THE ELBERT FILES: Painting her way out of retirement
Friday, December 21, 2012 7:00 AM
Janet Roewe Piller, 60, has been preparing her whole life for the unusual business she opened last year, TLC Vintage Collections.
Her Urbandale store mixes high-end paint sales, furniture refinishing and adult education with a touch of flea market from its location in the Sherwood Forest Shopping Center in the 7500 block of Hickman Road.
Janet Roewe (pronounced RAVE-ee), grew up on a farm in northern Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University before launching an eclectic career that took her to Washington, D.C., London and Switzerland as a writer for Commodity News Service for more than a decade.
A divorce brought her back to Iowa in 1987 so she could raise her two children near family. She worked as a legislative aide before Democrat Ed Campbell helped her get a position as a marketing executive at the Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines, which led to a similar position at West Bank.
She started her own insurance agency from scratch in 1995, specializing in coverage for collector cars, while she built a full line of coverage for clients.
In 2007, she married an old boyfriend, Des Moines Register business writer Dan Piller, and in 2010 she retired from insurance sales at the age of 58 with a plan to work on her garden.
Instead, she found herself going to garage and estate sales and buying kitschy items that she resold to a wide circle of friends.
At one sale, Piller purchased a corner desk that she wanted to refinish in a shabby-chic style. But she didn’t want to spend hours stripping and sanding.
She remembered reading a blog about a type of refinishing that didn’t involve the use of caustic strippers and which dramatically reduced the amount of time and effort.
“The blog led me to Annie Sloan, a decorator and inventor of Chalk Paint 22 years ago in Oxford, England,” Piller said.
“She and I emailed, and we got a kick out of it, because she had been a young woman in London at the same time I was there, except she had an all-girl rock band, called The Moodies.”
The correspondence led Piller to Annie Sloan’s North American distributor, and in August 2011, she became the Iowa retailer of Annie Sloan paints.
“This is great for Janet,” said husband Dan Piller. “Jan has a real flair for decorating, and now she has an outlet for it.”
By the time she retired from insurance, Janet Piller was also a very smart businesswoman. She was able to launch TLC Vintage Collections with no bank loans, relying solely on her own modest initial investment and her profits from buying and reselling old furniture and other knickknacks at flea markets.
Piller initially leased a booth at the Brass Armadillo Antique Mall, where she displayed and sold her refinished furniture, while explaining that others could do the same with Annie Sloan Chalk Paint.
Her business moved into an 1,890-square-foot store in Sherwood Forest on April 1 and has been busy ever since.
“My philosophy is buy low, sell low and sell a lot,” Piller said. Items in her store are priced from less than $5 to about $200.
The paint is her real bread and butter. It sells for $36.50 a quart. That seems high, she admits, adding that what people don’t realize is that they don’t have to spend money and time stripping furniture.
“Just wash it with soap and water, let it dry and paint,” she said.
Piller also sells Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint, which is another non-caustic, low-effort way to shabby-chic furniture.
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