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True Entrepreneurship

Mary Lou Walker's Story of Breaking Barriers

The old saying “it takes a village” is a tired cliché, but it’s one of those rules of thumb that is often the greatest measure of success, and rightly so.  For Mary Lou Walker, a long-time fixture in many Omaha circles, the support of family and friends has opened doors she never would have thought about peeking through.  At 83-years-old and with over 60 years in the beauty industry, she’s just sold her second successful business and is looking forward to enjoying what lies ahead.

Walker’s remarkable story, though punctuated by humble beginnings, is all the richer for it.  An Omaha native, Walker was the only girl in a family of seven boys, a fact that she says has made her tougher.  But it was the early death of her father that would become a major influence in her entrepreneurial endeavors.  Her mother, now a single parent of eight, had to make ends meet working more than one job, but as Walker says, “we still had food on the table and the house was clean.  We didn’t know we were poor.  My family was great and happy, and we were very close.  I had what I needed and was happy with it.”

In a family of boys, it would be easy to get lost, but Walker took her cues from her mother, whose spirit and remarkable strength was closely watched by her daughter.  Family, a constant hallmark for Walker, was an influencing factor in her need to drop out of school at sixteen to help provide financial support.  It was a decision that so many in her generation experienced, and the only negative thing she can say about her time working in the Swanson packing plant was that she “could hardly look at chickens for the next twenty years.”

"For Mary Lou Walker, a long-time fixture in many Omaha circles, the support of family and friends has opened doors she never would have thought about peeking through."

Eventually, Walker found work at Brandeis & Sons where she rose to become the Director of Beauty Salons.  Her indomitable “go get ‘em” energy was noticed early on, and after she took time away from working at Brandeis, she was called back for what she thought would be a short-term assignment.  “I came back to Brandeis on a lark, after one of the big shots there called me up and asked me to come in again.  Twenty-two years later, I was still there,” says Walker.  Eventually she oversaw the eleven salons Brandeis operated across Omaha, Des Moines and Lincoln.  She helped design them, oversaw financials and led advertising for each of them.

Just a few short years before Younker’s bought Brandeis, Walker’s husband, Arthur, started a Nissan dealership in Bellevue with their son, David.  When she decided to retire at 55 after the Younker’s purchase, Walker was hardly looking to become a business owner, but she was soon approached by a Kansas City businessman with ideas for developing One Pacific Place.  Her husband would then become a huge part of getting her first salon, Garbo’s, up and running.

For those of us in younger generations, it’s hard to imagine how difficult it was to be a female entrepreneur as late as 1988.  Walker faced roadblock after roadblock from banks that would not lend to a woman, especially one without previous ownership experience.  Eventually, she was granted a $38,000 loan only if her husband would co-sign.  So, at a time when most are retiring or thinking about it, Walker was becoming a first-time business owner.

But, as she is quick to point out, she didn’t go on to create one of Omaha’s most popular salons without help and support from Arthur and their family.  “My entire success revolves around my family, their big support and help,” she says.  “One person can’t build or buy a business without help.”

"My entire success revolves around my family, their big support and help."
-Mary Lou Walker

Most of Walker’s family was involved in running a part of the Garbo’s salons in Omaha.  Her daughter, Roxanne Kahn, ran the Regency location and oversaw the Eagle Run Garbo’s.  All the décor and salons were designed by Walker’s other daughter, Denise Gooden.  Kahn’s daughter, Rebecca, was at the helm of another location.

Walker, who likes to pack her life with activities to keep her busy, then endeavored to start a floral shop for daughter-in-law, Debi, who had been working for an investment group.  In 1994, Stems was opened at Countryside Village, and the personal touches and one-of-a-kind service established it as an elite floral business.  Much like Garbo’s, Stems was a success due to the people that Walker surrounded herself with.  She credits a good amount to the stylists at Garbo’s and the floral designers at Stems, emphasizing that “you’re only as good as the people that are there and work for you.”  For Walker, it’s the “people that make you successful.”

While everyone pulled together to make both companies true family businesses, their strength came to a test when Walker was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer five years ago.  Unfortunately, during the time of Walker’s illness her husband of 58 years passed away.  It was at this point that her children and grandchildren really “hung in there and stuck by [her] side with the cancer treatments,” she says.  Her years of paying it forward had finally come back, she adds, noting a philosophy that has informed her personal and professional life to great degrees. 

"I love Omaha. I love that my family is here, and there's no place like home,"
-Mary Lou Walker

Now on the flipside of her brush with cancer, Walker is eager to embrace the future and enjoy an active retirement.  Her six grandchildren are an important joy in her life, and she actively keeps in touch with them through texts.  Though many of her brothers are now gone, she still fondly remembers their almost daily phone calls.  Above all else, family ties are what have made the hard times easier, and even though she attributes much of her business success to those around her, the extraordinary effort of treating customers and employees right was what built Walker’s reputation in Omaha.

You might think that at 83 Walker would be ready to take it easy, but she’s still making sure her life is packed with adventures.  Although her daughter Denise lives in Malibu, Walker visits her twice a year, but she’s not ready to leave Omaha behind.  “I love Omaha.  I love that my family is here, and there’s no place like home,” she says.  After all, it was a community that helped Walker become a two-time successful business owner after age 55.  “My family was involved in everything, and I would not be where I am at all without them.”

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