November’s Empowering Cover Woman Michelle Thompson Small Business Savvy

Michelle Barr Thompson has a passion and a heart for business and adventure, and owning her own retail business has been the biggest adventure of her life.

She was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1962 and grew up traveling the world with her parents, Russell and Jackie Barr. Her father was a Chaplain in the U.S. Air Force, so they lived all over the United States, in Italy, and in Okinawa, Japan.

Michelle was fortunate to have her older sister Cindi as her closest friend growing up. “Every time we moved, we had to find new friends. If I would have been an only child, it would have been a lot harder, but since I did have a sister close to my age, we had each other to back up. Cindi and I are still close. She helps the business with fundraisers and hospital sales and is always willing to help at the store.”

It was tough growing up as a military kid, Michelle says. All the other kids she knew were military as well, and with moves being frequent, it was hard to form any lasting relationships. “The biggest thing is we never really had a place to call home. Every three to four years, we moved, so that was kind of hard,” she laments. “I’ve never been to a high school reunion because everybody was military and nobody’s even living there and we’ve all moved around.”

After graduating from Alamogordo High School in New Mexico in 1980, Michelle’s dad was assigned to Okinawa, so she attended her first year of college abroad in Japan before returning to Pennsylvania to attend Kutztown State College. Her grandparents lived only an hour away from the school, so it was easy for Michelle’s family to keep an eye on her as they still had another three years left in Japan. She moved from there to earn her degree at Montgomery College in Rockdale, Maryland.

Her first job, during college, was working for A&W Root Beer Restaurant in the mall. And as she was leaving work one night, a man in a suit asked for her help to jump his car. His nametag said he was the manager of Mushrooms Shoes. Her business savvy nature prompted her to ask if he was hiring, and he told her, “Yes. Come in Monday and I’ll give you a job.”

“So that is how I got into retail… by helping somebody out!” she says.

At 27, Michelle moved to be closer to her parents who had relocated to Peachtree City, and took a job running Fashion Cents clothing store in Union City. And when yet another sales opportunity presented itself in North Carolina, she moved there to become the area manager for Uniform Connections. “I was just a good salesperson,” she says. “I always had people say I could even sell cars.”

Eventually, Michelle made her final move to settle in Peachtree City and took a job working for Dwight Wilson who was opening a uniform store in Newnan. She managed the store and did all the outside sales, visiting medical offices and retirement homes and pitching their products. Michelle had been in the industry for quite a while and was thinking about opening her own store with embroidery and screen printing. She had so many ideas to expand the business, selling more than just scrubs, and had asked him about selling additional items as her own side business. “The day that I was going to tell him that I was going to quit to start my own little business, he asked me if I wanted to buy Uniforms for America, and I said yes!”

At the time, selling entailed a lot of footwork, calling on businesses and self-promoting, and Michelle thrived in the atmosphere. Occasionally people would come into the store to ask her if she’d come to their offices to size the staff, but most of the work was cold calling.

Michelle’s mom, Jackie, says that Michelle never stops selling and she’s always been that way… that everywhere they go, she’s telling people about her store and offering her services.

Michelle moved Uniforms for America to Peachtree City on Huddleston Road, starting with one spot in the shopping center 18 years ago. With her endless supply of energy and relentless drive, it wasn’t long before the business expanded into two spots, then three, then four, adding screenprinting and embroidery machines in addition to a vast array of products. Every few years, she was breaking down another wall to make room for the company’s growth. And a year and a half ago, she bought a second store in Fayetteville.

Uniforms’ most recent move was to a 12,000 square-foot building at 135 Huddleston Road in Peachtree City. They provide the uniforms for companies as large as Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and as small as Azul Tequila, Mike and C’s, La Hacienda Restaurants, and Carlos Salon, to name a few. Michelle has also beenproducing roughly 1,000 uniforms for the Peachtree City Basketball League for 18 years. “It’s about having a great selection, great customer service, and being friendly,” she says, to keep the customers coming back each year.

“The reason why I got into uniforms in the beginning was because I was working retail stores and I had to work nights and weekends. I thought if I ever want to have a family or anything, this is not the job for me,” she remembers. “Uniform stores aren’t open nights or Sundays. It’s not busy during the holidays so that you can’t take vacations.”

And boy, does Michelle know how to vacation! She and her husband Smokey love to cruise at least twice per year and even got married on a cruise ship five years ago. Her dad performed the ceremony!

Michelle and Smokey met online and had their first date at Carrabba’s in Peachtree City, closing the restaurant down talking about their business backgrounds. “We had something in common from the very beginning,” she says, “that he knew what you had to do to run a business. If you had to work till midnight or one o’ clock to make somebody happy the next day because you promised them something, then you gotta do it! And he understood that.”

Smokey is her jack-of-all-trades right-hand man, fixing anything that needs it, is her assistant manager, and he also runs her screenprinting at the store. He remembers his proposal to Michelle fondly. He took her out to eat for Christmas at Frank’s Old Mill and, in homage to their business’s services, had their server’s apron embroidered with “Michelle, will you marry me?, Smokey.”

He says that she gets her energy from the goals she set for herself years ago. “She keeps striving to meet those. We get up every day ready to go to work,” he adds.

