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AZRIELA JAFFE

9.1.99  
From Welfare to a $1 Million-a-Year Business
Single mother, high-school dropout — Kathy Walsh had the odds stacked against her

Read enough Internet startup stories, and you begin to think that there's little future in business for someone without an MBA, advanced technological skills, or a dot.com concept. Kathy Walsh's story is an inspiration to entrepreneurs who don't have those advantages -- just courage and determination.

Kathy Walsh is the CEO of PK Walsh, a hair-replacement salon in Wellesley, Mass., that had over $1 million in sales last year. Kathy certainly wasn't dreaming of starting a company in 1972, when her husband went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back, leaving her to care for two toddlers on her own.

She was in shock. She had no work experience to speak of and no education -- not even a high school diploma. Immediately after her husband's departure, her landlady asked her to move. She didn't want a woman with two kids and no husband in her apartment. With great chagrin, Kathy found a dump of an apartment, went on welfare, and prayed for endurance.

A short time later, the local welfare office recruited her to participate in a new training program for those on public assistance. She earned her GED and started the painful process of building her skills and self-esteem. She landed a job in a family-run trucking company, which got her on her feet. She stayed in the trucking industry for years, rising through the ranks. By the time she was ready to go out on her own, she was vice-president and general manager at another family trucking company.

In the early 1980s, as she neared 40, Kathy and her sister, Pat, decided to open a business together -- a wig shop serving people who had lost their hair during cancer treatment. Pat was a barber, and Kathy's own hair had begun to thin when she was only 16. So she knew what a distressing experience that was. The two started their store in Worcester, Mass., but soon realized there weren't enough patients there. They moved the business to the Boston area, and found that every hospital they called was interested in talking with them.

They soon branched out into hair replacement, focusing on women and girls. Hair-replacement salons had few women clients, and Kathy remembered well her own embarrassment at the idea of visiting a salon alongside men. Their first hair-replacement salon, PK Walsh, opened in September, 1983, on Beacon Street in the Boston suburb of Brookline.

They worked seven days a week and loved every minute of it. The business took off, and they soon relocated to a larger location. In 1994, PK Walsh moved to Wellesley, another Boston suburb, where the business is today. At that point, the sisters began to have different ideas about the future of the company, so they decided to go their separate ways. The business of serving cancer patients and other severely ill clients was becoming more competitive. So, Kathy wanted to branch out from medical referrals and develop more of a spa ambience for women whose thinning hair wasn't the result of major illness. Using the advice of a family-business consultant, they devised a plan for Kathy to buy Pat out.

In 1993, 80% of clients were medical referrals, but by 1998, only 20% were. Kathy's daughter, Nikki, has played a growing role in the business. She was promoted to general manager in January, 1999.

Mother and daughter dream of another location -- with spa services, a nutritionist, a snack bar with healthy food. They even envision having a plastic surgeon's office on the premises. With their own dark days behind them, they see their business not just as hair replacement but also bringing light into other women's lives.


Have a question on how to handle the pressures of running a business and the impact on your personal life, marriage, and family? Contact Azriela Jaffe at AZ@azriela.com. Please put "BW Online question" in the subject field. Your real name will be kept confidential if you request, but please give an E-mail address, phone number, and your hometown so she can contact you for more information. Because of heavy volume, Azriela cannot guarantee that she will answer every query.

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