacrifice and risk a lot of time, energy and personal finances," Bengfort added. The award offers "hope to aspiring entrepreneurs, even in this environment."

The SBA has been giving the awards since 1963 to growing small businesses that have overcome adversity, said agency spokeswoman Janie Dymond. To be eligible, the businesses had to demonstrate that they increased sales, net worth and their workforce.

The Virginia winner, John Fernandez, who had worked as a chef in such upscale establishments in New York as the Rainbow Room and the St. Regis hotel, started Daystar Desserts there in 1998. At first he sold his specialties -- including artfully-decorated, single-portion cakes made of Belgium chocolates, Italian creams and fresh mousse -- to hotels and restaurants. But he and a partner later decided to move to Ashland, Va., and sell to retailers, including Costco. In 2004, he bought Virginia-based World's Best Cheesecake.

"In the past two years, we've invested $400,000 into our business," said Fernandez, adding that he opted to purchase a building and add staff during the recession. "Our revenues rose from $5 million to $10 million in the past 12 months. We've got enough new customers to hit a minimum of $15 million next year."

Charles W. Scott, president and chairman of Fairfax-based government contractor J.M. Waller Associates, was named the District's winner. Under SBA rules, businesses in D.C. and Northern Virginia are eligible for the District award, while businesses in the southern part of the state can apply for the Virginia prize.

Scott said the 17-year-old company has continuously expanded -- first performing environmental cleanup work for the government, then managing construction projects for agencies and then engineering parts for aging weapon systems. "Last year, revenues were $44 million, an increase of $10 million over the previous year," Scott said. "This year, we're expecting somewhere over $50 million."

CenGen's Bengfort said that even though she started the company during the dot-com bust in 2000, revenue has grown 20 to 40 percent every year. The company's technology, she said, is being used by troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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