5 Homegrown Entrepreneurs Who've Turned Their Businesses Into National Brands
With specialties ranging from estate jewelry to chocolatey snacks to high-performance coolers, meet five homegrown entrepreneurs who have created brands known throughout the nation.
1. Sheila G. Mains
CEO/Founder of Brownie Brittle
When Sheila Mains’ career plan A in industrial advertising crumbled, she had a great plan B. In 1992, she began baking and selling delectable, dense fudge brownies to cafes and stores—including Disney World. Her 2011 “plan BB,” aka Brownie Brittle, which is based in West Palm Beach, would be even sweeter. Brownie Brittle snacks come in multiple flavors, including organic options, and are available online and in tens of thousands of stores in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
Were there any surprises as plan B evolved into “plan BB”?
There are good guys and bad guys in the food business. Unfortunately, I encountered some of the really bad ones early on with Brownie Brittle. I was working with a group to market my snack, inspired by the crispy, thin chocolate that results when brownie batter lands on the side of the pan. They ended up lining their pockets with my receivables while trying (unsuccessfully) to knock off my product. Fortunately, Jerry Bello, a good guy and my personal “white knight,” became my silent partner and brought in a team of trustworthy, talented people that catapulted Brownie Brittle.
What goodies can people expect next from Brownie Brittle?
There’s our new Thindulgent Chocolate Bark. Cookie Bites and Brownie Bites, as well as some delicious gluten-free options, are coming. By request, we’re also working on thin, crispy chocolate chip cookies. And I’m excited about the release of my new cookbook, Butter & Chocolate.
What’s been the secret to your success?
Believing that even very good isn’t good enough and never putting a new flavor or product out there until it has the “Oh, wow!” factor. Also, having customers who love the product so much that they want to share it with friends; I’m incredibly grateful for every one of them.
2. Paul Kabalin
CEO/Founder of Engel Coolers
Paul Kabalin knows coolers better than most people know, well, anything. He’s thought about their every function from the insulation, seal, drain hole and latches, to the hinges, durability, shape and bottom grips. While becoming the founder and CEO of the first high-performance cooler company wasn’t part of the initial plan for Kabalin, who holds a master’s degree in marine biology, it’s perhaps his unconventional arrival to the trade that factors into his success. “I have a very scientific brain,” says the Jupiter resident and owner of the locally based brand, Engel Coolers. “Everything is well thought-out, and everything is logical.” When the native to South Africa first arrived in South Florida in 1997, he began selling 12-volt freezers, mostly because he wanted one and found they weren’t sold in the U.S. His hobby was fishing and diving, and the coolers he would take with him for a day on the boat were disappointing. So he thought, “Well, why not build a better cooler?” He’s since created a product that other companies have mimicked, and he continues to create new cooling devices, like a backpack his 14-year-old son can use while traveling for lacrosse.
When was the moment you realized your product would be a success?
I was the first [to create high-performance coolers], and when that happened, I knew I was on to something. But we were copied. YETI was one of them, and there’s been a lot of others. However, we’ve been growing at a very healthy rate every year very nicely. And we’re expecting double the sales of what we had last year.
When you finished your master’s degree in marine biology, did you ever think you would be the founder of a company?
No. You always think you’re going to be an employee and doing research and scientific work, and now it’s more of a hobby. I get to be dabbling in the industry with some of the products that we have in the fishing industry [by going] to fishing trade shows. And we sponsor a lot of events—a lot of fishing competitions. …Marine biology never left my heart. It’s there, it’s just more of an avenue for donation and an outlet for exercise and happiness after hours, you know, diving and fishing.
What makes Jupiter a good location?
We’re lucky enough to select Jupiter for the fishing and the proximity of the Bahamas. Jupiter has become a hotbed. It’s been a wonderful place to bring up my child. I’m happy to give back to the community with all of the sponsorships we do.
“I have a very scientific brain. Everything is well thought-out, and everything is logical.”
3. Susan Tancer
Owner/Designer at Susan Tancer Studios
“One step at a time.” That was Susan Tancer’s philosophy when the former marketing and public relations professional faced a brain cancer diagnosis in 2004. She embraced art as therapy during the two years of chemotherapy that followed surgery, and later, she painted a single bag that engendered an exciting, new enterprise. Today, the Palm Beach Gardens resident makes women’s artisan accessories featuring a line of eco-friendly, hand-painted purses.
