When David Cline's father was fired from his job due to his arthritis, Cline vowed that he would become an entrepreneur to guarantee that he would always have a job. Since then, Cline has owned three small businesses.

Business number three was the charm, because Cline was named "Small Business Person of the Year" by the U.S. Small Business Administration during the SBA's 37th Small Business Week celebration in Washington, D.C.

"I'm hyperventilating; I didn't expect this," said Cline, whose employees at Balboa Instruments Inc. in Costa Mesa nominated him for the SBA's top national honor without telling him.

Balboa Instruments, with 273 employees and $37 million in annual sales, is the largest manufacturer of electronic spa controls, according to Cline.

"We invented a technology that can stand up to the environment," he said. "It's a reliable and safe control system."

He said the company is known for customizing its core products to meet customers' needs. Balboa withstood a major challenge in 1990 when the spa industry went into a slump and his main customer stopped purchasing spa controls.

Even when the market tanked, he kept his spirits up by remembering what a friend told him: "There are people who own spas and people who want a spa. And that covers just about everybody."

Balboa weathered the downturn, and moved forward to implement the innovative employee and community-oriented programs that helped him win the SBA's top honor.

Diverse workforce

Cline said the company sets aside 22 percent of its pre-tax profits for distribution to employees in the form of bonuses. Employees are encouraged to obtain any type of training they need, and the company reimburses the tuition paid for college courses completed.

Cline said he's also proud that his employees represent 30 different nationalities. And to fulfill the community-service aspect of the SBA award, Balboa sponsors a program that mentors high school students.

"Businesses should challenge themselves to try and reach out to the community," said Cline. "Our business supports literacy and education."

Cline has this advice for entrepreneurs: "If you persist and do things with consciousness, you will succeed," he said. "Make sure you don't run out of cash. Motivate your employees. Your business will do well if you surround yourself with people who want to see you succeed."

Barbara Miller, president of Miller Paper Co. in Amarillo, Texas, was this year's first runner-up. Her company produces more than 1,500 paper products.

Miller said she's worked in the paper industry for more than 30 years, climbing from an administrative assistant to president. When she tried to buy the company she was running, the owners wouldn't sell it to her, so she started her own business. In 1996, she was diagnosed with cancer, which she is still battling.

"This is a tremendous honor," Miller said of the SBA award. "Thirty other people keep this company going. I'm grateful for my family because they didn't try to hold me back or say, 'Hey, you can't do that.'"

SBA chief Aida Alvarez told the winners that more than a million Americans started a business last year.

"Small business is the driver in creating new jobs," she said. "In fact, there have been 20 million new jobs created since President Clinton took office." She said 35 percent of this year's winners are women; 30 percent are minorities; and all winners rely on computer technology to operate their companies.

"This dynamic week celebrates small-business owners' accomplishments, but also encourages these winners to continue their growth," said Alvarez.

The SBA, which was established in 1953, has one of the busiest small-business Web sites on the Internet. The site, www.sba.gov, receives 9 million hits a week.

Presidential proclamation

President Clinton celebrated Small Business Week by issuing an executive order urging all government agencies to buy 5 percent of their goods and services from women-owned businesses. The order states in part: "Where feasible and consistent with the effective and efficient performance of its mission, each agency shall establish a goal of achieving a participation rate for women-owned small businesses of not less than 5 percent of the total value of all prime contract awards for each fiscal year, and of not less than 5 percent of the total value of all subcontract awards for each fiscal year."

Clinton said the SBA will establish the new position of assistant administrator for women's procurement to monitor the implementation of his executive order.

According to the SBA's Office of Advocacy, 9.1 million women-owned businesses employ 27.5 million people and contribute $3.6 trillion annually to the U.S. economy. Since Clinton took office in 1992, the SBA has guaranteed more than 73,000 loans to women-owned firms, with a total value of $11 billion.

This year's SBA winners are the most technologically savvy, according to a survey taken by the agency.

All the winners use personal computers. Ninety-two percent use e-mail. Sixty-nine percent own laptops; 88 percent use fax machines; 55 percent use pagers; 92 percent use cellular phones; and 96 percent use the Internet.

The winners also employ a total of 7,000 workers and reported aggregate annual sales of $330 million. Although receiving financial or managerial assistance from the SBA is not required to win an SBA award, 67 percent of the winners have received such assistance.

Reporting by Julie Neal. Jane Applegate is the author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business," and is founder of ApplegateWay.com, a multimedia Web site for busy entrepreneurs. She can be reached via e-mail at jane@janeapplegate.com.

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