Words – Cara Williams      Photos – Clay Dolan

 

When my mother purchased a modest black-and-white, 16-page real estate newsletter in 1998 she had a vision to create a lifestyle magazine that celebrates life on the Escarpment. As Deena (Dolan) grew this business, and got to know her fellow entrepreneurs, she discovered that there was an inordinate number of businesses in the relatively small village of Thornbury that were being established by women. “Many of my early advertisers were females, who had the vision and foresight to put down roots in this growing town.” The trend has continued, and today, over 80% of businesses in Thornbury are owned and operated by women—clothing stores, restaurants, art galleries, day-spas, home décor stores, hair salons, bakeries, fitness centres, cafes, caterers, gift shops and cosmetic/skin/laser clinics. These establishments are enhancing the character and prosperity within our community, which got me thinking: why are Thornbury businesses predominantly owned by women? And what is fuelling the success of female driven entrepreneurship?

In 1990 Marion Erskine opened a hair salon in the newly built Kings Court Mall on Highway 26. “I chose Thornbury because I saw it as ‘the new frontier’ at that time,” explains Marion. “Not many businesses were here yet, and people were starting to move here for the skiing—so staying open Sundays to accommodate our weekend crowds seemed the way to go.” In 2007 Marion bought a building on Thornbury’s main street at 33 Bruce St. Being a single mom, she moved her family into the apartment upstairs. “It made sense to be living above the salon, as I was able to be open seven days a week and the extra income with the attached rentals gave me a solid source of extra income.”

By all accounts, getting a foot in the Thornbury real estate door is a game-changer for many business owners. In fact, one of my favourite restaurants, housed in the quirkiest of settings (which amazingly, works), was founded out of the necessity to fill the space: “We happened to own a building in Thornbury and the back space wasn’t desirable to renters,” explains Jennifer Vipond. “We had trouble filling it, so Bruce Wine Bar was born.” Jennifer now employs nearly 20 staff, and has recently opened a sister restaurant in Collingwood; Crow Bar & Variety. “Word travels—good and bad—and if you play your cards right, things will work out. Work hard, be honest and this little town will cradle you while you do it.”

For some, timing is everything: Jane Grahek opened Furbelows in 1985, two years before Sherry Kadwell established Tigs. “I was lucky that I chose Thornbury, in terms of pace, opportunity, and less competition—at the time I was the only store selling women’s clothing. Having been the first, I’ve mentored and helped many up-and-coming business owners. People come to me because I’ve been here for four recessions and managed to stay alive.” Not to imply that it’s been a smooth ride—small-town business owners often have to supplement their income to stay afloat. “I waitressed for four years when I first opened Furbelows,” says Jane. “I would go to the restaurant right after work and wear the clothes from my store. People would ask me where I got my outfit and I’d tell them about my store – I found a lot of new customers that way.”

CASEY THOMPSON – The Cheese Gallery

Perhaps the main reason why so many Thornbury businesses are owned by women is the culture of collaboration and we’re- all-in-this-together approach. “The Women in Thornbury have always been welcoming and genuine,” recounts Jennifer Vipond. “Over 15 years ago when I was introduced to the ladies of Bruce Street, I was rapidly brought in to a circle of love. There was no judgement, just friendship and a branch to hang on to. They were there to give a shoulder to cry on or help me roll cutlery for the opening day—I won’t forget that Marion Erskine! All of the women in this town—they will help you and love you and encourage you.”

Truly, the “Women of Thornbury” are fueling our little town, while driving the local economic stimulus. But they need our support–when we purchase from locally owned businesses, the entire community benefits. “Thornbury is facing stiff competition from surrounding towns and online shopping,” says Casey Thompson of The Cheese Gallery. “The risk of less visitors, less foot traffic is always prevalent. It’s essential that our community supports business to ensure a vibrant cycle for everyone—if businesses close due to retirement, selling or moving that’s normal and healthy, but when businesses close due to lack of customers, lack of foot traffic and lack of local support, we are at risk.” When we buy local there is a domino effect that directly touches every level of our community.

