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Friday, November 5, 2010

Reinvention Spurs Success: Thriving Businesses in Hard Times

Reinvention Spurs Success:
Thriving Businesses in Hard Times
(Appeared on front page of Fairfield-Sun paper 11/4)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Some people just refuse to accept the cards they’ve been dealt, they hatch a new game plan and they find successful new avenues they would otherwise not have discovered. Such is the case with three distinct Fairfield business owners.

A Gem in the Rough
It was January 2010 when the long-expected, but nevertheless tragic, end came. Tom Losonci, president of Madison Jewelers at 2261 Black Rock Turnpike, lost his two-year battle with cancer. His children were still too young to take over the business, his wife was occupied with childcare and his mother was too elderly to assume management. His right-hand man Ernie Piscitelli had been the store’s manager for the past 10 years, had 25 years in the industry and built a reputation with customers. He expressed an interest in continuing the business and, prior to Losonci’s passing, the two met to discuss.

Piscitelli recalled the meeting. “Tom called me over to his house and over a beer and a milkshake, he signed a right of first refusal agreement for the purchase of any asset of the business, which enabled me to purchase the fixtures and tools from the estate.” Piscitelli signed a new lease and closed for six months, until July 15, when he completed the property transaction.

“I didn’t have one piece of jewelry,” he said, so spent a month and a half building inventory and traveling to different jewelry shows (e.g. Hong Kong, Las Vegas, Bangkok, New York). “I was looking at who had what and for well-made, affordable jewelry.” On August 29, Madison officially reopened.

“This was definitely a Hail Mary pass,” said Piscitelli about the decision to press on in a period in which many businesses were struggling. But he was confident that a new approach and hard work would bring results. “Every piece in my store is current, fresh, high-quality and priced from $50 to $25,000. We offer a homey, unpretentious atmosphere and seek to build a relationship, not just make a sale. We hope to appeal to a broad customer base with hundreds of pieces under $500, but still be the largest supplier of diamond engagement rings and wedding bands.”

His efforts are paying off, said Anita Burger-Kolonjari, now the store manager, a long-time employee and granddaughter of Madison’s founder. “Customers have practically run in the door… so many congratulations and hugs!”

Center Stage
A few years ago, Cyndi Sadowsky was facing divorce and had to figure out how to stay in her home. “I wasn’t going to be defeated,” said the now remarried mother of a 12-year-old daughter and stepmom to two other children.

Sadowsky’s friend, Beverly Clarke, mother to three children herself, was also going through a divorce and debating about going back into sales. However, the thought of coming home late, not being able to make dinner for her youngest child and sitting in traffic on I-95 wasn’t ideal.

“It had always been a dream to make my own rules and decorating and design were an interest,” said Sadowsky. “Beverly had similar philosophies and we thought there was a niche in the local market for homestaging.”

Popular in other parts of the country, homestaging is the process in which you prepare your home for sale by doing repairs, de-cluttering and making it more appealing to a wide range of buyers. The two formed Center Stage Designs, a service that also includes re-design and, more recently, decorating.

“Re-design is a less expensive alternative to an interior designer and suited to a person that doesn’t have the funds to start from scratch. As to decorating, we found people have ideas they don’t know how to put together, so we help them narrow down how they want their home to look and feel,” said Sadowsky.

They worked hard to get up and running, creating a website, making their business a top Google search, placing print ads and sending postcard mailings to both realtors and homeowners.

Working out of Clarke’s Bay Edge Court home office, the two are not looking back. “This business gives us more flexibility to care for our families. We still work hard but can choose when we do,” said Clarke.

As to the business’ success, Sadowsky noted, “Homestaging is a growing trend. Your home really has to be set apart. It’s a buyer’s market. The houses we visit and stage are ready and they sell so fast.” Recently, they extended the service to the commercial market, which has had the effect of bringing new life to businesses and inspiring customers to come back.”

“I love jumping out of bed every morning and doing this,” concluded Clarke. “And we’re creating a business that our children can pursue.”

Live and In-Person
Like Clarke and Sadowsky, Trevor Mahony Crow found herself facing divorce and having to suddenly think about how she was going to support herself. She recalled the moment on New Year’s Day in 2009 when her husband declared, “I don’t know if I really want to grow old with you,” and walked out the door.

He had done well in the markets on Wall Street, but companies like AIG were “falling into the ocean” and sinking fast and the recession was rearing its ugly head. She immediately put a house on the market that they had just renovated, which sold a year later, and purchased a townhouse in Southport Green.

Ironically, Crow holds a Masters Degree in marriage and family therapy and, at the time of the separation, had been successfully operating a small office in Westport. Her career, though, had “really been an adjunct” to her husband’s, and so she had to refocus on making it yield more.

Her publicist friend, Robin Phillips, suggested she pen a column for a new website started by area moms called The column started as a weekly Q & A, with topical themes related to her field. It quickly gained great interaction and responses and continues to intrigue her. “I did a recent article about men losing their jobs and not being able to hang on to the lifestyle they’d created, and the shame and pain associated with that. They are not able to open up about their feelings and a divide opens between them and their spouses. It opened up a whole dialogue.”

She realized she’d hit a nerve and there was a lot more to talk about: stress, the economy, communication. “We are not islands. We’re wired to co-regulate.” This thinking spurred her to take to the air with a live radio show titled “Keeping Connected with Trevor Crow”, an hour-long broadcast Tuesday evenings at 8pm on WSTC/WNLK 1350/1400 on AM talk radio. The format usually entertains interesting, thought-provoking guests in the fields of family, relationships and different life stage processes.

