Redesigning a Career

What would I do if I could do something I really wanted? That's the question Cathy Driftmier, 50, posed several years ago when she found herself in a position to reinvent herself. She and her husband had been running Performance Plus, a performance auto shop in Madison, for years, but when that situation changed, Driftmier had the opportunity to chase her own parachute. It wasn't the first time her life had zigged and zagged. Years earlier, the Racine, Wis. native had earned a zoology degree from Duke University with a plan to study marine biology, but for reasons she chose not to disclose, she was unable to pursue that degree. So, when presented with an opportunity to transform herself once again, Driftmier attended an introductory class at MATC; then, over time, chose interior design as her next career.

While attending classes at the technical college, Driftmier landed an internship at KitchenWorks in Madison, where she eventually became a full-time kitchen and bath designer. The experience was invaluable, and her future vision began taking shape. "I had a desire to be involved in more of the designing process beyond cabinetry and countertops," she said. With the promise of a new career just a few exams away, she knew she'd made the right choice.

After graduating with an associate degree in 2007, Driftmier spent some time working from home and designing for previous customers. Last November, she leased office space (with an option to buy) for her new business, Driftmier Design, LLC, and spent three months adding her own finishing touches.

The company opened officially in January, and through it all, she's never looked back. "I used my experience with Performance Plus, where I ran a business for 10 years, so this transition has been pretty easy. I just adapted what I'd learned there to a new field."

Driftmier credits her father for lighting the fire. "This all started with a $1,000 Christmas gift from my dad," she said, who always encouraged her to spend wisely. She obtained business advice from SCORE, and then secured a line of credit at Johnson Bank with Chuck Salzwedel, VP of private banking. Driftmier had a long-standing relationship with the bank, which helped when establishing her primary funding source. Said Salzwedel: "It's especially hard for entrepreneurs like Cathy who want to start their own business during these times, but when there is a banking relationship built on a solid foundation, we can make sound business decisions by looking at the whole client picture and not just one small piece."

Last winter, despite a crumbling economy, Driftmier was optimistic. "I felt the housing market was bottoming out and would slowly begin to look up," she said, sensing that more people would elect to stay in their homes and remodel rather than move, which would help the remodeling industry overall. She now has a dozen design projects to her credit.

The economy has required a degree of thriftiness, and Driftmier keeps costs down by not purchasing some of the more common tools of the trade. "I work with experts who already have all the samples I need, and I can hunt down furniture and swatches on my own."

This summer, customers will temporarily pay $80 an hour for Driftmier's services (which, she said, is "a little low for what I do"), and she hopes to begin paying off the line of credit by early 2010. Meanwhile, the interior designer is growing into her new role. "I've learned to be more aware of my time because people are paying for my efficiency," she said. And as the economy continues to struggle, she maintains a positive attitude: "Many of the designers are getting busier. We might get smaller jobs, but there is more business overall."