By Heidi Marttila-Losure
Reporting by Doug Card, Britton Journal
Photos by Troy McQuillen; Doug Card
Take a walk down Britton’s Main Street (after you find a parking space—it’s pretty busy most days) and you’ll start to notice two things.
The first thing is the friendly smiles and warm welcome you receive when you walk in the doors of Main Street businesses. The second thing: Most of those smiles belong to women.
(See the photo gallery of the women on Britton’s Main Street at the end of the story.)
Through some combination of chance and choice, Britton’s Main Street runs in large part on woman power. This is true in the places you might expect, like Dizzy Blondz, where owner Jeanie Amacher and her daughter Kelsi Heer cater to women. But it’s also true at Wells Fargo, where manager Shelly Kadoun can help you get a loan, or at Butler Insurance, where Nikki Zuehlke and Robin Jones will assist you with crop insurance needs. Even at Ultimate Health Chiropractic, where Dr. Charley Larson will keep your back in good order, Dr. Charley turns out to be a petite mother of a boisterous 2-year-old.
No one is exactly sure why Main Street has become what some, according to Zuehlke, jokingly call “Britton’s chick mafia.” But the women ventured a few guesses. It could be that the success of Dizzy Blondz has done something to set the tone as welcoming for women. The store opened in 2006 with jewelry and handbags, and Amacher and Heer have since expanded (filling up all their available space, and punching a hole in the wall to spread into a room next door) to carry all sorts of other things: home décor, kitchen items, toys and much more. They draw a clientele from a wide area, according to Amacher.
In addition to her flower arranging, Cyndy Grandpre at Flowers & Fudge also has items intended for browsing, with several craft vendors displaying wares in the store. And in the past year two more shops designed to catch a woman’s eye have opened on Main Street: The Painted Past, where Kelsey Waletich transforms ugly furniture into funky works of art, and Zinnias, where Paulette Kelsey and Melinda Nelson have filled brightly painted rooms with gifts and works of art from local crafters and artisans.
Britton’s busy Main Street a good sign, according to Britton Journal editor Doug Card. See his editor’s note.
The like-minded businesses are considering some specific marketing to promote Britton as a destination for women’s shopping outings, Nelson explained, like a traveling shopping trip branded with “In a Van … Without a Man.”
“We just have so many women doing such awesome things in this town. Everything’s just taking off,” said Kadoun, who will celebrate her 10th year in Britton in November.
All of these efforts build on one another, she said. “We’ve heard nothing but good things about these businesses. It gives your town more to offer, which brings more people in.”
Margie Hagenson of Garage Sales Forever said Britton is adding businesses the right way. “Everything is different. None of us are in the same type of selling,” she said. “(The stores all) complement each other.”
Grandpre suggested one reason women are so numerous on Main Street might have to do with the fact that because many of the typical job openings in the community are the kind more typically filled by men, in agriculture or at Horton’s Manufacturing, for example (though of course there are some women in those places too), some women have had to create their own jobs.
“We are survivors and protectors,” Grandpre said.
If so, they are following the advice that accountant Susan Wismer gave to the local high school graduating class 25 years ago, “when I was young and idealistic,” Wismer said: She told the graduates not to specialize if they wanted to leave open the option of coming back to their hometown. “To survive in a small town you have to be a generalist … That way, if you decide you’d like to try life in a small town again, you don’t have to count on someone else to give you a job. You can create your own.”
Even if it was idealistic, she and her sister, Becky Weber, followed her advice 10 years ago, when they bought Britton Bookkeeping and Tax Service. And so have others, including Dr. Larson at her chiropractic office and Sarah Grupe, a massage therapist at Better Body Massage.
Gender issues? Try benefits
Many of the women entrepreneurs said they’d had no problems because of their gender, though a few said there were some snags at first.
Kadoun said some older customers were used to having their money issues handled by a male banker, but most of them adjusted pretty quickly. Melissa Stark of Off the Wall Signs said some customers weren’t sure that a woman could get their semi truck signage to be good enough, but her work soon proved she could handle the job, she said.
If anything, the women said their gender gave them some advantages. Jones from Butler Insurance said she thought some customers might be more willing to stop in because they knew she and Zuehlke were easy to talk to. Cheryl Impecoven said being detail-oriented, which women often are, helps in their business at Marshall Land & Title Co. Wismer said she and her sister had jobs on the farm as young women, which makes a difference in their lives today.
“We grew up in a man’s world, and so have always identified more with their business frame of mind, and get along well with most that way,” she said.
The one area where women faced challenges was in balancing work and family life. Dr. Larson chose not to start her business until after her daughter was born, for example. Sandra Gresh of Britton Real Estate had to spend many weekends away from home in the early years as she was getting her certifications.
“As a wife and mother it was hard not to be there for family,” she said.
Many women said having support from their husbands and families was vital to making their businesses successful.
“I was nervous at first to start my business in a small town, not knowing what kind of response I would get, but my family and friends encouraged me to follow through with it, and I am glad I did,” Sarah Grupe said.
All of the women spoke of the importance of giving back to the community. They serve on many local boards, including a very active Chamber of Commerce. Nelson, from Zinnias, told of serving the park board recently, when she and Kelsey gave out copies of the Malcolm Gladwell book The Tipping Point, telling people they were almost at that point when Britton would become a destination: “We need to become a place that people drive to and not through,” she said in their role then.
And the women fill many other community niches as well: “If anyone wants to know about youth sports, come to our office,” Zuehlke said, explaining that between the two of them, she and coworker Jones pretty much have all the activities covered. Angela Grupe of Premier Tax is also the gymnastics coach, and Jeanie Amacher taught drill team to hundreds of girls over the years.
They all help out in the ways they can help best. Wendy Blegen, who runs her Computer Beagle tech help business out of a room in the Flowers & Fudge store, said Grandpre is especially good at getting people on board for community projects. “She has a way of pulling you in—getting you to help, volunteer or whatever,” Blegen said.
But in addition to helping the community at large, these women see it as very important to support one another. For the most part they don’t see one another (or the minority of men in business on Main Street) as competitors.
“Jeani (Amacher) used to do banners,” Stark explained. “She wanted to get out of that. Now she sends everybody down my way. And if I know of a way I can help someone else, I’ll do it.”
Waletich said community support has been vital to getting her painted furniture business going. “From advertising, sending their customers to my store, as well as donating furniture and odds and ends, the support has been amazing,” she said.
They also advocate shopping locally and do as much of their own shopping locally as they can.
“A small community has to work together,” Angela Grupe said. “Otherwise it can’t survive. You see that so much more in a small community than in a big community.”
The more the merrier
When asked if they had advice for others considering starting a business, the women spoke with one voice: “Go for it.”
Sure, they offered a few caveats: Angela Grupe reminded people to get their papers in order before they dove in, and Wismer cautioned people to make sure they value their time when they start a business. But for the most part, they encouraged people to follow their entrepreneurial examples.
Amacher advised potential entrepreneurs to be creative and figure out their own niche, and then go the extra mile on customer service.
“Britton has done just that, and we have a wide range of products for sale,” she said, “which creates a great shopping experience.”
Don’t be afraid to fail, Stark said. “I almost was paralyzed by the fact I might fail, and I almost didn’t take the chance because of that.”
And if she had, she would not be where she is today, in a job she loves, she said.
“Don’t have regrets later,” Blegen said.
“If you are passionate about what you do, it almost always works out,” Impecoven said.