In 1966, when Kerstin Chelius and her husband Richard were living in Manhattan, Richard got the idea that they should go into business.
Although she was pregnant with their daughter, Kerstin agreed.
They bought a small Swiss music box import wholesale company, and ran it while Richard kept his executive position with General Electric. Within a year and a half, they tripled their income.
That adventure led to 50 years of small business ownership success, thanks to the couple’s willingness to change with the times, and take calculated risks in doing so.
Kerstin kept their Jacksonville business, Sandmark House, running until January, when she closed the Beach Boulevard shop and joined Richard in retirement.
In March, she was awarded the Women Business Owners of North Florida Lifetime Achievement Award—the first such honor from the Jacksonville organization she helped found.
“Once we found out she was retiring, giving it to her was a no brainer,” said Pixie Larizza, a past president. “Her stories, and all she’s encountered in 50 years gave me hope, but also led me to know the challenges never end. They’re the cost of doing business.”
For Kerstin, being in business for half a century was an ongoing education, one that she loved. To women business owners, and to men as well, she has some advice: “Don’t hesitate to try something. And cut your losses quickly if it doesn’t work.”
The couple’s first years in New York City, in the 1960s, were exciting, she said. They ran their business out of the lower Manhattan wholesale district, a rough, no-nonsense kind of place. With their earnings from the music box business, they purchased another company that imported clocks from Germany, and merged the two. By 1969, Richard had left General Electric to help run the company full time.
Since mechanical clocks needed a warranty repair department, they added that too, and by 1970 had the largest import company of German clocks in the U.S.
But they had a problem. They needed to move out of Manhattan. Among the challenges, rents were rising and good office help was hard to find.
Kerstin said Jacksonville was one of the few ports that had invested in container cranes and that the fact that Jacksonville had that capacity to unload containers “was a big deal,” she said.
In February 1970, with the help of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, the couple found a warehouse at 30 W. Fifth St. and shipped 14 containers of merchandise there by barge from New York City.
“There was also ample, well-trained office help and warehouse help here,” Kerstin said. “And that was what we needed.”
In those days, the wholesale industry got orders from trade shows, so the couple attended about 30 every year around the country.
They set up merchandise and took orders. That was the business model that worked, Kerstin said. “You take orders, you ship, and you bill, and then you wait for the money.”
That worked for six or seven years, until the devaluation of the U.S. dollar in the late 1970s, and skyrocketing interest rates. That meant they had to change what they were doing.
Richard had many overseas contacts, so he accepted a job offer from a Swiss construction company, and Kerstin stayed in Jacksonville to run the business by herself, while transforming it into a retail model.
They moved it to the Southside, into a large building at 10913 Beach Blvd., and there Sandmark House thrived as a retail clock shop, with a large repair department and a small music box wholesale component. They sold clocks from all around the world — cuckoo, desk, wall, and grandfather clocks — and for four years did clock repair for Jacksonville’s Navy bases.
That business model worked “really well until 2008,” said Kerstin, when the Great Recession forced them to change once again.
“The retail end plunged, but the repair end skyrocketed,” she said. “It was ludicrous, because people could buy a brand-new clock for the same price as it took to repair it.”
But she didn’t argue with reality, she switched to specializing in repairs.
By the time the business closed its doors in January, it was 75 percent repairs and 25 percent retail.
The repairman’s family took over that part of the business, but the brick-and-mortar store was no longer viable. Kerstin held a close-out sale, and by Jan. 31, there was nothing left.
Retirement is even more enjoyable than she thought it would be.
The Cheliuses are long-time members of the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, and she visits almost daily to walk on the beach. She also stays busy with her homeowners’ association, and Women Business Owners.
Reflecting on her career, “I feel that I had three distinct businesses,” she said. “Wholesale, retail and repair, and mainly repair.”
With a small business, “you have to be flexible,” she tells people. “You must not love the business model. You must love being in business.”
She said if they had stuck with wholesale only in the late 1970s, “we would have been out of business.”
They also made it a point to embrace new technology. In the 1960s, they used typewriters and paper ledgers; in 1972, they bought their first computer, “16K, and big like a desk, but that $14,000 computer paid for itself very quickly,” she said. “You have to always look and listen,” and be willing to try something new.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work. But the fact that you tried is a success,” she said.
During her booming retail years, she opened a second shop on the Westside, but closed it after three years because it only broke even.
A business relies on the owner’s energy, she said. “When I had to split my energy, both places suffered. Expansion doesn’t always mean more revenue.”
Kerstin shares what she learned over the years with Women Business Owners members, and will continue to do so. For small business owners, belonging to a business organization is important, because members learn from each other, she said.
It’s a place to get “fresh ideas,” she said. “It’s like continuing education.”