One Baltimore woman was laid off from her job with a building contractor. Two days later, she started her own business helping developers obtain building permits.
A Silver Spring woman recognized a chance of a lifetime when the phone company she worked for offered an early-retirement plan. She accepted the pension package and went into business for herself as an interior designer.
When one Baltimore couple's income dwindled, putting their mortgage payments in jeopardy, the two took a chance. They quit their jobs in car sales and went into the restaurant business.
And frugality paid off for another Baltimorean: When his job in banking was eliminated, he was able to use his savings to start his own gardening business.
As employers merge, downsize and cut back, thousands of workers have been bought out, laid off and relocated. Through it all, some people have managed to see beyond the immediate -- and very real -- stresses and strains of the recession to a different future. Hard-working and ambitious, these people now took risks they'd only dreamed of taking before; when their jobs or career security disappeared, they discovered opportunities.
Keeping the Momentum
No one ever will accuse Shelley Welsh of not moving quickly enough -- or not being willing to go the distance.
Ms. Welsh, who teaches aerobics, runs marathons and still finds time for night classes in engineering, turned getting laid off into a grand opportunity.
And all within four days.
In the fall of 1989, she was earning an "upper-middle-class income" as a building project manager. Then, she was laid off one Friday morning.
L That night and the next, she lay awake wondering what to do.
"You're upset. You're feeling insecure. All you're thinking of is getting a job," she says. "And you think, 'Do you want to work for someone and run the risk of getting laid off again?' "
Then it came to her. Having worked as an urban planner and in the development business, Ms. Welsh knew well the frustrations builders face in obtaining the forms and signatures necessary for permits.
"Why not offer to deal with those hassles?" she thought. "Why not operate a building permit business?"
There were already one or two such businesses in the area.
Ms. Welsh decided to give it a try.
And by the end of Monday, after she called every business contact she had, five people had said they had work for her.
"So in about 48 hours, I set up a business," she says.
Since then, her one-woman company has grown from a fledgling business to a 24-client operation.
But it wasn't easy. Dealing with getting laid off and starting a business is hard emotionally, she says. It's hard financially. And even when things go well, it's long, hard hours.
During the tough times, the Baltimore native's family, including a younger sister and brother, acted as her cheerleaders. Her father, a retired salesman who lives in Reisterstown, encouraged her, too.
At first she worked 12 to 14 hours a day and came home at night to make phone calls and do her own accounting. Vacations -- except a few days taken off in spring and fall to run in the New York and Boston marathons -- were unheard of, she says. Eating out and fun weekend trips went the way of her former job.
"The first year was pure survival. I ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches for dinner," she says. And some days, "I'd think, 'Why am I doing this?' "
Things are looking up for Ms. Welsh, who is now 32 -- she went on a vacation this past spring and she has cut back the hours she works each week.
As a marathoner and triathlete, Ms. Welsh begins each day at 5:30 with a run, then teaches an aerobics class from 6:15 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. That leaves her 45 minutes to prepare for work.
From 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., she sits in her car and makes her first round of phone calls.
"I try never to lose momentum," she says.
Armed with her pager, she's then on the road. She has clients in five counties; driving 200 miles per day has become routine.
Despite what many people think, she says, being your own boss doesn't necessarily eliminate pressure or stress. In the permit business, "you're dealing with millions and millions of dollars because the developers can't build until they get the permit and each day means money," she says. "I have a lot of crises per day."
But after two years, she has learned to leave work worries at the office -- even if that office is in her home.
"I used to work on weekends and at night," she says. "Now, at 5 or so, it's all turned off. When you have a small business, it's in your life and in your house and you have to learn to close the door and shut it all off."
Moonlighting, No More
Harriett Stanley is the kind of person who can whip up a whole outfit on her sewing machine in one evening. The kind who uses vacation days to attend training seminars. The kind who is willing to work 14-hour days -- eight hours at her job as a Bell Atlantic product manager and six more moonlighting as an interior designer.
Harriett Stanley is also a very patient person.
For 10 years, she watched and waited for an opportunity to start her own business. By day, she climbed the corporate ladder. By night, she accepted as many interior design jobs as she could handle. On weekends she studied art; she studied design; she studied space planning and building codes.
So in October 1992, when Bell Atlantic, in a downsizing move, offered employees what amounted to an early-retirement package, Ms. Stanley knew: The time had come.
