Craig Culver

Craig Culver gets some hearty laughs Wednesday during his talk at the 14th Columbia County Economic Development Corporation's award ceremony. About 100 people attended the event at Club 60 in Columbus. Culver is the CEO of Culver's Restaurants. 

COLUMBUS — If you didn’t know the guest speaker’s last name, he could have been mistaken for a life coach who also gets laughs.

While Craig Culver described the road he traveled in order to be a successful business owner, he poked fun at a table of bankers because he couldn’t get a loan when he began the journey decades ago. The room filled with laughs from about 100 business owners, entrepreneurs and supporters of economic development.

The Columbia County Economic Development Corporation held its annual awards banquet Wednesday evening at Club 60 in Columbus.

Fourteen businesses were nominated for their contributions to the county’s economic health and growth: American Packaging Corp. in Columbus; Caddy Shack in Pardeeville; Club 60 in Columbus; DeHaus in Portage; Didion Milling in Cambria; E.K. Machine in Fall River; Fromm Family Foods in Columbus; Karate America in Lodi; Saftig Foods-Piggly Wiggly in Poynette; Saint Gobain Performance Plastics in Portage; Sharrow’s Downtown in Columbus; Spring Creek Restaurant and Bar in Lodi; The Workshop in Columbus and Wiseguys Auto Repair in Columbus.

Also recognized this year was Columbus Community Hospital and Divine Savior Healthcare. Andy Ross, president of the CCEDC, said that health care operations are an economic engine in a community.

“We decided it would be good to recognize these great organizations … no area can have a good economy without a good hospital,” he said.

Culver is the CEO and co-founder of the popular blue and white restaurant known for Butterburgers and frozen custard. The first one opened in Sauk City and now there are 500 Culver’s Restaurants in 22 states with a franchisee system.

“We opened July 18, 1984, and nobody came. Hardee’s and Burger King across the street had full parking lots. We had two cars in our parking lot and me and my dad each drove a car,” Culver said. “That 13-mile drive (to the restaurant) felt like 100 miles … we were this close to losing it.”

Attendees nodded in agreement with Culver when he said that everyone in the room is in the people business.

Culver said he still thinks of his business as “the little guy” and that it took two years before money began to come in but “you have to persevere.”

Over the years, Culver began to realize some key components that set him apart.

“I found out you can’t teach passion. You can’t teach the love of what you do. I can’t teach someone to be a leader,” he said.

The nominated businesses that did not win this year received a CCEDC certificate in appreciation.

“We really need to see the growth continue. It’s going to be work, but I know it can be done,” Ross said.

The 2014 CCEDC awards went to half of those in the running and judges included Bruce Kepner, of Alliant Energy, Mary Gage, of Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and Jerry Thiltgen, of Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

Here is a list of the winners:

The 2014 Large Business of the Year: E.K. Machine in Fall River.{/div}E K Machine participates in the SkillsUSA training program for Columbia County schools, helping to prepare youth for future careers in the industry.

E K Machine recently completed an additional 50,000- square-foot manufacturing plant expansion for its Power Products Line and added 25 full-time jobs in Columbia County.

The 2014 Small Business of the Year: Saftig Foods, Inc/Piggly Wiggly in Poynette.

One of Bob Saftig’s success theories is no one likes competition but you can either continually improve or get run over and wonder why. Saftig employs 60 people.

The 2014 Large Manufacturer of the Year: Saint Gobain Performance Plastics in Portage.

This year, Saint Gobain in Portage launched a 34,000- square-foot expansion which is due to be completed in early 2015 and will add approximately 125 new jobs.

Since 2009, Saint Gobain has been recognized as an Energy Star for outstanding contributions to protecting the environment through energy efficiency.

The 2014 Small Manufacturer of the Year: Fromm Family Foods in Columbus.

In the 1930s the Fromm family developed the first canine distemper vaccine.

By 1949, the Fromms introduced the concept of premium pet food to the world by pioneering the process of cooking meat and grain together to create the dry kibble food that is so popular today.

The 2014 New Startup of the Year: WiseGuys Auto Repair in Columbus.

In 2002, Dave Weismann graduated from Columbus High School, attended Madison Area Technical College and earned a degree as an automotive technician and honed his skills for more than eight years at a Madison dealership before opening WiseGuys in 2012.

The 2014 New Product Innovation of the Year: DeHaus Inc. of Portage.

DeHaus leaders say some of the keys to its most recent success include utilizing Columbia County resources like the Enterprise Center Business Incubator, taking advantage of CCEDC Professional Business Development Resources and using American-made products.

The 2014 Sustainability/Green of the Year: Didion Milling in Cambria.

Didion partners with local organizations, like Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy to further their sustainability efforts including process efficiency projects that have led to a significant reduction in energy and water use.

Didion is committed to sourcing from local grain producer partners, ensuring traceability and increasing sustainability and food safety.

The Columbia County Economic Development Corporation’s purpose is to foster and encourage activities in the county that result in constructive economic development and/or result in an improved quality of life.

For more information or to join, call 608-742-6161.