Pat Drake

The Business of a Sassy Lady
Pat Drake is co-owner of Fidelity On Call with her husband, Richard. She is chief operating officer of the company, which provides personnel for a variety of medical organizations. She’s also co-owner of Sassy Lady, a clothing store in Peoria Heights. Drake and her husband have one grown son and live in Peoria.

Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.

I was born and raised in the small town of Paxton, which is 50 miles east of Bloomington. It was a wonderful place to grow up, and, as a small community, every one knew you. I went to school there and got my first job at a local bank upon graduation. Actually, my Dad told the bank I was the person for them; I never even interviewed.

My folks were—Mom still is; Dad died in 1996—a great influence on my life and so are my sisters and my brother. I’ve been married for 40 years to Richard, and our son, David, is our company controller. We have a “fraughter” (our daughter-in-law, who’s a friend and daughter), Julie Drake (also a business owner), and a grandson, Collin, who’ll turn eight in October.

We came to this area in 1979 because of a work opportunity Richard had and built a home in Germantown Hills. We moved into Peoria in 1987, and I love the convenience of living right in Peoria. Anything I need is just minutes away, and I can easily walk to Tower Park and the shops in Peoria Heights.

Tell about the current businesses you are involved with: Sassy Lady and Fidelity On Call, Ltd.
I’m one of four owners of Sassy Lady, which is a ladies boutique in Peoria Heights. We carry very limited quantities since no Sassy Lady ever wants to see herself coming and going; plus, we have items not available elsewhere in our area. Sassy Lady has a full lower level with a small kitchen, dining areas, sofa, etc. that clubs and organizations can use. Ladies can combine a shopping event with card clubs or a Red Hat meeting. We also host training sessions and other meetings. Our total focus is on our customers and making sure they get what makes them feel great and look ‘Sassy.’

Fidelity On Call is a medical staffing company that was started in 1994. Richard and I co-own Fidelity, and I’m its chief operating officer. Through the business, we work with hospitals, nursing homes, doctors’ offices, surgery centers and other medical facilities to supply them with back-up staff in the form of RNs, LPNs and CNAs.

Since its inception, Fidelity On Call has grown and changed a lot in order to keep pace with what’s happening in our market. At first, we thought only about nursing homes, however, we quickly realized hospitals were faced with the same problems: finding quality staff, good service, and a correct skills match for the job. We’ve worked hard and have been blessed with some excellent staff members and customers. I like the fact that Fidelity On Call helps people out—our customers, their patients/residents, and our staff members.

Fidelity works with its customers in a wide variety of ways. Some facilities only want our staff on an “as-needed” basis. Others will contract. For example, a hospital may need an OR nurse for a certain period of time—they might have a nurse off on leave—and we’ll send a nurse to them that meets their requirements. Fidelity has a group of travel nurses, some who no longer own their homes but depend on us for assignments and a place to live. In addition, we’ll recruit for facilities when they have a permanent placement opening.

On the employee side, we have to really know our team, their skills, what shifts they’ll work, how far they’ll travel, and much more. It becomes very challenging to know all your staff and to keep them motivated and happy. That’s where our office team comes in and they’re all great at their jobs. They know our mission. When they hire, schedule or place a staff member, they keep that goal firmly in mind. All of us, without exception, feel totally responsible for ensuring that Fidelity’s team holds true to its mission. Our web site address, for anyone who wants additional details, is fidelityoncall.com.

How did Sassy Lady come about? What convinced you the central Illinois market needed a store like Sassy Lady?
Sassy Lady was the brainchild of a shopping trip to Texas. As a member of the National Association of Business Owners (NAWBO), I attended a central Illinois NAWBO conference in 2002 where Lynne Johnson (owner of Lynnenterprises) started talking about the great shopping in Texas. She suggested a shopping venture and the invitation was extended to all NAWBO members. But the ones who went were Lynne, myself, Cindy Neal (Express Personnel), and Diana Gustin (Joan’s Trophy and Plaque).

We had a wonderful time of shopping, sharing and laughing, and when we went to load our car to go the airport, the bellman was betting there was no way everything would go into the car. Luckily, we could fold Cindy into a little ball because that’s how we made it.

About a month later, we got together to discuss the trip. We asked ourselves what we got out of that experience and what we felt was missing when we went shopping locally. We talked about how we could incorporate another business into our schedules—since life was already pretty hectic with our other businesses and volunteer activities— and Sassy Lady came out of that meeting. At that time, it was a little idea—just five or six trunk shows a year. But things quickly changed, and, just a few short years later, we’re part of Peoria Heights.