“My mantra to myself is you have to break out of your comfort zone. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be doing a radio show if I was still married,” said Crow, reflecting. “Hopefully, things will be more lucrative. I’m planting the seeds and learning a lot. I feel very fortunate.”


Determination in the Face of Adversity
People reinvent themselves for many different reasons. In these economically challenged and stressful times, more often than not, reinvention is forced by a change in marital status or job loss. These life changes can be very difficult but for those that can climb out of the mire, rebound and find a new path, the event can lead to unexpected success. A commitment to a goal and courage in the face of adversity are the necessary tools of these challenging times.

“It was very difficult for the people who worked here to stay until the end,” said Ernie Piscitelli, who had managed Madison Jewelers until its owner passed away from cancer. “Deep down, we knew the end was going to come, which would also be the end of our jobs, but we didn’t walk away.”

It was Piscitelli’s drive to carry on the business and the support of co-worker Anita Burger-Kolonjari that enabled him to initiate a new lease and reopen. “We worked around the clock, seven days a week to get the store open. And we did it with new strategies while remaining committed to service.”

As an employee of an interior design firm in New Jersey, Fairfield mom Beverly Clarke often found herself stuck in an office far from home. Pal Cyndi Sadowsky, who handled event management for Fortune 500 companies, didn’t like to travel. When both found themselves victims of divorce and needing to create a sustainable income while caring for their children, they formed Center Stage Design.

“We threw the idea around for two years and spent time researching higher training to move forward,” said Sadowsky. Their homestaging business has taken off and Clarke credits their initiative. “I like that we’re innovators here, it works and what we’ve done proves it. We’ve become great role models for our kids and, hey, we started a business in a recession.”

Staples High Teen Inspired by Arctic Adventure

Staples High Teen Inspired by 
Arctic Adventure
(Appeared in Westport News 11/5)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Westport, CT – A contest essay submission this past Spring was a Staples High teen’s golden ticket, affording him passage to an Arctic adventure and ambassadorship… and now he’s come home enlightened and with tales aplenty.

Brian Hershey, 16, a junior at Westport’s Staples High School, had been selected by Gault Energy and Polar Bears International (PBI) as the local winner of the alliance’s third annual Leadership Camp Competition and appointed Fairfield County teen Arctic Ambassador. He has recently returned from PBI’s Canadian Arctic-based camp where he and 18 other students from across the world spent the week of Oct. 10-16.

Gault has collaborated with PBI for the past three years to educate Fairfield County homeowners about how carbon emissions are affecting polar bear habitats and what can be done to reduce output. Each year the alliance offers a deserving teen the opportunity to travel to the Arctic, receive onsite education and convey their new knowledge locally.

“I was one of nine area finalists that met with a selection committee,” said Hershey. “I think they chose me as I had an idea to connect teens in the Arctic to teens at my high school to get cause and effect of what we’re doing to create positive environmental change.”

Hershey initially flew to Winnipeg, Canada, where he joined the group for an overnight, then they took a chartered plane to the small town of Churchill, historically a trade port on the edge of Hudson Bay.

“The town has a population of around 400, with small houses, only four or five streets in the grid and a rail line going through,” Hershey explained. “Very simple and surrounded by Arctic tundra. Polar bears would regularly stroll into town, requiring police patrols to fire blanks to drive them away.”

After a two-day stay in Churchill, the group drove far out into the tundra in huge buggies, which Hershey described as a cross between a school bus and a monster truck. “The land was really barren, with the occasional polar bear. We parked at a research station and stayed there in the middle of nowhere for three days and two nights,” he said.

Their station stay included workshops to educate them about the bears. They also made daily treks to the intersection of Hudson Bay and Churchill River where fresh water meets seawater and bears congregate. The latter is the first area to freeze, allowing the bears to better access their seal prey. The group enjoyed guest speakers, like professional nature photographers and rangers from nearby Wapusk National Park, as well.

A highlight for Hershey was meeting an Inuit couple, Betty Settee and her husband Jim, who are trappers that kill and skin coyotes and sell furs to traders. Hershey expected them to be the antithesis of the group’s conservation-oriented efforts but was surprised that their attitudes were quite progressive. Their principles include living off the land, caring for Mother Nature and never taking more than you need.

Settee told the group about how she was hired as young as eight years old to guide hunters and that, by 12, she was traveling solo for days on end some 40 miles or more to trap and kill animals. Sadly, Settee just passed at age 77, on Oct. 27, just a week after Hershey’s return. “I will always remember her stories,” said Hershey.

Another highlight was video conferencing over the internet with elementary and high school students in the U.S. and Canada to speak about what the team was seeing and learning.

Hershey and his group got very close. “My fellow students were great, very smart and from all over. The facilitators, teachers and rangers, who are experts on the local bear population, were also terrific.” He described their quarters as tight, and there were no showers, but he had no complaints about the food.

Hershey played a second role at Camp, as a teen reporter for WSHU Connecticut Public Radio. He was given equipment to record a story for the station’s Teenage Diaries program. He captured five hours of audio, which included observations and interviews with students and experts.

His ambassador term will encompass a year during which time Hershey plans to share what he has learned with the community and help local businesses cut carbon emissions by 5% each year. “It didn’t make sense at first that small efforts like turning off a light or planting a tree could make a difference to a polar bear, but now I see it can. As my new PBI friend BJ puts it, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’”