Entrepreneur stories with humble beginnings are the ones I find most intriguing. I love to meet the people behind the business, hear and learn about their journey and how what seemed impossible, turned into success because of determination, personal drive and motivation.
Back in 1993, when Joyce Swaren was the manager at a local garden center in Medicine Hat, she ran daily operations and handled everything from growing and cultivating plants, designing gardens, to managing inventory. During her 13 years there, she acquired a wealth of knowledge in the industry that would later assist her when the owner had to shut down operations due to illness. Joyce began to assess her future options. Soon after the garden center closed, Joyce enrolled in a full-time 2-year horticulture program at Olds College. It was a difficult time for her: finding care for her children, commuting home every weekend, earning enough money to sustain her family: her kids were 12, 8 and 4 years of age at the time and she was a single mom.
By the time she completed her training at Olds College, she knew she wanted to open a garden centre. Continual encouragement to start a business came from Bob Notenbomer (the current Maintenance and Operations Manager), and Joyce’s family and friends. Joyce already had the reputation as the “go to” plant expert, and with this, she knew she could gather that loyal group of customers and that they would follow her to a new business.
But Joyce knew that starting a business from scratch was going to mean that she would need some help and some additional training.
Within a few months of returning from Olds College, Joyce and her daughter discovered the self-employment program at Community Futures Entre-Corp. In this 7-week program, they acquired the skills and training that would give them the tools to start and run the business. Joyce’s daughter, Renee, was instrumental in helping in the early stages – she managed the administration and bookkeeping for 5 years until she decided to move into a nursing career.
Finding financing would be the next challenge. The first loan application was declined by an entrepreneur organization. After several attempts, their application was approved and within 1 year of their intial application, they had enough funds to purchase land and start construction of a building.
Blondie’s Gift & Garden Centre opened its doors on April 15, 2004 with only 4 bays. In 2007, they expanded and opened 5 more bays and today they are operating at capacity in a 22,000 square foot building. Joyce employs 5 full-time staff and 12 part-time staff.
Joyce admits that running a business has come with some wild adversity.
On July 18, 2016, they would face devastating damage to their building due to severe storms that brought heavy rain, winds, and damaging hail. The garden centre, comprised of mostly plexi-glass and some composite plastics, received considerable damage. Joyce described it to me, “…we threw out dumpsters and dumpsters of broken glass. There was broken glass everywhere. Everything was wrecked.” She estimated the damage to be in the hundreds of thousands. “It was the hardest time for me and for the business”, she said. That hailstorm was an enormous setback but she described how her passion for the business is really what saved them.
When I asked her about her previous entrepreneurial experiences, Joyce explained how she admired her brother who started a business when he was 18. “He worked his entire life, as a general contractor, and is set to retire this year.”, she said. Joyce laughed when she said that her brother told her, many years ago, that she would return to Nova Scotia within six months, after Joyce moved to Alberta. That was 35 years ago. She proved him wrong.
Blondie’s Gift & Garden Centre celebrated its 13th year in business on April 13, 2017.
When asked if Joyce could give three pieces of advice to new entrepreneurs, here is what she said:
1. If you find a business idea and are passionate about it, go for it. If you are passionate about your business, people will follow you;
2. If you love what you do, good things will come to you; and
3. Be prepared to work long hours; but it is very rewarding.
Blondie’s is located in Dunmore, Alberta, 3 kms east of Medicine hat, on the #1 Highway. You can visit their website at: http://www.blondiesgreenhouse.com/
This article was written by Elizabeth Blair. Elizabeth is the regional innovation network coordinator at Community Futures Entre-Corp and works to oversee activities with APEX. APEX is a Regional Innovation Network that supports the growth of innovative and technologically-oriented businesses in Southeast Alberta.
APEX is a collaborative initiative between three core service providers: Community Futures Entre-Corp Business Development, Medicine Hat College; and Alberta Innovates. APEX strives to support local entrepreneurs and small to medium-sized enterprises to develop and adopt new technologies, commercialize innovative new products, improve productivity, and get connected to Alberta’s Innovation System.