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Hard choices Featured

9:55am EDT July 22, 2002

Valerie Coolidge realizes some people don’t understand the life-changing choice she’s made. But that doesn’t bother this entrepreneur-turned-full-time-mom.

“This is a very unpopular position — being at home with the kids — but it’s probably the most important job I can do,” says Coolidge, who just last year seemed to be on the fast track to corporate success with her Westerville-based Gourmet Gifts business.

The company, which Coolidge operated from her home, had grown rapidly since its 1993 founding, recording double- and even triple-digit revenue increases at times.

Keeping up with the rising demand for her flavored cakes and chocolate-dipped coffee spoons made Coolidge a slave to her company. The long work hours interfered with her family life. Her religious faith took a backseat. Yet she continued fostering her company’s growth because that’s what she “did” for a living; it defined her; it was her job.

“My sister in Pickerington told me I was too smart to just be a stay-at-home mom,” Coolidge recalls. “I bought into the lie.”

Five years later, Coolidge realized what she’d done.

A hobby gone amok

Coolidge enjoyed baking. When she quit her job as an IS manager in 1990 to spend more time with her then-elementary aged children, she had more time to bake. And Coolidge had one “killer” rum cake recipe. All her friends knew it. So did their friends, and their friends’ friends. Soon, Coolidge had quite a following — and an enterprising idea.

In December 1993, she started selling her cakes to bring in a little extra money. After Coolidge’s first full year in business, Gourmet Gifts had grossed about $1,000. The next year, those sales figures more than doubled. Then she had a little run-in with the law.

Turns out that state and city leaders didn’t look kindly upon Coolidge selling alcoholic cakes in a dry precinct. Her options were few: shut down the business or find a nonalcoholic flavoring that carried the same appeal as her original recipe.

“After the liquor problem, I thought about giving it up, but I kept getting calls,” Coolidge says. So she went to work experimenting in her kitchen and developed an orange-flavored cake that received rave reviews from friends and clients.

“It didn’t take long for things to get out of control,” says Coolidge, noting the switch to nonalcoholic flavorings allowed her to start wholesaling her cakes to local retailers.

Not only did Cheryl & Co. and Cookie Bouquets begin ordering from Gourmet Gifts, but Coolidge also signed up with the Columbus Gift Mart, a showcase for companies looking to wholesale their products nationwide. Almost instantly, Coolidge knew she’d made a mistake.

“I immediately got hundreds of orders I wasn’t ready for,” she says, noting that her business grew nearly 500 percent that year alone. Quickly hiring others — including three of her own children — to help her was the only way she could hope to catch up with the ever-accelerating demand. By the time Coolidge hired her seventh worker, her once-small, kitchen-based business had engulfed her entire basement.

“It got so big, so out-of-hand,” she recalls. “I was not in control.

“To add insult to injury, I was making pennies on each product,” she adds. Coolidge’s cakes were selling for between $2.50 and $15 each and the chocolate-dipped spoons were wholesaling for 60 cents apiece.

“I didn’t do a thorough cost analysis,” she admits. “For as hard as I was working, I had to change something.”

Coolidge consulted one of her mentors, Cheryl Krueger-Horn, founder of Cheryl & Co., the popular cookie and confections maker in Westerville.

“I asked her, ‘What am I going to do?’” Coolidge recalls. “She showed me her path and what that entailed — the sacrifices she had to make. It wasn’t a pretty picture. She made some horrendous sacrifices to get where she was. I didn’t want to do all that. So I tried to scale my business down.”

Less is more

Coolidge’s first move was to pull her products out of the Columbus Gift Mart.

“I didn’t want that volume — especially at that low margin,” she says.

With that flood of business subsiding, Coolidge let all but one of her employees go.

“Cheryl [& Co.] was still ordering 20,000 spoons at a time, so I still had a big business,” Coolidge says. “But instead of the beast controlling me, I was trying to control the beast.”

Although her scaled-back operations made her life more manageable, Coolidge still wasn’t content. She questioned whether she was being a good mother with so much of her focus wrapped up in the business. Religion had always been a big part of her life, too — every product she sold included the Christian symbol of a fish on the label — yet she sensed that the path she’d chosen wasn’t the right one.

“I really felt like I was being called out of the business,” Coolidge says. “I had five kids, and as long as I had the business, my time was being diverted. My parenting skills were suffering. My children were not getting the time they needed. I realized I could be a better witness [to God] by giving up my business — not by putting little fish [symbols] on my labels. I had to get my own house in order before I could go out and witness to others and my own house was not in order.”

It was June 1998 when Coolidge had this revelation. Within two months, she’d sold her $25,000- to $30,000-a-year business and returned to her full-time role of mother and wife.

“I never had a moment of regret,” she says. “This is the best profession I could think to have.”

The right fit

Dinene Clark, owner of Cookie Bouquets Inc. in Westerville, also knows what it’s like to be both a mother and an entrepreneur. She’s been doing it for 16 years.

“I had a lot of faith in this concept ... so I kept plugging away at it even when it got really tough,” says Clark, who developed the idea for her signature product while resting in the hospital after the birth of her first daughter. “I think there is somewhat of a luxury in having your own business because you can be more flexible with your time. If you have to take time off during the day to take a child to the doctor ... you can make up that time somewhere else.”

That same flexibility, however, can easily drive a home-based entrepreneur like Coolidge to overwork herself, she adds.

“It’s always there,” Clark explains. “Since she operated the business out of her home, she could never leave it. It’s very hard to have a business in front of you all the time. Ultimately, I think she made the right decision.”

Coolidge agrees.

“I don’t want to come across as this is the only answer,” Coolidge says. “It’s a tough choice. I created a product; I proved I could do it; I proved something to myself. But I was trying to be somebody through my business. I thought I needed to have a name for myself, to make money, to keep up with the Joneses. I don’t need all that. Less is more for me.

“Even the Apostles had to give up their day jobs,” she quips.

“When I came to the realization I didn’t start the business for the right reason — that my self worth wasn’t attached to the business — that made it easier.”

Now Coolidge spends her days helping her children, who range in age from 6 to 17, with homework, packing their lunches, planning and preparing meals, gardening, babysitting for friends and emotionally supporting her husband.

“Those are all things that are important to me,” she says.

The same goes for volunteering at Northland Terrace Medical Center and at her parish, St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, two things she rarely had time to do prior to selling her business.

“People don’t understand how I can be so happy doing nothing outside the home,” Coolidge says. “It’s a privilege to me to have the time to serve. I enjoy my life so thoroughly now. I don’t think it gets any better than this.”