Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 30, 2013

Starting over can be a risk, but reward is sweet

BY MARY BEVANS GILLETT Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY -- Meggen Watt Peterson fought nuclear proliferation for 18 years as a national security analyst in Washington D.C. Today, she is a burgeoning local photographer chronicling life with her art on Leelanau County.

Skyler Fort traveled throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico as vice president of operations for a major Indianapolis-based painting company. Now his travels are rooted in Traverse City as owner of Fortified Coating, a residential painting contractor.

Both are examples of many of the region’s new entrepreneurs, successful professionals who left urban careers to start over in northern Michigan. Their stories are becoming increasingly common.

“So many in Michigan have gone through career evolutions,” said Amy Cell, Senior Vice President for Talent Enhancement at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, who noted the economic downturn between 2005 and 2008 caused many forced transitions while others made lifestyle choices. “Many transitioned from large organizations to join start-ups or start their own business.”

Traverse City's an attractive locale for job- and lifestyle-changers because it's known for quality of life, Cell said. Those who consider relocating here may want to move closer to family and put down roots, or escape a high-pressure work life or urban anonymity for a slower pace and familiar faces.

“After our second child, my wife and I were looking to relocate. I had a good job, benefits and pay, but it was not ideal for family life. Traverse was always on the radar,” Fort said, noting his wife Dana’s grandfather was a Lake Leelanau resident. “We wanted a small town feel but with substantial opportunities that wouldn’t limit business or our children. It’s here with access to arts, education and the outdoors, yet with a tight-knit community feel.”

Peterson also was attracted to the summer place she always considered home.

“I lived in several different states but each year made the journey to visit family and friends in Leelanau County. When I said ‘I want to go home', Leelanau really was that place,” she said. “My career path was also particular to Washington. It is not easy to step out of a groove. I enjoyed the accolades of a hard-earned track record. I also wanted something more than Washington in my life. One could say, I had become a Washingtonian with a Leelanau problem.”

Peterson relocated to Leland during winter 2010 and built on her 30-year passion for photography and art with Meggen Watt Photography, where she specializes in capturing images of Leelanau County, as well as commercial and portrait work. Her photos are displayed at the Fishtown Welcome Center in Leland, Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company in Glen Arbor and online. In addition, she uses the skills honed in her prior career for consulting and motivational speaking engagements.

Fort’s career change evolved from the same broad industry, yet took a completely new form. He opened Fortified Coatings in March 2012, shortly after relocating to Traverse City. In contrast to his past project management work throughout the country, his new business focuses on residential repainting in the Grand Traverse region. He chose the niche after researching where he could add value to the local market. He started with just one employee, now has a six-person team, and doubled business during his first year of operation.

The changes didn’t come without challenges.

“Starting from scratch was hard,” Fort said, “and my own misperception of what I knew. I had years of experience making projections in urban areas … but this is a very unique market. I had to understand the ebbs and flows of seasonality, which was so different,” he said.

Fort recommends researching locales and industries well before making a move, and to not hesitate to create opportunities. He and his family visited the region for a few days in each season, to make sure Up North living was viable year-round.

“You need to believe in yourself,” Peterson said. “Be wise and think things through, but in the end, don’t hold back.”

Peterson learned to take former skills and reshape them for new roles. She credits participation in MEDC’s Shifting Gears program with helping her reframe her talents for her new goals, debunk myths about starting over and helping ground her while pursuing her new business plans. Cell also promoted Shifting Gears, a 12-week program that helps professionals explore opportunities and transition to new career paths.

Given the chance to do it again, both are happy with their decisions.

“I love how intimate our relationships with customers are,” Fort said. “And when I can end my day at the beach with my family, I know we are in the right place.”

“One of my goals is to live without regrets,” Peterson said. “Being here and being closer to family after so many years pursuing a fast-paced career, is a great move. I followed my heart.”