Torch Awards Celebrate 50 Years of BBB Service in the Valley

POLAND, Ohio – At the Better Business Bureau’s annual Torch Awards ceremony, 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 Blase.

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 after accepting the Torch Award.

“I believe in total customer service.”

Blase was one of five recipients of a Torch Award during the ceremony Wednesday at The Lake Club. The event, Ames said, is an opportunity to celebrate and recognize 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 of this year’s award recipients.

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

Back then, Ames said, 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,” she 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.”

Founded in 1974, Soft Touch Furniture of Girard is also celebrating its 50th anniversary. While accepting the Torch Award for Marketplace Trust, company president Megan Vickers thanked her parents, Bob and Terrie Chudakoff, for starting the business and laying the foundation for its success.

She summed up the Soft Touch philosophy as: “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.”

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

Greg Smith, chairman of the board, took the opportunity to recognize the most important person in the business and the greatest servant in the business. The most important person, he said, was the company’s newest hire, who was in attendance.

“He’s our future,” Smith told the audience.

The greatest servant, he said, was his mother, who is 96 this year.

“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 many local organizations, including Catholic Health Partners, Youngstown CityScape, Community Corrections Association, YSU Alumni Association, Mercy Health, Mill Creek MetroParks and the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.

“All the groups that 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 Valley, which included 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.

“They’re tremendous. 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.”

Before the awards ceremony, those gathered watched a video featuring the BBB’s TrustBuilders, a coalition of banking institutions dedicated to fostering trust and economic growth in the Valley. These banks, including Premier Bank, PNC Bank, Farmers National Bank and Huntington Bank, provide essential financial services and support community initiatives through volunteerism and financial education, Ames said.

Representatives of the banks 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.

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

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

Pictured at top: From left are Mike Iberis, Greg Smith, Megan Vickers, Germaine Bennett and Rick Blase.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.