After Lori Neff took over her family’s HVAC business, she fulfilled a dream of her own: opening an ice cream shop. Lori’s Lick Em Up in Harrison Township is packed with customers each summer.

After Lori Neff took over her family’s HVAC business, she fulfilled a dream of her own: opening an ice cream shop. Lori’s Lick Em Up in Harrison Township is packed with customers each summer.

Photo by Erin Sanchez


Local women get down to business

By: Mary Beth Almond, Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published May 8, 2019

 Sherry McInerney, the owner of Posterity Art and Framing Gallery in Grosse Pointe Village, learned how to frame from a legend in the business decades ago.

Sherry McInerney, the owner of Posterity Art and Framing Gallery in Grosse Pointe Village, learned how to frame from a legend in the business decades ago.

Photo by Sarah Purlee

 Brenda Harger, of Sarah’s Cake & Candy Supply, holds a bag of melting chocolates. The shop offers a variety of decorating classes to patrons throughout the year.

Brenda Harger, of Sarah’s Cake & Candy Supply, holds a bag of melting chocolates. The shop offers a variety of decorating classes to patrons throughout the year.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Dr. Dolores Baran, DDS, with patient Bob Flora, of Troy, has been in the dental field for over 35 years.

Dr. Dolores Baran, DDS, with patient Bob Flora, of Troy, has been in the dental field for over 35 years.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

METRO DETROIT — Being a female entrepreneur isn’t much different than being a male entrepreneur. It takes hard work and sacrifice to build a business.

But sometimes success is a little bit sweeter for a female business owner, because she’s probably had to overcome a few stereotypes to get to the top and pave the way for the ladies behind her.

That’s certainly the feeling Lori Neff had when she was the only woman in her heating, ventilating and air conditioning school. But once she was finished — top of her class, by the way — she took over Luedtke Heating and Cooling in Harrison Township from her father, and she has been growing the business for the last few decades.

Now there’s no shortage of female HVAC specialists, and she likes to think she helped make that happen.

“When I first started working for my dad, no women were doing this. I’d go up to a customer’s door and they’d look behind me to see where the guy was,” said Neff. “I did better than the guys in my HVAC class. And Dad was a little tougher on me than the rest. I probably felt like I had to work a little harder, and coming up through the ranks was tough. But I love it.”

After completing X-ray technician training, Neff started working for her father’s company during a period of layoffs in the medical field during the 1980s. But when hospitals began hiring again, she couldn’t walk away from the job she had grown to love.

Neff didn’t stop when she took over Luedtke. Riding along with her dad on customer calls as a young girl, they sometimes needed to swing by an ice cream store or two to repair the machines. It might be every kid’s dream to one day own an ice cream store, but Neff actually did it. Lori’s Lick Em Up is tucked right next to her HVAC business.

“I work easily 100 hours a week during the summer,” she said. “I work a lot. To be perfectly honest, I don’t have much of a work-life balance. Now that I have my granddaughter, I’m trying to reprioritize and make more time to be with her, but it’s very hard with two businesses.”  

Sherry McInerney knows how grueling a schedule can be for a female entrepreneur. She’s owned a few art and framing galleries around Michigan during her life, and with each one she’s had to go out and coax potential clients to do business with her.

“Being a single mom, you’re working to put food on the table and you do what every mom does: put on a skirt and some makeup and go present yourself and ask for work,” McInerney said. “I would go to hotels, doctor’s offices, hospitals, and just walk in and say, ‘I’m Sherry, and I have this art gallery and I could frame these pictures for you.’ You have to sell yourself. That’s the important thing. Business won’t come to you. You have to go get it.”

McInerney got her start in the early 1980s when, after graduating from high school, she made her way to Dallas to stay with an aunt. She got a job working for the fellow next door who owned three art and framing stores, and she worked her way up the ranks until she became one of the top framing associates in the company. She calls her former boss just Michael, but his full name is Michael Dupey, founder of the Michaels Arts and Crafts corporation.

“After five years we had 138 stores, and I said, ‘Michael, I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s too corporate. I just want to be creative. I just like framing,’” McInerney recalled. “So, I went and rented a little storefront and opened my own store. I didn’t know anything about business, but I felt like I was a pretty good framer. I took a chance and lived paycheck to paycheck.”