"I didn't tell anyone at work. I talked to my husband. I prayed about it. I filled out the application, and then I waited," she says, and laughs. "My mother thought I was crazy."
In November she got word: In 30 days, she officially would be retired from her job of 20 years at Bell Atlantic. In 30 days, she would be working for herself -- and her own company called Uniquely Yours.
"I felt a new glow of happiness," she says, and her eyes still shine at the memory. "I thought, 'I'm free.' "
Her interest in interior designing was first piqued in the early 1980s when she began selling art in the evenings for additional income. The company she represented gave art shows in people's homes, and Ms. Stanley's business grew by word-of-mouth.
In her shows, Ms. Stanley emphasized discovering the homeowner's personality and finding art that reflected what the owner was like. That idea caught on -- she soon had four salespeople working under her.
But she wanted to work for herself.
"I didn't like the pep talks you got. I didn't need that zest and zeal stuff because I already had it," she says. "I knew what I was trying to do."
In 1983, she went to a huge art show in New York City. "I said I was an independent consultant," she says. "I discovered a whole new world I never knew existed."
And that was the beginning of Uniquely Yours.
These days, Ms. Stanley is still at the office by 9 a.m., but it's her office, located in the basement of her Columbia home. She still takes an hour lunch break, but it's lunch in her own home at the hour of her choosing. And she still keeps plugging away at whatever the day's task is, until at least 6 p.m. Whether targeting new clients or contacting vendors to place orders, it's a task she has set for herself.
And she loves it.
"When I first retired I would forget the time. It was such freedom to be working for myself," she says.
At the end of each day, she tries to put it all behind her and shut the office door. Still, shutting the door doesn't keep her thoughts from racing: "What did I do? What did I accomplish? How can I do it better?"
Her husband, Edward Stanley, an executive for C&P; Washington, reminds her to slow down occasionally.
"He's the gatekeeper, making sure I don't spread myself too thin."
For diversion from business, Ms. Stanley volunteers at her church -- she is the financial officer and is helping computerize the church records. And, for physical release, she walks.
In the transition from a corporate job to owning a small business, Ms. Stanley figures her income dropped from a $50,000-something salary to about $20,000. She is projecting that by June of 1994, her business profit will be higher, but for the duration she and her husband are making do with his income.
They eat out less, restrict clothing purchases and budget strictly for expenses such as her new phone line for business and her travel expenses for work.
And on the days when the cutbacks and hard work don't seem quite worth it, Ms. Stanley turns to her mentors, Ina Kaplan, owner of Trina Limited in Bethesda, and Columbia commercial ** designer Paula Shelokov, for words of encouragement. Or Ms. Stanley and a few other interior designers gather in an informal support group. She says, "Sometimes it seems like a lonely, lonely road -- being a small business owner. Sometimes you just want to get together with someone and share ideas."
But most of the time, she's thrilled to be doing what she enjoys best.
Her company philosophy, she says, is to help people design their homes and choose the furniture that best reflects them.
"I specifically talk to you and come up with a design that's geared to you and your lifestyle," she says.
"I want people to enter your home and say, 'This is you. I see you in your home.' "
Reaping What He Sowed
Mark Fabian always wanted to own a business. Each career step the Otterbein resident took was carefully geared toward gaining knowledge and experience that would help him run a profitable business. And as he worked, he saved.
The 35-year-old earned an accounting degree from Mount St. Mary's College in 1980, then held jobs in quick succession in public accounting, auditing, commercial finance and risk management.
From 1986 to 1991, he worked at Crestar Financial Corp. in Washington, D.C., first as sales consultant in cash management and finally as vice president for commercial lending. During these years, he says, he saved, saved, saved.
His frugality was proven wise when in June 1991 his job at Crestar was eliminated.
"I forecasted it several years ahead of time. And during that time, I was doing the opposite of everyone else: I was saving," Mr. Fabian says. "I'm not wealthy. I'm not rich, but I did plan ahead."
His first inclination was to hunt for a similar job. But in September, he took a few weeks off from the job search and traveled to Spain to ponder the future. And he began to wonder whether he really wanted to return to the high-stress, fast-paced world of banking and mergers.
"Your immediate reaction is to think you should work for someone else," he says. But, "I dreaded the train to Washington. I lived for the weekends. And I began to think, 'You've always wanted to own a business.' "
In November 1992 Mr. Fabian realized this was the time to plunge into the world of business ownership. He spent several months searching for a small operation he could run -- and expand. And he liked the idea of a neighborhood business that provided a lot of service and had a clientele that returned year after year.
