By Ivan Raconteur
McLEOD COUNTY, MN Bergen Township resident Joyce Mathews is by no means unique in the fact that she was laid off during the current economic downturn.
What makes her special is that she is using this as an opportunity to do something she never believed she could do: start her own business.
Mathews, 57, was laid off from her job as a drafter at HTI on a snowy day in January.
She immediately went back to school and began taking refresher courses to make sure her skills were up-to-date.
She worked with a counselor, and took classes in creative job searches and networking.
She applied for jobs and began compiling cover letters and resumes.
Her efforts led to first and second interviews, but no job offers.
Mathews tried to remain upbeat and positive, but it was frustrating for someone with her experience.
She worked for HTI from 1987 to 2001, when she was laid off for the first time.
She then worked as a drafter for Innovex in Maple Plain until 2005, when the company moved the part of its operation in which she worked overseas.
That same year, Mathews was rehired at HTI, where she worked as a drafter until she was laid off in January.
During this whole time, Mathews did sewing work on the side.
Her interest in sewing began when she was in junior high school.
Mathews said her home economics teacher worked with her on a one-on-one basis, because her project was more complicated than those of the other students.
“I aced it,” Mathews said, adding that she wishes she would have kept that first dress.
Over the years, she has worked on and created many more garments.
After high school, she went to vocational school for apparel arts.
She enjoyed sewing and alteration work, but she never thought she could make a living doing it.
Mathews went back to school at Ridgewater College in Hutchinson and earned a degree in drafting, which she considered a more stable career choice.
She continued to do sewing for her family, friends, and others. Mathews has two daughters, and sewed the bridesmaids’ dresses for both of their weddings.
Over the years, people have asked her why she didn’t make it her business, but she never believed she could make enough money at it to help support her family.
She remembers saying to the owner of the Sewing Basket in Hutchinson some 20 years ago, “You are living my dream.”
In a way, being laid off has helped Mathews to finally realize that dream for herself.
Last August, she was hired to alter some bridesmaids’ dresses. It was a lot of work, but she got it all done in a week.
“I was proving to myself that I could do it,” Mathews explained.
Then, one day, when she was attending a career counseling class, Mathews made a breakthrough by announcing her goal in public.
Participants in the class were required to stand up and tell the rest of the class who they were, what they had done in their previous job, and if they were working on anything new.
“As they went around the room, I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I should say this,’” Mathews recalled.
When her turn came, she told the group that she was thinking about starting her own alteration business. She talked about all of the sewing work she had done over the years, and how much she enjoyed it.
When she finished, a student who was sitting behind her that she should contact Duane Hoversten, a small business instructor and consultant at Ridgewater College. The student wrote down Hoversten’s name and number for Mathews.
Mathews contacted Hoversten, who helped her turn her dream into reality.
“He has been a great help,” Mathews said, adding that Hoversten’s guidance and enthusiasm have helped her believe that she could run her own business.
The result is Country Alterations, which Mathews operates in her Bergen Township home, southwest of Lester Prairie.
For the first time in her life, she had to write a business plan.
She has learned a lot about what it takes to start a business, and has had to consider future purchases, such as an embroidery machine, that will allow her to do even more types of work.
Mathews does alterations or repairs on everything from coats and draperies to bridal gowns.
Her services include letting-out or taking-in seams, patching or re-lining garments, or replacing zippers.
She can alter formal wear, or even sew costumes.
“Sewing alterations from fix to fit” is the way her business card describes it.
“There is always something new to learn,” Mathews said.
One of the things Hoversten told Mathews she must do is hand out her business cards so people know that she is in business.
Despite the fact that Mathews seems mildly surprised that she has been able to start her own business, others are less surprised about it.
She explained that she recently had lunch with some old friends from Winthrop where she grew up and spent the early years of her marriage.
Toward the end of the meal, she revealed that she was planning to start her own business. Before she even got her business cards out of her purse, one of the friends said, “You are going to sew, aren’t you?”
Even after all the years that had passed, the friend remembered how much Mathews had enjoyed sewing.
Other friends, when they heard about her plans said, “You should be doing this. It’s about time.”
Mathews said that the economy that resulted in her being laid off may also help her new business.
“When the economy is down, maybe there is a need for my services,” Mathews said. “People may not be buying new clothes, and I can make their clothes last longer.”
She explained that she can repair garments and has even taken adult clothing that is no longer used, and scaled it down to fit children.
Mathews has also contacted nursing homes and hospitals, and said she can alter clothing so people with disabilities can use it.
“I am open to a lot of things,” Mathews said, adding that if people come to her with specific needs or ideas, she will try to find ways to help them.
She enjoys working at home and listening to music. She doesn’t envision that she will ever move her business to another location, but said she has a drop-off site at the Hair Studio in Glencoe. She is looking for a location for a drop-off site in Lester Prairie for the convenience of her customers.
Mathews said she has always tried to remain positive, even after being laid off from the same company twice, and has taken classes and done whatever she could to find a new position, but she admitted that it has been stressful, especially for someone her age.
“No matter what they say, if an employer looks at me and at someone younger, he is going to hire the younger person,” she commented.
In spite of this, she remained determined. “I decided I have to pick myself up and see what I can do,” she said.
Mathews said she has received a lot of support from her family and friends.
Her son is building a platform for use when she is fitting dresses, and her daughter printed her business cards and is helping her with marketing the new business.
Mathews said she is starting to take photos of her work to build a portfolio so she can show customers the type of work she can do.
She said her talent for sewing was handed down from her mother and grandmother. She also has an aunt who did alteration work for many years who was supportive and shared many sewing tips with her over the years.
Although Mathews has turned her lifelong love of sewing into a business, it is helping people that still means the most to her.
“I like to see the looks on their faces when they try it on,” Mathews said. “That is my reward. That feels good.”
More information about Country Alterations is available by calling Joyce Mathews at (320) 864-6197 or (320) 223-4347 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources for those considering a new business
Hoversten is a small business instructor at Ridgewater College in Hutchinson. He is also a small business consultant with the Small Business Development Center in Marshall.
He explained that help is available for those, who, like Mathews, are age 55 or older and who have been laid off and are considering starting their own business.
Hoversten said there are programs that provide information and resources for people like Mathews who have hobbies or skills that can be adapted to a small business.
The Gate II program is funded through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and the Workforce Center, and provides resources including free counseling.
Encore is a similar program sponsored by the Southwest Initiative Foundation in Hutchinson.
The big difference, Hoversten said, is that Encore has funds available for loans to help people purchase equipment needed to get their new business off the ground.
Contacting either program will put participants in touch with counselors who can coordinate assistance through both programs.
“These programs can help people for whom the job market just isn’t there,” Hoversten commented.
He added that the different agencies work well together, and make a huge difference by significantly increasing the success rate of participants.
Hoversten said anyone age 55 or older who has been laid off and who is considering starting a business can call either agency and get information. There is no charge for the counseling for participants in these programs.
The contact information is:
• The Southwest Initiative Foundation in Hutchinson (320) 587-4848, ask for Curt or Bernie.
• The Small Business Development Center in Marshall (507) 537-7386, ask for Pat or Liz.