Alaska Chamber of Commerce Premier Business Awards
Left to right: Kate Slyker of GCI, Kati Capozzi of the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, Tom Tougas of Major Marine Tours, Brent Fisher of Alaska Sleep Clinic, and emcee Casey Sullivan at the 2022 Premier Business Awards.
Two months after opening, the Aloft Hotel in midtown Anchorage is already hosting a top-tier soiree. That’s where the Alaska Chamber of Commerce gave out its 2022 Premier Business Awards.
It helps that the headquarters of the statewide chamber are so close to the brand-new hotel at 36th Avenue and C Street.
“Our office is right across the street, so it’s a great spot for cocktail hour, too, just for staff,” says Kati Capozzi, president and CEO of the Alaska Chamber.
Inside the sunny, ground-floor meeting hall, three awards were presented: the Rita Sholton Large Business of the Year, the Bill Bivins Small Business of the Year, and the chamber’s oldest honor, the William A. Egan Outstanding Alaskan of the Year, established in 1964.
Outstanding Alaskans don’t have to be business moguls. Past recipients of the award include painter Fred Machetanz, journalist William Tobin, and university president William R. Wood. The 2022 winner is indeed a businessman, but he didn’t start out that way.
“I’ve never taken a business class in my life,” says Tom Tougas, owner of Major Marine Tours. “I’ve got a degree in philosophy from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, so I’m not a business person. I’m a people person.”
Tougas started in the visitor industry while he was in college, driving tour buses to Denali. Thirty years ago, he moved to Seward, and he’s been with Major Marine since 2010, expanding the sightseeing company’s offerings to include the Seward Harbor 360 Hotel and its younger sister, the Seward Gateway Hotel, which opened last year. It was supposed to open the year before but was a victim of bad timing.
Tougas recalls, “2020 was the worst year we ever had. Our business was down 75 percent, and we thought it was going to be a four-year climb out.” However, just as reservations crashed on March 10, 2020, exactly one year later they soared like never before. Tougas says 2021 turned out to be the company’s best performing year, and 2022 is on pace to beat it.
He can’t claim any personal wizardry for the success. “I started in the visitor industry when it was much smaller than it is today, and I’ve been very fortunate to be along for the ride,” Tougas says.
Passing his good fortune along, Tougas has been teaching a class on small business management for the last twenty years. At first it was offered through the university system, but when tuition climbed too high, he offered the course independently for only the price of the textbooks.
“I love to see entrepreneurs succeed,” says Tougas. “It’s kind of my passion.”
Emcee Casey Sullivan and Alaska Chamber of Commerce President Kati Capozzi present the William A. Egan Outstanding Alaskan award to Major Marine Tours owner Tom Tougas (right).
The Alaska Chamber presented the Bill Bivins Small Business of the Year Award to Alaska Sleep Clinic. At the rate the business is growing, this might have been its last year to qualify as “small,” with under 100 employees.
Since bringing diagnostic sleep testing to Alaska in 2002, the clinic has expanded to four locations in Anchorage, Wasilla, Fairbanks, and Soldotna. In addition to their regular services, the company has donated to nonprofits and supported youth events.
Brent Fisher, a veteran of healthcare administration, purchased the clinic in 2015. In his opinion, the key to success is personnel. “You really have to focus on recruiting,” he says. “You have to be able to recruit and retain high-quality people. If you can do that, then the rest kind of takes care of itself.”
The clinic needs sleep technologists, including a crew that monitors patients during overnight testing, to be registered polysomnographic technicians who passed a national exam. Naturally, such specialists are hard to find in Alaska, so Fisher says the clinic began a career development initiative.
“We’ve trained seven people, some affiliated with a college training program and some independent,” he explains. “We’ve given scholarships to individuals to come in and get trained. We usually hire them after they’re done.”
The chamber’s Rita Sholton Large Business of the Year award is named for the former president and CEO of Northern Air Cargo who transitioned the fleet in the ‘80s and ‘90s from propeller planes to Boeing 727 jets. Growing up two doors down from Sholton’s house in Anchorage’s Turnagain neighborhood was Kate Slyker, now the chief marketing officer for GCI.
“She was always inspiring to me,” Slyker says of Sholton. And it was Slyker who accepted the Sholton award on behalf of her employer.
The award from the Alaska chamber need not be an Alaskan-owned company, as GCI is now a subsidiary of Colorado-based Liberty Broadband. The rules state that nominees must have at least 100 Alaskan employees, and GCI certainly qualifies.
“We have 1,800 Alaskans working every single day to make connectivity happen,” Slyker says.
GCI is the third company to receive the relatively new award, first given out in 2018 to First National Bank Alaska. No awards were given for 2019 and 2020, and then the chamber awarded Hecla Greens Creek Mining Company in 2021.
The award for GCI is based on the company’s support for all other industries through its telecommunications services as well as its community support, donating $2 million annually to charitable causes, particularly through the company’s suicide prevention fund.
Slyker says it’s an honor to be recognized by Alaskan neighbors.
Each winner received a plaque made by King’s Hardwood Supply in Palmer, Stoney Creek Engraving in Wasilla, and Darn Good Wood in Anchorage. The plaques are decorated with colorful salmon created by Romney Dodd of Romney Designs in Anchorage.