Kelly Baltes began his career as a busboy. He now oversees a chain of 110 Cheddar’s restaurants in 23 states. Max Martin got rejected by his corporate bosses at EDS three times before going off on his own to develop banking industry software himself. Today, his ARGO Data Resource Corp. is a $100 million company with 450 employees. Kelley Battles liquidated his assets and boldly risked $2.5 million on a piece of equipment to launch a food packaging business in his home. He now has a 30,000-square-foot plant and 50 employees.

These are just three of the risk-taking innovators being recognized in Ernst & Young LLP’s 2012 Entrepreneur Of The Year program. For the fifth straight year, D CEO is sharing the stories of all finalists—38 companies in this year’s crop, along with the program’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Gerald J. Ford. The finalists in Ernst & Young’s Southwest Area-North competition were to be honored at an awards banquet in Dallas on June 23. Winners in various categories in the regional program will then go on to compete for national and international Entrepreneur Of The Year awards.

An independent panel of judges—comprised of former winners, top CEOs, private equity investors, and venture capitalists—selected the 2012 Southwest Area-North finalists. This year’s judges were: W. Greg Dunlevy, executive vice president and CFO, Kosmos Energy; Valerie Freeman, founder and CEO, Imprimis Group Inc.; Wayne B. Goldberg, president and CEO, LQ Management LLC; Eliot Kerlin Jr., partner, Insight Equity; Ronald A. Klausner, CEO, Cambium Learning; Jim Nixon, president and CEO, Varel International; Andrew Rosen, partner, HM Capital; and Stephen Valenta, managing director, NASDAQ OMX.