How did that first bag get things rolling?
A boutique owner saw me with it at a brunch, bought it and requested more to sell in her store. I started a business with the friend who had sewn the bag, and we consigned our products in some area stores. Eventually, my friend and I went in different directions. I started a website to sell my bags, and now they’re available in selected stores throughout the U.S., Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
What makes your bags and other creations so special?
They’re really one-of-a-kind pieces of art. Every bag is individually painted, detailed and signed. I use various coats of sealant to make the lightweight canvas resemble leather, and I purchase all the non-vintage components from U.S. manufacturers. Every bag also bears the Hebrew Chai symbol for life because after what I went through, it feels good to create something that inspires people—that gives them ‘life’ in a way. I donate 10 percent of the proceeds from every sale to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, where surgery saved my life.
What’s next for Susan Tancer Studios?
When this all started, I had no goals except to paint. So much has happened, but painting is still a passion and therapy for me. I wake up early, get my tea, go to the studio and paint for hours. I want nothing more—or less—than to continue loving what I do and enjoying every day.
“They’re really one-of-a-kind pieces of art. Every bag is individually painted, detailed and signed.”
4. Joanne Cloak
CEO of Jofit, LLC
Jupiter’s own Harbourside Place houses Joanne Cloak’s brick-and-mortar flagship Jofit store. But the former physical education teacher’s clothing line, now available in more than 3,000 retail locations throughout the U.S. and online, is making a growing number of women everywhere look stylish, and feel comfortable and confident.
Why do you think Jofit is successful?
We are our consumers. Jofit was created by women for women. Long before I started the business I was frustrated by how often clothes don’t fit right, no matter what a woman’s body shape or size. I realized that making clothes that fit perfectly isn’t that difficult; it’s just time-consuming. At Jofit, whether we’re creating our sport line (golf, tennis, lifestyle/athleisure), our college line, or our chic-but-comfortable collection wear, we spend hours in fittings, moving seams a quarter inch here or there, and we insist that everyone on the team understands how things fit and why.
What have you learned as the business has grown?
For a decade, it was just me and a bunch of friends trying to do everything. I felt like I was pushing a snowball uphill. I finally hired a new CFO committed to strengthening from within. Once we got the team perfected, Jofit became a big, fat snowball that’s rolling along on its own. The concept and fit and style are still mine, but Jofit is doing so much better now that I’m not trying to control it all.
What’s next for Jofit?
More brick-and-mortar stores are coming. We’re also growing our collection division and working to get our professional license so that we can produce clothing representing NBA and NFL teams, etc. What’s next? It’s what makes me excited to jump out of bed every morning.
“For a decade, it was just me and a bunch of friends trying to do everything. I felt like I was pushing a snowball uphill.”
5. Rob Samuels
Owner of seven Provident Jewelry stores and Palm Beach Show Group
Provident isn’t just the name of Rob Samuels’ stores; it’s a one-word summary of his entrepreneurial path, one grounded in prudent decisions, and pursued with a keen eye for building upon success. The Palm Beach Gardens resident not only heads seven jewelry stores across South Florida, but he also leads the nation’s top full-service show production company, Palm Beach Show Group, which specializes in jewelry, world-class fine art and antiques.
How did you get into the jewelry industry?
My dad retired from the Navy and started his own wholesale jewelry business in Miami. Dad said I needed to get a part-time job while I was attending the University of Florida. I got myself some business cards, started repping his jewelry in Gainesville and had my first account within a couple of weeks. I switched my major from engineering to business management.
Where did you go next?
After I graduated from UF, I went to gem school, then went to work in wholesale. When the owner of Provident Jewelry and Pawn in West Palm Beach decided to sell his store, we bought it, renovated it and reopened in 1993 as Provident Jewelry. I hired Scott Diament, who’s now my business partner, to work there. We bought most of my dad’s shares and opened more stores, taking loyal, knowledgeable workers and making them managing partners of individual locations. That’s been a significant part of our success: The people who run all our stores truly know and care about the business.
What are your other secrets to success?
Provident is one of the country’s most respected sellers of fine estate jewelry, rare gems and exquisite timepieces, but we don’t stop at selling luxury products. We offer a luxury experience with highly trained, educated gemologists and other staff who give every person who walks through our doors top-notch customer service, whether they’re spending hundreds or millions.
“That’s been a significant part of our success: The people who run all our stores truly know and care about the business.”