Service at Their Core

by Mae Gilliland Wright

An unlikely pairing of small businesses, connected by family and a consistent approach to customer service

“And I’ll rise up… I’ll rise like the day. I’ll rise up… I’ll rise unafraid. I’ll rise up… And I’ll do it a thousand times again.”

Several years ago, Chris and Heather Monroe heard performer Andra Day sing these lyrics at the Bonnaroo Music Festival. Having watched their share of customers and friends face hardships in their lives—especially through two of their own companies, Family Medical Equipment & Supply and The Plaid Daisy—her words immediately struck the couple as significant.

At their core, each of the Monroe Companies—which consists of Family Medical and The Plaid Daisy, as well as Capital Preservation Specialists and Midnight Espresso—are service-based. “Every person who walks through the door has to be our champion,” Chris says, reminiscing about that memorable concert. “They have to be the person you celebrate. They have to have that respect.”

Into the Business
From the outside, the Monroe Companies might appear to be an unlikely pairing of disparate interests. Yet each can trace its origins back to 1973, when Chris Monroe’s father, Ed Monroe, opened Family Medical, serving pharmacy clients, nursing homes and individuals. Over the years, the company expanded its services and began to offer clients a variety of medical equipment and supplies. To reflect this growth, they changed the business’s name to Family Medical Equipment & Supply, though they continued to refer to it as “Family Medical.”

In the early nineties, Chris Monroe graduated from Wabash College with an English degree. “I was going to be a poet; I’m still working on that,” he says with a laugh. Instead, he joined his father at Family Medical, but only for a few years. In 1995, Chris says he received a cold call from a financial planner, recalling his subsequent response. “I’m 24 years old; I’ve got a house, a car, life insurance, investments… What are you going to do for me?” Impressed, the agent said Chris should consider going into financial planning. Though reluctant at first, “a couple of months later… we called this guy back. Instead of just becoming my agent, he got me in the business.”

What had changed, Chris adds, was his experience working with his father, which helped him realize that small business owners may be great at running a business, but often need help thinking more broadly about their financial planning options. That’s when he launched Capital Preservation Specialists.

“Do you know how a lot of people go through life… trying to save for the future? There are so many people out there giving advice and telling them what to do,” Chris explains. “People get frustrated. They feel isolated and confused. All they really want is someone to come along and show them how to do things in the right order.”

Chris says that his approach to business is based on his father’s values. “He was one of the most ethical business people… to a fault… that I’d ever met.” Although his father had opportunities to make money at the expense of his customers, he refused to do so, always putting the customer first. “That stuck with me,” he adds.

Family Medical
Inside Family Medical Equipment & Supply. Midnight Espresso, located next door, was founded to provide coffee for Family Medical customers while they wait.
 

Sharing the Passion
Even as Capital Preservation Specialists was finding success, Chris’ life was about to take an unexpected turn. “Around 2000, my dad wanted to retire,” he recalls. Realizing that no other family members had plans to purchase the business, he decided to step in. “Like any dutiful son, I bought it.”

A year later, he opened The Plaid Daisy, a boutique for women recovering or undergoing treatment for cancer. “I had a one-page business plan,” Chris says, smiling, “so that was an adventure.” Suddenly he found himself at the helm of three businesses. Around this time, a mutual friend suggested that he hire a friend to fill a position at Family Medical.

Heather quickly proved herself a superior manager and multitasker, and Chris immediately recognized her talents. Soon she was taking over more and more of the administrative tasks. Eventually the two realized their compatibility stretched far beyond the business. The rest, as they say, was history.

Eleven years later, the couple sits together trying to recall the development of their various businesses over the past decade. “I really have to think of all the timelines,” Heather chuckles. It’s clear they see their work as an extension of their lives—a shared passion often seen in the context of a family business. In addition, the Monroes view their employees as an extension of their family, which is not surprising, given that most of the staff at Family Medical have worked in their roles for over 10 years. “They run the day-to-day tasks,” Heather explains. “That gives us the flexibility to run multiple businesses.”

The staff, which includes several medical specialists for compression and respiratory care, provides a customized care experience that is increasingly rare. “There have been a lot of changes in the medical supply and equipment world. A lot of businesses had to go to a warehouse model, where they ship a product to you… and that’s about it,” Heather explains. “What separates us most from our competitors is [our] retail storefront, where people can walk in and talk to a person, and touch, feel and look at an item they might be interested in.”

While Heather admits it can sometimes feel like a nonstop barrage of regulatory changes and major industry shifts, what grounds the couple are the same values that have been driving the business since the 1970s. “You just keep doing the best you can do and provide the best customer service as you possibly can.”

