Originally published in Business Digest, August 1998

A Natural Woman

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Katy Lesser Katy Lesser thrives on running her business, Healthy Living, that she and her husband, Peter Goldsmith, bought as a tiny South Burlington health food store 12 years ago. This month Lesser celebrates the grand opening of the expanded and relocated 6,000-square-foot specialty food supermarket. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Growing up, Katy Lesser never, ever dreamed she would be interested in business. When she and her husband, Peter Goldsmith, moved to Vermont in the mid-'70s, they were "doing our damnedest to annoy our parents. We were hippies, and we were going to move to Vermont!" says Lesser. And move they did, first trying to make a go of things in the southern part of the state before deciding they needed the opportunities of a more populous Chittenden County to make a living.

Hippies and stubborn they might have been, but they were also eager young people with lots of energy and aspirations that would eventually lead them to buy a one-year-old South Burlington retail business, Healthy Living, which Lesser would nurture and grow from a tiny shop -- "a little dive," as she puts it -- to a thriving health food emporium.

Lesser was born in Forest Hills, N.Y., and grew up in Huntington on Long Island. Her mother was an English professor at Barnard College and her father, she says, was connected to the ski industry, acting as manager for famous skiers like Vermont's Billy Kidd. "We spent pretty much every winter weekend in Vermont as I grew up," she says.

It was natural that, when it was time for college, Lesser chose the University of Vermont, where she studied English. Following graduation, she became an English teacher in Springfield, Mass., "because that seemed what I should do. It's what my parents wanted me to be." After only a year, she realized she really didn't like teaching and headed for Switzerland to work for skier Art Fuhrrer, one of her father's clients. "I lived in Switzerland for a year, did a lot of traveling and came back, moving to Wyoming to work for the Jackson Hole Ski Corp. This was the second thing I should do," she quips, "work in skiing."

Wyoming was where, in a bar in the little town of Wilson, Lesser met Goldsmith. "Peter was a ski bum, and I was working for the ski corporation. We kind of clicked -- had a lot in common." After about a year in Jackson Hole, Lesser and Goldsmith created a plan. "We would move to Boston, make a ton of money and move right back to Jackson Hole," says Lesser, chuckling at the memory. So back east they came, but Boston was not all they'd hoped it would be. "We hated Boston," she says, "so we moved to southern Vermont, where my parents had an old farmhouse way out on a dirt road that they used for skiing. We're both oldest children," she adds, "and back there in the rebellious '70s, we came to Vermont because, even though we knew we needed to make a living, Vermont was a cool place to live."

They made the move to Chittenden County in 1974, and the following year, after living together four years, they married. Lesser had gone to work for Claussen's, where she found she really enjoyed working in the greenhouses. "I was pretty sure that's what I wanted to do as a career," she says. Goldsmith eventually settled on a career, too. "Peter had a bachelor's in business from the University of Colorado, and he decided he really was going to settle down. So in 1976, he got into real estate. He owned the first Century 21 franchise in Vermont."

Things swam along for a couple of years until one day in 1978, Lesser had an awakening that would veer her from her course. After four years at Claussen's and pregnant with their first child, Lesser realized that the chemicals she was handling were probably not healthy for her unborn child. She quit immediately, and for the next eight years, she stayed at home raising their two children, Eli, now 20, and Nina, a sophomore at Mount Mansfield Union High School.

During that time, she enrolled at the Vermont Center for Psychosynthesis and became certified as a therapist using psychosynthesis and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). Lesser found she loved working with people and was on the verge of heading back to school for a master's degree in the field, "but Peter was in between careers -- had left real estate and was looking around for something to do -- and I said, 'I can't go back to school, I have to do something to support this family.' " It was 1986.

Lesser and Goldsmith heard of a little South Burlington business called Healthy Living on Dorset Street in the Blue Mall. "It was run by a really nice, sweet couple of people who didn't know anything about business," she says. "Peter and I bought it and ran it together for three years. And, by-- the way," she adds as an aside, "you know how you read that after three years you will know whether you'll be solid? Well, that's a myth! Up until a couple of years ago, people would still come into the store and say, 'Did you just open?' It takes a lot of years for people to hear about you and discover you."

Lesser and Goldsmith found that their skills complemented each other's. "He'd owned a real estate company and got pretty sure- footed in the business world -- knew how to work with banks and spreadsheets, which were Greek to me. And I didn't want to know," says Lesser. "I was more interested in the products, in the people. I'm a people person." For three years, they worked long, hard hours trying to build the business and make it support them. "By then, we had two children, and we needed to support a growing family, but Healthy Living was not making us a living. It was a tiny space and tiny numbers. Plus," she continues, "Peter really wasn't into retail. Ringing up tofu for $1.29 didn't cut it after selling $200,000 houses. He was ready to move out of this business."

Goldsmith suggested they sell the store and move on to other things, but, by then, Lesser was hooked. "I said, 'Oh, no! I can do it!' And that's when things began to get interesting." She chuckles. "So I fired him, and we stayed married." Goldsmith now works in insurance and financial planning.

