Celebrate Four Pioneering Women
This is a story of four women who started businesses on Hilton Head 30 years ago or earlier. These businesses are now iconic, bridging Hilton Head's 20th century past with its 21st century present; emblematic of the island's growth and sophistication. For residents these names are familiar. For visitors and future generations this is the story of four pioneering women who came to an island outpost, with few amenities. They perceived a need and built successful businesses.
Avis Rollison, owner The Porcupine; Debbie Berling, owner Forsythe Jewelers; Kay Emmert, owner SM Bradford; and Patricia Owen, owner Faces Day Spa and Lash Studio. These are four women entrepreneurs who started small and thought big. Four women who responded to challenges and changes over the past 30 years and never quit. They are ambitious, motivated, successful. These women burn with a work ethic that fires them to constantly brainstorm ways to expand, improve and grow their businesses. Each woman is of an age when youth has matured into something more singular and substantial-a sense of self; a personal history. They can look back and see the trajectory of their success; when they were leading life and when they were being led. Not one of them is of an age when she is ready to stop. Not yet.
Of course it is pure folly to try and present such individualistic women as a group. No matter what commonalities I might have observed, these are women who can't be generalized, caricatured or stereotyped. I can say they all make "being busy" seem like a competitive sport. I was reminded of the only successful female entrepreneur in my family; she prided herself for never owning a chair because she never sat down. An indefatigable commitment (love?) for work is the overriding characteristic these women share. They all arrived on Hilton Head from somewhere else. These are their stories.
Avis Rollison, owner The Porcupine
In 1973 Avis Rollison was living in the Caribbean, having escaped the climate of Boston where she grew up. While visiting a friend in Hilton Head, she decided to stay for several months. A year later she returned for good.
In her early 20s, Avis worked nights at the Hofbrauhouse, a Bavarian-style restaurant that was located off Pope Avenue. During the day she worked for "a small craft shop called The Porcupine." Located in Coligny Plaza near the Piggly Wiggly (then the Red & White)-the first grocery store on Hilton Head-Avis remembers, "Coligny Plaza was the meet-up place for the whole community on Hilton Head."
In 1974 she married and they bought The Porcupine from its original owners. She says, "I'm fearless. I'm self-reliant and a challenge never scared me." She featured jewelry and imported dresses. The American Bicentennial in 1976, was her big break. There was interest in American Indian Jewelry. Avis had spent time in New Mexico and knew where to buy authentic Native American pieces. Her business grew. She realized there was no place to buy nice lingerie. She expanded next door and added a lingerie department. Shoes were next.
By 1983 The Porcupine had outgrown its space. It moved to the newly renovated "Gallery of Shops" and continued to grow. In 1995 the store caught fire, destroying everything. Determined, Avis re-established The Porcupine in its current location in Wexford Village.
Her vision was always to bring trendy, fashionable clothes to Hilton Head. She describes herself as a "huge research person." By studying the industry and staying on top of fashion cycles, Avis learned to catch trends at their beginning. She buys clothes that are contemporary and chic. Her selections have a long life span; her customers have fashion forward wardrobes and value.
She says, "I have a lot of empathy. I studied nutrition and health in college, but I realize working in fashion enables me to help women feel better; to feel pretty. That kind of boost is as important to women's health as anything else." Having weathered rough years, the economy's downturn (more than once) and the fire, Avis credits The Porcupine's success to her ability to set goals, maintain a long-term vision and "to do what you have to do."
When we met, I encountered a small powerhouse in high top wedge sneakers with electric eyes and energy, as uniquely unconventional as I hoped. She may be a bit tightly coiled; and she would admit her work ethic may translate as "workaholic"; but her success and contributions to the community are immense and fully appreciated. Everyone agrees that this singular woman is a tremendous success.
