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A career-counseling firm, a manufacturer of chocolates and a home health-care provider are the recipients of a new award designed to recognize Buffalo's successful small businesses.

The Entrepreneurial Excellence Awards, which will be presented this Friday, were conceived by the Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State College as a means of honoring enterprises that have made significant strides in terms of both profits and employment levels.

Cuthrell-Szymczak Inc., Lou-retta's Custom Chocolates Inc. and Amak Health Care Agency were selected by the center's staff from a field of more than 2,000 local companies, said Susan A. McCartney, the center's director. All the firms considered for the awards have been long-time clients of the Small Business Development Center.

"These people have been tenacious . . . they intend to be in business for the long haul," Ms. McCartney said, when asked what distinguishes the award recipients from the other companies the center has helped since it opened in October 1984.

Citing her organization's recent financial difficulties, Ms. McCartney said the awards also are meant to thank the hundreds of local small-business people who lobbied politicians in Albany last spring to restore funding for the state's 14 Small Business Development Centers. Friday's awards reception will provide members of the Western New York legislative delegation an opportunity to meet some of the people who have benefited from the center's one-on-one counseling and various workshops, she said.

Here's a brief look at the three award winners:


When Fisher-Price Toys, Empire Federal Savings Bank of America and Goldome drastically reduced their work forces, they all hired a small business to provide career counseling for their displaced employees.

Stephen Cuthrell and John B. Szymczak own an "outplacement firm," which helps unemployed executives and people who are dissatisfied with their jobs change careers. Every year, they help about 200 white-collar employees find a new position, start their own business or go back to school for additional training.

Cuthrell-Szymczak employs 12 people in a statewide network, which includes its Buffalo headquarters and satellite offices in Albany and Rochester.

Szymczak explained: "We show people how to deal with the marketplace. How to sell themselves."

Cuthrell-Szymczak isn't an employment agency, but rather a company that helps people find answers to the question: What am I going to do with my life?

Both small-business owners worked in New York City before moving to Buffalo. Cuthrell, who serves as chairman, had helped former members of Jimmy Carter's staff find jobs after the Democratic president was defeated in 1980 by Ronald Reagan.

Szymczak, a Buffalo native and graduate of the University at Buffalo, approached Cuthrell in the early 1980s about starting a business in Western New York. The entrepreneur said he had become frustrated with his long commute into Manhattan and the city's hectic lifestyle.

"When we started in business, it (Buffalo) was a booming area," Szymczak said, referring to the region's prosperity in the late 1980s and the recent economic downturn.

"We've gone through a roller-coaster ride," he concluded. "But, I think it (the local economy) will come back because Buffalo is made up of survivors."

Lou-retta's Chocolates

The Small Business Development Center probably couldn't find a stronger supporter than Loretta Kaminsky, whose 6-year-old chocolate company is thriving with exports to Japan.

The business woman says she is grateful to Jan Pisanczyn, the center's senior adviser, for suggesting she seek assistance from the University at Buffalo's Center for Industrial Effectiveness.

For the last year, Mrs. Kaminsky has been engaged in an intensive re-examination of her business objectives. UB faculty and small-business experts have helped Lou-retta's Custom Chocolates Inc. identify market niches, overhaul its manufacturing operations and develop a comprehensive business plan.

Lou-retta's began in Mrs. Kaminsky's kitchen, as an outgrowth of her dessert catering business. She explained that in the early 1980s, customers began requesting she provide after-dinner chocolates along with her sumptuous desserts.

But Mrs. Kaminsky wanted her chocolates to be different. Instead of flat bars, Lou-retta's makes colorful, three-dimensional chocolate objects, which many corporations buy as gifts for their employees.

For example, Lou-retta's work force of 34 molds chocolate to resemble lipstick for a Lancome Cosmetics promotion and produces souvenirs for Japanese tourists. This year, Lou-retta's sales are expected to top $400,000, Ms. Kaminsky said.

The lion's share of the company's receipts continue to be generated from retail sales. So, the small business recently opened a shop in the Boulevard Mall and leased a large factory building on Harlem Road in Cheektowaga. Mrs. Kaminsky said she hopes to start franchising within a few years.

The entrepreneur explained that she isn't motivated simply by a desire to make money. "Several years ago, I went through a frightening experience. I was told I had cancer and I had a double mastectomy," Mrs. Kaminsky said. "Well, I survived. And I'm determined to do something with my life . . . to make something of myself."

Amak Health Care

Nkechinyere Oriaku says she didn't start Amak Health Care Agency to make a lot of money, but instead to help senior citizens spend their remaining years at home rather than in a hospital or nursing home.

Amak, which is located at 117 Mercer Ave. in Buffalo, employs about 40 people who help elderly clients with basic household tasks like cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking and laundry. The agency also hires registered and licensed-practical nurses to provide medical services. The three-year-old company has targeted senior citizens, but Ms. Oriaku says, the handicapped and people who are recovering from serious illnesses also may need help around the house.

"I'm not a typical business person," Ms. Oriaku said. "My real reason for doing this is to help people get back on their feet. Making money isn't that important to me."

A registered nurse, Ms. Oriaku was born in Nigeria and educated in Great Britain. She moved to the United States in the 1970s.

Ms. Oriaku praised her employees for the company's past successes. "This award really belongs to them," she said. "After all, a tree cannot make a forest."

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