Heather LeBlanc will happily tell you starting her own small business has changed her life.
The owner of Heather’s Hands Home Decor, she has battled chronic pain for many years and never imagined herself a business owner.
“I set out to make a frame for my daughter and it all grew out of that one project, thanks to a ton of help from my daughter, Kelcey,” said LeBlanc, who sells privately and at markets around northeastern Nova Scotia.
LeBlanc had always been interested in crafts, particularly ceramics and tole painting, so when her daughter pointed out an attractive frame at a local business, she was intrigued.
“I didn’t feel we could afford to pay what they were asking so I looked it over and figured I could make it myself.”
Once she had the frame made, her daughter’s friend asked if she could do another.
“I did another one and then another and it was as simple as that. I enjoyed working with wood and tools so I started building furniture from old pallets – coffee tables, decorative ladders, that sort of thing.”
She soon realized the prices she was charging for furniture did not come close to reflecting the hours she put into her pieces.
“At the same time I was being asked to make signs and smaller decor pieces so I started shifting toward those.”
About six months in, she knew she had the makings of a small business if she wanted to pursue it. That was almost three years ago.
“I was so excited but scared, too. The demand surprised me and I knew if I was going to keep going, I had to start doing it right and accounting for all my costs.”
After high school, LeBlanc had taken a secretarial course at Nova Scotia Community College.
“I knew a little bit about running a business, a little about bookkeeping and accounting. After graduating I went into secretarial work and hated it so didn’t stay. Looking back I know it was the lack of creativity that bothered me. I switched into retail and had a lot of jobs. I took something away from most of them but I didn’t feel I had everything I needed.”
She approached CBDC NOBL, a program that supports small business, to ask about getting some courses.
“I didn’t want to borrow money so I wasn’t sure I was in the right place but they got me into a number of courses that have been incredibly helpful.”
The physical demands of her business, particularly on her knees which are the source of her pain, are something she has learned to manage.
“I work in my basement and I have a chair lift to get me up and down. I’ve had to install special dust collection and water systems and I work according to how I am feeling. On a day when I’m really good, I build. If I’m needing extra medication, I’m going to be shaky so that is a day to stay away from the machines and work on the books. Other days I paint or add details.”
While there is a steady demand for her decorative signs she has two she will never sell. One is a Bible verse that appealed to her father. Another is a piece that appears antique.
“It was a very challenging piece early on. I knew what I wanted but try as I did, it wasn’t working. I was so frustrated I was crying over it when my daughter came downstairs. She wanted me to try it again but I told her I’d already done it wrong six times. She insisted on one more try and it worked.”
LeBlanc is holding onto it, not because it is a perfect piece but because it isn’t.
“You can still see the signs of where it didn’t work as planned but they are all in the background and that kind of reflects the struggle. Without Kelcey’s support, it wouldn’t exist.”
Kelcey also pushed her mother to set up at New Glasgow Farmers’ Market.
“Yes, I’d been in retail so I knew how to smile but selling my own stuff, I felt very vulnerable, very uneasy. The first negative comment, which was only about the placement of a hinge, cut me deeply. I’ve had to learn different pieces appeal to different people.”
Her chronic pain had limited what she could do in recent years and that brought a degree of social isolation, although she taught herself to knit and speak Spanish.
“Finding work I can manage on my own schedule and enjoying it as much as I do is very satisfying. Being out selling, well, without Kelcey pushing me and market manager Kristi Russell being so helpful and encouraging, I’d never have gotten there but I’m so grateful for all the new customers and friends made.”
It was also Kelcey who set up a Facebook page and taught her mother the basics.
While home and cottage decor is reliably popular, LeBlanc’s smallest wooden pieces are big sellers during the tourist season and at Christmas.
“I have some with a little piece of Nova Scotia attached, maybe a sand dollar, and they are very popular with visitors and people who want to send them to family members who are far from home. For Christmas I have some memory pieces that acknowledge someone who is no longer with family and people certainly look for those.”
Sometimes buyers who see her work ask for something customized or new to her.
“My biggest surprise was from a woman in Cape Breton who asked me to make her a stove board. I had to tell her I didn’t know what it was but she explained and I figured it out. Ever since, I’ve been getting requests for these boards from people in Cape Breton.”
Reminiscent of the three-sided boards once used for bread-making, they cover the top of a stove and as she pointed out, have the added benefit of protecting glass stove tops.
LeBlanc is ever-cognizant of changing tastes so while her current work remains popular, she is always thinking ahead to new possibilities.
“My age group still enjoys primitive pieces while my daughter’s is more attracted to the framed-out farmhouse style. Nothing stays the same.”
LeBlanc’s husband John, a New Glasgow firefighter who works at Michelin, has become the muscle behind her business.
“It took him a little time to realize this was going to turn into something worthwhile but as he saw the demand and how much I could manage on my own, he became very supportive. He moves everything as needed, supplies and finished products, and helps me with set up and tear down at all my markets.”
Having to clear a display of signs to get to the television does not bother him, either.
“He’s a busy guy but always helps when needed.”
Besides her own sense of accomplishment, LeBlanc is delighted to be able to help her daughter through university.
“Kelcey is in her sixth year, her last year of education at St. FX. She’d have gotten through without me but it feels so good to be able to help because she’s my greatest project.”
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer. She seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you know someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org