By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, May 18, 2008
MARY BETH LOPRESTI AND HER SISTER preserve memories for other families, and in doing so, have strengthened their own.
In late 2004, Mary Beth's sister, Theresa Hambleton, moved back East from Arizona with her husband and three of her five children. For 18 months, they stayed in Sterling with the Loprestis and their three kids. The two sisters, who hadn't been especially close while growing up in a family of eight children in New Jersey, found that they co-managed the household smoothly, even agreeing where the plastic wrap should go.
One difference stood out: "After about a week she said, 'There are no plants in your house,' " laughs Mary Beth, 44. "And I said, 'I have flowers on the fabric.' "
Theresa, 48, pined for the sun and flora of Arizona. Having dried and framed their youngest sister's wedding bouquet a few years earlier, she thought there might be a business in preserving flowers from life's special events. Such work would not only let her connect with plants year-round, it would take advantage of her training as a botanical field technician and Mary Beth's past experience in sales and marketing. Mary Beth, whose husband works for the FAA, had been staying home with the kids, and with the youngest about to head off to school, she was intrigued. Their mother offered $5,000 to get them started. "It was her belief in us that was even more valuable than the money," Mary Beth says.
The sisters attended a week-long class on flower preservation in Massachusetts and a seminar at the Small Business Development Center of Loudoun County, and set up a Web site. All Seasons Floral Preservation was in business by January 2006.
Theresa now lives in Charlottesville, where her husband is a pilot with a regional airline. The sisters, however, still share the workload. Mary Beth meets with customers in her living room, has converted an extra bedroom into an office and dries and presses the flowers in her kitchen microwave or in archival sleeves between the pages of phone books weighted down with bricks. She pulls apart every flower, drying and pressing each petal individually. She and Theresa meet every other week at a coffee shop in Culpeper, where they trade off: Mary Beth gives Theresa folders of dried flower petals; Theresa hands over the finished floral art, with the flowers reassembled and arranged on a mat in designs, borders or bouquets. Mary Beth takes the art home and frames it, adding other elements, such as a photograph or invitation, if the client wants it. Finished pieces cost from $95 to $795; there also is a $100 pressing free. The sisters say most of their clients are from Northern Virginia.
In 2006, All Seasons had a profit of $3,600. In 2007, profit was up to $25,900. For the first quarter of 2008, sales were up $4,600 over the same time in 2007, and profit was up $3,900. Mary Beth and Theresa hope to build the business to the point where each is making $2,000 a month.
With the growing demand, the sisters have hired a bookkeeper, and Mary Beth has neighbors on call for when she needs help drying. This summer, Theresa will start training their oldest sister, Margaret Conner, 50, who lives in New Jersey, to help with the artwork, and Mary Beth jokes that "no one's allowed to have hard feelings" if the partnership doesn't work out.
"Our company motto is, 'If it's working for you and working for the company, then great,'" Mary Beth says. She and Theresa have already agreed that, "when we're done, we'll let the other one know, finish out what we're doing, and it's over."
"But for now," she says, "it's hard to imagine."
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