LAFAYETTE -- Colleen McCormick, Lafayette's 2013 Business Person of the Year, is a roller derbyist's dream -- take a risk, smash down a few walls, deny the crummy economy, hurl yourself pell-mell into the unknown and have a blast.
The owner/operator with her husband John of Lamorinda Music is also a marketing guru's fantasy. She's a young, vibrant woman with street smarts and a passion for excellence who finds niches and customers yearning for products and services and taps local connections to devise a small but growing empire.
In just 3 1/2 years, Lamorinda Music has expanded from 1,800 square feet to 5,000. The customer base has stretched beyond its initial 10-mile radius to draw people from San Ramon, Danville, Walnut Creek and beyond. As school music programs are threatened and public leaders cry, "More science! More math!" a surge in ukulele players has created group lessons so large they needed to be held in the parking lot until the recent expansion.
"I still don't feel like a business person," McCormick says, apologetically. "I'm a person who loves music and wanted to help spread it. I'm a mom, working with other people in the community."
It's a quiet Saturday morning, just days after McCormick received a visit from Lafayette Chamber of Commerce Board President Caesar Perales.
"He said, 'I'm telling people to put this date on the calendar. We'll be celebrating Business Person of the Year and we'll be honoring you!'" she recalls.
McCormick is quick to say the fear of failing was huge when Lamorinda Music opened in 2009.
"I had a terrific husband who believed in me. It started out great and got even better."
Jay Lifson, the chamber's executive director, says McCormick was honored for her involvement with local music programs. She shows "a real knack" for delivering what the community wants, he added.
"They're fast expansion is a testament to how well they have done," Lifson says.
McCormick carefully pondered each question asked of her for this story.
"I have no paycheck. I use what would be my salary to buy more inventory. My husband kept his day job. We have a fabulous landlord," she states.
Balancing work and home life can be a challenge.
"There's a lot of Baja Fresh for dinner," she laughs. "My kids are understanding about eating late, my husband does the laundry ... we're still working on the balance part."
Both Emily, 20, and Scotty, a 17-year old Acalanes High School senior who dreams of playing sousaphone in a marching band, share their parents' passion for music.
"Parts of my life overlap," McCormick says. "People in a small community are connected and I like that. It's a comforting feeling, to know customers by name."
She thinks being a woman offers distinct business advantages. Touring the store's window-lined gathering place, where coffee and tea are available and parents wait for their children during lessons, she says, "It's the feel and appearance. People say 'Oh, it has a woman's touch. It feels like a living room.' I feel like I'm hosting a hang-out place for people who enjoy music."
But it's not just decor; there's sophistication lining every service. The 10 studios at Lamorinda Music are state-of-the-art. The stringed orchestral instruments are "set up" (bridges shaved, tuning pegs checked, bows inspected, etc.) not just by the manufacturer, but by John Jordan, a Concord-based instrument repair and restoration specialist McCormick hires to achieve the quality she requires. Teachers are hand-picked and McCormick says, "I don't hire anyone who comes in off the street."
Perhaps the savviest move is the rental program -- 100 percent of the rental payment is equity toward buying the instrument or moving up to a new instrument.
"It's customer-friendly," she suggests, downplaying how this effects the selection they offer ("We're picky," she admits) and the care renters take of the instruments they may someday own.
McCormick's dreams of segueing into a "retirement job."
"I hope to do the fun stuff. Be here for customers, then travel, knowing there are good people to run the business. I want to go home at six with my purse -- and no work."