Sassy Lady was located downtown at first and now is in Peoria Heights. What prompted your decision to relocate the business?
After a very short period of time, it became apparent that our idea was growing fast. Diana lives at 401 Water and knew Kurt Huber. There was an opening in the shops and she started discussing it with him. It was a natural transition to move there and he provided us with a wonderful opportunity. The four of us divided up the days, and we were open on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and by appointment. That way we could work every other week and every fourth Saturday. We also had a lot of special functions at the store because we all like the social side of what Sassy Lady entails. Before a year was up, we knew we needed to have a larger space, a centralized location, and more convenient operating hours for our customers.

We started looking, and, shortly thereafter, 4111 North Prospect went on the market. We were fortunate enough to buy a lovely building that now houses Sassy Lady, a beauty salon, Express Personnel, and a church office. Sassy Lady has two large display windows, free parking, a great location and the wonderful business networking of Peoria Heights. We also hired Becky Frankel-Clifton to run the store on Monday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. That enables the four of us to still work one day every other week and every fourth Saturday with Becky. There’s no way the store would be where it is today without the new location and the addition of Becky.

Tell about the previous businesses you were involved with and the particular challenges associated with each.
When I first ventured out on my own, I was doing marketing/advertising for several companies: Aggregate Equipment (which was bought out by Sunbelt), Employers’ Association, Car Dealers Association and others. At that point, I was a sole proprietor and a home-based business. One thing about home-based business is the isolation; I didn’t like that. Technology became a major part of getting my job done.

I also made a very small comment to Richard that I needed a computer so I could look professional. That set him on a quest, and he eventually ended up as a beta test site for Corel Draw, PageMaker, and other such desktop publishing programs that were in their infancy on the PC/ Windows platform. This was back when an 80 MB hard drive was considered large. Eventually, he was building computers for other businesses. Some of the technology we were marketing more than 15 years ago now is being readily accepted by businesses. When I first started, I worked with typesetters. That changed quickly to doing everything in-house. The speed with which we accomplish design/printing now versus then is amazing.

With Fidelity On Call, the market has changed continually. One of the biggest changes is in finding qualified candidates. But we’re certainly not alone in that. Also, the nature of the competition has changed, both in the number of companies trying to compete in the market and some of the practices that seem to be employed.

Have you always wanted to be a business owner?
It was never a conscious goal I set for myself, but life has led me to this point and it’s wonderful.

What do you enjoy most about being a business owner? The least?

I like the excitement of every day at Fidelity because every day is different. You have an opportunity to work with a variety of customers and get to know them. I like the personal side of the business and the challenge of change. At Sassy Lady, I love the customer contact; the ladies who come into the store are awesome. Also, any teaching opportunity I have at either business, I grab. There are a couple of things I classify as my least favorite. One is dealing with an individual who says one thing and does another or who shades the truth. You never know what you’re working with or where they’re coming from. The other is the old “hit the ball and drag Harry” personality. They literally wear you out.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about owning and managing your business?
I have wonderful friends and family—including a brother who’s a business owner, a Dad who was, sisters, a mother, fellow business owners, a great business attorney and a wonderful accountant—who’ve all conveyed words of wisdom to me and been there for me when I needed help or a sounding board. There’s no one I can point to with just one bit of advice.

You’re part of a family business. Tell about the pros and cons of working with family members.
Fidelity is a privately owned corporation, and the only family involved in the day-to-day business with me is our son, David, who’s the company controller. Richard is very actively working on a farm we own in Maquon. He’s converting it back to its former glory. Years ago, it was the sight of Aborvitae Springs, and it had mineral springs, cabins and more on the property. The water was voted second at the St. Louis World’s Fair.

Over the years, the land became a farm, the springs eroded, and the house was destroyed. So his goal is getting the ground back into trees, having a more prairie-like setting, and bringing the wildlife back. After just a few short years, we’ve seen tremendous growth in the deer population, as well as turkeys, pheasants and the occasional coyote. The Spoon River also runs along the side of the property. It sounds like he’s having fun, but he assures me it’s very hard work.

So David and I are the family at Fidelity. His responsibility is the financial end of the business, and he’s the one who went to school to become the entrepreneur. Since we function in different areas of the business, there are days that we strictly nod at each other and go on about our work.

Our main area of overlap is marketing and internal office functions. For the marketing side of it, we call him our “word wizard.” He worked with our web guru to develop our Internet site, he writes and coordinates our employment advertising. In addition, he screens and hires office candidates, serves as support for questions and problems, and, of course, supervises the financial side of the business.

