Uncommon Scents at the Meridian
Uncommon Opportunity Comes From Within
Written By: Cecile P. Haworth
In 2007, Store Manager Eva Promen learned Uncommon Scents®, at the Meridian Building in Eugene, might close; she knew she wanted to buy it and keep it running. The online division of the business had become so successful that Owner Chuck Agol was no longer interested in keeping the brick and mortar portion open. Eva turned to the Lane SBDC Small Business Management (SBM) program for assistance and remains in the program to this day.
A good friend and fellow business owner, Pamela Griffin, owner of Folkways—a neighboring store, told Eva about the Lane SBDC. Pamela went through the SBM program, found it immensely valuable and insisted it would benefit Eva also. Eva followed the promptings and enrolled in the program that fall, knowing she needed help with evaluating whether or not she should take over store ownership.
Eva worked for Uncommon Scents® for over 30 years and had been a minor partner in the business. She was responsible for managing the Fifth Street Market store from 1996 until it closed in 2003. She was also instrumental in opening and managing the Meridian Building store.
Daily interactions with customers made Eva realize—the store had become an icon for Eugene, a destination for shoppers from all over the world. Closing the store would be a loss. “It’s like a community service—keeping a historical business going, while making a profit and contributing to the well-being of the community— that is really important to me.”
“Uncommon Scents® is recognized as part of Eugene. People go to college and move away and come back. Oftentimes, they go to Fifth Street Market looking for us, can’t find us and are disappointed. When they find us at the Meridian Building, they tell us how glad they are that we are here, that they love this store, that it’s their favorite. It’s constant and happens daily.”
Eva explained, “I just said to Chuck, ‘I’m not done yet.’ There was definitely an emotional aspect. The retail store is more ‘hands–on’ than sales online, more of a sensory experience. Customers can pick things up and touch them, smell the fragrances, try on the clothes. Because of the overall experience, it’s also a more nurturing experience. When customers come in they feel comfortable in sharing. We all share really tough and intimate stories.”
Chuck appreciated Eva’s perspective and reached a tentative agreement with her. He suggested separating the online and retail operations, then selling the community–based retail division to her.
Eva talks about the connection between the environmentally–aware philosophy of the store and the community known for the same culture.
From the start, the business was a trend setter in environmental consciousness. It offered discounts when refilling house–brand body care formulations, sold products that were not over-packaged, provided body care products with healthy ingredients, and offered the finest custom–blended fragrances. There is no doubt Uncommon Scents® has left an impression in the community, with over 40 years of being here.
The prospect of buying the historical icon was not straightforward. Beyond securing funding, Eva would need to address several other aspects of the transition. The first challenge would be to rearrange the relationships of the major and minor partners who held ownership in the business.
The next would be to concentrate on the ownership of the Meridan building. Uncommon Scents® was leasing month-to-month space in a building that had multiple owners. Investing in a business with a month-to-month lease, in a multiple–owner building, could be risky.
And the final task would be to work with Chuck on a licensing agreement for the name and products, so Chuck could continue his online business without competition from Eva.
Eva began scheduling one-onone coaching sessions with SBM program Faculty/Coach Gary Smith. In the private sessions, Gary reinforced what Eva was learning in class by making it specific to her situation. They sat down together and studied whether or not the retail portion of Uncommon Scents® was profitable.
Gary explains, “Eva went through the process of learning to evaluate the offer; improve the operations of the retail store; and learn how to manage the business end of the operations—instead of just the retail store—which is what she had done for so long.”
As the store’s retail manager, Eva’s forte was merchandising, employee management and customer service. She had not been responsible for a POS system, bookkeeping or analysis of profit and loss. Eva needed to learn these concepts quickly, so she could determine whether or not it made sense to purchase the business.
“The SBM program clarified a lot of the business issues and business areas that I had never dealt with before. The financials, oh my-gosh, understanding the cash flow and profit and loss statements…”
Eva admits unabashedly that she could not have understood the profitability of the business or maneuvered through all the negotiations and agreements without the tutoring and assistance from Gary.
He also helped Eva determine exactly what her goals were, by considering long-term vs. shortterm. She eventually defined her goals as, “Keeping the business profitable, continuing to have a stronghold in the community and sending my two daughters to college.”
Once Eva felt certain about moving forward with the buyout, she began addressing the issue of the building.
“Gary was very helpful with masterminding the transaction.” She explains, “I started my own corporation, refinanced some investment property that I was a partner in and purchased a partnership in the Meridian building.”
With the help of her lawyer and accountant, Eva was able to make decisions to move forward with necessary contracts and agreements to complete the buyout and meet her goals.
Ultimately, the Uncommon Scents® name was licensed to Eva for use with the retail store. Chuck would continue to use the name Uncommon Scents® for his online business, uncommonscents.com, which would continue to sell the full line of products. Eva would use the name Uncommon Scents at the Meridian for her brick and mortar shop, as well as for her website uncommonscentsmeridian .com. Her website would not sell products, but would simply provide information about the retail store.
Just one year after Eva enrolled in the SBM program, she took full ownership of the store and her new business, Uncommon Scents at the Meridian. Two years later, in 2010, Eva completed the three–year SBM program and joined the Alumni program.
Like many participants in the SBM and Alumni programs, Eva feels the programs are excellent for networking. “Because I am somewhat of a private person, I didn’t realize before the SBM program how important networking is, so it was really good for me. It encouraged me to come out into the community and join the GreenLane Sustainable Business Network. We do a lunch once a month for one hour. Speakers talk about how they are making our community more sustainable. I learn so much.”
“As an Alumni member you are allowed to go to any of the classes, so I look at the schedule at the beginning of the month and choose a class or any to go to. I remember how stimulated I was by each of the classes. I look for ways to inspire myself, to keep that stimulation, to grow. My favorite to go to is the new technology. It keeps me updated; over the years it’s been beneficial.”
“I joined the Alumni group right after I graduated and I am sticking with it forever. I need that anchor. I feel like if I need any help I know where to go. It is such a dollar well spent. Any consulting would cost so much more than this program… Anyone I meet—who talks about going into business—I tell them you have to go into this program.”
Learn More About Uncommon Scents at the Meridan
Oregon Small Business Development Centers are funded in part through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration, and by the Oregon Business Development Department. Lane Community College is the primary funding agent. Programs and services are provided to the public on a non-discriminatory basis. Language assistance services are available for limited English proficient individuals.
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