Linda Nixon is a constant reminder to me that our careers are like branches of a tree... they don’t just go in one direction; one area of work leads to another.

I first met Linda when she worked in the health care system. And we re-connected later when she and her husband owned Self Service Mini Storage. Linda took the same attention to detail into this business, and actually developed training techniques for managing telephone systems to ensure customer service. For several years she has shared this skill with many of my clients who are in the start-up phase of self employment.

And with every crisis comes opportunity. Linda’s a living, breathing example of this. When her husband suffered a stroke, they decided to sell the storage company and Linda started to look around for an economic opportunity that would give her flexibility, utilize her husband’s immense business skills, and allow her to explore her creative side.

Well, she’s found it!

She bought a six-plex apartment, tucked away into an old house at 67 Peel St. It was a nondescript structure, almost a century and a half old, and in the ‘50’s had been renovated from a single family home into apartments. It was the kind of place you’d drive past forever and not really notice.

Except for Linda.

She researched the history of this once-glamourous house, poised on one of Barrie’s many ridges that rise up from Kempenfelt Bay. Built originally by Hamilton Douglas Stewart in 1856, this home became a busy place for this young lawyer and Master Deputy Registrar who was a partner in the firm of Boulton Lount Boyes and Stewart. He died in his home in 1911 in a 600-square-foot master bedroom that was heated by one of the house’s four fireplaces.

For Linda, purchasing the house with its Georgian and Victorian architectural influences, beginning to work on the gardens, painting (by herself) the exterior was important ground work. Respectful of her existing tenants, Linda began to restore old doorbells, mail slots, marvellous wood floors, bannisters, and plaster mouldings. She created a gracious entrance to the house.

But her plan is really to develop executive suites... longer-term, hotel-like accommodation for people who are in Barrie for extended business use, who are waiting between houses, who are visiting for several weeks at a time.

She took the rear garage and empty back kitchen of the building and created her first “suite”, The Canadiana, a fully accessible unit with a delightful kitchen, living room, inventive shower area, bathroom and master bedroom. She wired the suite for cable and private telephone line as well as internet hookup and worked with a designer Michael DeCaire of Bush Baby Interiors to transform found objects into working items in this suite.

It opened for business in June, 1999.

During the next 12 months, three more units became available as tenants moved on. Linda moved in to each suite with a master plasterer who tore down drop ceilings to expose original 12” plaster mouldings, four fireplaces (three with original mantles). She wields a paint brush, she haunts auctions and antique shops for the right “finds” and she delights in creating a living environment that is breath-taking.

Each suite--the Russian, French Country, British Traditional as well as The Canadiana--is unique. Linda has equipped each with its own set of dishes, cooking implements, and all the amenities for an extended stay. She provides each guest with an introductory basket that covers the first day’s breakfast and is responding to the need for additional services like shopping and laundry.

Her suites have not yet been empty, so great is the demand. Linda has researched other area suite services and bed-and-breakfasts so she can refer people to other accommodation with confidence that they’ll be well cared for.

Perhaps what’s so exciting about Signature Suites, Linda’s Peel St project, is her incredible attention to detail. She has thought of everything, from fully stocked kitchens and bathrooms, to cable, internet, call answer services for her guests. Her son, Cameron Strangway, lives on site and provides guests with extra assistance with luggage and acts as an immediate resource for Linda’s guests.

Linda hopes eventually that Signature Suites will offer seven units as she continues to restore and re-create enhanced living environments from what was a tired old building.

She says her average guest stay is one month and her rates are comparable to a hotel’s long-term rate. She feels that furnished apartments give people a “homey” feel. At the end of a long day they can order out, or whip up their own meal, make a cup of coffee, email the kids at home, relax in the unit’s living room and just unwind. She says her guests tend to be very quiet. Many are executives who are working 12 hour days and they appreciate feeling like they’re coming home at the end of the day.

And is this a viable business? Well, Linda’s in year two of this and knows she has to spend before she’s going to make money. Stocking a kitchen is expensive and time consuming. Multiply it by the four she’s currently done and the numbers start to add up. Completely gut and re-build four units. Buy furniture. Maintain the units between guests. It’s a business.

“I wanted a business that gives me flexibility... this felt like a good investment,” she said to me this week. “My real estate agent asked if I wanted somethingt pretty or something that would make money. I said I wanted both.”

It was actually Linda’s son who found the building on the internet. And today, Linda’s sharing the story of Signature Suites on her own website... you can stroll through her rooms on line at www.signaturesuites.on.ca.

Linda feels great about restoring one of Barrie’s heritage homes. She feels that what she’s doing is the highest and best use of her property. And she’s excited to be meeting a need that Barrie is now big enough to demand.

Thanks, Linda.

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