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Growing Close

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  • | 6:00 p.m. September 11, 2008
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Growing Close

More than a few small companies on the Gulf Coast have hit some big growth marks over the last three years. And a few big ones have gotten even bigger.

companies by Mark Gordon | Managing Editor

Jesse Biter's first business venture was the direct result of an entrepreneurship class he took in college. But his story isn't exactly an endorsement of academia.

One day in 1996, Biter asked his business professor at Shippensburg University, a state school in Pennsylvania, the difference between a C-Corp, an S-Corp. and an LLC. Not only did the professor of his entrepreneurship class not know the answer, he muddled something to Biter, then 21, about "those who can't teach..."

Biter learned the lesson. Almost immediately after that conversation, he dropped out of Shippensburg. He borrowed $1,000 from his mom and met with a lawyer and an accountant about what he had to do to start a business.

"I just wanted to do something while I was in college," says Biter. "I had to get going."

The result of Biter's ambition was HomeNet, a company he formed with a friend from middle school designed to wire local neighborhoods and communities with fiber-optic cable. The business has kept the name but has since grown into an entirely new industry: Selling custom made marketing and inventory software for more than 13,000 car dealerships nationwide.

And business for the company, which Biter relocated to Sarasota a few years ago, has been good. The company's revenues grew 326% over the three-year period from 2004 to 2007, from $1.5 million to $6.5 million.

It was a growth rate good enough to make Inc. magazine's list of the 5,000 fastest growing companies in the country, published on HomeNet was ranked 1,147 on the list.

HomeNet joins 67 other Gulf Coast-based companies on the Inc. 5,000, including four Tampa-area companies on the top 500. Some companies on the list of 5,000 are familiar names in the Gulf Coast business community.

For instance, Oldsmar-based Network Liquidators, which refurbishes and then sells used networking equipment, was ranked 642 with a three-year growth rate of 519%, from $6.7 million in revenues in 2004 to $41.2 million last year. And Sarasota-based Clockwork Home Services, a franchise-based home repair services company, finished 993 by increasing its revenues from $37.1 million in 2004 to $181.9 million in 2007, a three-year growth rate of 391%.

Barry Shevlin, who was named the Review's 2008 Entrepreneur of the Year in May, founded Network Liquidators in 2001. And Jim Abrams, who was named the Review's top Entrepreneur of the Sarasota-Manatee region in the same issue, founded Clockwork.

One company in particular on the list, Tampa-based, isn't as well known. True to its name, the three-employee company sells mats for patios, lanais and decks. Terje Gronlie, a Norwegian native who competes in Ironman triathlons and skydives in his spare time, founded it in 2001. His first name is pronounced Terry.

Much like Biter, Gronlie found a niche that, while slow in developing, has blossomed lately. The company had a three-year growth rate of 609%, going from $468,600 in 2004 revenues to $3.3 million in 2007 revenues. Its growth put it at the cusp of the top 500 on Inc.'s list, at 520.

Gronlie initially founded the company as something of a hobby after he moved to Florida in the late 1990s. Back then, he was still working in marketing for an Oslo, Norway-based international fertilizer and chemical conglomerate while taking business classes at the University of Florida.

The company initially sold mostly outdoor mats for use with RVs and camping to large distributors such as Lowes and Camping World. But when Camping World moved on to another supplier in 2005, Gronlie looked to expand the business as opposed to shrinking in step with the lost contract.

He focused especially hard on getting inside two retail giants: Wal-Mart and QVC, the shopping TV network. Deals to supply both entities with patio mats and area rugs came through in late 2006 and early 2007, which fueled the company's recent growth.

Gronlie has since opened new distribution warehouses, one in North Carolina and one in California, near Los Angles. He also hopes to expand sales to Canada in 2009.

Gronlie says he's learned one key component to managing fast growth over the past 18 months: Always keep an eye on costs, from small expenses to big purchases. "You can grow," Gronlie says, "but you have to be efficient as well."

Meanwhile, Biter has turned his attention to automation. He would like to have the company's systems, from software to data entry to billing, fully automated as soon as possible, as he realizes running a $10 million company - which he hopes to be sometime next year - is a lot different from heading up a $1.5 million company, as HomeNet was in 2004. "The biggest thing is realizing economies of scale," says Biter. "The challenge has been to automate our systems as we grow."

And now Biter has one more challenge he can dangle in front of his employees: Make the Inc. 500. "Our goal is to be on the top 500," Biter says. "It's a big challenge."


Year Revenues % growth

2004 $468,000

2005 $1.2 million 165%

2006 $2.4 million 100%

2007 $3.3 million 38%

Total three-year growth: 609%

Three-year avg. annual growth rate: 101%



Year Revenues % growth

2004 $1.5 million

2005 $2.4 million 60%

2006 $4.1 million 71%

2007 $6.5 million 59%

2008 $10.6 million*

Total three-year growth: 326%

Three-year avg. annual growth rate: 63%

Source: HomeNet * (projections, based on $6.4 million

in revenues through Aug. 31, 2008)


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