Over time, she said, she caught on how to run a business, and these days she’s the owner of Posterity Art and Framing Gallery in Grosse Pointe Village. But she’s definitely not done learning, she said. After all, the tides of the economy turn for men and women alike.

“I came to work for Posterity, and when (the former owner) wanted to retire, I offered to buy it. But times have changed since then, and I think brick-and-mortar stores are so difficult to keep afloat nowadays. A lot of young people don’t understand custom framing,” she explained. “So now we’re turning this store with a 29-year history into more of a walk-in place to see the talent in Grosse Pointe and Detroit. More of a boutique gallery with custom framing. We’re trying to bend with the times.”

But determination never goes out of style. So, to future female business owners, Neff and McInerney agree that their advice would be to work hard and jump in headfirst.

“I would say find what you like to do and do it well. Do it better than the others if you want to make it. Give it your all and put your heart into it,” said Neff.

Brenda Harger’s business credentials are impressive.

Harger, 75, a Troy resident, entered the career world as a social worker, eventually specializing in foster care for the state of Michigan. She went on to earn her master’s degree in child development, but the nature of the job eventually took a toll on her.

“I had a very difficult time transitioning from what I was seeing professionally — just the misery of the lives of the children — and coming home to my two happy children. That was very difficult for me,” she said.

So she decided to reinvent herself, veering toward a career in business.

Armed with the continued desire to spread joy to children, Harger began a licensed employment agency for nannies called Merry Poppins, which led to the creation of Party Poppins, a company that sent party entertainment to families throughout metro Detroit.

As business grew, the company began servicing local school districts, hospitals, and even many municipalities.

“I learned a lot of business skills with Party Poppins,” Harger said. “We just had venues going all the time.”

Always looking for another challenge, Harger set her sights on opening a laser tag facility, but she could never make it happen. So instead, she opted to expand her business by purchasing Sarah’s Cake & Candy Supply — a cake, candy and cookie making supply store in Troy — from her friend Sarah Passalacqua, who was retiring.

“Sarah really taught me how to decorate cakes and cookies for my kids, so when she said she wanted to retire, I thought, ‘Well, I can’t open a laser tag. I’m going to buy Sarah’s,’ and that’s how I did it. And it’s been truly the most remarkable experience,” she said.

For close to 25 years now, Harger has enjoyed connecting with the community inside her store, teaching all who come inside the skills needed to make their freshly baked goods truly stand out as pieces of art.

“A lot of my customers start baking at home and then start up their own storefront businesses,” she said. “We still supply their tools.”

She attributes her success in business to the connections she’s made over the years.

“I love to connect with people, not just sell to them,” Harger said. “In all my other businesses, I had a connection with people. I wasn’t just doing my job. I wanted to know that I had a positive effect on their day.”

Harger believes women have certain innate strengths — such as creativity, collaboration and communication — that help set them apart in the business world.

“As women, we want to feel like we’re making a difference. We’re nurturing, we’re improving the world, wherever we are. That’s just the nature of women,” she said.

But along the way, she said it’s also important for women to focus on themselves — a belief that allowed her to earn a Ph.D. in theology at the age of 70.

“It is never too late to begin your dreams,” she said.

Like Harger, Dr. Dolores Baran, of the Royal Oak Smiles dental practice, opted for a career that would make a difference.

“I always wanted to have a career where I helped people,” said Baran.

At a young age, she set her sights on dentistry.

Her first job as a dental assistant only reaffirmed her love for the industry, and it was full steam ahead from there.

After graduating from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, Baran opened her own dental practice, which has been in business now for over 30 years.

“I’ve grown from a very small practice of just a couple of people to a larger practice that can now help out a lot of people,” she said.

Baran — a member dentist of Angel’s Place, where she donates her talent to provide dental services for mentally disabled patients — is always looking to give back.

“I really enjoy seeing someone who didn’t smile, smile at me and say, ‘You changed my life because you changed my smile,’” she said.

But the journey hasn’t always been easy. From trying to grow the business while raising children and balancing work and life, to keeping her procedures and technology on the cutting edge, Baran said she’s had to make some personal sacrifices along the way.

“There’s always some sort of challenge in any field, in any business, but I was able to make it work over the years,” she said. “It took me some time, but I love what I do, and I was able to make a successful career of it.”

Baran said everyone has goals in life, things that they dream of doing or being.

“If there is something you want to do, follow your dreams,” she said. “Work hard at it and don’t let anybody stop you.”