Sarah Dunser never planned to take over the family business.
But after deciding against a career in architecture, she asked her father, Tony Dunser, what it would take for her to run True Grit, the paint-blasting business he began in Columbus in 1983.
Tony Dunser told her to just a get a degree — any degree.
Now Sarah Dunser, having just completed a chemical engineering degree from Mississippi State University, is quality control assistant at True Grit. She now plans to run the business one day.
“It’s a little nerve-racking,” she admitted with a laugh.
But Sarah is hardly the only daughter in Columbus with plans to help run or take over a family business.
Owners of three local businesses — Fashion Barn, Rae’s Jewelry and New Home Building Stores — are training the next generation to run the business. And in each of those stores, it’s a daughter, not a son, who eventually plans to run it.
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Sarah Dunser’s first day at True Grit was Aug. 3.
Her first job was to implement a quality management system. The project involves creating a new quality manual, ensuring True Grit’s employees are aware of the new system and making sure jobs and equipment are up to the company’s standards.
“It’s been very, very hectic since I started,” she said. “But the good thing about that is I’m learning every section of the business and I’m getting to organize it so I can run it and know what’s going on better.”
“I’m excited about it,” Tony Dunser said. “This gives us a chance to keep growing. About every 10 years every business has to reinvent itself. It’s been 30 years (since it started), and it seems about every 10 years we’ll do something that jumps the business forward.”
With her father as owner, her mother as office manager and her older brother as general manager, Sarah Dunser is aware that True Grit really is a family business. They all work together and make decisions about the business as a family.
But that’s where the business stays — at True Grit.
“Really, at Christmas and Easter, we don’t talk too much about business,” she said. “I think if you keep the business at the business, keep family separate, it’s easier that way.”
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That’s not the case across Columbus at Fashion Barn, a downtown clothing store where sisters Shilo Goodman and Erika Allison have been working off and on for their parents since their father, Homer Beaty, bought the store in the early 1990s.
Not only do Goodman and Allison discuss the business with their parents and with each other at holidays and at family dinners, they represent the business to the rest of the community when they’re out doing other things.
“That’s the thing about a family business,” Goodman said. “You kind of feel like you’re always at work.”
Goodman and Allison don’t necessarily have plans to take over after their parents retire, but they help run the business with them now. The family makes business decisions together, and everyone does a little bit of everything around the store, from setting up displays to helping customers on the floor — though Goodman does most of the buying and social media.
Initially, neither of them intended on working at the Fashion Barn. Even Goodman, who studied fashion merchandising and business in college, had plans to open her own store.
Still, both said they love their jobs.
“It’s great because I can be a mom and bring my kids to work and still work here,” Allison said.
Goodman is also a mother. Both of their children are growing up in the store — appropriate, they said, for what is a family business. There’s a playroom for children on the second floor.
Allison said she worked a little at the store on her wedding day, and Goodman said she swung by the day she brought her oldest son home from the hospital.
“We can have our family and our business both in our best interests because we care about them both,” Allison said. “A lot of years have gone into the business, so we all want to see it do well.”
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Just up Fifth Street North from Fashion Barn is Rae’s Jewelry, where current owner Pete Creekmore is grooming his daughter, Erin Norman, to run the store after he retires.
Creekmore bought the business in 2000. Norman worked there for several years until she married and moved away. She moved back to Columbus three years ago and began working for her father again. That was when Creekmore started planning for his daughter to run the business.
Norman said she’d never really planned on taking over Rae’s Jewelry, but she loves working with her father. She has taken over the jewelry repair aspect of the store and does some buying. She’s also learning the business side of running the store — accounts and finances. She leaves the clock repair to Creekmore.
“It feels good just having this thing that dad has built up and taking the reins,” Norman said.
She also is excited to be a woman running her own business. Norman said she knows many women who are successful business owners.
“I have two daughters, so I do think it’s important for them to just be strong and work for themselves,” she said. “Be independent.”
The best part of her job?
“I get to hang out with my dad every day,” she said.
“And she gets to pick out a lot of jewelry,” Creekmore added.
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Taking over a family business is a little different from entering any business, said Ann Marie Chilcutt, the fifth generation to work at New Home Building, which began in Macon in the 1930s. Growing up around the business and having seen how much dedication her father and grandfather put into it gives her extra motivation to help make it a success when she becomes the owner, she said
“There might be a little bit more pressure to want it to succeed,” Chilcutt said, “but (there’s) also an excitement of getting to carry it on and help it succeed and grow it.”
For Chilcutt and Sarah Dunser in particular, there is the fact they’re taking over businesses run by men, in male-dominated industries.
“I do think about it a lot,” Sarah said. “It’s kind of difficult coming into a business that’s been run by men. I work with a lot of men; as a woman, I have to kind of earn their trust and respect and show them I’m willing to learn and I’m willing to help. I can do this job.”
The lumber business also isn’t the first industry people think of when they think of women owning businesses, Chilcutt said.
“It presents a bit of a shock factor, I think, for (customers) seeing a woman in it,” she said.
But that shock doesn’t bother her, she said.
“To me, I’m a capable human that has an opportunity to really get to know an industry, to get to know something that my family has been a part of for such a long time,” she said. “So, if anything, I see it as a really neat opportunity to work in a great industry with great genuine people.”