“The weather can be a big challenge,” says Josie Poole of Sincerely Yours Boutique. “It can make for a lonely winter or spring. Our most difficult time is January to April when visitors are scarce. If it wasn’t for our dedicated local shoppers, we would be struggling even more.” Anne Wildeman of Birch & Benjamin adds, “There is a perception that we are not competitive with corporate and box stores but I price check constantly to be sure that we are on par.”

Non-profit organizations rely heavily on our local business owners to support their cause, as do clubs, school fundraisers, and a host of charitable campaigns that come knocking. Cassidy Holt, owner of the Daisy Market & Refillery works with Beaver Valley Community School on their litter-less lunch program, an initiative which greatly reduces waste production in Grey County. Sarah Bright of Two The Core supports and donates to the Rotary Run, Georgian Triangle Humane Society, Events For Life, and more. “Each year we participate in the Jack Ride for youth mental health,” explains Sarah. “We have raised almost $60,000.00 in the past three years.” In fact, the next time you attend a local fundraiser, have a peek at the list of supporters—our local businesses donate thousands of dollars annually to countless worthy causes that benefit the community as a whole. “One of the best parts of my week occurs every Thursday afternoon, when I volunteer to co-run the Apple Valley Youth Chorus,” says Karen James, owner of Ashton’s Blinds. “This community choir, sponsored by the Thornbury Clarksburg Rotary Club, is for youth from Junior Kindergarten to grade 12. We teach cooperation, perseverance, dedication and self-sufficiency under the guise of teaching choral music in two-part harmony. These kids make my heart sing!”

Nicole Craig, owner of Cherchez La Femme adds, “We partner with local businesses for our fashion shows, events, and to raise much needed funds for My Friend’s House. We also continually support each other by referring customers to other businesses. We choose other local businesses for hosting and catering our events and involve as many local businesses in all events that we host.”

A flexible work schedule is cited as a motivator for many women planning to open their own business – a laughable misperception to most (if not all) of our town’s female business owners. A typical day for Tracy Granger of Couture Skin Health & Body Work begins at dawn; “I generally work at least 14 hours a day, starting with emails and banking, followed by a full day of treating and consulting with clients and training staff. To run a small business, you have to be prepared to work very hard and be the face of your brand.” Karen James became a business owner out of necessity; “I would be lying if I said I had a strong entrepreneurial spirt and knew I’d always work for myself. The truth is we had a sick child and I needed a job that could accommodate medical appointments. I had grown up in an entrepreneurial family, so I knew that working for myself would give me the flexibility my family needed, even if it meant I was working 80 hours a week.”

Jennifer Vipond – Bruce Wine Bar Kitchen

In between treating clients Liz Schleifer of The Lillypad Spa vacuums the floors and dusts. She also does the spa’s laundry and manages a team of 11 employees. “On my day off I answer emails and plan for events, dream up marketing ideas and hopefully spend a little time outside,” remarks Liz. For many of our town’s business owners, days off are few and far between. “This year I have pulled back and I try to give myself two days a week off,” says Stephanie Price of the Dam Pub. “This is where letting go and trusting your team comes in. It’s taken me a while to figure this part out.” “If I could offer advice to women who are looking to establish businesses in Thornbury I would tell them that you have to be prepared to work a lot of hours,” adds Sherry Kadwell of Tigs. “Local customers want to see the owners working in the stores here, therefore you need to have a day to day presence in your business.” Face time, it would seem, is essential to small town success.

“At first, it seemed a little silly for us to be the two grown women hanging out and scooping ice cream,” laughs Rheanna Kish, who co-owns Pom Pom Treat Hut with Andrea Greyerbiehl. “But we soon realized its importance through providing a deep and real connect with our customers and staff.”

