According to a 2017 American Express-commissioned study, Tennessee ranks No. 8 in the growth of women-owned businesses over the past 20 years. The state has an estimated 233,000 women-owned businesses, employing 151,500 people. In Weakley County, one source showed women-owned businesses at a little less than half the number of those owned by men.
Add in cottage industries, direct sales products sold by work-at-home moms, and family businesses headed by couples and even siblings, and the number of “bosses” celebrating Mother’s Day this weekend is substantial.
When the Weakley County Press chatted with a few of the “moms” in mom and pop shops across the county, some commonalities began to emerge. To endure as a small business owner in a small town in competitive and complicated times, several ingredients are critical: great customers, supportive family, skills that have been honed and adapted in motherhood, and divine intervention.
Jones of Jones Body Shop in Martin mentions gratitude for customers more than once in a short conversation about the nearly 40 years she and husband Donnie have been in business. Whether it’s cards of appreciation shared after a good experience or word-of-mouth marketing, Jones says the goodwill that’s established makes longevity in the business community possible.
Christina Oliver, who started her C.E. Oliver’s Therapeutic Products five years ago out of her Dresden home, says “marketing” her products feels more like “sharing with friends” and often references her client base as “my girls.”
Staying alert to customer needs can mean changing course. Even though E.T. Reavis and Son is more than 120 years old and a familiar sight on Dresden’s Court Square, paying attention to trends like the lull in sales through “brick and mortar” establishments and the growing popularity of online sales meant a transition that has led to more than half of their business coming from online orders that siblings Carol Moore, Martha Killebrew and Tom Reavis continue to fill.
In Emily Dunn’s online video on why she chose to establish her Urban Design salon, spa and boutique in Dresden, she fashioned a motto of appreciation for her small-town base: “a little piece of hometown happiness to carry with you wherever you go.”
Small-town support is valued to such a degree by those interviewed that most have a commitment to give back. Whether it’s time given at church, chairing Tennessee Iris Festival activities, supporting a local team or civic organization, or, in the case of Courtney Harris’ Sweet Retreats, holding a fundraising fish fry for a nearby community center, the “small” in businesses and towns seems to usually include big hearts.
Harris says her Sweet Retreats Bake Shop and food truck would not be nearly such a sweet endeavor without the help of baby Lydia’s great-grandmother Rosa Cochran and grandmother Carol Featherston. The two swap caregiving duties when Harris doesn’t have her in a convenient sling waiting on customers in the Bradford shop or at numerous events across Weakley County.
Joyce Morris of Gleason Superette said her mother babysat for her for years. Now, even though she could be retired, she helps at the grocery store to keep expenses lower at what is as much a community landmark as a supplier of sandwiches, milk and bread.
Brenda Kelley gave up retirement to help at Tiffany Browning’s ClaireBrooke Consignment in Dresden because “she’s my daughter, and it’s what moms do,” adding that she’s “behind her 110 percent.”
While Morris handed off the grocery store to her children Mike and Laurie and hopes they will continue to “make a living here if they want to and be happy,” she is quick to say she doesn’t foresee it as a life choice for her grandchildren.
However, Special Occasions owner Elizabeth Hutchins asked daughter Madison to join her in the formal wear shop in Greenfield and her grandchildren are already familiar with the store’s layout as both shop and after school “playground.”
Sandra Vincent has groomed her granddaughter Makinzie to take on her role as buyer for the Vincent Outfitters chain of stores and believes her strong work ethic will serve her well. She also advises her to “use your voice and be heard.”
Emily Dunn’s sister Lindsey Gordon is by her side at events like the recent Tennessee Iris Festival Fashion Show where, after a day at the salon, they set up a booth for sales. Mom Vickie Rook was there as well and will be a major component of Urban Design’s expansion of an Urban Farmhouse with items for home décor.
And, of course, one can’t forget “pop” in the mom and pop shop equation … but those are stories for Father’s Day.
Women are used to being resourceful at home and in the workplace, say the many female business owners interviewed. When Oliver couldn’t find the eco-friendly lotions and potions for her youngest child’s sensitive skin, she made her own. When she didn’t have enough space to grow the plants she wanted to use in product development, she grew upward rather than outward and started hydroponic planting indoors and out.
“Women find ways of making it work; we’re jugglers,” said Carol Moore, who now juggles being an “on call grandmother” available to transport her grandchildren to various activities while still maintaining the Dresden clothing store and online presence.
“My saying is, ‘You do what you can live with,’” explained Moore. “If it’s a dream, do it. Make wise decisions and know it’s going to take a lot more than 9 to 5.”
“You have to be a good organizer and put what’s important as #1,” said Morris. “My family always came first.”
The ability to assess a situation and make necessary adjustments has proven a valuable skill as Hutchins works with mothers and daughters in their selection of prom and wedding gowns. She noted more than one occasion that required the finesse a mother hones at peacekeeping.
For small business owners, faith comes in many forms. Faith in the idea, in the people hired, in the customers served, but, for most of those interviewed, faith in God was another necessary component.
Elwanda Jones says “prayer and the good Lord helping us” were the main ingredients to both their business’s and marriage’s longevity. And several echoed Dunn’s admonishment to “always put God first” when undertaking such monumental tasks as business ownership.
Advice they would offer those coming after them included Biblical mandates such as “treating others as you would have them treat you.” Church life was one of the common activities among the women interviewed — and not just attendance. Leading committees and teaching classes filled hours they don’t already devote to family and other investments into the respective communities.
Talk of “full plates” never came with a tone of complaint, however.
“When we figure out how to find the balance, I want to know,” confessed Dunn. “I try to turn it off at the end of the day and focus on family…. It takes a lot of praying.”
This week the Press is celebrating Mother’s Day with stories of women behind enterprises across the county. To subscribe and discover more #localnews, call 731-587.3144.