Opening a business in the current economy is a courageous move, especially when one's competitor is a large home improvement store that is part of a national chain.
But engaging in a daring adventure pretty much describes the odyssey taken by the proprietors of Lake Norman Hardware and Home.
The circuitous route taken by Ken and Yvonne Gurney began with a vacation from their home in England to Orlando, Fla., in 2001. The engaged couple, both now 53, decided to marry while in Orlando before returning to the United Kingdom.
Once back home, they set their sites on emigrating to the U.S., but obtaining a visa would require them to buy and run a business. After two years of searching, they were able to purchase a hardware store in Orlando that had been in business for 18 years.
Ken was a cabinetmaker by trade and Yvonne had extensive experience in retail sales, so running a hardware store did not seem like too much of a stretch. Their visa approved, they emigrated and opened for business in 2004.
"The first three years were pretty good," said Ken. "Then Lowes opened about a half-mile away, and that pretty much did us in. Within a year, our business was untenable."
To complicate matters, they knew the only way they could maintain their visa was to continue to own and operate a business. The choice then was to return to the UK or find a business to purchase.
While trying to decide how to proceed, they visited a friend in Denver, a local realtor, and fell in love with the area. "We liked the friendly atmosphere, the scenery, the proximity to the lake, and the uncrowded conditions," said Yvonne.
They decided to sell the store in Orlando and move to Denver, where they would open a new business. They were unable to sell the Orlando business, but they decided to move anyway after their Denver realtor located a suitable rental space at a third of the cost.
They packed the remaining inventory in Orlando and shipped it, together with their household goods, to Denver in 2010. All of the unpacking and setting up was done without outside help, and in November 2010, they opened for business on N.C. 16, across the street from Rock Springs Elementary School.
"Our customers have welcomed us with open arms," said Yvonne. "We have a 65-hour workweek, and that's demanding, but we enjoy the one-on-one interactions with our customers. We try to cultivate a down-home, local community feeling."
"We regard our business as a work in progress," said Ken. "We are learning what the local market requires, and we try to satisfy the needs of our customers. Our store is quite well-stocked with the basic hardware supplies, and if a customer wants something we don't have in stock, we will special order it."
That 65-hour workweek doesn't keep them from enjoying their home close to Slanting Bridge Road, near the lake in Sherrills Ford.
"I enjoy the fact that we can take our Siberian Husky Chaska - he's part timber wolf - for a walk down the lane, into the countryside and on to the lake for a swim. Everyone waves to us.
"In fact, one gentleman gave us permission to cross his property so we can access the lake," said Ken.
"Chaska had her first swimming lesson here. In Florida, we had to worry about the alligators. There are no 'gators here."
And what about that competitor on the other side of town? "There are things we can do that Lowes can't, such as specialty keys, and we can order farming equipment like gates and animal feeders. I should add that our prices are very competitive. We try to hold our prices as low as we can," Ken says. "We'd like to build the business up to the point where we can employ local people."
The store has a crafts section featuring a variety of handmade goods on consignment from residents as well as from Yvonne, who does knitting and sewing.
"The crafts section appeals to the ladies among our customers. It gives them something to look at while the menfolk are browsing the hardware," said Yvonne.
As for the future, their current visa expires in 2014, and renewal is dependent on the success of the business.
"We are determined to succeed," said Yvonne. "We love the area, we enjoy the people we meet and do business with, and we look forward to a long-term relationship with the community."