by Abby Weingarten

Photography by Barbara Banks

 

Meet three women who followed—and realized—their business dreams.

 

Women are starting businesses in the United States at a faster clip than men. According to the State of Women-Owned Businesses 2015, women-owned firms between 1997 and 2015 increased by 74 percent. Women employ 7.9 million workers in the nation and generate more than $1.5 trillion in annual revenues. Florida, with a 82.4 percent increase in women-owned businesses in the last 15 years, ranks No. 12 in the nation.

 

Clearly, women see opportunity in entrepreneurship and are good at starting businesses. But keeping those businesses healthy and growing is the real goal. We asked three local women how they’ve established—and then grown—their own businesses.

 

 

 

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Coral Pleas

—Owner/master stylist, Cutting Loose Salon

A HAIRSTYLIST FOR 34 YEARS in Sarasota, Coral Pleas finally launched her own shop, Cutting Loose Salon, in January 2008—just as the economy went south. What might have terrified many entrepreneurs was extra motivation for the failure-is-not-an-option Pleas. “It made us even more committed to customer service and excellence,” she says. “We say we are allergic to average.”

 

Pleas, 53, set a goal of “five salons in five years” back then. Today she has three salons in Sarasota and Manatee and one in Somers, Conn., which she opened when two sisters who had previously worked for her needed to move back home.

 

Her staff has grown from four employees when she started to 55 employees today. The Sarasota locations generated more than $3 million in sales in 2014, with 30 percent growth every year since the company’s inception. For the last five years, Cutting Loose earned a spot as one of the top 200 salons in the nation in Salon Today magazine. To stay connected, Pleas sits on the board of Intercoiffure, a global organization in the beauty industry.

 

Cutting Loose Salon has established its own training program—an academy known as Protégé at the University Park location. Students attend eight hours of education every Monday and, after a year to 18 months, qualify as stylists. They also receive intensive customer service training. The majority of her hires are students who have completed the training. Even if Pleas hires experienced hairdressers outside of the program, she still requires that they undergo three months of Protégé. “Our protégés on the floor have their regular guests that are charged a lesser price. So they do bring in income and, as they move up, it generally covers their salary,” Pleas says.

 

Pleas also stays attuned to the 20-somethings on staff. Pleas extended the hours her salons are open—a benefit for clients—but also a plus for her young employees who want flexibility with their schedules. “Millennials on staff have been teaching me about life balance. They love their careers but want more time off,” she says.

 

And since Millennials also demand opportunities for growth, both in skills and income, she stresses the possibilities for both. “Stylists can work their way from our stylist level, making $35,000 to $40,000 a year, to the master stylist level, working with a personal assistant and making more than $100,000 a year. Not everyone wants to be in the $100,000 club, but for those who do, we give them the tools necessary to get there,” she says.

 

Each salon must follow the same policies and systems—including pampering customer service from the moment clients enter to when they walk out the door—so that the experience is the same no matter which location they visit. “We are just a baby and we’re looking forward to the next 20 years [of growth],” Pleas says.

 

 

 

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Carla O’Brien

—Owner, Carla’s Clay

ABOUT 15 YEARS AGO, artist Carla O’Brien was teaching adult ceramics courses at Sarasota County Technical Institute when the school abruptly discontinued the program.

 

“The program was absolutely booming, and I was one of only two teachers. The students were there and, when they closed the doors, there was nowhere for them to go,” O’Brien, 56, says. So I

figured, ‘I can start my own business.’ Build it and they will come.”

 

She did, and so did they. O’Brien launched Carla’s Clay, a pottery studio, in October 2002, in a 2,100-square-foot rented space. She quickly outgrew the location and, in 2005, bought her current 5,000-square-foot building in Northgate Industrial Park. She offers classes in hand building, wheel throwing and sculpture. O’Brien also sells ceramics supplies and has a gallery that features the work of national and local artists.

 

She has experienced steady annual growth of about 5 to 6 percent in the past few years. Selling clay and other supplies helps O’Brien stay afloat in the offseason, when class enrollments slow down. She also hosts a children’s summer camp and private events called “clay dates,” art-based fun for birthday or bachelorette-type parties.

