She's riding high today, but like any entrepreneur, Jean Martin can easily remember the low spots of being an owner of a small business.
Martin, who owns Wicker & Willow, will be honored in June as Woman Business Owner of the Year by the Salt Lake chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners.Although her store at 2903 S. Highland Drive has been seeing a healthy, steady increase in revenue each year for the past several years, Martin recalls past struggles with a laugh.
There was the Christmas eve when the store basement flooded and she and her husband, Bill, had to bail it out.
There was the time she bought out a competitor only to realize she was stuck with a lot of useless inventory.
But the worst was the day Martin went to her savings and loan to negotiate a new business loan.
"There were all these men in black coats gathering up papers and everyone was very nervous," she said. "The feds were taking it over. That was the year all the savings and loans went under."
Her funds were frozen pending an investigation of the institution, which called for some quick action on her part. "I got the money back eventually, but it took weeks and there were all these checks I had written out - I had never bounced a check in my life."
She called all her suppliers to let them know they'd be paid and backed up the call with a letter from her bank assuring the suppliers that none of this was Martin's fault.
Those days were a challenge, but Wicker & Willow is doing nicely now and Martin is pleased. The store is now in its 18th year, there are nine employees and yearly sales figures are "still under $1 million, but we're getting closer," Martin said.
She also has branched out beyond just wicker items to keep pace with industry trends. Wicker and rattan furniture by themselves are no longer a great enough draw in themselves. Instead, customers are looking for ways to use these items, as well as others, to pull a room together, create an ambience and a lifestyle.
Martin has added upholstered furniture and accessories to her showroom, and these have turned out to be big hits.
Beyond that, she improved customer service upon the advice of a consultant. "We're more customer oriented. We've had two training programs so we can be more social and interactive with people."
Her employees visit customers' homes for free to suggest ways to incorporate new furniture into the space. Martin's philosophy: you don't just sell someone a couch, you help them arrange and accessorize the room so everything works together.
Hiring the consultant was expensive, but it was a good investment. "I was thinking that we were at a plateau and I needed a change," Martin said. "To be on the forefront, you always have to be searching for new ideas and new things to do."
She's now investigating Internet sales and creating a Web site.
Martin, who formerly worked as a nurse, likes a team approach to management and also incorporated that into her business. She recently took her best saleswoman and made that person a coach who oversees employees, meets with them daily and acts as an adviser.
Teamwork also marked her tenure as president of NAWBO. Martin worked primarily to strengthen the chapter's committees, build closer ties with the national organization and help get the corporate partnership program rolling.
She joined NAWBO to be around other women business owners who could relate to what she was doing. In the process, she made friends, gained confidence and honed her leadership skills.
Business ownership isn't for everyone, but Martin wouldn't trade what she's got. "If you have the drive and want to be your own boss, it's very exhilarating," she said.