As Michelle’s business grows, so does her love of giving back to the community that has supported her through it all. For the past ten years, she has held fundraisers at at least 15 area hospitals, including Piedmont, Wellstar, Emory and Tanner. Uniforms for America sets up shop at the hospital with a portion of sales proceeds going to the hospital’s auxiliary. “With the money they make from our sales, they give out scholarships, they purchase equipment, and one even did an expansion of the building.”

With on-site hospital sales making up about half of the business, Michelle wasn’t sure how the pandemic would affect things. Masks were hard to find in spring and early summer, so Michelle and her mom organized a group to start sewing them to give away, and somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 masks were made and donated to hospitals and even to those visiting the store. “We had a table out in front of our store because some people didn’t want to come inside. So people could just come up and grab a mask and go.”

“Business picked up at our stores during COVID,” says Michelle. “We had nurses coming in directly from the hospital, so that was a little scary, but we have great employees who were willing to work.”

Store manager Judy Ogle is proud to be a part of the supportive team at Uniforms for America. She has worked with Michelle for seven years. “I quickly noticed the rapport Michelle has with customers. She’s very friendly and helpful, and I like that I’ve been part of the growth that has occurred in the last seven years, especially with the local businesses, schools, hospitals, and churches. Michelle has a very good work ethic and strives to ensure all customers receive the best product and are satisfied,” she says. “We have a great team at the store that supports Michelle, too.”

Michelle’s support for this community that she calls home is as boundless as her energy. Uniforms for America is a sponsor for the Georgia Hospital Association and Georgia Society of Volunteers and Uniform Retailer Association, as well as supporting countless local clubs and organizations. “Uniforms for America printed the 2020 Strong t-shirts as a fundraiser. We sold several hundred of these t-shirts, and the proceeds funded almost 2,000 cloth masks and hand sanitizer that were donated to the community,” says Michelle.

In addition, with her daughter, Jennifer, and son-in-law, Rob, both being educators—at Huddleston Elementary and McIntosh High School, respectively—Michelle makes it a priority to support local schools as much as possible.

“Uniforms for America has assisted me with our annual 5K race, the Jingle Bell Trail, for nearly a decade,” says co-chairperson Amanda White. “Each year, nearly 1,000 runners convene at Peachtree City Elementary School to run in this annual community event, and we rely on specialty items for printing not just our shirts, but our race bags and promotional vinyl banners, as well. Their attention to detail means that our shirt design is always a standout and their dedication to providing excellent service means that I can count on them to make certain our order is always correct and on time. They have no problem with quick turnarounds or special requests. It has been a blessing to have them as a partner in putting on the Jingle Bell Trail for the past ten years and we look forward to continuing that great tradition with this fantastic local business as we launch our first ever virtual 5K for 2020.”

When the Peachtree City Little League went to the World Series three years ago, Michelle moved to action to support the players’ parents. “They just kept winning and winning and winning, which was great! But we decided that we wanted to help the parents who were staying in a hotel for a month and a half. We designed a t-shirt and sold it at our store, and we got other businesses in Peachtree City involved… Mike and C’s and Johnny’s Pizza and All Star Baseball all sold the shirts at their locations and gave the money to us, and we wrote a check to the Little League for $13,000, raising money by selling t-shirts!”

“One of the sisters of one of the boys who played sent me a card and it said if it wasn’t for the money that we had given them, she would not have been able to be there to see her brother play,” Michelle says.

The Hope Closet and Breast Cancer Survivors’ Network have also been recipients of fundraising Michelle has organized. Her friend Phil Prebor’s wife, Lali, lost her fight with breast cancer. Michelle created the t-shirt campaign “Live Like Lali” and raised $800 for the cause. Phil wanted her to donate to a local breast cancer organization in the name of his wife Lali. Cancer fundraisers are very close to Michelle’s heart because she has lost her cousin and father recently.

Another fundraiser Michelle organized hit very close to home. She helped local wildlife photographer Dan Nelson raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association to honor both their families. When Dan had a golf cart accident and lost his camera, Michelle offered to raise money to help him purchase a new one. “He said, ‘I don’t really need the money for a new camera, but if you wanted to do something for Alzheimer’s, my wife has Alzheimer’s.’”

They created a calendar of Dan’s bird photos and, along with Wild Birds Unlimited, sold the calendars to raise money for the cause. “My husband’s mom died of dementia/Alzheimer’s,” she adds. “We would go see her and she didn’t know who her own son was when we went to visit. It was so sad. Dan and his wife are friends with my parents, and they saw how her life changed after she got Alzheimer’s. That is why we wanted to raise money to help for a cure.”

Michelle’s list of contributions to her community goes on and on. She’s collected coats, shoes, and bibles for the homeless, and she’s supported Relay for Life and Coco’s Cupboard. She’s donated hundreds of scrub hats to local hospitals and even donated 100 phone chargers to Piedmont Fayette during the pandemic so that patients unable to see their families could charge their phones to stay in contact.

“I just love what I do. This is my whole life. I could not see not ever doing this. If I woke up today and I didn’t have to go to work, I don’t know what I would be doing. I can’t see my life without going to work and selling scrubs. I’m the t-shirt lady, I’m the scrub lady. Everybody knows me as the uniform lady.”