In late 2010, when Nita Beckwith-Melaugh left her job as executive director of the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce, she was hopeful she would quickly find similar work. But like so many other job-seekers in the current market, it didn't take her long to realize just how difficult that might be.
"I couldn't find a job anywhere,'' Beckwith-Melaugh said.
So she turned to an old dream, one lodged in her psyche since she was a girl.
"I always had this thing in my mind, Nita's mini pies,'' she said. "My mom started that when I was a little girl.''
The timing seemed right to partner with her husband, Burton, who had previously been in the restaurant business, to start a catering company.
"It was a good time to start a business,'' she said. "There was nothing else out there.''
The new company, Betty Marie's Meals and More, got off the ground earlier this year, and already the couple have catered a number of events, with everything from mini cheesecakes topped with locally grown blueberries and strawberries, to gumbo.
While the prospect of striking out on their own was scary, Beckwith-Melaugh said it was the right thing to do.
"It's so exciting to actually have something that's mine,'' she said, noting that for years she worked hard to build a dream for someone else. "It's nice to have mine suddenly becoming a reality.''
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Beckwith-Melaugh is just one example of people who have had to find a new field or retool their businesses in order to make it during these challenging economic times.
While some who struggle in the job market find solutions by going back to school or using job-searching resources such as those offered by Career Central, others are expanding something familiar or embracing their inner entrepreneur.
"I see people who are reinventing themselves, starting over in business,'' said Pat Crowley, president of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce.
It's not for everyone. Some people are good in the workforce and just need to find a new job. But others want to start a business or grow an existing one because that seed is inside them, Crowley said.
"These are people who have always wanted to do something,'' she said. "They want to take their money and invest it in themselves, in things that they are passionate about.''
If someone finds the right niche, success can follow.
"Even in a down economy, people are making money,'' Crowley said.
She said the trick is for people who have done something for years, but find themselves unemployed, to take stock of the skills they have from their previous lives.
Tracy Reid-Rowe, coordinator of the Professional Placement Network for Career Central, embraces that idea.
She recently worked with a local professional who had years of experience as a business analyst. She learned that, as he looked for a new job, he was sharing his expertise with other business people. She told him to stop "giving away the store.''
He recently called her to say he had gotten a job as a business consultant.
"That is the trend we see — people having to reinvent themselves,'' Reid-Rowe said.
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For more than a dozen years, Jeff Burrows worked for someone else as a sales manager in the food service industry.
"I got tired of the corporate thing,'' Burrows said. "I wanted to call my own shots.''
Realizing that the safety and security of a weekly paycheck is something of a fantasy for workers in almost every industry these days, Burrows and his wife, Nicole, decided to make the leap. Taking their future into their own hands, they opted to start a franchise business.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained,'' he said.
After significant research and weighing their own interests, the couple decided to open the Hernando County franchise of Window Genie, founded in 1994 in Cincinnati, Ohio, specializing in window cleaning and tinting, as well as other home cleaning chores.
"It's been better than our expectations. We've exceeded our plan,'' Burrows said.
He focuses on sales and developing the business. His wife, who had spent her working life in an office setting, runs the office for the family business.
Burrows said he thinks they made the right choice.
"Working for yourself,'' he said, "no matter what task you're doing, you're excited to do it.''
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Judi Schreiner has been a travel agent since 1992, but the business changed early in the last decade. People started using the Internet to make their own travel arrangements. Agencies closed.
Still, Schreiner said agents can find better deals. So she started a home-based business, allowing her to provide more personal service to her customers.
"I'm working for them and not a boss,'' she said. "I'm spending time with them and learning what they want, not what a boss is trying to sell.''
Her Judi's Creations and Travel has branched out into another service, one that serves seniors living alone or in assisted-living environments. She visits with often-lonely seniors on a regular basis, stopping by to chat, dropping off a small gift and providing someone to talk to. Businesses have sponsored some of the seniors.
"I'm trying to get the word out to families out of state. They can't come by and visit every month,'' she said.
But Schreiner can, and she does.
She enjoys the interaction and can see that the people she visits look forward to having a friend to talk with. The people who care for the individual still do their job, but she has found that often isn't enough.
"That's not the same as having company just to say hi,'' she said.
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When Lynn Van Meter, with a master's in business administration and an undergraduate degree in public relations, tried to re-enter the workforce after being a stay-at-home mom for years, she got smacked down time after time for the large gap in her resume.
She likened the effectiveness of sending out resumes to driving to Tampa and throwing them out of her car windows.
Van Meter decided to leverage her best assets into a new career, starting a marketing firm called Fiddlehead. Her job is to be the face of a business, putting on the company's name tag and appearing on its behalf at any public events where the business needs some attention.
Among her clients is My Gynecologist in Spring Hill.
"What I do is truly grass roots,'' she said. "I'm a connector.''
She is an avid networker who serves as a diplomat for the chamber of commerce, on the board of the Florida Blueberry Festival and has other community commitments.
Word-of-mouth advertising draws new clients to her company, Van Meter said.
"It's about having a connection,'' she said. "I believe that connectivity is the key, especially in a small community.''
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Gary Thompson started out doing computer programming and insurance work for a law firm in New York, but his family encouraged him to get into the printing business, where the family had some experience. For three years, he ran a small shop in Spring Hill, where his main business was refilling printing cartridges.
Late last year, he moved to new quarters on Spring Hill Drive, doubling his size and branching out into more printing opportunities.
Although expanding a business in tough times can be risky, Thompson said that now, more than ever, people are looking for ways to save money. And refilling old ink cartridges saves them plenty.
He has seen his business, Ink N Print, continue to grow year after year, and now, with more space, he's hoping that trend continues.
"It's pretty exciting,'' Thompson said. "It's a crazy time to do something like this in this economy. But the worst of times can be the best of times, if you do it right.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.