Harry Boston said it best in his interview with Knox News – successful businesses don't stand still. And for many businesses, especially Black-owned businesses, 2020 was an unimaginable challenge.
But for the entrepreneurs and businesses who will make it through a year of economic setbacks, 2020 will be a year of learning, perseverance and growth.
Knoxville's population is about 17% Black. Yet among businesses in Knoxville with employees, only about 1% are Black-owned, according to U.S. census data. And those Black-owned firms have average annual receipts of about $1.5 million less than white-owned businesses.
Our community is working to address this gap, thanks to resources like Knoxville's Black Business Directory, the Shora Foundation's planned Roots Collective entrepreneur space and 100 Knoxville, which aims to increase the revenues of Black-owned businesses in Knoxville by $10 million over the next 15 years.
Despite this disparity and the challenges of 2020, there are wins to celebrate.
Meet three Black entrepreneurs who are coming out of 2020 stronger than ever. They're each moving into 2021 with a growth mindset, whether it's to increase revenues, hire more employees or finally accomplish a long-term goal.
Boston Government Services seeks third consecutive 'fastest growing' list
Ask Harry Boston about the first time his company made the Inc. 5000 list and he'll tell you Boston Government Services "barely" made the annual list, which ranks the fastest growing privately held U.S.-based companies.
Though he seemed unimpressed, being No. 4760 in 2019 represented 59% revenue growth over three years.
The 2020 Inc. 5000 list had more of an impact on him. BGS jumped more than 2,000 spaces to land at No. 2104, representing 200% growth over three years.
BGS ranked 33rd among Tennessee firms, 4th in Knoxville area firms and 105th in government services nationwide.
Despite the uncertainty of 2020, Oak Ridge-based BGS is wrapping up its strongest year yet, and Boston feels confident the firm will land a spot on the 2021 list, which will publish in August.
"You're always casting lines out ahead in the business, you're always building things," Boston told Knox News of the company's growth these last three years. "And you never know if you're gonna get a bite, and you never know if you're going to get it all the way into the boat. And we did, and it's almost that you don't believe it. I'm a terrible person for stopping and smelling the roses and celebrating your successes."
The firm, which serves federal and commercial clients, offers services in nuclear engineering and security, cyber and technology solutions, and program management and implementation. It works in markets like environmental management, nuclear operations, IT and alternative energy.
BGS works with clients like Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Y-12 National Security Complex and the Department of Energy.
Boston has a background working with ORNL as a research scientist, Lockheed Martin in leading environmental projects, and the U.S. Department of Energy as an executive.
Reflective of its 2019 inclusion on the Inc. list, 2018 was a pivotal year for BGS; the firm grew its footprint in cybersecurity and nuclear engineering, resulting in $15 million in revenue and growing to about 60 employees.
"We had enough capability base, enough market presence, enough visibility that enabled the next stage of growth, which was get on the team," Boston said. "Don't just be a subcontractor, be part of it. Bid the bigger contracts you couldn't bid before and team with people that you can't believe are talking to you."
Not too long ago, Boston found himself on the phone with aerospace and defense giant Raytheon Technologies. It's representative of the company's shift from having to knock on doors to being brought to the table with behemoths of the industry.
"They do like $90 billion a year and I'm thinking to myself, they're going to do more business during this phone call than we're doing all year long," Boston said of his call with Raytheon.
2020 seemed primed for success: BGS was waiting for a few large contracts to land and the company had grown to nearly 200 employees. Then the spread of COVID-19 led to uncertainty and scaled down investments. But given that many of their projects center on matters of national importance, projects resumed and all of BGS' employees kept working.
Though several contracts were delayed or canceled, 2020 has still been BGS' best revenue year, Boston said.
BGS is wrapping up 2020 with more than 200 employees and $50 million in annual revenue.
In 2021, BGS will continue to expand its work in cybersecurity and nuclear engineering. At Sandia National Laboratory, BGS is licensing and securing medical isotopes; at Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, it manages cybersecurity.
And it will focus on growing relationships with billion-dollar corporations like Honeywell Industries and expanding into the intelligence and commercial power industries.
Boston isn't enamored with the Inc. 5000 list, though he said it helped raise awareness about his company.
"What you've done is done," Boston said. "It's interesting, it's nice, I've got the T-shirt, but what's next? What are we going to do tomorrow? What's going to make it interesting next year?"
Applications for the Inc. 2021 list will be turned in this spring.
Boston is focused on growing market reach, growing into new markets and deepening the company's capabilities rather than revenue.
"It's about not how big can we be, how good can we be? And when you're focused on how good can you be and how do you do the right things and get the right people and take care of clients and make a difference, the growth just comes."
Knox Upholstery owner on her six-month wait list and the next big step
It wasn't until four years after starting her business that Rachel Fletcher realized she had an "actual" business. The turning point? In 2015, when Knox Upholstery had a wait list for the first time.
Today her wait list for custom furniture upholstery is more than six months out.
Though she anticipated being without work after the pandemic slowed life down, Fletcher has been busier than ever.
"People just started calling like crazy and I think it's because people were at home all the time," she said. "They're sitting on their couch and they realize it's not so comfortable."
