After 31 years in the health insurance business, Jillian Foucré had worked her way to the top. As chief operating officer of UnitedHealth Group's UnitedHealth Networks, she oversaw all the partnerships between the insurance company and its health care providers. That meant working long hours and, on most weeks, commuting from her suburban Chicago home to Minneapolis or another city.
Then, in 2009, two events happened that made Foucré rethink her life: Her mother unexpectedly died at age 71, and the hard-charging health care exec turned 50.
What Prompted Her Radical Career Shift
That double whammy led her to consider making a change. As she told her husband, Bob: “I apparently only have 20 years left, and I don’t feel like spending 10 of them living in a hotel room.”
Foucré’s decision soon became easier as United Healthcare announced a reorganization. Suddenly the choice was simple: She could either take a new job that she didn’t want or leave the company with a year of severance pay, which would give her time to figure out a new path.
The breadwinner of the family — her husband has always managed their home and two rental properties they own — Foucré took a risk and chose the latter. She resigned in June 2010.
As for her new path, she knew she wanted to do something entrepreneurial related to her love of food and entertaining, but wasn’t sure exactly what it would be. “I had to have a business that would support us, financially,” she says. “The whole thing was very scary because I stepped away from a lifetime of certainty into something that’s very uncertain.”
The New Venture: Cooking Classes and a Food Shop
As she contemplated her options, Foucré kept coming back to the cooking classes she and her husband liked to take during their world travels. But she realized that offering cooking school classes alone wouldn’t bring in enough income. So she decided to open Marcel’s Culinary Experience (named after her grandfather) in her hometown of Glen Ellyn, Ill., which would include a retail gourmet food shop with items she'd buy for the store and onsite cooking classes. Just one problem: She knew nothing about that type of business.
For advice, Foucré turned to the SCORE, a national nonprofit supported by the Small Business Administration that provides counseling to small businesses. SCORE matched her up with two advisers who helped her craft a business plan.
The advisers emphasized the importance of putting enough money into the business for a successful launch. With that in mind, Foucré decided she’d need to tap about $500,000 of the retirement savings she and her husband had built up and take on $820,000 of debt for a mortgage and a construction loan to renovate the building.
A Feeling of Accomplishment
Marcel’s became a reality on Sept. 26, 2011. “When the store opened, it was the most significant feeling of accomplishment that I had felt in my professional career,” Foucré says. “To know that in less than 15 months I had gone from the start of a business plan to the opening of this beautiful store with an amazing team of people was very, very satisfying.”
Since then, she and her team have focused on getting the word out. To drum up business — most of their sales come from a five-mile radius of Marcel’s — they advertise in regional magazines and online, and also use social media by posting on Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter. They distribute a monthly newsletter via email, too, and make public donations to local nonprofits.
Marcel's Takes Off Quickly
The business is sizzling. Within six months, Foucré has brought on 11 retail employees, a full-time chef who helps her plan the cooking classes, and six other chefs who teach part-time. Revenue is about 32 percent ahead of her projections, the business is more than meeting its expenses, and Foucré believes she’ll earn back her investment, excluding the mortgage, within three years.
Foucré works the same hours she did when she was an executive: up to 15 hours a day. When store traffic is slow or Marcel’s racks up less than $1,000 in sales, “it’s nerve-wracking because I don’t totally understand the rhythm of my business yet,” she says.
Still, she loves being her own boss and sleeping in her own bed every night.
Her advice to other would-be entrepreneurs: Go for it — but expect the unexpected.
“There’s stress, but I don’t have any of the stress of working in a highly political environment,” Foucré says. “I love running my own business and making my own decisions and being surrounded by great staff.”