BROOKSVILLE — By any measure, Joseph E. Matthews III has earned the right to the title of "entrepreneur par excellence."
From a 10- by 10-foot room in his Weeki Wachee home just six years ago, Matthews has grown 5-Star Refrigeration & Air Conditioning Inc. into a business powerhouse, now occupying a 24,000-square-foot facility where 84 engineering designers, installers, sellers and service technicians are employed, serving commercial customers from Naples to Gainesville to Orlando.
Refrigeration and heating/ventilation/air-conditioning may seem like a ho-hum business, but corporations such as Publix Supermarkets, Wawa convenience stores and the Darden Group (including Red Lobster and Olive Garden restaurants) count reliable, efficient refrigeration and water filtration critical to their enterprises.
Filling their needs is 5-Star, one of only three or four such providers in the Tampa Bay area, according to Matthews, president and CEO.
"We've gone to being one of the biggest in the state," he said, "and we've hired our first service technician in Georgia. Since 2009, we've grown 500 percent in revenue."
Tampa Bay Business Journal in December named 5-Star "the star of the show" on its 2013 roster of the 50 fastest-growing companies in the Tampa Bay area.
The meat and potatoes of 5-Star includes what the general public generally takes for granted: those large glass-doored refrigerators at the supermarket, the water filtration guts behind the ice machines that fill beverage glasses at restaurants, and mammoth air-conditioning units that provide temperate atmospheres during steamy Florida summers for shoppers and diners.
There was a ribbon cutting on Friday at the company's spacious warehouse in the former Coca-Cola plant on the east side of Brooksville — renovated at a cost of some $150,000. Among other things, the warehouse holds big coils and long lengths of copper tubing, stacks of PVC pipe, electronic control panels and so many parts they're being bar-coded for efficient locating and inventorying. The company's service fleet numbers 69 vehicles.
5-Star is a "unique entity" in that it is a "comprehensive, one-stop solution" for commercial refrigeration and HVAC work, says marketing and sales director Gary Read.
The 5-Star name, Read noted, represents the company's five offerings: equipment sales, installations, preventative maintenance, service and water filtration.
Matthews, 57, has worked 30 years in the refrigeration business, earlier founding Sun Belt Refrigeration in Tampa, then selling that company to national conglomerate Ingersoll Rand before launching the Hernando County business.
The founder's expertise and experience is rare.
"Our greatest obstacle is hiring qualified technicians," Matthews said.
Recently, he incorporated a fledgling nonprofit organization to start a school he calls Stars to teach supermarket technology with a refrigeration specialty. He said he has the equipment and curriculum in hand and is rounding up suppliers, but is in need of funds, hopefully grants, to get under way.
Said 5-Star's operations manager Gwen Lahera: "It's not just for us; it's for the refrigeration business."
Meanwhile, 5-Star provides in-house training to its employees.
And it continues to carry out its mission: "to be the highest-quality full-service equipment company servicing the food industry in the southeastern United States."
"We're just getting into our stride right now," said Matthews.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]