Clayton and Jennifer Chavis had spent more than 20 years as kitchen and bath designers, working up to January 2020 when they felt ready to leave their jobs to start Severna Park Kitchen & Bath in the Park Plaza shopping center.
“A couple of weeks later, it was lockdown,” Jennifer said. “We still had a lot of hurdles, but we really just hit the ground running.”
The first-time business owners initiated Zoom calls with potential clients. Clayton delivered samples to homeowners. Together they did anything possible to spread the word about Severna Park Kitchen & Bath, which was without a showroom.
“If someone is spending $30,000, they want to see our stuff,” Clayton said.
They relied on referrals and were fortunate to have relationships with contactors, designers, architects and builders from their time at the J.F. Johnson Lumber Company. Still, it was tough to open. Everything from securing vendors to buying office chairs became a challenge.
“The inspections, our fire marshal, everything was pushed back several weeks,” Jennifer said.
Clayton and Jennifer credit their faith and confidence for keeping them optimistic. They also had help from business partner Pat Gilmore and from Chartwell resident Kristy Wallace, who is a designer for the company.
Severna Park Kitchen & Bath and its showroom are now open by appointment only. Clayton and Jennifer are taking their slogan — Dream. Design. Deliver — and helping homeowners make their vision a reality, just as they did for their business.
“We’re a conduit to their dream, and it’s a journey for every client, finding the right fit for their budget,” Clayton said. “We’re not Home Depot. If they’re looking for the cheapest price, they will find it. But most people are willing to pay a local place to do a quality job, because they won’t find that at a big-box store.”
The Chavis family isn’t alone among first-time Anne Arundel County business owners. Candace Pruett, a business consultant with the Small Business Development Center, has seen three types of people starting businesses during the pandemic: those who are seeking self-employment because they are concerned about their job or because they see a new opportunity, those who are looking for a side hustle while keeping their full-time job, and those who found a commercial retail space that has become available because of COVID-19.
Sherry Leikin and Sue Wright fall into the first category. They were in a rare position of opening their business because of COVID, not in spite of it. Having known each other for close to 15 years dating back to their time with the Folger McKinsey Elementary PTO, Leikin and Wright had a shared interest in seeing schools and businesses reopen, so they started Covid Safety.
Wright’s husband is a systems engineer who sells technology to schools, so she and Leikin were able to use his contacts, and interview manufacturers to determine which safety products were the best value for customers. They also placed an emphasis on products made in the United States.
Their products include a mask and temperature detector, portable ultraviolet light sanitizers, and air purifiers.
“One of our big sellers is our ultraviolet air purifiers,” Leikin said. “If you’re at a school or a retail establishment, it’s like a tablet that would sense if you’re wearing a mask, and it takes your temperature. A lot of doctors offices right now will have you wait in your car, and this is more instant.”
Leikin and Wright had already been working at home, so it wasn’t hard to adapt.
“The products are direct-shipped from the manufacturer, so we don’t have to be tied up with inventory,” Leikin said. “We are a woman-owned company and we’re able to offer low prices because we have low overhead.”
Even after schools and businesses reopen, the business owners still foresee a need for what they offer.
“Having your air purified and your spaces sanitized, we’re still going to be using these best practices,” Wright said. “We’re excited about cleaning products that don’t require chemicals.”
Severna Park resident Lee Norwood bought an established business, Annapolis College Consulting, and was mentored for a year before taking over on January 1, 2020.
“It was an ideal time because our greatest gift we give to families is direction during a very stressful time,” Norwood said. “We have our finger on the pulse of the dynamic college application process and really help lower stress. It’s a big time in these teens’ lives, and a big expense. Finding the right fit academically, geographically, socially, financially is paramount.”
Norwood faced one major hurdle: converting a personal and individualized business to an online format. The Annapolis College Consulting team rebuilt their website to offer more resources online.
“And then working to differentiate these kids in a town when jobs, camps and internships were canceled and grades became pass/fail has been interesting,” she said. “With schools closed and online, the school counselors and teachers had a monumental task shifting their roles — we are able to be an adjunct to them. We work with them and add a level of personalization — much like a personal trainer at a fitness facility.”
With the Small Business Development Center, Pruett also provides a level of personalization for business owners. She counsels them on the management, marketing and money for their business. The money aspect is focused on financing options and budgeting their cash-flow projection.
“We’re really talking to you. It’s a dialogue, it’s a conversation,” Pruett said. “It’s asking the right questions to get the business owners to think differently about their businesses. For example, when someone comes to me and wants to start a business, I’m asking, ‘What industry? Why is it a good time right now to start this business?’ And you dive into the five why’s to really understand why, but ultimately once they tell us what they want to do, what they want to start, we give them some guidance.”
Pruett talks to them about building what she calls a BAIL (banker, accountant, insurance agent, and lawyer) team. Lastly, she encourages anyone starting a business soon to consider how their competitors have fared during the pandemic.
“It’s really important for them to go and look beyond and see how their industry is doing as a whole because there are some industries that are really thriving right now,” Pruett said. “Everyone is doing home improvement. Construction companies are doing well. So you’re looking at different industry sectors and seeing how they’re impacted by COVID, and as someone looking at starting one, how is their business different and unique?”
Whether they started a small business in a new building or virtually during the pandemic, first-time business owners are happy with their decision so far.
“We’re in every day, we planned every inch of space in here,” Jennifer said of Severna Park Kitchen & Bath. “It was very stressful, but it was worth it.”
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