Because he had saved during the 1980s, he could afford to take time to look for just the right business concept.
"After the recession, the media began telling everyone they should have a year's worth of mortgage payments in their savings accounts -- well, I was working on that way before 1991," he says.
His hobby has always been gardening and for years, Mr. Fabian has done landscape work for acquaintances. As he looked around the city, he thought he saw space in the market for a "little oasis in the city to buy gardening equipment and plants," he says.
In April 1993, he opened a florist-and-landscape business called Holly Wood & Vines at 5 E. Henrietta St. in Federal Hill. The shop is small and friendly, with plenty of large, green houseplants and fragrant herbs on display. There are ceramics imported from Italy and Mexico for gardens and yards. There's a delivery service, and for $65 an hour, Mr. Fabian offers landscaping design and advice.
Now the man who took the 5:30 a.m. train to get an early start at his Washington, D.C., office, is busy answering questions about Boston ivy and vinca. His short-term goals are to learn everything there is to know about his new business and to pay the bills. His French cuffs and Italian leather shoes have been replaced by shorts and Topsiders.
"I never wanted to be the typical yuppie, anyway" he says.
Mr. Fabian still peppers conversations with phrases like "targeted profit margin," but in the very next sentence he waxes eloquent about plants.
"I want the customers to love the plants they buy here. I want them to love them and nurture them like they would a dog or cat," he says.
"Just think, two years ago, I would have been sitting at a desk working like a madman, attending black-tie functions at night and wearing a tie every day."
Time to Sink or Swim
Maria Kaimakis never imagined that standing on a sidewalk while cooking 50 pounds of chicken would be a step in her career ladder.
But that is what she has been doing early every morning for the past two years. Thirty at a time, she grills chicken and lamb kebabs. Then she fries falafel and stocks a sidewalk vending cart with 36 heads of lettuce and gallons of tarragon sauce in preparation for the lunch-time rush.
Ms. Kaimakis and her husband, Vassos Yiannouris, were working at a Baltimore car dealership when the recession hit full force. Month by month, they watched and worried as their income from sales dried up.
Desperately seeking another way to earn a living, Mr. Yiannouris suggested they open a sidewalk vending cart. After all, he pointed out, Ms. Kaimakis was renowned within family circles as the maker of extraordinary chicken kebabs and falafel sandwiches drizzled with a sauce that had been handed down from generation to generation.
"I didn't want anything to do with that idea," Ms. Kaimakis says.
But the recession dragged on. In the winter of 1990, auto sales were so slow that Ms. Kaimakis, who normally sold 17 cars a
month, was selling four or five. Her monthly income, usually at least $3,500, fell to minimum wage. "Our mortgage was in excess of 60 days late -- it was time to sink or swim," she says.
She agreed to help her husband start a food business -- and afterward, she thought, she'd return to her sales job.
So the grind began. The couple spent five months getting a license for a sidewalk vending cart. They remortgaged their house to get $15,000 to buy a shiny, silver cart, complete with refrigerators and grill, that would act as their movable restaurant.
On Jan. 1, 1991, they wheeled their little cart onto the northeast corner of Light and Water streets. It was freezing. It was snowing. It was a complete failure.
They made $14.
"I was ready to scream," says Ms. Kaimakis.
After a week, they closed up until April. Ms. Kaimakis returned to work at the car dealership until March. When warmer weather came, they changed their location and tried again. This time, sales grew steadily. By the end of May, lines were beginning to form at the shiny silver cart at Redwood and Light streets.
Still, it was rough going. The cart became the focal point of their lives. Because they couldn't afford a company van, their car took on a spicy odor. Because their little cart had no storage space, they shopped every day, not just for fresh ingredients, but for staples. They often worked from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.
"In Europe you see Gypsies loading up their carts. I began to feel like that," says Mr. Yiannouris. "It's like camping, only you have to bring enough food every day for 300 people. I'm glad God gave me enough patience to stick with it."
Indeed, it seems his idea has paid off. If luck is with them, this month they'll be serving customers at a carryout restaurant called Cypriana, at 105 E. Baltimore St.
They'll still be rising early to cook huge amounts of spicy foods, but they will be indoors. And it will be their very own restaurant.
"I think that God's been really good to us. We can't take credit for all this because we didn't really know what we were doing," says Ms. Kaimakis. "We just knew we liked good food."
HOLLY SELBY is a news reporter for The Sun.