 

“I’m not a million-dollar business, but this is the only business of its kind in Sarasota and Manatee counties,” O’Brien says. “Literally, the only other business that’s even close to what I have going is in St. Pete and even they don’t sell the amount of supplies I do.”

 

Every two weeks, O’Brien brings in a tractor-trailer filled with 2,300 pounds of supplies. In season, she has about 70 students, and many come from the Midwest, the Northeast and Canada. O’Brien’s clients come to her via word of mouth, and the majority of them are retirees and snowbirds. Among them are some top-flight artists.

 

O’Brien knows how to hustle. She attributes her work ethic to growing up on a dairy farm in upstate New York. During the recession, O’Brien participated in fund raisers and donated her time to stay visible. “During the hard times, I wouldn’t market myself directly, but the universe would help me out,” she says. “You just need to put yourself out there and don’t say no to anything. Do a free demo. Do anything you can.”

 

The hard times gave O’Brien the confidence that, no matter what the economic climate, she will survive. Her future plans include expanding her clay and supply sales, and hiring more instructors. “My biggest business triumph will be when I refinance my building when the 10-year balloon mortgage comes due,” O’Brien says. “I have a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator for that day.”

 

 

 

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Molly Jackson

—Owner of Fleet Feet Sarasota, New Balance Sarasota/University Park, and Molly’s! A Chic and Unique Boutique

IN 2000, MOLLY JACKSON left her position as vice president of private banking for First Union (now Wells Fargo) to launch the custom athletic shoe store New Balance Sarasota with her husband, David, who worked in sales for the New Balance corporation.

 

Molly, 45, holds the chief marketing officer title and David Jackson serves as merchandising officer. “We say he does the front of house and I’m in the back of the house,” she says. “He does the day-to-day activities in the stores, and everything outside of inventory, including guest engagement, falls to me.”

 

Since launching their first store, the Jacksons have added the shoe stores New Balance University Park (in 2007), Molly’s! A Chic and Unique Boutique (in 2010) and Fleet Feet Sarasota (in 2011). “We both left our corporate America jobs. We had two very young kids at the time and I was pregnant with a third. We were scared for six months before the first store opened. But that first week, the store was packed,” Molly says.

 

Their stores employ 40 people today. The New Balance Sarasota store consistently falls among the top 10 in revenues out of 160 licensed New Balance stores in the country. Fleet Feet, a shoe store that helps active clients find the perfect running shoes, has seen a 15 percent increase in the past two months, and Molly’s, an upscale shoe store and gift shop, is experiencing modest annual growth.

 

What sets them apart, says Molly, are the selection of product sizes, employee knowledge and customer service. “We carry national brands that can be found in big box locations or on the Internet, so we’ve niched ourselves in the sizes we offer—from infant to size 20. You couldn’t walk into a Sports Authority and find that,” Molly says.

 

Her employees go through extensive training before they are ever allowed to have guest engagement. “There is so much to know about the proper shoes for everybody’s shoe type or foot and, without that component, we’d just be shoe dispensers,” she says.

 

Finding employees remains the biggest challenge. Molly is on the executive board of the 3,000-member National Shoe Retailers Association and is a participant in the Gulf Coast CEO Forum. Those organizations help her to attract applicants from all over the country. While the Jacksons don’t provide total relocation packages, they do offer a competitive wage with benefits, including medical insurance, vacation time, major merchandise discounts and a retirement plan that employees can invest in immediately.

 

“We’re constantly trying to find the right people to fit into our culture because our service model is not like that of typical retail. We also realize it’s a lot easier to retain great people than to be out trying to source new ones,” Molly says.

 

The Jacksons plan to open more locations, but only spots within reasonable driving distance of their home. The top priority is that company expansion fits into their schedule of raising four children, ages 15, 13, 12 and 5. “Our children have spent a lot of time in the backroom of our retail stores, that’s for sure,” Molly Jackson says. ■

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