Small-business owners across America will be standing a little taller this month when the U.S. Small Business Administration kicks off the 37th annual celebration of National Small Business Week on May 21. The purpose is to honor all 25 million American small-business owners.

Hundreds of chambers of commerce and business organizations are planning awards banquets, receptions and educational events. Much of the media attention will be focused on the state winners heading to Washington, D.C., to find out who will be named this year's "Small Business Person of the Year."

One outstanding entrepreneur from each state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam will be recognized at a series of parties, forums and events leading up to a ceremony at which the national winner and runners-up will be announced, possibly by the president or vice president.

For the first time this year, the SBA is hosting a trade show open to the public at no charge. The show is scheduled for May 24 and 25 at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave.

Here are a few of the winners in the running for the "Small Business Person of the Year."

-Two owners of a lumber company in Nampa, Idaho, won this year's competition after recovering from a 1994 fire that destroyed their entire facility.

"We found out after the fire that we didn't have the insurance coverage we should have had," said Monte Schlerf, co-owner of Stone Lumber, a full-service lumber and hardware store. "But a day after it happened, we had our people out selling and bringing in lumber that we just set on the bare ground."

Schlerf says they kept all of their employees working during the crisis, although they had no building. They reopened the business a year later with help from an SBA-guaranteed bank loan.

Schlerf and co-owner Roger Kotter purchased the business in 1980 from Schlerf's father. The business, founded in 1906, has 40 employees and earned $15 million in 1999 revenues.

"My father always reminded us of how important it is to treat the customer well that's the No. 1 key to success," said Schlerf. "Be an easy business to deal with."

-Providing great service is one way to win the SBA's state competition. Developing a new technology for a moneymaking product is another.

"You can either make a generic product and be so efficient that you offer a low price, or, if you make something totally unique, you can win, because you don't have the pressure of competition," said Ruth Ellen Miller, president of NoUVIR Research, based in Seaford, Del.

Miller's company sells special fiber-optic lights that are free of ultraviolet or infrared rays. The floodlights, fake candles and chandeliers they sell are widely used by museums and historic homes.

"By removing these rays, we extend the life of artifacts," explained Miller. "If you look at the Declaration of Independence, it's really hard to see the signatures on it that's because of the light they used."

Miller started the business in 1990 after hearing a lecturer speak about the challenges facing the Smithsonian Institution when it comes to preserving artifacts. Although she has a degree in business, her background is in art.

"I'm an artist, but my father is an old rocket scientist, so we talked about physics a lot over the dinner table," said Miller.

Miller's company has seven employees, and makes more than $1 million in annual revenues.

-Success is challenging for a busy chocolate maker from South Bend, Ind., who is in the running for the top SBA honor.

"Stress is the biggest problem when you have to continually grow and lay the foundation for handling more business," said Mark Tarner, president of the South Bend Chocolate Co. "We've run out of space, and are now leasing hallways in our building."

Tarner, who has a master's degree in European history and a law degree, started working for his father's company, which made chocolate for grocery stores. He has lived in South Bend all of his life, and says the community "throws" money at him.

"We have absolutely no debt," said Tarner, who declined to release any financial information, other than saying that sales are growing a rate of 30-60 percent a year.

Tarner isn't quite sure he's ready to expand his business: "I don't want to do what I think we might have to do, which is ask someone for $5 million to open 100 stores."

-Laura Sherrill, president of South Pacific Steel Corp., a Kapolei, Hawaii-based company that supplies and installs reinforced steel for buildings and bridges throughout the Hawaiian Islands, admits, "I'm not sure why we won this award."

"There are four other rebar companies on our island, so we were shocked," Sherrill said.

She and her husband started their company in 1990. The company operates out of three trailers while their 49 employees work on-site.

"First, we worked out of our home, but then we had kids and needed to set up a facility," said Sherrill. The company is in the process of building a new office, but the sagging Hawaiian economy has stalled their plans to move.

"The economy on the islands has been in the toilet for the last eight years," said Sherrill. "Many people and businesses have filed for bankruptcy. But we've been really fortunate no big jumps, but we're inching along."

-Six-thousand miles east of Hawaii, a records-management company in Watertown, Conn. is also preparing to be honored in Washington.

"Our industry has recurring revenues, it's pretty predictable," said Adam J. Wasserstein, the Connecticut winner and president of Archives Management Inc., a company that stores and retrieves hard copies of important documents for banks, law firms and big corporations. According to Wasserstein, his business has an internal growth rate of 8 percent a year.

In 1991, Wasserstein started the business with $5,000 from his own pocket.

"I said to myself, 'If you really think you're an entrepreneur, take five grand and do something with it," said Wasserstein. Now, the 60-person company posts $7.1 million a year in revenues. It also receives funding from a venture capital company.

According to the SBA, state winners are chosen based on the business' staying power, growth in number of employees, increase in sales and unit volume, innovative product or service, ability to deal with adversity, and contributions by the entrepreneur and his or her business to aid their community.

For more information on the winners, visit www.sba.gov.

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.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.