Rural Delmarva Retailer-Turned-Manufacturer’s Growth Defies Pandemic Odds

Jenny McMillan and employees in front of store

A home-based e-commerce sideline business grows into a self-supporting brick-and-mortar retail shop and then launches its own manufacturing enterprise, bringing industry, jobs, and “Made-in-America” pride to the heart of the rural Delmarva Peninsula. It’s a small business success story that entrepreneur Jenny McMillan wrote not just for her business – home-décor-and-gift brand, JennyGem’s – but for her ever-expanding staff of 23 neighbors, and for the Sussex County, Del. small town that she calls home. And it’s a success story that McMillan credits to seizing opportunity, meeting challenges with ingenuity, and a little help from SBA, along with a variety of Delaware-based economic development champions.

In 2006, a layoff at the bank where McMillan had worked for 16 years left her wondering what was next. But her bank’s severance package gave her one year’s salary, and those funds, together with encouragement from her husband, opened the door to McMillan’s next chapter: her online e-commerce business selling antiques and collectibles had been a sideline passion project, but, now, it would take center stage. McMillan leveraged her severance money to build a primary-income-generating small business selling collectibles online, and with true focus, she made that business a success.

Soon, McMillan’s husband left his own full-time job to join her enterprise and, in 2015, McMillan launched JennyGems. The brand offered home décor and gift items, with customers especially embracing its unique decorative sign offerings. With time, McMillan looked to make JennyGems a brick-and-mortar enterprise. To that end, McMillan honed the business’ production systems and suppliers according to industry norms, which included relying on a China-based supplier to manufacture the novelty decorative signs at her business’ core. All the while, McMillan expertly anticipated quick-shift social trends and customer demand, navigating against the headwind of the industry-standard four-month delay between submitting her designs to her China-based manufacturer and the finished product’s arrival stateside for sale. Soon, with her product pipeline in place and her customer base growing, McMillan confidently moved her business into the brick-and-mortar sphere. In 2017, McMillan opened the doors of her 7000 square-foot JennyGems warehouse-and-retail space in rural Harbeson, Delaware, just west of the Delaware beaches, a thriving resort-and-retail destination.

By 2019, JennyGems continued to attract customer attention, but U.S.-China trade regulations made importing product from its Chinese manufacturer increasingly difficult. Rather tying her hometown business’ fortunes to international issues beyond her control, McMillan took swift action, with, once again, a new chapter firmly in sight: JennyGems would manufacture its own product, right in its Harbeson space.

Inspired, McMillan set to work. She invested $100,000 in purchasing a commercial printer, set to arrive at her Harbeson shop in March 2020 – what turned out to be just one week before COVID-19 shutdowns took hold in Delaware. When the printer arrived, JennyGems staffers dedicated themselves to mastering its complex operation, and McMillan worked to streamline in-house assembly processes.

Around the same time, Delaware U.S. Senator Tom Carper’s staffer happened into JennyGem’s Harbeson store. She was impressed with JennyGem’s upstart success, potential for growth, and community impact as a manufacturing employer. Immediately, she connected McMillan with a team of economic development organizations that could help McMillan harness that potential. Through Senator Carper’s office, McMillan tapped into business growth resources through the Sussex County, Del., Economic Development Office, the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership (DEMEP), SBA, and the SBA-backed Delaware Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

SBA advises entrepreneurs like McMillan on everything from business plans to day-to-day operations to breaking into new markets like exporting or online ventures through its own website, as well as through SBA-backed SCORE mentors and Small Business Development Centers in every state across the country. And, best of all, these services are offered free-of-charge or for a nominal fee to cover included materials.

Meanwhile, though, COVID-19’s grim impact was shuttering many Delaware mom-and-pop retail shops, as COVID-19-fueled government-imposed restrictions combined with customer retraction from public spaces and shops. Faced with a sudden drop-off in customer foot traffic to JennyGems’ retail shop, McMillan closed its shop doors, laid off its 5 employees, and took stock of its options. To McMillan’s mind, JennyGems’ was down, but not out. Its brick-and-mortar retail efforts were sidelined, for now, but its recent manufacturing-focused gear-up uniquely positioned it – with very a strategic re-focus – to not only survive, but to thrive.

Buoyed by her new-found State of Delaware and SBA-backed economic development champions, McMillan launched an ambitious social media campaign, promoting JennyGems’ Made-in-America product line, available for COVID-restriction-friendly in-home delivery. Almost overnight, positive customer response was overwhelming, and orders streamed in. Quickly, McMillan tapped into SBA’s Paycheck Protection loan program – a CARES-Act funded small business loan designed to allow small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll, despite COVID-19’s impact – to re-hire her staff of five to fill orders. Meanwhile, JennyGems’ new in-house manufacturing capability made taking McMillan’s designs from concept to retail-ready a snap. As customer demand grew, JennyGem’s staff swelled to 23-and-counting, and sales soared to twice their pre-pandemic-levels-and-climbing.

Having conquered the challenge of a world-wide pandemic, McMillan is already making plans for JennyGems’ future. In sight are contracting print work, and growing its local workforce. In step with those goals, McMillan also envisions purchasing a commercial building to house JennyGems’ operations, most likely through SBA’s 504 Loan Program – a lending program that provides growing businesses with long-term, fixed-rate financing for major fixed assets, such as land and buildings. Thanks to McMillan’s intuitive eye for opportunity, innovative business solutions and unstoppable drive – along with support from her “Dela-strong” team of employees and small biz champions – JennyGems is well on its way to that next chapter, and beyond.

This article does not constitute or imply an endorsement by the SBA of any opinions, products, or services of any private individual or entity.