Fletcher moved to Knoxville in the midst of the recession and, unable to find a job in her marketing and advertising field, became the prop master's assistant at the Clarence Brown Theatre. She was tasked with reupholstering a pair of antique Eastlake chairs, intricate button tufting and all, and then became known as the theatre's upholsterer.
She launched her business in 2011, built a website and waited for work to come. And the work did come; today Fletcher is best known for her work on mid-century modern furniture.
"A lot of people get into this business because they found a chair on the side of the road and they're like, oh, let me slap some pretty fabric on it, turn around and make a quick buck," Fletcher said. "That's not really why I'm in this business. It's more a passion not only just for the furniture and the design, but it's also really about just giving furniture new life and keeping it out of the landfill."
Fletcher has created custom work for the University of Tennessee, Blackberry Farm, HGTV, Extreme Makeover Home Edition, Nickelodeon and many more.
She's also created a national platform for upholsterers. In 2019, she helped found the National Upholstery Association, of which she's now president. The association has more than 2,000 members and aims to re-energize the upholstery trade in the U.S. and Canada.
It's good timing to bring others to the trade, as Architectural Digest noted antique and traditional furnishings were experiencing a resurgence as consumers are looking for eco-friendly goods, and design trends revert to more traditional interiors.
This year, she's grown processes and procedures to make business operations run more smoothly. She's also grown in patience and grace as customers have led hectic and unpredictable lives this year.
Looking ahead to 2021, Fletcher is eyeing moving her business out of her garage and into a storefront or makerspace. It would allow her to hire an employee and to better separate her personal and professional lives.
It's a tough decision for a self-described introvert who enjoys doing the work herself, but she would appreciate the help in shrinking that six-month wait list.
Entrepreneurship has definitely pushed her out of her comfort zone.
"I've learned to say yes to things that I would normally say no to," Fletcher said. "I've learned to be uncomfortable, and I like that. I like that feeling."
InsureFit RM founder on hiring and a real estate goal in sight
InsureFit RM started where so many companies do: In a second bedroom with a laptop, printer and no clients.
How would founder Mel Evans describe those early years of his insurance company, founded in 2012?
"Just grinding," he said.
Laid off from a big insurance company, Evans launched his independent agency to offer personalized coverage options for home, auto, renters, umbrella and life. For Evans, InsureFit was the antithesis to the "15 minutes could save you 15%" model of insuring.
On the commercial side, InsureFit specializes in serving churches, nonprofits, breweries and distilleries, contractors and the construction industry. The company services clients across Tennessee.
In 2014, Evans hired his first employee. He's wrapping up 2020 by hiring his fifth and sixth.
Despite the challenges of running a business in 2020, InsureFit is poised to finish the year "slightly better than last year," Evans said, with lofty plans for growing in 2021.
Mel Evans didn't just confront the pandemic and its effect on business in 2020. His father died in March after a long illness.
Evans, who traveled often to care for his father in 2019, leaned on his faith and his team at InsureFit. The loss of his father has given him renewed focus on business.
"My work ethic was based on what I saw growing up," Evans said. "Never saw my dad call in to work, never saw him miss a day because he was sick. He was up at 4:30-5 every morning sipping his coffee in the kitchen then was off to work. In a sense, I feel like it's my legacy to continue that."
InsureFit for the second year in a row was named a Best Practice agency by the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. It was one of two firms in Knoxville and 264 agencies nationwide to receive the award this year, given to firms showing high growth and operational excellence.
In 2021, InsureFit is poised to accomplish a goal Evans has had since day one. Evans, who just put an offer on a building on Central in North Knoxville, said he wants to be part of a growing area of the community.
He envisions the building will be an insurance-centric space, somewhere to learn about risk management and preventing loss.
"That would be a huge, huge milestone," Evans said. "That's always been the goal since day one, is for us to have our own building."
Though the company has grown from that spare bedroom and zero clients, Evans said his biggest challenge will always be client acquisition.
"We have a startup mentality," Evans said. "Ten years from now, 20 years from now we always want to have a startup mentality. You always want to be trying to figure out different ways to improve, different ways to bring in business."
Beyond 2021, Evans is looking at expansion – an office in Nashville to serve his clients there and a regional approach to doing business. InsureFit is licensed in five states.
"I feel very positive going into 2021," Evans said. "This is probably the most positive I've felt about going into a new year since starting the agency."
Business reporter Brenna McDermott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow along with her work on Twitter @_BrennaMcD. Support our local news efforts by becoming a Knox News subscriber.
Founder and President, Boston Government Services
Engineering, technology and security firm for missions of national importance
Employees: More than 200 nationwide
"When you're focused on how good can you be and how do you do the right things and get the right people and take care of clients and make a difference, the growth just comes."
Owner, Knox Upholstery
Custom furniture upholstery
Specialty: Mid-century modern furniture
"It's more a passion not only just for the furniture and the design, but it's also really about just giving furniture new life and keeping it out of the landfill."
Founder and President, InsureFit RM
Commercial and personal insurance
Employees: Soon to be 6
"We have a startup mentality. Ten years from now, 20 years from now we always want to have a startup mentality. You always want to be trying to figure out different ways to improve, different ways to bring in business."