Dollhouse maker big on small business

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Business veteran advocates for small, family-owned business in St. Albert

Local businesswoman Irene Cornwell has a passion for small and family-owned operations, being in business herself for nearly a quarter of a century.

Daisy Dollhouse got its start in 1988, setting up at various locations in Edmonton until reaching its forever home in Grandin Park Plaza, where it has been for the last six years.

The business designs, builds and sells open-concept dollhouses with a line of accessories suitable for children.

“It’s very open and that’s on purpose because we think that’s why children like a cardboard box,” she said. “They can move things around and we haven’t pre-determined.”

She said this allows children to express creativity and learn about life without being confined and limited.

With its unique product line, Cornwell said she is grateful for a business-incubator like Grandin Park Plaza that supports small business and gives them a place to market their goods.

“I’m very big on small business which is one of the reasons I’m very grateful to set up in Grandin. I know it’s quiet and I know it’s a challenge,” she said. “As quiet as it is in Grandin, there’s not a week that someone doesn’t come in.”

She said although the future of the mall is uncertain, it’s nothing new to her and the business, which has been dealing with uncertainty since its inception.

“Uncertainty just means you have to be adaptable and flexible,” she said.

This adaptability goes both ways, Cornwell said, adding more needs to be done in the community to facilitate growing and emerging businesses.

She said she would like to see incentives introduced to encourage young individuals to pursue interesting business ventures.

“I’m sure in Alberta, there’s a great deal of people with a lot of talent and a great deal of passion for small business,” she said. “They have to find a way to make it feasible for young people with exciting business ideas, particularly if it is an Alberta-based product, to be able to move in.”

She said many retail spaces are instead filled with doctor and dentist offices, insurance offices and bars — all of which can afford the inflated rent, she said.

The incentive she said she would like to see implemented is a decreased rent plan for a negotiated period of time to allow businesses to save on rent and instead reinvest in itself.

The cost of rent is often a major burden for small businesses, which is why Cornwell said Grandin Park Plaza is a good location for her.

“I’d like to see a more optimistic view of Grandin in general,” she said. “We’re kind of a family of interesting people in this mall. There is a spirit of small business in Grandin, which is really quite nice.”

Perseverance pays off

Before emerging with Daisy Dollhouse, Cornwell had to overcome a few bumps in the road.

Shortly after taking the reins of her first business, Carpentry for Children, the business went under, forcing her and her husband back to the drawing board.

The initial business plan was focused on building a variety of furniture for children, including canopy beds, kitchen table sets, rocking chairs and of course, a dollhouse.

“It’s a little bit like losing a loved one,” she said. “I know what it is to have to just say we’re not making it, it’s too difficult and shut your door. I thought we’d never go near a small business again.”

In 1988, the year Daisy Dollhouse came to fruition, she attended a course directed towards women over 40 interested in small business. It was there that she was given the direction needed to create a successful business. Her instructor told her to take one item and capitalize on it.

“We haven’t looked back and that doesn’t mean it’s been easy; there’ve been many challenging times,” she said.

The business was a staple in Edmonton’s Capilano Mall for nearly a decade before it moved to St. Albert, which is closer to the family’s Morinville home. The catalysts for the move were hours of operation and skyrocketing gas prices, she said.

Future prospects

Cornwell said the future is bright for the business, as her son and daughter-in-law, Tim and Brigita Cornwell, are set to take over operations completely.

“They design and build every house you see in here. It’s their livelihood,” Cornwell said. “In many ways, other than this retail office, they are Daisy Dollhouse now.”

The couple lives in Sedgewick, roughly two hours southeast of Edmonton, and hopes to have an online presence in the near future.

“The online store, this will either become the answer for them to expand and to pick up their customer base or it won’t, but we go into it with a very positive attitude,” she said.

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