Maria Vance loved factory work. But after 17 years at a factory in St. Johnsbury, Vt., she developed hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a lung condition caused by breathing in foreign substances. As a result, she was forced to leave her job. “At 35 years old, I had to start over,” she said. “So I decided to start college.” Vance held down two jobs while pursuing her bachelor’s degree at Southern New Hampshire University. She graduated with high honors in 2018.
Soon after graduation, a former coworker at the factory offered her a job. He had started an online business selling blank and custom-printed tote bags but wasn’t interested in running the day-to-day operations. “He had me learn everything,” Vance said. “I started learning screen printing and digital printing and was about to learn shipping when he passed away unexpectedly.”
The owner’s family continued running the business with the support of Maria and two other employees. “In that first year we built a new website and I learned digital art—self-taught on YouTube,” Vance said. But at the end of that year, the owners decided to sell.
Vance couldn’t imagine abandoning the business she had put so much time and energy into learning. So, she and her husband began taking steps to buy the business. When their first attempt to get financing was denied, the bank loan officer suggested that Vance reach out to Ross Hart, an advisor with the Vermont Small Business Development Center (VtSBDC), for help developing cash flow projections and a business plan. “Thank goodness for Ross,” Vance said.
After reviewing the company’s records with Vance, Hart found that the business could be profitable, it just wasn’t being managed properly. Vance finally closed on the loan in July 2021. “The only reason that happened was Ross helped me get a business plan together and get the cash flow under control,” Vance said. “Thankfully I had that year to wrap my head around what was happening with the business to make educated decisions about the future. Ross taught me how to be better prepared.”
Several years after leaving her job, Vance is back at the factory—only as a business owner instead of an employee. Her company, CheapTotes, sells economical tote bags and T-shirts, with optional custom logo and photo printing. They perform all of their own print work at their factory in St. Johnsbury Center, Vt., using state-of-the-art print machinery and digital laser printing. Currently about 99 percent of sales are through the company’s website, Vance said. But she would like to grow her business locally, offering her products and services to more Vermont businesses and organizations. For info: cheaptotes.com.
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