BBB Torch Awards Honor Trust and Ethics

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – At the Better Business Bureau’s annual Torch Awards June 3, one honoree’s journey stood out with a mix of entrepreneurial spirit and a touch of humor.

Rick Blase, owner of Rick’s Factory Boot Outlet, launched his business in 1978 with just 72 pairs of boots and 500 empty boxes to create the illusion of a bustling inventory. While his initial strategy might raise eyebrows at the BBB today, it propelled his business forward.

“I think you might have a challenge from the BBB then,” Melissa Ames, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Mahoning Valley, said jokingly as she introduced Blasé.

Now, 44 years later, Blase was recognized with the Torch Award for Marketplace Trust for his dedication to customer service and his enduring presence in the industry.

“My whole philosophy has been that the customer comes first. Even if they’re not right, we take care of them,” he said.

Blase was one of five recipients of the BBB Torch Award June 3 at The Lake Club. The annual event recognizes businesses and leaders who exemplify BBB Standards for Trust. “I think if you look at all of them, the underlying factor is customer service,” Ames said.

This year is special for the Mahoning Valley chapter of the BBB. It will celebrate 50 years of service July 1.

In 1974, the mission of the BBB was focused on truth in advertising. “At the time, there were no laws to protect consumers against false advertising. The consumer had no recourse,” Ames said.

“Over the past 50 years, advertising laws have changed to protect the consumer, so our mission has shifted along with it. And we want to help build trust between consumers and businesses.”

Soft Touch Furniture of Girard is also celebrating its 50th anniversary. In accepting the Torch Award for Marketplace Trust, company president Megan Vickers thanked her parents, Bob and Terrie Chudakoff, for laying the foundation for its success.

“Give the customer what they want, at a great price, and conduct business with honesty and integrity. It can sound corny, but those principles helped that little reupholstery business grow into what we are today,” Vickers said.

Also accepting a Torch Award for Marketplace Trust was Compco of Columbiana.

Greg Smith, board chairman, recognized the most important person in the business and the company’s greatest servant.

The most important person was the company’s newest hire, who was in attendance. “He’s our future,” Smith said.

The greatest servant is his mother, Rose Marie Smith, who turns 96 this month.“We would not be at this table today if it wasn’t for her dedication and service to this family,” Smith said.

Germaine Bennett received the Torch Award for Civic Leadership for her work as a teacher at Youngstown City Schools, as well as her involvement with numerous nonprofit organizations. “All the groups I have been involved with, I’ve been involved with them because I really, truly believed in what they are doing, and I truly believe in what is happening in our city now,” Bennett said.

For their work feeding those in need in the Mahoning Valley – distributing food to more than 928,000 individuals in 2023 – Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley was presented the Torch Award for Nonprofit Excellence.

Executive Director Mike Iberis said the effort wouldn’t be possible without the hard work and dedication of its staff and volunteers.

“Every day they come into the office or the warehouse and they have a passion – a passion for our mission, and that’s to feed hungry people. To feed those in need,” he said.

Before the awards ceremony, those gathered watched a video featuring the BBB’s TrustBuilders, a coalition of local banks that foster trust and economic growth in the Valley.

In the video, executives from the banks – Premier, PNC, Farmers National and Huntington – shared business success stories with some of their clients. The BBB worked with The Business Journal’s video department to shoot, edit and produce the video.

The BBB also awarded Ethics & Integrity Scholarships to local high school students. Sponsored by Farmers Trust Company and #1 Cochran, the scholarships recognize students who demonstrate a strong commitment to ethics and integrity.

Scholarship recipients were Nico Ciminero, Jessica DeSalvo, Devin Sauerwein, Parker Sheehan, Katherine Toepfer and Lillian Urmson.

Pictured at top: Accepting the 2024 BBB Torch Awards on behalf of their organizations are Mike Iberis, Second Harvest Food Bank; Greg Smith, Compco; Megan Vickers, Soft Touch Furniture; Germaine Bennett, retired educator and community volunteer; and Rick Blase, founder and owner of Rick’s Factory Boot Outlet.