Much like Escarpment Magazine, many businesses in Thornbury are multi-generational family businesses. “Statistically partnerships do not work,” says Marion Erskine. “But the exception is a mother/daughter team (as you know Cara). I’m so lucky to have my daughter Kasey—I’m very proud of her skills as a hair-stylist, colourist, aesthetician and manager.” Breanne Morrow partnered with her mother Patricia to open The Georgian Artisan shop. Renée Desrochers of Adorn II notes, “I follow in the footsteps of my fearless mother who has always had her own business and encouraged me to create a niche and go after my dreams.”

Karen James – Ashtons Blinds

Family run businesses may be the exception, but unfortunately conventional small business owners often grapple with a widening gap between staffing desires and the qualifications of the available workforce. In fact, staffing issues are the number one problem facing many of our Women of Thornbury. “Our two biggest challenges are attracting and retaining great staff and managing rising costs,” says Trish Smith of the Thornbury Bakery. “We are so lucky to have a solid core team that have been with us for years, but finding people who are loyal, passionate and fun is an ongoing challenge. Rising costs is also a huge issue. Labour costs, food costs, business taxes, it doesn’t ever seem to be good news.”

Statistically small businesses are the largest employers nationally—our Women of Thornbury business owners alone employ over 175 full and part-time staff. Talk about exerting influence with our purchasing choices—when we choose to spend our dollars in Thornbury we are directly supporting over 175 individuals that live among us. “I am so fortunate and grateful for each and every staff member,” says Season Leone of Cured, Culinary Designs Catering who employs seven full-time staff and 25 on-call catering staff. “I truly could not do this without my amazing and solid team.” Cassidy Holt of Daisy Market & Refillery has a favourite quote by Anna Lapp; “’Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.’ I love to share this with people because I think it’s the absolute truth!”

When it comes to giving advice to up-and-coming female entrepreneurs, Marion Erskine advises consistency; “Be open when business is slow. That one customer who walks in could be the one that changes everything! Advertising needs to be consistent – just one ad doesn’t do the trick. You need to have a good advertising budget.” Loreen Van Groningen of C & G Solid Wood Furniture Co. suggests joining the Chamber of Commerce, BIA and networking as a way to get started in business. Joni Fitzgerald of the Thornbury Laser Clinic says, “Get out and meet people. Everyone is willing to help build new businesses.” “There is so much growth and opportunity in this community,” adds Melissa Herod of Axed Throwing Club. “If you have any entrepreneurial spirit, this is the time!”

Of course, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. I laughed out loud at Marion Erskine’s warning; “If you are married, immediately go for counselling!” Stephanie Price added, “Have a plan, then plan B, C, D and E, but most importantly an exit plan. Surround yourself with like-minded people and don’t be afraid to make mistakes—mistakes are gifts to learn and grow by. In my experience, some of the crazier off the wall ideas have been the most successful. Lead by example and be respectful with your staff, it will come back tenfold.”

Yes, the unique character of our local community is defined in large part by the business that reside here. Many of our female business owners are serial entrepreneurs, having owned multiple businesses in Thornbury. In 1996 Anne Wildeman spotted a classified ad for Carriages Restaurant (now Winnifred’s Pub) in the Toronto Star. “Live Your Dream in Thornbury” read the advertisement. “I had just given birth to my daughter Sarah,” remembers Anne. “I was at the local park with all of the nannies and realized that I wanted to do it differently.” Anne moved to Thornbury and ran Carriages until 2003 then opened Birch & Benjamin paint store in 2007. Prior to establishing the Thornbury Laser Clinic nearly eight years ago, Joni Fitzgerald owned Fitzgerald’s on the Pond, and before opening Adorn II Renée Deroches owned Pamper & Soothe. “Thornbury is so special,” says Trish Smith. “Not only is it beautiful, it checks off all of the boxes both personally and professionally. It is small enough to be charming and intimate, but big enough to attract and sustain excellent restaurants, businesses and events. It is small enough to know most people by name, but big enough to attract interesting people from all over Ontario and many parts of the world!” “The fact that this town is primarily ‘run’ by women is particularly special,” adds Jennifer Vipond. “I don’t think you find that in many areas. For me, that is when it feels safe and welcoming. Women are forces and they work together, not against.”

