Mid-life Detour

At 51, a former CPA takes a different route in life by opening a boutique

September 05, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

These days, instead of worrying about managing international audits, Katherine Means is worrying about whether Baltimoreans will buy her burnt velvet shawls and fashion-forward but animal-friendly handbags.

At 51, with her size-zero body, artful makeup, red-and-black cheongsam top and slim black pants, she looks more like what she is -- the owner of a new fashion and home accessories boutique in Mount Vernon -- than what she was: a CPA and auditor for companies like Price Waterhouse. This is a woman who can wear a pair of lavender velour sweats from the Gap and make them look like Loro Piana.

She's raised two daughters (one a world-class long-distance runner, the other the head of an escrow company), runs 50 miles a week herself, is a gourmet cook, decorated her and her husband's striking four-story rowhouse by herself, and now she wants to sell you a pair of earrings.

Chase Street Accessories opened last week at 17 W. Chase St., with an owner who admits she knows nothing about selling. Having an MBA, she says, doesn't mean you have retail experience.

"I'm used to being on the other end," she says with a laugh. "I was a great consumer -- I still am a great consumer."

She had originally hoped that her runner daughter, Christine Clifton, would be an overseas buyer for her. Clifton lives and trains in Italy with her fiance. Her 2:32:45 debut in the Chicago Marathon was one of the fastest marathons by an American woman in 2000. (The 2004 Olympic qualifying time was 2:37.) Health problems have slowed her down recently, and recovering from allergies and asthma has been as time-consuming as training, her mother says. So Means has had to find her own sources for hand-painted Italian pottery and European flowering candles.

Unlike many new small-business owners, Means isn't naive about her chances. As a CPA, she knows that more than half of small businesses fail in the first year, and 95 percent in the first five years.

So why the career change, and such a drastic one at that?

It all started, she says, at a mah-jongg table at a country club in Las Vegas.

Or maybe it started before that, six years ago in the Santa Fe, N.M., airport, very late at night. Katherine and the man who would become her second husband, Randy Means, were the only passengers left waiting for their bags. They got to talking.

"Of course, we met in an airport," she says, since they both traveled constantly for their jobs. She was managing audits in places like Moscow, Siberia, London, Paris and Indonesia. He was, and still is, a legal consultant and trainer for law enforcement agencies.

She gave him a ride back to his hotel, and they discovered they were both serious runners. The two met for a running "date" the next morning, and that was that. At the time, Katherine was living in Denver, while Randy was based in Charlotte, N.C. After spending $1,500 on telephone calls in six months, they decided to get married.

Career, home choices

When you both have careers that involve so much traveling, you can pretty much live anywhere that has a good airport. Because Katherine wasn't crazy about Charlotte, the couple did a city search over the Internet and visited likely places. Eventually they decided to move to Las Vegas. She stopped working so they could spend more time together, but soon realized she wasn't happy as a suburban housewife, shopping, playing golf and lunching with other wives.

"I got so bored. I looked at the ladies and said, 'I don't want this life.' "

She needed a second career, and it wasn't going to be in Las Vegas.

"We lived in Las Vegas for almost five years," she says. "We loved it. It's a nice community there. But we wanted something more real where we could put down roots. There's no history there."

They thought about Hawaii, where Katherine was born, but ended up moving to Baltimore last year. Neither had any connection to the city, but "BWI is a fabulous airport," she says. They liked the idea of being near the water in a city that also offered urban living. (Las Vegas didn't have enough of a downtown for them, apart from the casinos.) "We can walk to the symphony and the gym."

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