Maine’s Michael Cote second runner-up in nat’l SBA competition

An entrepreneur who revived what is reputed to be Maine’s last seafood cannery and grew it into a successful business was named a top-three finisher in the Small Business Administration’s annual competition for Small Business Person of the Year.

Michael Cote, president and CEO of Look’s Gourmet Food Co. in Whiting, Maine’s Small Business Person of the Year, was named the second runner-up in the national competition today in Washington, D.C.

“We brought the gold back to Maine – the silver, anyway,” said Cote from the capital, soon after being presented with the award by SBA Administrator Karen Mills. “It’s just a great honor to be in that level of success, that circle.

“I’m flying a little high right now.”

Cote said he was anxious to share the award with his employees at Look Gourmet Food.

“Awards are generally given to individuals, but individuals are never solely responsible for their success and achievements,” said Cote. “This is not a single success – this is a team success.”

Victoria Tifft, president and CEO of Clinical Research Management Inc., of Hinckley, Ohio, was named National Small Business Person of the Year, and first runner-up is Darrin Swanson, president, CEO and co-founder of Kit Masters Inc., and Swan Machine LLC, in Perham, Minn.

Born to children of immigrants who worked in Maine’s textile mills, Cote bought Look’s in 2003 after discovering the assets of the 86-year-old company, which had closed. Until that point, Cote had spent his career working for other people in the foods industry, with high-level tenures at companies that include Pepperidge Farms for 18 years and at Odwalla, before it was sold to Coca-Cola.

Cote said he’s sought to differentiate Look’s products in the marketplace, occupying a niche of gourmet foods in a strong way, and building of a brand that includes not just Maine, but Bar Harbor.

They market products under the Bar Harbor Foods brand. Products include Indian pudding, clam chowder, clam juice, lobster chowder, crab bisque and many others.
That focus on value-added products, and a diverse mix of them, has allowed the company to be successful as other seafood canneries have fallen by the wayside, one at a time. There used to be 42 canneries up and down the Maine coast, Cote noted. Today, Look’s is the last.

Twenty-six people work for the company, competing successfully in a canned seafood market that is largely dominated by Southeast Asia.

The award, said Cote, shows that with hard work, perseverance, intellect and “seeking a point of difference,” business success can be achieved.

“It certainly can be done in my favorite place to do it – the state of Maine,” Cote said.

“It’s definitely an honor, this business is very deserving,” said Bob Nelson, acting regional administrator for the SBA.

Jeanne Hulit, a Mainer and director of the SBA’s office of access to capital, noted that while this is officially National Small Business Week, “every week is small business week.”

“Small business is what drives the economy,” said Hulit.

As to the top-tier ranking of Cote, she said it boiled down to some business basics.

“It’s finding your niche, and marketing the great quality products they develop,” Hulit said.

Cote was named Maine’s Small Business Person of the Year in March. Other’s to be recognized in Maine included: Harold Clossey, executive director of Sunrise Economic Council, Financial Services Champion of the Year for both Maine and New England; R. Scott Robinett, manager of Computer and Information Technology at the Maine Small Business Development Centers, Veteran Small Business Champion of the Year award; Sherry Brown, Susan Pope, Jane Harmon and Bonnie Pothier of Key Bank’s Key4Women Champions, Women in Business Champion of the Year award; Patricia Rice, Minority Small Business Champion of the Year Award; Black Dinah Chocolatiers, Home-Based Business Champion of the Year Award; and Howell Laboratories/Shively Labs, Small Business Exporter of the Year Award.

Cote said the events in Washington provided a great opportunity to network, and to spend time with other entrepreneurs. Often, he said, small business owners feel alone in their work.

“Every day, you feel it’s you against the world,” he said. “When you have an opportunity to spend time with other business folks, you start to understand you’re really not alone.”