1. Business

Florida's fastest growing firms shine in new 2012 Inc. 500 rankings

Entrepreneurial grit and small-business smarts were alive and well in Florida during the meanest years of this deep recession.

Young companies most likely to prosper and grow quickly in such economic times concentrated on IT services, online services (including cloud computing and Web applications), tech support for the military, medical services, HR services and staffing services.

Everybody else? Good luck.

That's my takeaway in reviewing who made the new 2012 Inc. 500 ranking of the fastest-growing private businesses in the United States. That includes 38 Florida-based businesses.

The new Inc. 500 list measures the 2008-2011 period of revenue growth in the darkest days of the downturn. It appears in Inc. magazine's September issue and becomes available online this week, along with longer Inc. 5000 rankings.

"Starting a business in a recession has advantages," Inc. writes. There's plenty of talented people looking for work. Competition is lighter. But, the magazine counters, small-business failures increased 40 percent from 2007 to 2010. "Making a risky move in a risky economic climate requires extraordinary confidence and courage."

So, kudos to the 38 Sunshine State and Tampa Bay businesses to make this year's Inc. 500. Here are some highlights of their performance:

• The No. 1, or fastest-growing, business in the country is based in Florida. North Miami Beach's Unified Payments, a provider of payment processing services to merchants, grew an amazing 23,646 percent between 2008 and 2011. Its 2011 revenues totaled $59.5 million.

• Another Florida company ranked in the top 5: Integrity Funding, an insurance provider in Sarasota, came in at No. 4.

• My favorite name of a Florida business on this year's list: Crunchy Logistics, an Orlando-based information technology firm ranked at No. 193. Go online and check out the youthful look of its driven CEO, Neil Dufva.

• Curiously, Jacksonville boasted seven of Florida's 38 companies. Who knew the city was a small-business phenom?

• Three Hillsborough County businesses made the Inc. 500. Three others came out of the Sarasota and Bradenton areas. (Hey, RNC attendees, check them out.)

Tampa Bay's hottest growth business is Riverview-based BlueGrace Logistics, efficiency and cost experts on shipping freight. The firm ranked 20th nationwide with 7,378 percent revenue growth, which would stagger the management at most companies — especially when it took place during the heart of this past recession.

BlueGrace hit the radar here at the Tampa Bay Times years ago, and CEO Bobby Harris and some of his senior executives interviewed several times. Now we have the numerical perspective of just how fast BlueGrace (the company is named after the middle name of Harris' two daughters) is moving.

BlueGrace has appeared on other high-growth rankings and in 2011 was a finalist in the prestigious Ernst & Young competition for Florida "entrepreneur of the year." At a gathering for that event, BlueGrace chief operating officer Randy Collack said the company — hiring so aggressively through a terrible recession — wondered how it would recruit when the economy improved.

Even then, he said BlueGrace was starting to pay more to attract the right hires. The Inc. ranking lists BlueGrace with 108 employees — which was out of date before it was published. Now, Collack said Friday, the number is 137.

One of the drivers of BlueGrace's rapid growth is its nationwide franchising of its services.

Another Tampa company to make the Inc. 500, at No. 124, is Streamline Defense, which provides specialized intelligence and operations management and IT services to the U.S. military, particularly to the military services based at MacDill Air Force Base. Streamline, based in downtown Tampa and run by Terrell Martin, is smaller with just $5 million in revenues last year and 40 employees.

But it's in one of the sweeter spots found among many businesses making the Inc. 500 list. It caters to the U.S. military providing specialized IT and support services. As superheated as that niche is — fueled by heavy spending after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks 11 years ago — I wonder if it will face tougher times as mandatory federal budget cuts hit military spending as we approach the "fiscal cliff."

The third area company on the Inc. 500 is Tampa's 33-employee Qoncert, a provider of IT network management with a specialty in Cisco technology. Run by co-founder Lou Rossi, Qoncert (pronounced "concert") ranked on the larger Inc. 5000 last year at No. 975. Now it's made a quantum leap and landed at No. 209 on the more exclusive Inc. 500.

Bask in the spotlight while ye may. Next year's fickle Inc. 500 list is already being assembled.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at