Al Switzler doesn't exactly think it's the best of times for entrepreneurs these days, with the weak dollar, gas prices soaring and the mortgage crisis ballooning.

But he doesn't think it's the worst of times, either.

"I'm reading the paper and seeing on the news how tough this recession is," said Switzler, co-founder and co-chairman of VitalSmarts, a worldwide training and management consulting firm based in Provo.

But in talking with colleagues and clients from Utah and around the country, Switzler is hearing a different story. He recalled a recent meeting of the Instructional Systems Association, a national group for learning providers like VitalSmarts, which counts many entrepreneurs among its membership.

"One of the discussions was, Have you seen signs of a recession?" he said. "About 80 to 90 percent of those that are entrepreneurs like I am were saying, 'Nope.' Almost everybody's doing better than they were last year. Our type of business training is one of the things cut first when a company's in trouble, but we haven't had those problems."

That means, Switzler said, that this year's Utah finalists for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards face as many opportunities — and pitfalls — as companies that were nominated in more prosperous times.

"The secret of starting a company is to start it where it's scalable and without leveraging too much," said Switzler, whose company was a 2007 EOY award recipient for the Utah region, which is sponsored in part by the Deseret News. "The point is, start a business smart, regardless of what the economy is doing now."

The entrepreneurs who win this year's EOY awards — the awards gala is Friday at the Salt Palace — have almost always done that, Switzler said. After being nominated for three years, Switzler and four other VitalSmarts executives won in 2007, giving them entree to the national EOY awards in Palm Springs, Calif.

That annual event is the culminating moment of the Ernst & Young Strategic Growth forum, which features leaders of high-growth, market-leading companies discussing their success and teaching other entrepreneurs.

"It's easy to look at the Entrepreneur of the Year award from a distance and just be astounded at how the process somehow selects very good companies," Switzler said. "Having watched that for a while and being a nominee, you begin to understand the rigor of the process where you have to be pretty good to be considered (as a finalist), and there are all these criteria and serious judges ...

"Having looked at that, then having been nominated and winning it, what it did was validate our mission. We're one of the smallest companies that won this," he said. "It made us feel really validated, like we were in good company."

VitalSmarts has won numerous awards within its own industry. The company recently was named ISA's 2008 Business of the Year. But, Switzler said, the Entrepreneur of the Year award stands out.

"We're writers, teachers," he said of himself and his colleagues at VitalSmarts. "(The ISA award) is like being nominated by your peers to be the best. You look at that, and it's our peers, and it's really nice, but Entrepreneur of the Year is business people, so it's not just our content that gave us that award. It's our business. It validated a lot of people in our company, and we didn't even know its national and international reach then."

Now in its 22nd year, the EOY award program recognizes business leaders in more than 135 cities in 50 countries. Companies often are nominated by those with whom they have client relationships — such as a financial adviser or someone who hopes to be a firm's financial adviser.

But regardless of how an entrepreneur is nominated, he or she cannot receive the EOY award unless judges — many of them past winners and all accomplished entrepreneurs themselves — see sustained innovation, financial performance and personal commitment both to the business and the community.

Switzler noted that there are many ways to achieve that success, and the 2008 finalists bear him out.

There's American Name Services' Jill Grammer-Williams, who in the early days of her business would disguise her voice when answering the telephone to conceal the fact that her list brokerage firm was only a one-woman show. Now, of course, it's much more than that.

Or there's R&O Construction's Orluff Opheikens, who, in the face of a massive 1970s recession, reinvented his residential construction company as a state-of-the-art commercial builder that now works in 16 Western states.

John Hansen, Al Tiley, Sally Tiley and Diane Williams bought a struggling, debt-ridden manufacturer of branded surrounds for automatic-teller machines and turned Companion Systems into a flourishing, profitable concern that has achieved record profits in each of the last several years.

Travis Parashonts combined his love for his American Indian tribe, the Cedar Band of Paiutes, with his business savvy to create Suh'dutsing Technologies, a successful tribe-owned provider of information technology services and products.

"Any entrepreneur ought to be aiming toward a track record of consistent excellence, a track record of a product customers like over time, of managing the business so you have margin, of managing your employees so you're not getting turnover or churn," Switzler said. "If you can have those things, over time, you deserve to be considered (for an EOY award)."

He noted that many people who are true entrepreneurs don't think of themselves that way, until something like the EOY awards comes along to recognize their accomplishments.

"There are a number of companies started by people who don't consider themselves business people," he said. "It's like being a chef who starts a restaurant, and when a chef wins (an EOY award) it's like, 'Oh, maybe I am doing a good business."'

Good business can bring success at any time, Switzler said. And the next generation of entrepreneurs will move forward, regardless of the obstacles they face in the economy or elsewhere.

"All the time is a good time to start a business smart," he said. "Part of entrepreneurism is strategically to go achieve your dreams. People are sitting in their offices or in their cubes, biting their lips, and they have dreams. They can achieve them."


E-mail: skratz@desnews.com