Midnight Strikes Twice
With Heather and the staff running Family Medical and The Plaid Daisy, Chris was free to concentrate on Capital Preservation Specialists. In 2012, the Monroes purchased the building they currently occupy near the southwest corner of University Street and War Memorial Drive. It now houses all of their businesses, including Midnight Espresso, a gourmet coffee shop and restaurant.

The story of Midnight Espresso begins more than two decades ago, soon after Chris graduated from college, when he drew up plans to open a coffee shop with that name near the Bradley University campus. “I had the business location and loan picked out,” he explains. “I didn’t know a thing about restaurants, but I knew Peoria needed coffee shops.” When Chris learned from the bank that a couple of brothers were planning to do the same thing, he stepped back. “It was One World, which is great! I was so thrilled,” Chris exclaims. “Peoria desperately needed that culture at the time. They’ve done an awesome job.”

Fast forward to 2012, and the Monroes were trying to think of a solution to a growing problem: customers often had to wait at Family Medical for prescriptions or insurance information to be processed. “We started talking about putting a coffee kiosk in here so [they] could get coffee,” Chris recalls.

“It was just going to be a small coffee bar,” Heather adds. “Very limited… no pastries, no food. We just wanted to give our customers something to do.” They soon realized it wasn’t quite that simple. “We explored different coffee franchises, but it wasn’t the quality we were looking for. It just kept getting bigger and bigger.”

“It kind of turned into a full-fledged coffee shop,” Chris smiles. “When I asked Heather what we were going to name it, she said, ‘You know what you’re going to name it: the business plan is still in your desk drawer!’” As it turns out, he had kept those plans for the coffee shop he once hoped to open all those years.

At first Midnight Espresso occupied a small space adjacent to Family Medical. In a little over two years, Heather says, they doubled the space to meet demand. “We’re now cooking daily—we serve breakfast and lunch, as well as brunch on Sundays.”

Chris credits their chef, Ryan Smith, with Midnight Espresso’s growing cult following. “We’ve been blessed that Ryan, on day one, came on as our employee—he’s just so creative and talented,” Chris explains. “We give him more and more freedom, and he keeps doing more cool stuff.”

Smith is known for his use of hyper-local ingredients, as well as hosting a special Sunday Supper Series, where guests are treated to the flavors of the season. In addition, he creates a weekly brunch menu based on the freshest ingredients he can find. “We are very true to the farm-to-table mentality,” Chris explains. “We get all of our stuff from local farms, including our milk; our coffee bean suppliers are small roasters from around the country.”

Listening and Leading Change
Meanwhile, as the other Monroe Companies evolved, so did The Plaid Daisy. When Chris started the business, he was moved by watching friends and customers struggle to find a one-stop-shop for items like scarves, specialty bras and wigs. “I started to look around at what cancer survivors, particularly women, have to go through—and realized there was no welcoming, warm boutique for them.”

Today, The Plaid Daisy offers everything from clothing and jewelry to household goods and headware, and it specializes in mastectomy and compression bras. “The last couple of years, we started to bring in jewelry, accessories, purses, all kinds of really funky and cute headware and wraps,” Heather notes. In addition, they started doing professional bra fittings, based on feedback from women who said they struggled to find a place locally for this service. “We carry such a wide variety of sizes and styles; we can fit women who may have more difficulty just walking into a store and finding a bra in their size.”

Part of their business growth, the Monroes say, has been the result of synergy; as one business grew, customers started walking over to the others. “Customers who came into Midnight Espresso peeked in and saw that we had cute necklaces [at the Plaid Daisy],” Heather says. “It now has its own following of people who are looking for items like that.” One key reason the Monroe Companies have been so successful: at the end of the day, they listen to their customers and employees, responding to change, rather than resisting it. “That’s the important thing to us,” Chris notes, “that [employees] get taken care of so they can take care of the folks who come in.”

Outside of the workplace, the Monroes never fail to take time for their own family and community. “My father has always been a leader,” Chris explains. “His volunteer service mentality is always behind the scenes, and that totally impacts me.” Chris, who was the founding board president and steering committee chair for CASA of Peoria County, is also intimately involved with the Peoria Public Schools’ Horizons Club, a lunchtime program that introduces students to various industries and occupations.

Balancing work, family and service isn’t always easy, they admit. “Our kids are very high-functioning,” Heather laughs. “We couldn’t do it without them,” Chris agrees. “As stressful as it can get, we remain very focused on our relationship and our relationship with our kids. We take time for each other and ourselves a lot more than a lot of people do.” In the words of Andra Day, “All we need is hope—and for that we have each other.” iBi

The building at 3641 N. Meadowbrook Road is home to The Monroe Companies: The Plaid Daisy, Midnight Espresso, Family Medical Equipment and Supply Company, and Capital Preservation Specialists.

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