Debbie Berling, owner Forsythe Jewelers
Debbie Berling is the third generation owner of the jewelry business started by her grandfather in 1927. The original Forsythe Jewelers was in Pittsford, NY. Debbie's father bought that store in 1972. In the early 80s, Debbie's mother, tired of the brutal winters in upstate New York, led the family to Hilton Head. Forsythe Jewelers had their first location in Pineland Mall. In 1983 they moved to their current location in Sea Pines where the store has been expanded and renovated four times. Debbie bought the store from her parents in 2000. This past summer she hosted Forsythe Jewelers' 30th anniversary celebration.When her parents moved to Hilton Head, Debbie was single and 28-years-old, working in Philadelphia as a financial consultant. Her next logical step was to get her MBA-a step which 32 years later makes her wince and say, "I would rather eat worms than get an MBA." She describes herself as a "humanities person" who would have been happier teaching English as a second language in Europe. Debbie's mother-concerned about her idealistic daughter's future-encouraged her to come to Hilton Head and work in the store. Every time Debbie appeared restless, her mother planned another "learning" expedition: South Africa; Belgium; Italy; Las Vegas; New York. Hilton Head was small, but their world was large. Debbie concedes her mother was very wise.
"My mother believed that 'good value' was the most important thing." Debbie retains that commitment to value, but her own understanding of the business has matured. "I've been exposed to the finest jewelry designers in the world and I have a huge appreciation for design." Everything changed for the store in 2003 when they started carrying top luxury brands-Roberto Coin was the first, opening the doors for John Hardy and David Yurman. Their tagline reads "Pair big city design with your island lifestyle."
Debbie's genuine warmth is hard to reconcile with a highly successful woman in a tough competitive business. Interestingly, her "humanities" side has benefited the business. She believes luxury-which she describes as "having something you don't need that makes life beautiful"-lifts the human spirit. She is a romantic who finds joy in helping clients find the right piece for people they love. She glows when describing her "savvy sensitive staff" and the positive atmosphere they create that sustains and motivates her. "It is this team effort that makes Forsythe Jewelers successful." She says "the daily discipline of staying positive in front of customers and staff has been a gift and a blessing.a continuing spiritual practice. She admits it is often work work work, hard hard hard, repeat. She is thankful that she loves it.and that she has learned to ask for help when she needs it. She honors her parents by being a good steward of their legacy, but she has carried Forsythe Jewelers to a level that proves major success isn't immune to grace and generosity.
Kay Emmert, owner SM Bradford
Kay Emmert, co-owner of the family owned SM Bradford Co., has a youthful energetic voice over the phone. I have caught up with her in Montana, where the family business has opened two retail apparel stores in Whitefish and Big Fork, in addition to their SM Bradford stores, Currents and The Lily Pulitzer Signature Shop on Hilton Head Island. We have never met in person, but Kay is a born storyteller. I love stories.
More than three decades ago, Kay's husband sold his business and took an early retirement at age 34. Their two children were young. They were able to take them to Europe and participate in their growing up. They had an ideal life in Santa Barbara, CA and they appreciated it. A few years into their retirement, Kay says, "We were beginning to get "projectitus." It was the early 80s. Kay read Gail Sheehy's wildly popular book Passages. The message she received was "to change is to grow." At 2:30 a.m. Kay told her unsuspecting husband that their life needed a change.
The change involved moving across the country to Southern Pines, NC (near Pinehurst). Her husband bought commercial space he intended to lease. In 1983 there was one remaining empty space. The Emmerts were considering what hobby they could do together that would be fun and stimulating. Aha! Why not use the space and open a women's apparel shop? Neither one had a background in retail or fashion. Kay's husband had a background in banking and finance. Kay was a good manager, organizer and had great taste. They started researching. She went on a buying trip to New York and bought things she felt comfortable wearing. He took care of the money. Their concept was simply they were a great team. Once they proved it, they closed that store and moved to Hilton Head.
SM Bradford is named for their daughter-Stephanie Michele-and their son-Bradford. The kids grew up and now play major roles in the family business. Brad handles operations and technology. Stephanie and Brad's wife share the buying for their multiple stores with Kay. They all travel back and forth.
