By Natasha Ashenhurst
“I’m not retiring because I don’t love this,” she continues. “I am retiring on a high note. 2014 was one of Bonaventure’s best years ever. It is simply time for me to move on in my life with my husband.”
She gives this answer all day long to friends and customers as the news leaks out that she is retiring. And, it is a story she told me as we sat and talked over coffee on one of the big comfy couches at Bonaventure.
It was a decision made after a recent road trip with her husband. “I realized that I didn’t want to wake up at 80 to discover that I didn’t spend enough time with him. A few friends have recently passed and that influenced the decision too. After the trip, we started succession planning. In June, our buyers backed out, but we have a new negotiation under way. My goal is to know my customers will be taken care of and not to leave a hole downtown,” she said.
Longtime friend and Executive Director of the Olympia Downtown Association (ODA), Connie Lorenz, has no doubt that Jeanne will succeed with this goal. She said, “If Jeanne sets her mind to something, she’ll do it.”
Twenty-one years ago, Carras opened the high-end, specialty shoe store she named Bonaventure. “I can remember the first day I opened. I was walking up the hill toward Legion. I felt that I was home, that this is where I belong,” said Carras.
Carras was determined to make Bonaventure a success. She knew the importance of networking, but also was committed to the revitalization of downtown Olympia. She quickly became involved in local business organizations, including the ODA, the Thurston County Chamber and the Economic Development Council (EDC). She has served on the boards of the EDC, was Chair of the Chamber board, and has served on the ODA’s board for 19 years.
Revitalization of Downtown Olympia
Lorenz says that Carras’s legacy downtown is vast. “In 2001, the ODA lost funding from the City. We needed to replace those dollars quickly. Jeanne came up with the idea of the Fall Ball, our annual auction and dinner dance, which has been going strong ever since. Later, she heard about the concept of a Girl’s Night Out, brought it to the board then did all of the work to set it up. It has been very successful and good for downtown.”
Thurston County Chamber President/CEO, David Schaffert, said, “Jeanne continually led by doing. She saw a need and stepped forward. She brought businesses together through the Fall Ball and Girl’s Night Out. That was how she was with everything in the downtown area. It is Jeanne’s style.”
Mentor to Other Downtown Business Owners
Not only was Carras involved in the revitalization downtown by taking a leadership role, she also served as a mentor to new business owners in the area. Cheryl Selby, the owner of Vivala, was one of those mentored by Carras.
She said, “Jeanne is an inspiration to not just downtown, but retailers everywhere. She mentored me when I opened my store and was always there for encouragement on tough days when you didn’t know if you made the right decision. She is one of the most generous people I know, with knowledge and with her time. It is going to take two people to fill the void she’ll leave behind.”
Advice for Small Business Owners
As we sat and talked about Bonaventure, we also talked about what it takes to make it as a small downtown business owner. Carras is generous with her advice.
First, she tells me a story. “I was a very shy girl and attended a private Catholic school. There, they made you stand up to answer questions. I would cry the entire time. When we moved to Olympia, I started at a new school and worked very hard to overcome my shyness, to reinvent myself. Later, as a business owner, when I took on roles that required public speaking, I had a very tough time. However, I worked through it until I felt comfortable. I think in my heart of hearts I am still a shy person, but I am able to push myself out of that shy place.”
Carras is known throughout Olympia as a skilled networker, and it how she built her business, both in gaining loyal customers, but also in building relationships with vendors and physicians who recommend her shoes. She said, “One of my mottos is ‘build a friendship and you’ll build a business.’ When I joined the Chamber, I started building those friendships. In networking, my goal is to never have to tell them what your business is. Your friendships will network your business for you.”
She taught those lessons to those she mentored as well. Selby says, “Jeanne taught me that to succeed as a small business owner, you have to have a passion for people. You have to love your customers.”
Carras agrees, “I love my customers. This store is my friendship machine,” she said.
She also passes on advice she learned from her dad. “My dad taught us many things, but the three most important lessons have been to set goals, avoid debt and give back. My dad taught us to give back to the community. My husband and I may be leaving, but as snowbirds, so we’ll be back. We’ll still shop downtown. I’ll still buy my clothes from Vivala. I’ll shop for nieces and nephews at Captain Little Toy Store.”
“When we return, I want to find some non-profits that I’ll have time to be involved in hands-on – to have the time to give of myself, and to enjoy it.”
Her many friends in Olympia would agree when I say, Jeanne has had an incredible first act. What act two will look like, it is hard to tell, but I do know that she’ll do it with tenacity, style and grace.