Smart companies flourish in bad times

They’ve not only stayed afloat in pricey San Francisco, they’ve turned a crippling recession into an opportunity for success.

Four city businesses that are beating the odds are finalists in the small-business category for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce’s 17th annual Excellence in Business (or Ebbies) Awards. Winners will be announced at a ceremony tonight at the downtown Palace Hotel.

Nominees for the small-business category include two advertising/branding agencies and two nonprofits that have had to be lean, keen and sometimes green in order to survive in a city that is notoriously expensive to do business, said Leslie Milloy, senior vice president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

For example, some of the companies have used the downward economy to their advantage.

The nonprofit InterSchola finds buyers for surplus items that public schools might throw out — such as aging desks and computers — and uses the proceeds to fund educational needs at the schools.

“When schools have had budget cutbacks … our clients find that they need our services more than ever,” founder and president Melissa Rich said.

Another nominee, Gumas, which helps businesses compete against larger competitors, looks for opportunities in the market that aren’t being tapped by consolidating big businesses, founder John Gumas said.

“The market has shrunk, but what that means is there’s still opportunity out there, it’s just harder to find,” he said.

The hunt for opportunity forms the foundation for BAYCAT, the nonprofit offering jobs and education in the digital media arts to The City’s low-income southeastern population. The organization’s founder is Villy Wang.

The fourth nominee, Philippe Becker, is the branding agency that came up with the popular “O” packaging design for Safeway’s organic products. It has taken an environmentally friendly approach to help attract big-name clients, said David Becker, who founded the agency with his brother, Philippe.”

“We try to be conscious about marketing things that help people,” Becker said. “At the end of the day, it comes down to the quality of the work.”

Aside from the small-business award, categories at tonight’s Ebbies honor innovative tech companies, developers and businesses involved with economic development in The City, organizers said.

Businesses were also recognized for how well they treat their employees, Milloy said. A happy worker is a productive one, she said.

“They look at ways to save money and deliver more profit by being even better to their employees,” Milloy said.

Best in business

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce will present businesses in San Francisco Excellence in Business Awards during a gala tonight. The awards, called the Ebbies, were started in 1991 and are divided into six categories.

Excellence in Business Award

  • Burr Pilger Mayer LLP
  • Recology
  • Sports Basement

Small Business Award

  • Gumas
  • InterSchola
  • Philippe Becker

Innovation Through Technology Award

  • Open Table
  • Twitter
  • Zipcar

Build SF Award

  • 355 Eleventh Street
  • SPUR Urban Center
  • UCSF Helen Diller Family
  • Cancer Research Building

Emerging Growth Award

  • Bauer’s Intelligent Transportation
  • SendMe
  • Vertical Response

Economic Development Award

  • Bay Area Video Coalition
  • La Cocina
  • San Francisco Convention & Visitor’s Bureau

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