June 19, 2024
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South Coast business, tech and nonprofit leaders to be lauded


Though their fields range from hospitality to thermal imaging and food preservation, the business leaders being honored with the 2020 South Coast Business & Technology Awards have each built fundamental elements of the Santa Barbara landscape.

That’s reflected through a lifetime of entrepreneurship, leadership in disaster response and founders that have infused philanthropy and community into their organizations.

“In any given year, certain people stand out because of something they’ve done recently in that year or the context that we’re now operating in,” said Janet Garufis, co-chair of the steering committee for the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara.

Garnering the Pioneer Award for a career of building businesses on the South Coast, Bill Parrish has launched and grown three companies in the field of infrared technology that still have a major presence in the region today. Beginning in 1981 when he founded Amber Engineering, which later sold to Raytheon in 1992, he went on to create the fast-growing Indigo Systems, which was acquired by FLIR in 2012. Immediately afterward, Parrish co-founded Goleta-based Seek Thermal, which aims to bring small thermal imaging systems to the commercial market at significantly lower prices than its military and industrial competitors.

Executive of the Year Sherry Villanueva, a Business Times’ Top 50 Women special honoree for 2020, has also left a mark on the regional business landscape, having built eight restaurants in the Santa Barbara Funk Zone through her company Acme Hospitality.

“Our first restaurant was the Lark, and community was the No. 1 core value we wrote for it,” Villanueva said. “We wanted to create a place where the community could come together. You have a community in Santa Barbara, you have a community in our team and you have a community of suppliers, fishermen and growers.”

The company has since held hundreds of nonprofit events every year, including key partnerships with organizations like the food bank, offering prepared meal programs and more recently groceries for its 350 employees as they wait out coronavirus restrictions. In a new venture launched in 2019, the company has also begun renovating two hotels near Lake Tahoe.

Another pioneer in the food industry, family-run Bragg Live Foods, netted the Company of the Year award, honoring decades of philanthropic support from its health advocate founders, Paul and Patricia Bragg, Garufis said.

“It’s really a wonderful family story that Bragg Foods has,” Garufis said, “We wanted to honor the contributions they’ve made over time to the Santa Barbara community.”

The apple cider vinegar maker recently was acquired in a high-profile deal led by celebrity couple Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom, keeping the business in the hands of longtime family friends.

Bringing new innovation to the fresh food supply chain, Apeel Sciences recently surpassed its 300th employee as it builds out its network of produce distributors and retail customers around the world, winning founder and CEO James Rogers the Entrepreneur of the Year award.

“His product was just so important, especially when we look around the world, and even in our own community, and one in four people suffers from food insecurity,” Garufis said.

Apeel was named a Rising Star by the Business & Technology Awards in 2019, as well as winning the 2020 Pacific Coast Business Times Spirit of Innovation Award. Moving forward, the company plans to build on its international presence in the Netherlands and Peru with operations in Spain and South Africa. The expansion is not only geographic but will add new retail partners and produce categories in the coming months.

Rogers credits early support from the Santa Barbara community in the company’s success.

“This might be the only place in the world where materials science and agriculture could come together so naturally,” he said.

Excellence in Service winner Direct Relief made its mark not only in its global relief efforts, but its role in responding to disasters in its own backyard.

One of the nation’s largest nonprofit organizations, Direct Relief provides medical supplies and other support to facilities and neighborhood clinics, including programs in partnership with more than 40 local agencies. As it has responded to the COVID-19 crisis, that’s expanded to major providers like Cottage Health, Lompoc Valley Medical Center and Sansum Clinic.

The programs include thousands of hygiene and dental kits distributed annually through health care partners, as well as yearly support to help homeless veterans receive services and apply for assistance programs, said Damon Taugher, vice president of global programs for Direct Relief.

Those partnerships were critical when it came to responding to the wildfires and debris flows that hit Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in late 2017 and 2018.

Now in its 25th year, the South Coast Business & Technology Awards event, to be held Oct. 1 at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort, regularly brings together some 700 attendees from the region’s business community. Proceeds benefit the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, including support for students studying business and technology at tri-county universities and community colleges.

Each of the winners has been critical in recent years to both the business and philanthropic landscapes of the South Coast, Garufis said.

“It’s sort of a whole new world this last couple of years, nationally and even more so locally,” Taugher said.

• Contact Marissa Nall at mnall@pacbiztimes.com.