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.

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