We’re comfortable with each other, and there’s a real trust. Of course, we occasionally can grump and then go on about our business, but this can happen whether it’s family or not. But, internally at Fidelity, any one of our staff members would tell you we all function as a team and respect each other. We have a winged pig for a mascot, and, when good stuff happens, we fly her around the office to let everyone in on the excitement of what made our pig fly. When you’re managing the number of off-site staff members we have on a day-to-day basis and they live in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri, there are challenges. So every day we focus on the excitement of what we’re doing, and, if something goes wrong we try to FIDO (forget it and drive on) it as quickly as possible.

You’re very involved with Peoria Heights Area Business Association (PHABA). How are the businesses joining together to promote the Heights?
When Sassy Lady located in Peoria Heights, we started attending the meetings for the then-Peoria Heights Merchants Association. We bought our current building in summer 2004, and officers for the association changed over in January. After having attended a few meetings, the merchants decided I should be the president. As an association, we discussed the needs of the Peoria Heights merchants and how we could get the recognition for the area it deserved. We then hired a marketing company to come up with a plan for the area, and we established a marketing budget. After that, we approached the Village for a portion of that budget, and we were very happy when they agreed to a set-aside to help in our efforts. Hopefully by now, everyone has seen the “It’s Happening in the Heights” signs. We have put up banners throughout the Heights featuring participating businesses, developed a brochure, and are organizing community events. We also have a web site—itshappeningintheheights.com. Over the course of the first few months, we realized we needed to expand the reach of the association to become a business group—not just a “merchant” group.

What’s your vision for Peoria Heights?
I believe what I see long-range for the Heights is the same as many business leaders and elected officials see. Peoria Heights has the ability to be a thriving, tourist-attracting area. The eclectic mix of independent shops, the many great restaurants, Tower Park and Forest Park Nature Center all contribute to the uniqueness of the area. Our association is also working with Junction City to coordinate events for the same weekends. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and, of course, there are issues and challenges that need to be addressed. PHABA is just one part of all that. But I encourage everyone to put our web site address in their Favorites and check it frequently to see what’s happening or sign up for e-mails because it’s “Happening in the Heights!”

As a female business owner, have there been any particular challenges to overcome?
Personally, I think the challenges of our business are business problems. I’ve never looked at a professional issue and said, “This happened to me because I’m a woman.” Our challenges are the escalating cost of health insurance, the cost of professional liability insurance, workers’ compensation costs, and the availability of quality workers. I don’t think any of these are unique problems because I am a woman.

How do you balance life outside of your businesses?
Sometimes I’m not the greatest juggler and I’m working hard at learning to say no to all those volunteer activities. After all, Fidelity and Sassy Lady are truly work enough, and I want to be active in the Heights. But, on a personal note, I told you about Collin. As far as I’m concerned, when he’s available, I’m available. One of the reasons we initially bought the farm was for a place to four-wheel and to relax as a family. And Collin loves the farm. He worked with us planting trees, and, when the lake went in, he got to ride in the big equipment, then went to pick up the fish and stock the lake. He likes riding with his grandpa on the loader they call “Scoop” and running the bucket up and down. I also go home whenever possible to spend time with my mother, who will be 88 in August.

When the Sassy Ladies go on a shopping trip for the store, it’s work—sometimes too much work in a short period of time. However, I relish getting away, seeing what’s happening in a different industry, and enjoying time with my partners. They’re smart women who are wonderful advisers. As we’ve gone various places, we’ve had many representatives tell us they’ve never seen a group like us work so well together. And after this number of years, we’re still together.

What are your plans for the future? Are there any other ventures you’d like to try down the road?
Every year at Fidelity On Call starts with a look back and a look forward. Our team sits down, and we outline the goals for the coming year. Although the Sassies haven’t been as official, we still have a definite plan with a direction for the business and what needs to be accomplished. From a personal standpoint, I’d like to have more time to spend at the farm. I joke that my next business venture is bottling the water on the farm. But who knows what the future will bring. Neither Richard nor I ever see ourselves retired. We’ll be doing something because life is too short to sit and vegetate.

Is there anything else you’d like to discuss that hasn’t been asked?
You asked a shameless marketer a very open-ended question and I’d like to put a plug in for Maquon. It’s worth a trip just to eat at the Feed Store. And, for anyone who might be getting married, they have a lovely bridal shop called Weddings by Marlou. tpw