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SBA Small Business Person of the Year

By Jenna Frazier of San Diego Metropolitan Magazine

She comes across as modest and unassuming, proud of her accomplishments yet wary of praise and not at all eager to talk about herself. But Jeannette Carrico, founder and CEO of The Exit Light Co. and recipient of the Small Business Person of the Year Award from the San Diego district office of the Small Business Administration, is nothing short of a trailblazer.

Inspired by what she perceived to be an unfulfilled niche in the emergency lighting industry, Carrico helped generate the idea of providing a service that would maintain these systems according to federal and state mandates in April 2000 while residing on the East Coast with her husband, Paul, now the company’s CFO. The couple founded the company with two other partners, who left early on amidst initial struggles. In 2003, the Carricos moved to San Diego County to be closer to family and found new ways to expand their Vista-based business, which currently serves over 35,000 customers in all 50 states as well as internationally.

“We realized we could make additional revenue by retrofitting businesses with more current products,” says Carrico. “Soon after, we launched our e-commerce store, which allowed us to expand business contacts and lay a foundation for providing low-cost, quality products and good customer service.”

The Exit Light Co.’s business model includes working directly with manufacturers in order to obtain privately labeled products that are quality-assured and low cost. With safety and energy-efficient, environmentally friendly products as closely guarded values, the company proved in at least two separate case studies that some of their products reduce wattage by 80 percent without losing performance.

“The continued growth and success of the company shows that there is value in engaging in a business built around the concept of increasing public safety and risk management,” Carrico says of her company, which grew from three employees in 2000 to 12 today.

Asked why she believes the SBA chose to recognize her and what has contributed to the company’s success, Carrico cites unlikely odds and dogged determination.

“I’m a woman in a male-dominated industry,” she says. “I was involved from the inception of this company, and I’ve always had this drive to make it succeed.”

Carrico, who grew up in the Carmel Valley area, says a mutual drive to succeed brought her and her husband together when they first met at a friend’s wedding. Now married for close to 17 years, Carrico believes their shared values and goals have propelled them to prosperity. “We really formed a great partnership from the beginning,” she says. “It was a foundation that made it easier for us to enter this business together.”

While Carrico manages correspondence, daily operations, marketing, graphics and design, her husband prefers to stay behind the scenes and manage finances. “We’re different, yet alike enough — or should I say alike yet different enough — that being in business together works for us,” she laughs.

Philanthropy is second nature to Carrico, to the extent that she doesn’t think to mention it unless pressed. Opportunities to contribute abound, and she uses insight and creativity to find the most profound uses for The Exit Light Co.’s carefully carved niche.

“In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we were able to contribute extra signage and emergency lighting to nonprofit organizations to assist with rebuilding,” Carrico says as an afterthought. “We’re trying to fulfill a need that can help businesses succeed and save lives.”

Disaster played a significant role in the Carricos’ inspiration for founding The Exit Light Co. Both worked in offices across the river from the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“We personally witnessed that horrific event,” Carrico recounts. “I kept thinking of all those people stuck inside who couldn’t find their way out, and how terrifying it must have been.”

Carrico says that on average, four out of 10 commercial buildings today lack functional emergency lighting. “We’ve heard of nightclubs burning down, people who have lost their lives because they couldn’t find the door,” she says.

Despite the company’s progress, and accolades she has garnished in the last decade — including three other business awards this year alone — Carrico says she constantly seeks new avenues for improvement. “We may have 95 percent of our orders shipping out the same day,” she says. “But I always find myself thinking, can’t we make it 96? Our customers are satisfied, but can’t they be ecstatic?”

She extends the same rigorous self-reflection to her employees, and personally screens every new addition to the company. “We try to be good listeners and encourage active communication, in addition to looking for the usual qualities like dedication, self-motivation, diversity and the ability to prioritize,” she says. “We like our company to feel like a family.”

“We strongly believe that you can’t ask an employee to do something you can’t do yourself,” she says. “It helps that we’ve created this business from the ground up, so we know everything about how it functions.”

Part of that includes helping staff reach personal goals. “I’m always challenging them to see how we can all improve as individuals in our job responsibilities,” she says. “This improves the bottom line and improves their happiness within the company.”

Carrico says she believes her employees’ diverse backgrounds are part of the company’s success. “Our employees deal with customers across the nation and the world. Diversity is so important to society today, and it allows our staff to relate to a wider range of people.”