Even though Lesser wasn't comfortable with the business end of things, and Goldsmith continued to help in the background, she kept thinking everything would work itself out. "You know," she says, "when the need is there, you do. And one day, I woke up and said, 'Oh, my God, I, Katy Lesser, with math anxiety, am going to have to learn how to run a business.' It was sink or swim, and I decided to swim." That was when she hired a bookkeeper, Meryl Goldfarb of Better Bookkeeping, to work with her. "Meryl was generous enough to spend the next five to six years teaching me," Lesser says, expressing her gratitude to Goldfarb. With typical self-deprecation, she says that today, she finds it interesting to look back. "I see myself in that tiny little store in the beginning, and I can't imagine how I could make it happen. But somehow, something supported me. It was certainly, at least partly, the community. I think now, 'My God, how could they come into that little dive?' "

Lesser admits that, from her first day there, she was always thinking about expanding. "The day after I bought the store," she confesses, "I had all these visuals of how wonderful it was going to be." But the first expansion didn't come for seven years. "And it's a good thing!" Lesser exclaims. "Because I needed to learn about running a business."

In fact, her lack of business knowledge was one of two major challenges Lesser experienced. The second was a tremendous amount of competition. "When I go to food shows now, stores from communities the same size have no others competing with them. Here, for years, there was Origanum, Onion River Co-op, Mother Nature. Just the whole concept of being vigilant, of having incredible perseverance, was important. And that was possible for me because I love the whole industry, and I love the community." She pauses before adding, "And I also have an unbelievable amount of energy."

Longtime customer and friend Lori Stone Parker confirms Lesser's energy and personality have been the guiding force of the business, calling her a "spunky, energetic, wise woman -- kind of a New Age shaman health merchant. Katy's personality looms large," she says, "and I think that it's really her character that gives Healthy Living its imprimatur."

In 1993, Lesser's vision came to life when Healthy Living underwent its first expansion, more than doubling its space to 2,400 square feet by taking over the space next door. This allowed for expanded product lines, including a fresh produce section. That expansion turned the market into a destination shopping source for canned, fresh and frozen foods; bulk grains, teas and nuts; vitamins and food supplements; environmental friendly cleaning and laundry supplies; aromatherapy products; books on natural healing and herbs; and a large skin and hair care section.

Lesser jokes about her "disease," which is her continual plans for expanding the store. A couple of years ago, she went to Montpelier to see the Hunger Mountain Co-op, which has a beautiful store. "I said, 'Yeah, this is what I'm looking for.' And I stole their designer, Tony Bucci, from Worcester. He's just incredibly creative, got ideas coming out of every pore in his body. So it was a challenge to rein him in." Working together, they brought into existence the most recent incarnation of Healthy Living, a 6,000-square-foot supermarket in a new building owned by developer Peter Judge behind Barnes & Noble Booksellers, off Dorset Street in South Burlington.

In addition to more of everything, the new store features a café that serves delectable meals and beverages and the groundwork is laid for a community outreach program, launching this summer with a series of health seminars.

With the move this year into the larger space, the staff has grown from 10 to 40, and Lesser has learned yet another lesson that entrepreneurs must learn -- to delegate. "In those early years, I did what came naturally to me. That is, I did everything," she corrects. "People who worked for me would stand around and say, 'What am I getting paid for?' But I've learned to delegate -- that I can delegate. Now, I'll get a project up and running, then leverage it to someone else. Right now, I'm focusing on this community outreach and on having a grand opening in August, which I've never done before. And an on-going thing right now is just getting the store up to speed. It's taken much longer than I envisioned,' she says sheepishly. 'I thought I'd just run in and get everything on the shelf and it would be just like over on Dorset Street. But it's taken longer. I don't even have a sign up yet."

Patty Downey, who's worked for Lesser for eight years, acknowledges the benefits of Lesser's management style. "She's the best," says Downey. "Katy really fosters individual growth, and she gives you as much responsibility as you want and can prove that you can handle." Downey is a manager at Healthy Living, but says the titles are really abstractions because all the employees are encouraged to do whatever is needed, from cleaning to putting orders away. "But currently, I'm the buyer for cards, candles, wines and breads," she says. "The fun stuff."

Downey admits she was reluctant to accept the changes that occurred with the move. "But now, I'm very happy with our new environment and with the major changes that had to happen, with personnel and the management team growing. Before, you had to kind of shoot from the hip because of the small size, but now, we're pulling together to unite the horses, stay on the track, stay on the same page."

Lesser still loves talking with the people who come in to shop, "finding out what else we can do to make people happy. They're so amazed that we really want their input, their ideas." And fun, says Lesser, is always a priority, even though keeping fun in the job is a lot of work.

Like many of the longtime customers, Parker enjoys encountering Lesser in the store to talk to her and catch up on things. "I always run into my friends there, anyhow. It's sort of the equivalent of the village green. And it's all organic." Healthy Living's clientele is growing along with the growing attention on healthy diet choices, whether they involve supplements, organically grown produce or natural alternatives to fast food.

And Lesser? The store is not her only love. With typical zeal, she launches into a list. "I ski a lot in the winter, sail in the summer. I'm really into gardens -- do an incredible amount of gardening. Right now it's perennials. I'm on the board of Poker Hill School, have tons of friends and a big family. So I'm busy. And I'm still being a mommy -- I have one kid at home."

"But I really thrive on the store," she says. "I must be out of my mind. Customers will say, 'Oh, the store's so beautiful, how do you do it?' I say, 'Fine, but don't let me ever do this again.' Still, I look at the store next door and think, 'How can we take this wall down and expand?' "

She's also become interested in manufacturing. "I'm fascinated. That's like the next frontier for me. I never dreamed that I would be interested in business, but now that I've had one and watched it chug along and grow, I find myself reading The Wall Street Journal every day, all kinds of business and industry trade journals. I'm just amazed by how business works -- its ebb and flow."

She laughs. "Much to my husband's chagrin. He says, 'Can't we float away in a boat now? I'm tired of working.' "