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Hurricane winds blow entrepreneurs to Pinellas

Margie Manning

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Panelists (from left): Ronee Holmes, Sondra Hannan, Leslie Gay and Kathryn Welsh (Photo by Jessica Rivelli)

Two successful women-owned businesses in Pinellas County landed here because of Hurricane Katrina.

Panelists (from left): Ronee Holmes, Sondra Hannan, Leslie Gay and Kathryn Welsh (Photo by Jessica Rivelli)

Flutter Fetti Inc., with a factory in Largo, and Painting with a Twist, with studios in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Pinellas Park, are owned by women who had to evacuate New Orleans when Katrina hit in 2005.

Ronee Holmes, owner of Flutter Fetti, and Leslie Gay, the first franchise owner of Painting with a Twist, told the stories of how they go to the area during a power lunch sponsored by Working Women of Tampa Bay and the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce.

They were joined by Kathryn Welsh, owner of KM Welsh P.A., a legal practice in Largo, and Sondra Hannon, owner and operator of Tampa Bay Furnishings, a St. Petersburg furniture store with interior design services.

Collectively, their companies provide work for more than 50 people — some employees, some contractors — and occupy thousands of square feet of leased space throughout the county, making an economic impact on the local economy.

Origin stories

Holmes originally was a sales representative for Flutter Fetti, which makes confetti and streamers for Disney and the Macy’s parade, as well as private parties. She borrowed money from relatives to  buy the company in 2002 and moved the corporate headquarters from Gaithersburg, Maryland to New Orleans. When Katrina hit, the factory in New Orleans was under eight feet of water and she lost everything. Holmes had family in New Port Richey, so she evacuated to the Tampa Bay area and set up shop in a rented garage in St. Petersburg.

The storm didn’t slow down the business.

“I had the contract for Paul McCartney’s world tour and I had to get back in business,” Holmes said. “Seven days after the storm we were cutting and making Flutter Fetti.”

She’s since moved to a 5,000-square-foot factory in Largo where she employs 17 people and is looking to hire more.

Gay, who had a 25-year career as an accountant, didn’t yet own her business when she evacuated New Orleans. “My first visit to St. Pete was during the evacuation,” Gay said. Her husband’s daughter lived in St. Petersburg and she said the first time she saw the city, she fell in love with it, especially Central Avenue, which reminded her of Magazine Street, a shopping, dining and entertainment district in New Orleans.

She returned to New Orleans after the storm and was working at Tulane University, when she took a painting class and enjoyed it. She kept in touch with the owners and in 2009, signed the first franchise agreement for Painting with a Twist, which provides art instruction in a casual party atmosphere.

“Getting started in our St. Pete location was pretty easy. This was 2009, so the economy was tanking. We were losing money in our retirement account, so we bet on ourselves and invested in buying the franchise,” Gay said. It took 18 months to break even at the first location, but the next locations got to break-even more quickly.

Hannan and her husband, Shawn, moved to St. Petersburg in 1997 fresh out of college. She worked in IT and he worked in banking. They founded Tampa Bay Furnishings in 2014, after shopping for furniture for their own home.

“We found ourselves caught between the big box where you have the choice of just a couple of options or high-priced designers. We decided let’s give everyone the opportunity to get quality furniture at reasonable prices, that you can make to your style,” she said.

Initially, they had a partner who helped get the business off the ground, in addition to their own savings and a line of credit for inventory.

The store has benefited from the population growth in the area.

“There’s so many people moving to the area, that it’s great for selling furniture,” she said. She also cited strong support for local businesses and artists. All art in the Tampa Bay Furnishings showroom is by local artists and events are held monthly to feature a local artist at the Meet the Artist events.

Welsh launched her practice nearly 30 years ago, after graduation from Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport and a brief stint with another law firm.

“My dream was always to work for myself,” said Welsh, an expert in marital and family law.

Early on, she bought her own building and leased space to other attorneys, a move that minimized her overhead. But she realized she didn’t want to be a landlord and sold the building.

An active business climate has helped her practice thrive.

“The growth that I have seen in this community, the professionalism and the opportunities for investments are remarkable. And it’s beautiful too,” Welsh said.

They were asked what they would do differently if they had a chance for a do-over.

Holmes: “Don’t live in a hurricane zone! Seriously, support people who go through natural disasters. It’s unbelievable, you never get over it and it’s with you forever.”

Hannan: “I heard advice recently to hire slow and fire quickly. I think that’s true as far as business relationships, being more cautious upfront, doing more research and when something doesn’t work out take care of it quicker.”

Welsh: “I was a little slow in getting involved in networking communities. Be involved in chambers and networking groups. That goes a long way to establish trust and for business referrals.”

Gay: “Be prepared with an exit strategy, how you are going to leave the business to other people or sell it. I wish I had done that earlier.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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