Family Affair: Sisters see success in business together
Working with family is not for everyone. Unmanaged personal baggage can strain professional relationships. But there’s an upside to working with someone who knows you the way a close relative does.
For many of us, our siblings tend to be the quickest people to call us to the mat – and the first to back us up in times of need. Such honesty and unwavering support can be key ingredients in a successful business partnership. Four sister-owned, independent retail establishments in the Kansas City metro area prove it.
Three-quarters of a century ago, a pair of sisters opened one of the first storefronts in the Brookside shopping district. At a time when women business owners weren’t all that common, Shop Beautiful was a gathering place where ladies of leisure mingled and picked up fine personal and home décor items.
Later, after Ruth Martin bought into the store in the late 1960s, Shop Beautiful continued to be a destination for memorable gifts and uncommon treasures. It also became an after school destination for her daughters.
“She’d always put me to work,” says one of them, Sarah Douglas, now 49.
The small tasks she completed as a child may have been early training. Yet, neither Sarah nor her sister, Abigail Fields, planned on taking over the family business when they were young. “I always thought she would be a florist, and I would be a counselor,” Sarah says.
She even pursued a counseling career but gave it up in the early 1980s to work with her mother and sister at Shop Beautiful.
In 1987, Ruth Martin opened a second shop at 121st Street and State Line Road, while keeping her eye on her ideal location, a corner at 119th Street and Roe Avenue. When that area was developed into Hawthorne Plaza three years later, she moved again.
Ruth Martin passed away in 2005. In her final months, Abigail, 53, says she was grateful that her little sister “kept the business going” while she spent most days taking care of their mother.
Abigail now manages the shop at Hawthorne Plaza. Sarah manages the original shop in Brookside and deals with most financial matters for the whole business.
Sarah and Abigail speak on the phone every day. Both agree that although their styles are complementary, working in different locations has benefited their business relationship.
“The hardest thing for us has been not bringing your personal life to work,” says Abigail. “But is that more or less with sisters? I don’t know.”
Keil & Co.
Just a few doors down from Shop Beautiful in Overland Park's Hawthorne Plaza, another pair of sisters, Jane Keil Burgett and Julie Keil Hudson, finish each other’s sentences as they shill high-quality garments and accessories.
“I just can’t imagine doing this with anyone else,” says Jane, 48.
Not too trendy and not too mom-ish, the stock at Keil & Co. is, according to Julie, 52, intended for women “who want to dress similar to their daughters but in an age-appropriate way.”
The shop bears its proprietors’ maiden name and represents their carefully calculated escape from higher paying office jobs.
The idea was hatched on a road trip, in the course of one of those “If you could be doing anything you wanted, what would it be?” conversations. “I said I’d own a boutique,” recalls Jane, then an insurance underwriter. Julie was doing catalog inventory for a specialty food store. She could imagine herself in fashion retail.
The sisters, then living in Tulsa, Okla., realized they’d have regrets if they didn’t give themselves a chance.
Location scouting brought them to the Kansas City suburbs where they had spent a few years in childhood. At the time, Hawthorne Plaza faced a wheat field, not Town Center Plaza and a horde of other women’s clothing shops.
Entrepreneurship has been challenging from the start, say the Keils, but being sisters has never been an obstacle. “I literally cannot think of anything negative about it,” Julie says.
In the two decades since founding the store, the sisters have each married, had babies and inspired their parents and another sister to move back to this area. From child care to running the register, everyone pitches in sometimes. Their mother often busies herself in the back of the shop, and their daughters talk about one day taking it over.
“It really is Keil & Co.,” Julie says.
Déjà vu. That’s what Casey and Sloane Simmons’ grandmother experienced the first time she visited an office they shared and observed them at hard at work, seated directly across from each other. She later gave her granddaughters a framed photo of themselves at ages 3 and 6 in the same position.
“From a very early age, we role played working together,” says Casey, now 44.
The Simmons sisters started out as political and corporate consultants with a side interest in Americana and handcrafts. After coordinating several sold-out shows by favorite artists, they decided to open a shop. They called it STUFF.
“We felt like we could open a location and it wouldn’t have to be open all the time,” Casey says.
Wrong. STUFF quickly eclipsed the consulting work, as the sisters responded to a call for truly original, handmade things of all kinds, including boots, lotion, upcycled jewelry and paintings of dogs. “Our customers led us to expand,” says Sloane, 47.
After five years in Westport, STUFF moved to Brookside in 2001, where it’s open seven days a week on the same block as Shop Beautiful.
A handful of full-time and part-time employees help take the load off the sisters, but the Simmonses ultimately credit their experience as business counselors and familiar working relationship with their success.
“We promised that we would always have fun with this,” Casey says. “If not, we would go do something else that, frankly, would pay more.”
In a way, they have. Delegating some responsibility to their staff has allowed the Simmonses to pick up a few small-business consulting clients. “We realized we could give back by helping early-on entrepreneurs,” Casey says.
They don’t run into many sisters.
“Are you Lulu?”
Shandi Norsworthy and Astoria Camille field that question a lot. The sisters own Lulu’s Boutique, with locations in Mission, Kan., and the Northland. There is no Lulu.
“Each of us call each other ‘Lu’ for a nickname,” Shandi explains. “We’re each half, each a Lu.”
The women opened the original Lulu’s in Parkville, Mo., 11 years ago. As a resale fashion shop that bought and sold to customers, the business gave the sisters who grew up seeking vintage wares at estate sales an opportunity to use their well-honed sense for spotting secondhand treasures.
“We had the patience to look through everything and the eye to pull them out,” Shandi says.
That first building, which included an apartment, also gave Astoria a reason to move back from Maui, Hawaii, and gave Shandi a place of employment that welcomed her children. The idea came up as a whim but fell into place, says Shandi, 41.
Four and a half years separate the sisters, who didn’t always live together in childhood but grew close as adults. Although she’s younger, Shandi says she’s a natural born leader and her sister follows. “I just took over where I needed to and she took over where she needed to.”
The resale niche has become more competitive over the years, yet the sisters have succeeded in setting Lulu’s apart from other similar businesses through style and strategy. “We don’t want racks and racks of T-shirts,” Shandi says. “We want each individual piece to be special.”
Earlier this year, Shandi and Astoria opened a second Lulu’s, not too far from the old Parkville location. They credit their relationship with the achievement.
“We respect each other,” Shandi says. “I think it would be a lot harder to do this with a business partner that wasn’t a sibling.”
Wanna start a business with your sister?
Think twice. There’s a reason most people respond to the sisters in this story with shock and awe upon hearing they own a company together. While you ponder the possibilities for you and your sis as professional partners, evaluate the type of relationship you share now.
Is there an equal amount of give and take between you?
Can you be honest with each other without feeling criticized?
Do you respect her work ethic and understand her professional capabilities?
Do you know when to cut her slack and when to be firm?
“To do this day in and day out is not as easy as we make it look,” Casey Simmons says.
When working with any relative, there’s more than business at stake. According to Entrepreneur magazine, only one in three family businesses survives long enough to be taken over by a second generation. From the beginning, though, it’s likely that various branches of the family tree, including spouses, offspring, parents and even other siblings, may be involved.
Experts advise the following: establish clear divisions of labor (i.e. one manages the finances and one acts as a public face for the business), define relationship-building boundaries (i.e. no shop talk on recreational nights off together), and be ready to forgive or apologize.
Bottom line, says Casey, “Protect your sisterhood first.”
Photo by Brooke Vandever