Small Business, Big Dreams
Local businesses adapt during pandemic times
Ruth “Sissy” Fourkiller, owner of Sissy’s Salon in Stilwell, Oklahoma | Photos by Ryan West
Most of us have never faced a challenge like the current pandemic. Both individuals and businesses have been affected mentally, physically and economically.
Some businesses are faring better than others. According to Leslie Blair at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce these include RV and camping equipment sales, swimming pool construction, cleaning and delivery services, game stores, liquor and wine retailers and drive-in movies. Other businesses, particularly restaurants, bars and gyms are struggling.
Every business is different with different challenges and different ways to cope. Here are three co-op members and how they are doing during the pandemic.
Sissy’s Salon, Stilwell
Ozarks Electric Cooperative member Ruth Fourkiller is known by several names. Her family has always called her Sissy. When she was born, her big brother called her Sissy-doll—the “Sissy” stuck.
After graduating from high school, Fourkiller went to Tulsa for beauty school. A member of the Cherokee Nation, her training was subsidized by a program through the tribe.
“At the time I never thought much about it. But years later I realized what a wonderful gift that was,” she says.
She has been practicing for 34 years. For the last 23 years she worked in a salon with three friends. Her family had encouraged her to open her own shop but, she says, “I was never brave enough to do it until a few months ago—just before COVID.”
Her shop, a suite in a strip mall, has just one chair.
“It’s very serene and peaceful,” she says. “I have lots of green plants and being very private makes it safer for me and my clients.”
Fourkiller opened Sissy’s on February 12. Business was great—she was booked three weeks out. On March 25, she was forced to call her clients and shut her doors. She didn’t reopen until May 18, adhering to the protocols suggested by the Oklahoma Board of Cosmetology.
There were changes. Masks were required, temperatures were taken and everything was sanitized between appointments. Her work schedule had to be altered. Typically, a stylist will overlap appointments so one customer will be under the dryer while the next customer is getting her hair washed.
“I used to have a little coffee bar for my clients but that had to go. And I gave suckers to kids when they came in to get their hair cut. I can’t do that anymore.”
Although the rules have relaxed a bit, customers still wear masks into the salon but may take them off during their appointments; Fourkiller still wears her mask at all times.
Has her business been affected by the virus?
“I’m as busy as ever. I still book several weeks out and I’ve attracted new clients who like being the only one in the salon.”
The only time Fourkiller has not been an Ozarks Electric member was during the time she was in beauty school. She has two married sons and a younger son, Joah, who is headed for OSU Institute of Technology in a program titled “High Voltage.” Coming from such a loyal co-op background, he’d love to be part of the Oklahoma rural electrical cooperative family someday.
As for Fourkiller and Sissy’s Salon, she says, “There are sometimes things we have to change, but we’re surviving.”
Cosmetic Specialty Labs, Lawton
Cosmetic Specialty Labs has been developing, manufacturing and distributing aloe vera-based cosmetic and health products for over 60 years. The company was incorporated in 1973 by Edna Hennessee.
Cotton Electric Cooperative member Jennifer Ellis, Hennessee’s granddaughter, is now president and CEO of the company.
“Because we manufacture personal hygiene products among other things—hair care, skin care, body care—we were able to pivot pretty quickly when we saw the need.”
The demand for hand sanitizer was growing and the supply of the product was running low; the ability to acquire the ingredients necessary for production was also drying up. Ellis decided to make a small quantity from ingredients she had on hand for the Lawton/Fort Sill area. The 1,500 bottles she produced were sold in a single day.
Cosmetic Specialty Labs manufactures products to be sold under other labels rather than a house brand. Ellis contacted one of her biggest clients whose sales had fallen precipitously with the onset of the pandemic. His company had a country-wide distribution system but demand for his products had disappeared. The two companies collaborated. Cosmetic Specialty Labs would produce hand sanitizer and his company would distribute it.
The problem of getting the ingredients remained. Large manufacturers had purchased all the alcohol and a necessary thickening agent came from China where factories were closed. Ellis, who has a degree in chemistry, her chief chemist and four lab technicians were able to create a new formula within two days. From late March until early August, the company produced little except hand sanitizer.
“There’s some different tooling required to manufacture hand sanitizer at a larger scale because of product type and viscosity,” Ellis says. “We received an Oklahoma Manufacturing Reboot Program grant from the state Department of Commerce that allowed us to purchase a great deal of equipment. It was quite exciting to have that help from the state. We were able to hire about 15 employees when most companies were letting people go. Some of them are still here in the production department.”
The lab had always been a carefully controlled space but the health and safety of all the employees is paramount. The company set up a screening area for temperature checks; all employees are required to wear masks and there are hourly hand-washing breaks (in addition to the usual hand-washing). Several workers do nothing but continually sanitize surfaces.
The big rush is over and, while Cosmetic Specialty Labs is still producing hand sanitizer, it is now part of a more normal production schedule. Their ability to adapt to a severe situation benefited not only their employees but their community.
Silverleaf Shotgun Sports, Guthrie
Zach Womack, Central Rural Electric Cooperative member, is a spokesman for his sport and a great host for his customers. Silverleaf has been around for a number of years—almost as many as Womack himself. Womack has owned it for two years, the culmination of a lifelong dream.
Shooting competitively since he was 13, Womack later competed for three years with Team USA, even shooting in a World Cup competition in Cyprus in 2013. His skill led to a college scholarship.
After college, Womack was living and working in Tulsa, making plans to build a shooting facility there. Since Silverleaf was the No. 1 facility in the state, he sought guidance from the owners, David and Debbie Rippetoe. After Womack’s Tulsa site proved unsuitable, the Rippetoes, dealing with medical issues, suggested he buy their business.
It was a big step for the then-24-year-old, but things fell into line and he and his wife Erica became the new owners. The business was doing well and then—COVID. The CDC had no guidelines for his type of enterprise so Womack has had to make his own rules based on common sense and in consultation with similar businesses. Sign-in procedures were altered during a period when the clubhouse was closed. Sanitizing became a major and continuing practice. The fact that the sport takes place out of doors and shooting stands already are spaced apart makes distancing easier. Most people wear masks in the clubhouse—they’re suggested, not required—but take them off outside.
Silverleaf does lots of corporate events and fundraisers. Organizers specify health safety precautions for their own groups. Silverleaf has facilitated fundraisers for organizations including the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Edmond Kiwanis, Ducks Unlimited and Warriors for Freedom.
While options at Silverleaf include skeet, trap, Olympic skeet, 5-Stand and wobble trap, most guests come for the sporting clays courses.
“A shooting course is like golf with a shotgun. Just like golf, each hole is different, each window the players come to in the woods will be a different shooting presentation,” Womack explains.
In some stations, the clays bounce along the ground like a running rabbit. At another, the clay is released from a tall tower behind the shooter, much like a duck flying overhead. At some stations two clays are released sequentially, at others two at a time, making the shooter choose which to shoot. Silverleaf has three courses, two public and one for members only.
Shotgun sport shooting can be enjoyed by the whole family. Children too young to handle a shotgun can still enjoy the sport by keeping score or using the remote control to trigger the targets for their parents.
“Our youth program is a priority,” Womack says. “I know from experience how the sport can lead to bigger things.”
Silverleaf sits on 160 acres with rolling hills, thick stands of post oak and cedar and streams. It offers customers a chance to learn or practice a skill and enjoy the outdoors—something we all could use in this difficult time.