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Business Profiles - Women to watch

October 17, 2007|By DAVE THOMPSON

Editor's note: There are a lot of people you see around town that you recognize, but don't know anything about. People like...

Kathy Valentine



For Kathy Valentine, leaving a position at Wright-Gardner Insurance after six years and starting her own business was a matter of taking more control of her life.

"I wanted a change in life, with more flexibility to manage my time and spend more time with family," she said. "It was time to reshift and adjust. My parents are in their 70s now, and I wanted to be in a position to help them if needed."

Friends and clients encouraged her to go into business, which helped.

"I needed to hear that affirmation before I started," she said.

About two-and-half-months after leaving her sales job at Wright-Gardner, Kathy was up and running with her Allegheny Benefits & Consulting business in April. The company sells employee benefit packages such as health, life and disability and also does some human resources (HR) consulting.

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"I didn't anticipate the time I'd spend doing some things - getting cards printed, marketing, doing a Web site, incorporating," she said. "The back-office stuff can be overwhelming. To think you're going to leave a job one day and start a business the next day is crazy."

As for starting out with a formal business plan, it was a matter of "yes and no," Kathy said. She did have a template for what she wished to accomplish; however, her financial planning wasn't overly complex as the business wasn't inventory-intensive, and she was working from her home.

"There were not a lot of start-up expenses. I was lucky in that regard," she said. Her parents, her mother-in-law and a silent partner have provided financial help.

A native of Hagerstown and a North Hagerstown High graduate, Kathy moved back to the area in 1999 after living for a time in Rochester, N.Y. Her husband, Tom, works for the National Park Service in its Historic Preservation Training Center. She has a son, Nicholas, 9, and stepdaughter, Kristin, 21.

"Working out of the home can be hard. Sometimes, I'll feel guilty and throw a load of laundry in," she said. "Or I'll take my son to school and do some volunteer work and end up working later.

"But that's OK. It's what I wanted to do, and it's been a real life-changing thing. My husband has been very supportive of me both in leaving my other position and in this venture.

"Leaving a job without having another one lined up was a foreign concept to my dad (Joe Robeson, former Boonsboro High School principal), but he has been extremely supportive."

Kathy said building rapport with clients will be a key to expanding her business.

"Most (benefits) brokers have the same stuff. The difference is developing a relationship with persons," she said.

She also plans to differentiate herself with the human resources consulting aspect of the business. Allegheny Benefits will help clients make sure their employment practices are up to standard and will provide such services as writing employee handbooks. These services would be mostly for businesses with 50 or fewer employees.

"I think this part of the business has gone well so far. It is not rocket science, but it takes a lot of time. We can make the service as basic or comprehensive as the client wants," Kathy said.

At the time of her interview with H.E.R., Kathy had just hired Kevin Smith, who has a consulting background, to help with the human resources side of the business. She also was working with Craig Harshman of Hagerstown Management to get an office up and running at 277 Eastern Blvd. She wants to be careful to grow her business in a controlled fashion.

"I'm 41, so there's still 25 years to go (before retirement)," she said. "Maybe we'll get bigger down the road."

Going it alone has meant added risk and hard work, but Kathy said gaining schedule flexibility has brought rewards as well.

"It's been worth it to watch my son be so excited about me doing things with him," she said.

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