Top Honors Presented at Annual Chamber Choice Awards Ceremony

Staff Report From Valdosta CEO

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Approximately 400 business professionals and community members gathered Thursday evening at the Rainwater Conference Center for the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber’s 4th annual Chamber Choice Awards, presented by Citizens Community Bank, to recognize outstanding businesses and professionals from 2012. 
Tim Jones, president of Citizens Community Bank, and Cheryl Oliver with the Annette Howell Turner Center for the Arts, emceed the red carpet event that included the following award presentations: BIG Thinker Award, Small Business of the Year, Members’ Choice Award, Young Professional of the Year, and Ambassador of the Year. 

BIG Thinker Award

(Selected by blue-ribbon committee of top business leaders in the community)

The Chamber introduced the BIG Thinker Award in 2005, the year the Chamber was recognized as Georgia’s first “entrepreneur-friendly” community by Governor Perdue. The BIG Thinker is designed to recognize those entrepreneurs in the Valdosta-Lowndes community whose ideas, innovations and business savvy go above and beyond the norm. This year’s award was presented to Hugh & Judith Hathcock, owners of Fresh Beginnings/ELEAD1ONE.

Hugh and Judy were both aspiring entrepreneurs at an early age as each had parents who owned their own businesses. “We knew we were passionate about marketing and sales and just needed a product we could put our name behind,” said Hugh. “When we started the Fresh Beginnings’ cookie follow-up program, it was new to the automotive industry and we did it at the right time.”

The Hathcocks began their corporation in 1985 with a unique recipe for fresh, soft and moist Chocolate Chip Cookies that would ship nationwide, arriving at doorsteps as if they just came out of the oven. These cookies were part of a partnership with businesses who utilized the cookies to say “thank you” to their customers. 

These cookies are just part of the make-up of Fresh Beginnings/ELEAD1ONE, which has now grown into the leading automotive CRM and marketing provider in the industry, serving as an automotive-only call center and leading performance-driven automotive CRM, custom websites, reputation management, search marketing, social media, data mining, lead management, service marketing and reminders, desking and inventory pricing and management software.

Fresh Beginnings/ELEAD1ONE employs 750 people in Valdosta with positions ranging from customer service and graphic design, to accounting, sales training, and installs.

Small Business of the Year Award

(Selection Committee included: Jeff Fulp (Erco Worldwide), Jeff Sikes (First America Health), Denise McKenzie (Bank of the Ozarks), Martha King (CertusBank) & Bruce Allred (Smith Drug Company))

Azalea Health was awarded Small Business of the Year which is given to a business with 100 or fewer employees that exhibits growth and stability in the business community. “Azalea Health was chosen because of their management philosophy, work ethic and commitment to their employees and this community, which is shown through their impressive list of accomplishments in such a short period of time,” stated Jeff Sikes, a Selection Committee Member.

Azalea Health is a leading provider of cloud-based electronic health records software, practice management software and revenue cycle management services, which serve to assist physicians and medical staff with streamlining their workflow process while maintaining a high level of patient care.

While Azalea had many things working in their favor upon opening in April 2008, such as securing a $100,000 line of credit from Suntrust Bank based on their winning of the Chamber’s business plan competition, they also faced many obstacles. Azalea opened its doors only months before the financial crisis began and their target market consisted of small physician practices, who were themselves hit hard by the crisis and resistant to purchasing any new services or software. 

With little name recognition and no track record, coupled with the negative impact of the financial crisis, Azalea’s leaders forged ahead. They established a foothold in the community by creating relationships with community leaders and earning the trust of local physicians. “Our surrounding community has offered us the unlimited support and guidance that is essential to any small business success,” says Baha Zeidan, CEO. “We strive to keep collaboration at the foundation of all operations. We even hosted the first ‘Collaboration for Future Innovation’ forum to discuss ways the university and technical college can collaborate with local businesses to create opportunities for advancement throughout the Valdosta-Lowndes County area.”

Azalea began with four employees and now has a total of 40 employees in three locations, priding itself on hiring talented, hard working professionals locally. 

Members’ Choice Award

(Selected based on most number of community votes.)

The Members’ Choice Award is awarded to a business that shows dedication to quality, customer/client services and courtesy within the community. More than 1,400 votes were cast resulting in this year’s award going to South Georgia Medical Center.

“I’m so pleased for our employees and physicians to be recognized in this fine fashion,” stated Randy Sauls, CEO. “We have worked so hard in the last number of years to improve our standing in the community relative to customer service.

“On behalf of 3,000 employees and over 300 affiliated physicians we are extremely excited about what the Chamber has done to recognize our organization. To be in the mix with these leading businesses is encouraging … to know that Valdosta is thriving, alive and well, with multiple big thinkers in our community.

“It’s great to know that our hospital can be a part the community, deliver the health care needed and be part of the growth,” added Sauls.

Young Professional of the Year Award

(Selection Committee included: Clinton Beeland (CJB Industries), Melanie Hannasch (Mediacom) and Alex Thomas (Big Lots))

Carla Gervin with Goodwill Career Center took home the Young Professional of the Year Award, presented to an employee who has made a significant impact on his or her employer’s bottom-line. This year’s selection committee viewed 13 letters submitted by each nominee’s employer and chose a winner based on the individual’s general positive impact and financial impact on the company.


In 2012, Carla led the Valdosta Goodwill Career Center to serve 4,129 clients, and provided job connections for 714 individuals, resulting in an economic impact of $9.3 million. In addition, the center prepared 269 tax returns, yielding a total tax dollars returned of $478,659. According to Kathy Carlisle, Director of Mission Services for Goodwill, “These amazing outcomes do not come easy. Carla spends countless hours working in the community, securing employer partnerships, organizing job fairs, developing classes, and most-importantly, growing her staff.”

Carla was also instrumental in the strategic planning and implementation of a new service that provides intensive skills training programs for the disabled. Carla transformed the Center to represent both English and Spanish speaking clients, further expanding the impact on the Valdosta community.

Ambassador of the Year Award

(Selected based on number of points accumulated in 2012.)

Ambassador of the Year was awarded to the Chamber Ambassador who volunteered the most time throughout 2012 providing invaluable support on the Chamber’s behalf. Joan Wilkinson with Mobile Notary Services received this year’s honor after attending and assisting with more than 90 events. These events include Ribbon Cuttings and Ground Breaking Ceremonies, Leading Business of the Week Presentations, Business After Hours, Chamber New Member Orientations and other special events.

“Joan was instrumental to the Chamber last year,” says Tina Godwin, Ambassadors Chair. “Not only did she attend nearly every event; she also helped recruit new members.”

The Chamber would like to congratulate these winners who represent business excellence and professional leadership. Photographs and more information on finalists and winners can be viewed at