To be perfectly honest, when we began batting the idea of this story around the Escarpment office years ago, the task was more than daunting. As the writer, I was cautious—what if I don’t properly express the thoughts and feelings of so many talented women? Or worse, what if I neglect to mention someone or misinterpret a quote? I truly apologize if any of these has happened—it wasn’t my intent. What has taken me by surprise is the promptness and thoroughness of respondents and the willingness to participate.

The Women of Thornbury are inherently busy and unfortunately not everyone was available to answer my questions, but those who were speak very highly of one another. “There are some incredible entrepreneurs in this town who have been successfully running their businesses for years,” says Heather Carroll of the Loft Gallery. “They have managed to stay current and unique in their approach to business, they continually aspire to provide exciting events for the community, they offer great customer service and create warm and inviting atmospheres for people visiting Thornbury. I look at them with great admiration and they are a constant source of inspiration for other business owners.”

As a Woman of Thornbury myself, I’d like to say thank you to these amazing, forward-thinking, brave as heck women who blazed the trail before me—including my mother Deena. You have led by example, working tirelessly while raising babies and dealing with difficult customers—it is a comfort knowing, despite everything, that when the going gets tough there are a host of experienced, unflappable females to call upon for advice or to commiserate over a cup of coffee (or bottle of wine). Thornbury would not be what is without you—you are truly the backbone of this incredible town.

Marion Erskine – Marion Hair Salon
Anne Wildeman – Birch & Benjamin
The Women Entrepreneurs of Thornbury
Alix Haddy – Good Grief Coffee Roasters
Andrea Greyerbiehl & Rheanna Kish – Pom Pom
Annalisa Favretto – Registered Massage Therapy
Anne Wildeman – Birch & Benjamin
Breanne Morrow – The Georgian Artisan Shop
Casey Thompson – The Cheese Gallery
Cassidy Holt – Daisy Market & Refillery
Cécile de Bretan – Live Life Fit
Dr. Margaret McGillis – Orthodontist
Diane Scott – Cedarport Window & Door Centre
Eryn Treanor – Bouj Design Studio
Heather Carroll – The Loft Gallery
Jane Grahek – Furbelows
Jennifer Thrasher, Suzanne Jacobi & Debbie Warnick – Nantucket & Co.
Jennifer Vipond – Bruce Wine Bar
Jennifer White – The Orchid Restaurant
Joan Jackel – Jessica’s Book Nook
Joni Fitzgerald – Thornbury Laser Clinic
Josie Poole – Sincerely Yours Boutique
Katerina Bostrom – Acorn Montessori
Kathy De Langley – Thornbury Leg Vein Clinic
Kelly Gale – Kelly Gale Creative
Liz Schleifer – The Lillypad Spa
Loreen Van Groningen – C & G Wood Furniture
Marion Erskine – Marion’s Hair Studio
Melissa Herod – Axed Throwing Club
Nicole Craig – Cherchez La Femme
Renee Desrochers – Adorn II
Robyn Allen & Sarah Bright- Two The Core
Season Leone – Cured/Culinary Designs Catering
Sheila Mckee – Mantra Yoga
Shelagh Fox – Shelagh Fox Gallery
Sherry Kadwell – Tigs
Stephanie Hensel – The Parlour by Stephanie
Stephanie Price – The Dam Pub
Sue Carr – Ashanti Coffee
Susan Thomson – New Orleans Pizza
Sylvia Gardulski – The Mill
Tina Knott – No More Knotts
Tracy Granger – Couture Skin Health
Trish Smith – Thornbury Bakery