By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
Bonnie Alton is the owner of a Great Harvest Bread Company franchise in St. Paul, Minn. In 1994, she left a career in legal marketing to join the franchise as an operating partner. In 1998, when she was in her early 40s, she purchased the franchise from its original owners.
Alton, a Minnesota native, participates in several local business associations. In her spare time, this former marathon runner stays fit through cycling. Here are excerpts from a recent interview with Late Blooming Entrepreneurs in which she shares her thoughts on her bakery as well as the rewards and challenges of starting a business.
What did you do before the bakery?
For about eight years, I worked with a small business in the area of continuing legal education. After that, I became the director of marketing for a 300-partner law firm with locations in five major cities.
Why did you want to start your own business? What led you to take action?
I had been at the law firm for a little over a year when I realized it wasn’t for me.
In 1994, a friend told me that the people who were opening a Minneapolis Great Harvest Bakery were looking for a partner. That year (at age 38), I joined the bakery as an operating partner.
While I was learning the business, I’d come in to the bakery at 4:00 or so in the morning and work for a few hours before going on to my day job. During that time, I was like a big sponge, soaking up as much information as I could. In 1998, I bought out the owners.
How’s business been for your bakery?
Sales have grown and shrunk. After ten years at the same location, the bakery moved in 2004 when the rent became too high. While the current location is only 1.3 miles away from the old one, it was like starting over.
That was also around the time when the Atkins diet was in full swing. Sales in the fourth quarter of 2004 dropped between 15 and 16 percent compared with the same period one year earlier. I had to do a lot of morale building.
It took a couple of years to get through it all. Now, we’re well positioned economically, in part because rent is about half of what we were paying before. In 2010, annual sales grew 4 ½ percent and the bakery was proud to be one of seven recipients of Great Harvest Bread Company’s “phenomenal bread” award.
What’s enabled you to succeed when so many entrepreneurs haven’t?
Finding a good match (between the business’ mission and personal priorities) is key. In addition, three things have given me an edge: making a difference, longing for community and recognizing that I had a certain tolerance for risk – and could apply that tolerance in a way that I could make a difference.
I have a hands-on type of ownership. I’m not afraid of working hard and have never had the idea that I would stop at some point. Also, being physically fit gives you discipline. It takes a certain amount of tenacity to keep running when you’re hurting. Those traits carry over to starting a business.
How did you use your network to help you transitioned into entrepreneurship?
Developing a business network helped me get my feet wet. It also helped my learning curve. By having that network, I have more of a big picture of what’s happening in my local business community.
How do you incorporate your key principles into your day-to-day activities?
I have my office at home, where I do everything having to do with administration. That way, when I am at the bakery, I can physically do the work and focus on what matters most — the customers and the staff.
We have a strong, internal community, with employees ranging in age from 16 to 76. We have very good relationships, which is very important. At the same time, work is work so we keep the relationships professional.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs who are over the age of 40?
Be patient and prepared to take on more than one risk. Understand what your real needs are. And be prepared to do without.
If you were to launch your business all over again, is there anything you would do differently?
No, I don’t think so. I’m happy with my life and want to keep doing what I’m doing. When I worked in law, it was important to me to have a new corporate suit each month. Now, when I get up in the morning, my biggest wardrobe decision is what color Great Harvest t-shirt I’m going to wear.