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The Monarch Shop, which began in 1993 as small high-end gift shop in the Greater Buffalo International Airport, now has stores in the Detroit Metro Airport and on Main Street in Williamsville, with a fourth one planned for the Cleveland airport.

The business employs 18 people and for two straight years, its revenues have approached $5 million, with 80 percent of its sales coming from repeat customers.

But from the start, the success and even initial survival of the store seemed improbable.

In the beginning, the business didn’t have a well-calculated business plan. Instead Maria Westman, a cash-strapped, single mother driven to provide for her family, haphazardly launched the venture.

“I wasn’t trained to run a business,” said Westman, a Williamsville resident. “I didn’t know anything about employment insurance, accounting or bank reconciliation. All I knew was how to open a store, work hard and have integrity.”

Westman said she was so naïve and scared that she felt “like a child in the middle of the Thruway. But failure wasn’t an option. If I failed, I wouldn’t be able to keep a roof over my children’s heads.”

Furthermore, Westman had stocked her shelves with leather goods, jewelry and other accessories from world-renowned designers, like Prada and Tumi, in an area known for its blue-collar roots.

With the odds against her, how did Westman turn her business into a multimillion-dollar company?

“With hard work and a lot of sacrifices,” she said. “I’m not that smart, I was just really hard-working. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you have to tell yourself, 'my life is no longer mine, it is the business.’”

Westman, who emigrated to the U.S. from Italy when she was 9, grew up in Western New York, but as an adult lived in different American cities, where she worked in small gift shops.

When she submitted her proposal to the airport, she was tired of retail. She had proposed a European-style coffee shop but Delaware North Cos., at the time, had exclusive rights to food and beverage sale at the airport. Airport officials told her there was retail opportunity if she was interested. Divorced and unemployed with children, she pitched Monarch, and her proposal was accepted.

Flying by the seat of her pants and learning along the way, Westman proceeded with the business. And she hoped her store would fill a long-ignored niche for luxury products.

“At that time, there weren’t many retailers carrying high-end products, and I sold them at suggested or street prices,” she said. “I knew there was a segment of the population that hunger for high-end products.”

And she was right. Travelers – residents and visitors from around the country and world – poured into her shop before their flights and after they landed for gifts items and reading materials. More than 60 percent of her customers hail from Western New York, she said.

“It was an instant success. The store’s been profitable from opening day,” she said. Things were going so well, that the airport asked if she could open another shop in airport’s other terminal, and she did. But while the business was making money, Westman still didn’t have any. She had exhausted her savings, taken out a loan against her home and sold her share of Berkshire Hathaway stock to start the business.

In the first few years, every penny earned had to go toward buying more merchandise and paying rent and utilities, she said.

“It took several years before I had enough money. Before then I was living on my credit cards,” she said.

Even with a second location, Westman was the only employee. She worked 18- to 20-hour shifts, and caught shuttles between the two locations during each store’s peak times, while closing the other. At one point, Westman would be at one store, and her 10-year-old would mind at the other location, phoning her mother if things picked up.

“I knew it would be a problem because I had two stores and there was just one Maria,” she said. “I didn’t have any confidence to hire employees; God forbid, I couldn’t pay them.”

After a couple of years, though, Westman finally hired a part-time worker, but she still went six years without a day off, including holidays.

When the new airport was built, Westman was approved for a 20-year lease. In 2000, she opened two locations in the Detroit airport. By then, Westman’s business was a bonafide success.

“I was no longer living paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

But a year later, Sept. 11th happened, tightening airport security, and causing Westman to lose her nontraveling customers, who visited the airport to buy her products. The hit wasn’t a devastating blow because the bulk of her customers were travelers, and Westman began offering delivery or would meet customers outside of security with goods. When her leases expired in Detroit, she was able to get only one renewed.

But her proposal for a Cleveland location was approved, and a store is slated to open April 15. After years of clamoring for a location outside of the airport, her nontraveling customers got their wish last December when a location was opened on Main Street in Williamsville. While her airport stores are a combination of gift shop and newsstand, her Williamsville location is strictly a gift shop, selling designer goods and more affordable lines of accessories.

She’s in talks to open one more location at a major East Coast airport, but she doesn’t see expanding beyond that.

“I’ve been very lucky in life; I was able to build a small business from nothing, and I’m honored to have a business that creates jobs,” she said. But I’ll always be a small business, I have no desire to own 20 stores because I want to enjoy life and solidify my business. I have no desire to be chasing dollars.”

email: esapong@buffnews.com