May 24, 2004 -- Sheree W. Mitchell, owner of the aptly-named Growing Room, Inc., was named the 2004 National Small Business Person of the Year at the Small Business Administration (SBA) Expo in Orlando, Fla. last week. Her Columbus, Georgia-based company cares for more than 850 children, employs over 170 people and will generate nearly $5 million in revenue this year.

"It's not always getting into what's hot, or what's new and technologically innovative," said Hector V. Barreto, administrator of the SBA. "Sometimes it's recognizing a niche that isn't being served."

Now operating five facilities, Mitchell, a registered nurse, opened her first center in 1989 with the aid of an SBA-backed loan. After adding 20 employees during the next two years, she decided it was time to expand. In 1992, she built a $400,000 addition and added 12 more employees to the payroll.

A second facility, employing another 32 people, was opened in 1996. In 1999, Mitchell was awarded a contract to build an on-site childcare center for Columbus Regional Healthcare Systems. Three years later, AFLAC commissioned Growing Room to open two on-site centers at its Columbus headquarters.

Mitchell was selected from a pool of the 50 state Small Business Persons of the Year as well as those from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam.

First runner-up was Larry O'Toole, president and founder of Gentle Giant Moving Co., Inc., of Somerville, Mass. The company hires athletes from local universities as movers. Started with a borrowed truck and a $17 newspaper ad, the company now boasts $16 million a year in revenue and employs 185 people.