By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
Janet Sullivan and her husband Peter Wentworth know the recipe for building a successful small business. Start with a belief in the promise of small businesses; add a background in music education; throw in a heaping helping of human resources and information technology. Mix in some creativity and stir with a love of collaborative problem solving. When it’s complete, you’ll find a business that looks a lot like Heartland Costumes in East Peoria, Illinois.
Jan was born and raised in La Harpe, Illinois where her parents owned a radio and TV store, so running a small business seemed pretty natural. Her music background started in first grade when she began taking piano lessons. She remembers being inspired while listening to her grandmother play the piano in the den. “I clearly remember the big day,” she recalled. “I was in fourth grade, and for the first time, I played the piano for my grandmother while she sat on the sofa and listened.”
Jan’s love of music and interest in teaching eventually brought her to East Peoria when she took a job teaching elementary school music. After a few years teaching, she wasn’t feeling fulfilled, so she took a couple of computer programming classes at Illinois Central College. Those classes quickly landed her a computer programming job at Caterpillar Inc. After the first several years as a programmer, she had the opportunity to combine her teaching background with computer science and began teaching in Caterpillar’s College Graduate Training program. Over the years, her career included a variety of information technology management and human resources positions.
As she was beginning to contemplate retirement, a friend mentioned that Disney had just begun licensing the musical “Beauty and the Beast” and Eastlight Theatre was planning a production. It was expected to be a popular show, but the costumes were very unusual. “You can’t just go rent or sew costumes for a clock, a wardrobe chest, plates or silverware,” Seeing the opportunity, Jan said. “I’m crafty. I can make those things.”
Jan gives a lot of credit to the help and support of Peter. They met while both were working in information technology at Caterpillar. “Peter is my hero,” Jan said. “He always wanted to have his own small business, and he was up for anything. He’s not about the money, he’s about the challenge and the creativity.”
Initially, Jan didn’t know anything about costumes, but she knew how to organize people to solve problems. “I’m not a born costumer,” she said. “But I am a business woman. I love the challenge of making it work.” Soon she had worked out a contract with a costume designer in Hollywood to design and fabricate one complete set of costumes, but she also began working with local seamstresses and artists to create their own versions of the costumes.
It turned out that the Hollywood designer was in over her head. The basic designs were good, but impractical because they were built on plywood structures making them much too heavy to be worn on stage. Time was quickly running out, with just over a month before Eastlight’s production was set to open. Searching for alternatives, Jan found corrugated plastic as a lightweight replacement for the plywood structures, and immediatly began rebuilding the costumes. In fact, they were still completing costumes during the run of the show. Some of the character’s costumes were different from night to night, and on opening night, they were still finishing costumes during intermission that were needed for the second act. But it all worked out, and today Heartland Costumes can outfit a number of concurrent productions of “Beauty and the Beast.”
According to Jan, the learning process was invaluable. “What I learned more than anything,” she said, “is that I’m much more capable than I thought I was. It was worth the money to have learned that lesson, because without it, I wouldn’t have been able to build this business.”
Technology has been a big part of Heartland Costume’s success. The internet allows a local business to reach customers throughout the US and Canada, and the custom system created by Pete tracks all of the information about each character’s costume and each customer’s need. “If it weren’t for our internal systems, we wouldn’t be able to run the business, but if the internet weren’t there, we wouldn’t have a business.”
Heartland Costumes is preparing to launch costumes for another Disney classic, “The Little Mermaid” which brought its own new set of challenges. Like “Beauty and the Beast,” the show includes a variety of non-traditional costumes. “I like the costumes,” Jan said, “but I love the figuring-it-out through collaboration, creativity and good people.”