Stephannie Cetoute took over the reins of the family business, Amer Plus Janitorial Maintenance, in 2018. While she had a background in economics and finance and from time to time helped out her father who started the business in 1998, going in “full throttle” to run a business for the first time was all new territory, she said. “Once you see it firsthand, you realize how much work it is, number one, but then how much you have to continue to grow and learn.”
Her father had been running it as mom and pop business and “once I got into the company I realized there wasn’t much of a foundation to grow on,” Cetoute said. “I had to start putting some structure and systems to build upon.”
It’s been a learning journey for her, but Cetoute has been hard at work setting the company up for growth.
That journey includes diversifying the business, which was focused primarily on serving the restaurant space. Before the pandemic hit, Cetoute had been starting to diversify the industries the company serviced but the pandemic accelerated the need for that, because of course the pandemic hit the hospitality industry especially hard.
Entering world of government contracting
Now Cetoute is very focused on opportunities in government contracting, an all new area for the business. “It’s definitely been a learning experience for me for sure and for our company. Dealing with government work is completely different than the private sector.”
For help in positioning Amer Plus for this whole new world, as well as developing a strategy for leading the company forward, Cetoute turned to Florida SBDC at FIU for help. The small business development center within FIU’s College of Business provides no-cost one-to-one business consulting for small businesses in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, as well as access to trainings and webinars.
Government agencies are very specific about what they ask for and you have to be able to meet those specifics or it is a no go, Cetoute said. With FSBDC at FIU’s help, she is learning how to approach government contracts and develop the right relationships and partnerships to grow and thrive in the sector. That also included making sure the company had more structures and processes in place.
So far, Amer Plus has won contracts at the state and city level and recently won a federal contract. For the federal contract, Amer Plus partnered with another landscaping company that had a certification at the federal level that they had not utilized and did not have too much understanding on how to put together a proposal. “We were able to land that small contract and for us it is a huge milestone,” Cetoute said
Now Amer Plus has another project at the county level, she said. “We actually did another partnership relationship with a larger company and decided to sub for them.”
Those partnerships have been critical to getting a foot in the door and gaining experience, and it was FSBDC at FIU consultant Adriana Madrinan who emphasized the importance of partnerships, Cetoute said. In addition, FSBDC at FIU consultants specialized in finance and government contracting helped her understand how to polish and package a proposal for success.
FSBDC at FIU also referred the company to StartUP FIU Procurement, a three month acceleration program with other small businesses seeking training in government contracting that Cetoute said was also instrumental in learning about the process and setting her company up for success. She went through that program in the fall, finishing in January.
“Adriana connected us all — the way her brain works is amazing. She’s really been good with helping us with our company strategy,” said Cetoute. “For us, it’s a really good time to be a minority-owned business. There are a lot of opportunities that are being carved out for minority businesses at this point so it’s also good for us to optimize on some of the certifications that we have and consider some certification that may be beneficial for us.”
Facing challenges head on
There have of course been challenges along the way, especially when you get a global pandemic thrown at you.
“it would seem the pandemic would be beneficial in the commercial cleaning industry. But actually it has been a slow one for my industry simply because everyone’s working remotely and a lot of businesses have closed down.”
So the biggest challenge she has faced: Navigating the pandemic while also trying to recognize and prepare for the opportunities. “We’re gaining new relationships, and we want to continue to grow and expand our business. we want to strengthen our infrastructure,” Cetoute said.
To other small businesses, her advice is this: “Optimize community.”
When the pandemic hit, everyone was trying to figure out what to do. “If you stayed in your silo, you didn’t get as much of an opportunity as you could have recognizing that other businesses are trying to navigate too. I think the coming together as a community, and recognizing that there are resources like SBDC available, is key to continuing to move forward, and it’s key to survival.”
“I would recommend that other businesses optimize on the resources that they have. These [FSBDC at FIU} consultants are very knowledgeable and sharp. So, to have this resource available, it’s crazy not to use it — Fortune 500 companies would pay a lot of money to have consultants of this caliber give them advice.”
Photo at top of this post is of Stephannie Cetoute, owner of Amer Plus. It was provided by Miami Bayside Foundation.