Kay has retained her energy and enthusiasm all these years because her work ethic requires that "things be done well." She concedes that their hobby has consumed their lives for a long time, "but for us it was fun and stimulating." She says, "I never ask anybody to do something I won't do myself. I've been involved in every detail and I always look and look again for ways to improve. I am especially proud of our staff-their integrity and commitment. It's all about teamwork."
Kay continues, "I think social work is done in every moment of life. With each customer we have an opportunity to lighten her day and lift her spirits. It is so rewarding to help someone feel better about herself." Kay believes as women become older they should throw away the old and buy something new. "I tell women, 'You didn't marry that outfit for life!'"
Kay combines a calling with a profitable family business. Is there a better definition of success?
Patricia Owen, owner Faces Day Spa and Lash Studio
Patricia Owen describes the decades since she dreamed of bringing beauty services to Hilton Head as "30 years of serendipity." In the early 80s, she came to Hilton Head on vacation. As a representative/trainer for Estee Lauder she was surprised there was nowhere to buy Estee Lauder products.or any other high-end cosmetics. "You either settled for what was in the drugstores on the island or you drove to Savannah."
Patricia says, "My strength is being in touch with impending changes and trends. The niche beauty market was growing. Hilton Head definitely had a need." With an ease that now seems surreal, she talked to her boss at Estee Lauder who had the "ear" of Mrs. Lauder. Her boss got the "OK" for Patricia to open a store in Hilton Head as part of their developing "Fashion Stores for Resort Areas" division. The stores were expected to offer women's fashion in conjunction with the Estee Lauder product line. She was given a prototype of what the "store" was expected to look like.
With no experience in retail fashion and no idea where she was going to find suitable space, Patricia was undaunted. She wrangled her way into the Fashion Mart in Miami, fell in love with Norma Kamali's clothing line; and convinced them it would sell in her "new resort fashion store." She knew from the prototype she had to find attractive space with an inviting storefront. Walking around Hilton Head she turned a corner and "found the most beautiful store in Heritage Plaza that just happened to be available to lease." Patricia's dream was first conceived in March, 1983. The store opened its doors July, 1983.
In 1988 the Shelter Cove Mall opened. Patricia remembers, "The world fell apart for local retailers. Seventy-five percent of local businesses failed. I'm not a pessimist, but another of my strengths is I consider worst case scenarios and develop a Plan B. With the mall opening she knew she had to be creative and cutting edge. Spa services were gaining popularity in travel destinations. Patricia started offering facials and added massages. She advertised in tourist magazines. "From the beginning we were fully booked. Since then FACES Day Spa continued to grow." The Day Spa and the recently opened Lash Studio (both in the Village at Wexford) now have 30 employees and five managers.
Patricia says her third strength is her work ethic. "I never give up. There is always an answer. I love the challenge of being able to figure it out." She also loves and trusts her staff and feels fortunate to be surrounded by talented, high-caliber employees. After 30 years, she describes herself as an owner who isn't really "hands on" as much as "brains on." She is adamant about providing the best for her clients. The new FACES Lash Studio is her latest expansion. With Patricia's drive, energy and success, expect more.
Not one of these women used the word "success" while talking with me. That is my word. All of them used the term "work ethic" numerous times: It is their explanation for what they have achieved; it is the foundation that enables them to "take risks and do what has to be done"; to "never give up and love conquering the challenge"; "to find the resolve to stay positive and on track even in the face of disaster, recession or personal upheavals"; "to put in the effort and commitment to continually change and grow." More than presenting themselves as amazing, awesome and successful-which I find each of them to be-they express deep appreciation for their staffs, their clients and their community. They remain motivated to be the best. More than celebrities or heroes, America will always need pioneers to show us what is possible. These four women, who came to Hilton Head in the 70s and 80s, are testimony that the pioneer spirit, coupled with a fierce work ethic, is still the direct path to the American Dream.