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Business leaders honored at Entrepreneur of the Year awards

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Some of San Diego's best and brightest were recognized Wednesday night at Ernst & Young's annual Entrepreneur of the Year awards at the Hyatt Regency Aventine in La Jolla.

About 85 nominees were whittled down to 18 finalists that hail from wildly different industries, including biotech, wireless, surfing and even laundry services -- the CEO of that cleaning company, Emerald Textiles, won.

The categories and winners are:

Life Sciences and Healthcare Services: Arthur Gruen, CEO -- EA Health;

Corporation Business Services: Scott Dennis, CEO, and Alex Kunczynski, president -- D&K Engineering Inc.;

Consumer Products & Services: Jon Sundt, CEO -- Altegris Investments Inc.;

Real Estate & Construction: Frederick Pierce, CEO and president -- Pierce Education Properties, LP;

Technology & Software: Dave Alberga, CEO, and Matt Landa, president -- The Active Network;

Emerging: Tom Gildred, CEO — Emerald Textiles.

The finalists lead companies that are in early stages of execution up to large corporations that generate billions of dollars in sales.

“These are the companies that are creating jobs and growth,” said David Kabakoff, executive partner of Sofinnova Ventures.

But many of the winners admitted growth didn't come quick. One of the obstacles for D&K Engineering was getting the company off the ground with its own money.

“We had to put up our houses to make that happen. Looks like that's been a good choice for us,” said Kunczynski.

Pierce also talked about starting his residential real estate company with little means.

“I've probably been close to penniless four times over the past 30 years,” said Pierce. “Nevertheless, I never gave up.”

At the end of this the summer, the student housing giant will have $400 million in assets and almost 8,400 beds nationwide.

“That's something I am really proud of, and it's particularly gratifying being in real estate, which has gone through heartache and hardship in the last handful of years,” he said.

Many of the winners' humble acceptance speeches included thanks to parents in the audience and patient spouses. Others were in sheer disbelief they won.

“I didn't think there was a chance in hell we were winning this,” admitted Landa.

He accepted the award on the behalf of his fitness network's 3,500 team members around the world.

“I am lucky at this point that I am still the sole owner of my company,” said Gruen. “I can do what I believe is in the company's best interests.”

His company's mission is to be the worldwide safety net by solving physician shortage issues and improving health care access.

“What makes us unique is we are humanitarian — and we are also making money,” said Gruen, who got teary eyed during his speech.

The financial health of the company was among the judging criteria, as was entrepreneurial spirit, community impact, innovation, personal integrity and influence.

“I like businesses that make money. It's an important piece,” said judge Jason Levin, president of Dos Gringos, a 2011 winner. "They've got to be able to generate cash. There are three things I look at every day: cash, cash and cash.”

The panel of judges was made up of former winners, community leaders and business peers.

“I think for an entrepreneur to be successful, they need to have an unstoppable passion and spirit to succeed, for the benefit of the community,” said Alan Gold, chairman and CEO, BioMed Realty Trust (NYSE: BMR), who won the local and national honor in 2008.

The region's winners will advance to the annual Ernst & Young program in Palm Springs in November, or the equivalent of the Superbowl for U.S. entrepreneurs. The five-day strategic growth forum will put 2,000 top CEOs, entrepreneurs, investors and business execs under one roof, with leaders at the reins of FedEx (NYSE: FDX), Kraft Foods Inc. (NYSE: KFT) and Marriott International (NYSE: MAR) delivering keynote speeches.

The event will conclude with the national Entrepreneur of the Year awards, with Jay Leno serving as the master of ceremonies.

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