Making It

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, September 23, 2007

Jan Seale and Bob Brandenburger thought they were headed together into a rosy retirement. But after an unwelcome detour, they've wound up happily enmeshed in a new line of business.

The Charlottesville couple had planned to fill their golden years with traveling, polishing their cooking skills, maybe adjunct teaching for Jan, who had worked as a school administrator.

But shortly before Jan's last day of work in 2003, her car was rear-ended. It took many months of doctors' visits and tests to determine the extent of her internal injuries and how to treat her pain. The travel, the adjunct teaching, "all of that was just on hold," says Jan, 60.

Jan and Bob, 64, a former local government worker, are both amateur painters. So, as she started to recover, Jan occupied herself by taking digital photographs of the Blue Ridge Mountains, surrounding countryside and other local scenes that she and Bob could paint from in the winter.

After the couple accrued a portfolio of photographs, they put a few on notecards to send to friends, who would say, "Oh, where did you get those? -- I'd like some," Jan says. The friends started sending out the cards, and soon Jan was getting calls from strangers who wanted to buy them. To determine demand, Bob and Jan took the notecards to the outdoor Charlottesville City Market and were "just overwhelmed with interest," she says.

The couple named their company Mountain Glory Creations, set up a Web site and branched out into calendars, greeting cards and enlarged prints, as well as private projects. For example, their photographs of serene landscapes grace a cardiovascular unit at the University of Virginia Medical Center.

"They're able to come up with images that are not just anonymously beautiful, or generically beautiful, but that really capture a bit of Albemarle County," says Lee Catlin, who has used Mountain Glory's images in brochures as community relations director for the county.

Charlottesville is hardly an unphoto-graphed place. But, Jan says, the couple's familiarity with the area, their post-retirement freedom to capture scenes spontaneously or wait until conditions are at their peak, and their view of the region's beauty as local artists seem to resonate with customers. "We just come at the area through different eyes is what we keep hearing over and over again."

In 2005, the couple grossed $32,700, according to Jan. In 2006, which was interrupted by emergency open-heart surgery for Bob, they made $35,900. And they are projecting more than $45,000 for this year, close to 50 percent of which, Bob says, will be profit. They have kept the business small so that they can handle all the work themselves and remain flexible. But it's been "so well-received to the point that the flexibility is kind of being impinged a little bit," Jan says.

The endeavor has been like a business course, as well as a lesson in how to make lemonade out of lemons. But at this point, Jan says, "even if someone waved a magic wand right now and said the business would go away and you could go on your round-the-world tour, I don't think we'd do it."

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