FIRST WATCH

In Consumer Reports' 2003 ranking of best meals and deals, First Watch received the highest reader score in any category and the best rating for overall value, knocking off the previous top seed in the "family restaurant" category. Take that, Cracker Barrel (last year's winner).

The company started out in Sarasota barely 20 years ago, and CEO Kenneth Pendery admits, "In the beginning, it was extremely difficult introducing a new concept: breakfast, brunch and lunch." But the dining public finally caught on, and today the company operates 49 First Watch restaurants throughout the Southeast and plans to open five new ones every year.

How does he keep up the pace? "We are consistent," answers Pendery. "We offer great food at a good price. We offer a great quality of life for our employees and we have no intention of changing that." Or of branching out to the evenings. Says Pendery, "We would much rather open a new First Watch serving breakfast, brunch and lunch than one that serves dinner." -Pat Haire

GEVITY HR

Erik Vonk is a happy CEO. At a time when many companies are still struggling to return to profitability levels of three years ago, Vonk's Bradenton-based Gevity HR-one of the area's largest public companies with close to 1,000 employees (500 in Bradenton)-watched its stock price rise by 460 percent in 12 months. Revenues increased 20 percent from $310 million to $375 million.

Gevity's strength is even more impressive when you remember that only 2 1/2 years ago, it was Staff Leasing, a company struggling to survive. Today, Gevity has a client roster of 6,000 companies and operates in 11 states. Last year was its first full year as an HR outsourcer, completing its transition from insurance and employee benefit-related services to providing the full range of human resources services, everything from benefits to payroll to hiring to writing employee handbooks.

Human resources outsourcing is growing national trend, and Gevity's potential for growth in existing and new markets is vast, Vonk says. Right now, the company is looking for a new home of about 100,000 square feet. "Our lease expires in 2005," he says, "but we will stay in the general area. We've looked at commuting patterns and we don't want to upset too many lives."-Susan Burns

HOTEL ASSOCIATES OF SARASOTA, LTD.

OWNER, HYATT SARASOTA

The Hyatt Sarasota, like Sarasota's hospitality industry in general, has been tossed about by "the perfect storm," says Hotel Associates of Sarasota president Charles Githler: a national recession that began in early 2001, the aftershocks of 9/11, and, locally, the introduction of the Ritz-Carlton and greatly expanded Radisson Lido Beach Resort. Hyatt Sarasota revenues for the past 12 months were $14 million, versus $15.1 million the year before. But, with advance bookings climbing, "there's no question we've passed the lull and we're in somewhat of a recovery," Githler says. To position itself for the coming revival, the Hyatt has invested $12.3 million over the past three years in the renovation of all 297 rooms, a new ballroom, pool, parking deck, and landscaping. That's almost as much as the company paid for the hotel nine years ago. Importantly, Githler points out, these tough times for the hospitality industry have had "a political impact. Everyone from retirees to politicians has stopped taking [the positive economic impact of] tourism for granted."-Ilene Denton

FLORIKAN, ESA CORP.

When Ed and Betty Rosenthal moved here from Canada 22 years ago, the last thing Ed, a veteran horticulturist, saw was paradise. "I was shocked at the environmental inefficiency, the pesticide runoff, the misuse of water and native plants," he says.

The two created Florikan to distribute environmentally safe agricultural products. "For the first 10 years, no one wanted to listen us," says Ed. "When [Lake Apopka] died, people started noticing what we had to offer." Distribution eventually led to manufacturing their own line, and winning the Governor's Award for Most Innovative Product of 2002 (for a staged nutrient release fertilizer that signifigantly reduces phosphate and nitrate runoff) boosted their business.

"When we had our first $1-million month, instead of planning sales the next month to $3 million, we looked for ways to maintain that $1 million for a year," Ed says of their growth strategy. "Once we achieved that, we moved up to $2 million a month, then $3 million, and so on." That pales before the billions the chemical and fertilizer titans rake in every year. But the Rosenthals don't admire the competition. "We consider them the great evil," says Ed. "They're selling something we think they know is wrong and dangerous. We'll never sell a product that has any negative impact on human beings or the environment."-Pat Haire

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