Oct. 28, 2004 Bougainvillea owner Susan Stair is a survivor. After seeing her retail businesses go down the tubes twice after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 she came back stronger than ever.
"You just have to sit there and hang in," she said.
In addition to the Bougainvillea shops at Mongoose Junction and the Westin Resort and Villas, she owns Island Fancy gift shop at Mongoose Junction and the Seaside and Poolside Shops at the Westin. All are on St. John.
Stair built on a retail career that started in her native Florida where she ran theme park retail shops before moving to St. John, where she managed retail shops at Caneel Bay Resort on St. John and Little Dix Bay Resort on Virgin Gorda back in the early to mid-1970s.
She met her husband, Miles Stair, when he managed Cinnamon Bay Campground and she was at Caneel. The two went on to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where Miles Stair managed the Jackson Lake Lodge and she ran the retail shops.
"I went from selling bathing suits to climbing gear," she said.
During a stint in Colonial Williamsburg, the two had decided to sail around the world when Susan Stair got a call from a friend who was going to manage the then under-construction Virgin Grand Hotel in St. Thomas. He wanted her to open retail stores at the resort, which went though several name and ownership changes until it closed this year as the Grand Beach Palace Resort.
Stair had only one problem with that idea she didn't have the cash. Her friend put together a deal with 10 investors and floated a loan, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1985, she opened the Virgin Grand shops. Business blossomed until Hurricane Hugo hit.
"The shops were destroyed, plus the insurance company went under," Stair said.
She refinanced, rebuilt and reopened, but business never reached its pre-hurricane levels.
In 1991, the Virgin Grand Hotel on St. John became a Hyatt property. She was offered the opportunity to open shops there, so she started the Seaside Shop and Bougainvillea.
By 1993, she had expanded Bougainvillea to Mongoose Junction and opened Island Fancy, a Mongoose Junction gift shop. Again, business was booming but Hurricane Marilyn hit in 1995.
The hurricane destroyed all her St. Thomas stores. While the Hyatt stores were fine, the hotel closed for two years. It is now the Westin Resort.
Stair let all her staff go except manager Sana Rogers. The two kept the Mongoose Junction stores open despite the fact few tourists visited.
Those tough days are over, and, after Hurricane Marilyn, Stair bought out her partners.
She has a few tips for people who'd like to follow in her footsteps. The most important is realizing that business here is very seasonal.
"We do two-thirds of our business in one-third of the year," she said.
She manages her cash flow well so she can pay rent and expenses when business is slow.
"And have enough money to get you through the first couple of years," she said.
Stair employs about 45 people during the winter season and 20 to 30 in the off season. She said the turnover is huge, mainly because retail doesn't pay well. She said people who come for the winter season can make more money working evening restaurant jobs.
She also said it is important to hire good managers who will be there for the duration. Stair said Rogers has been on board for 13 years.
"She's the key to helping be where I am today," she said.
After almost 20 years on the Virgin Islands business scene, Stair isn't looking to open any more stores. She and her husband, who owns Holiday Homes real estate, are taking time to travel.
"I'm at the position I always wanted to be," she said.
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