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@Work: Toni Chambers-Jackson and Silk Greenery

March 30, 2005 – If you don't believe in Fate, talk to Toni Chambers-Jackson. She'll tell you a story to rival Greek mythology.
It was 1978. The future St. Thomas entrepreneur was about to move to the Virgin Islands "to stay a year," and had driven from her northern Kentucky home to Baltimore to leave her car with a shipping company. Her current boyfriend was with her and that might be why she didn't pay much attention to the attorney from New Jersey who was also having his car shipped to the islands. She did notice his car because the shipping company used her vehicle to jump-start his.
Three days after she arrived in St. Thomas that October, the girlfriend she came with moved back to the Mainland because of a family health crisis.
"I didn't know a soul," she said. But, hey, "I was in my 20s, I had no attachments – unless you count the old boyfriend – and it had been a really cold winter." Plus, she already had a job on the island.
So she spent the next several months working as a school counselor, enjoying the view from her apartment, and gradually getting to know people. In April she experienced her first Carnival. As she stood watching the Children's Parade, a good-looking guy struck up a conversation and pretty soon they'd made a date.
When he came to pick her up, she recognized the car – it was that ailing vehicle from New Jersey.
Had Francis Jackson recognized her from their previous encounter?
Oh yes, but he didn't let on until she figured it out.
"It's the lawyer in him," Jackson explained. "They don't tell you anything. You gotta ask the right questions."
The two have been married since 1981 and have one son, Marcus, who is a freshman at George Washington University.
To hear her tell it, this kind of serendipity has played a major role throughout Jackson's life. But so have industry, drive, imagination and unrelenting hard labor.
Born in a small Kentucky town just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Jackson attended Erlanger Lloyd High School. Of the 136 students in her graduating class, she was the only African American. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Eastern Kentucky University, to work as a speech pathologist and audiologist, and to obtain her masters degree in guidance and counseling from Xavier University.
As a black woman coming of age in the late '60s, Jackson said "we knew education was important," but the focus was on getting a good job in a profession. If she had lived the rest of her life in the States where she "didn't have any black business role models," Jackson said she probably would never have ventured into the business world.
But she came to the territory, and "to me, the Virgin Islands just appeared wide open" with opportunity.
Still it took her a few years to take the plunge. She worked seven years in the school system, first at Evelyn Marcelli Elementary School, and then at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School. Then she tried a year in real estate, and three years as a stay-at-home mom until Marcus started school.
She'd been toying with the idea of starting a business – and taking a business class or two at the University of the Virgin Islands – when Fortune stepped in again. This time she just wanted help decorating her home.
"I was looking for an artificial fern," she said. A friend introduced her to a man who crafted artificial plants. "He made me a tree and I put it in my house. Frank walked right by it; he didn't even know it was artificial."
And that's how Jackson got the crazy idea of Silk Greenery. She opened the store in June 1990. Over the ensuing 15 years, the business has expanded in volume and types of merchandise, moved from Raphune Hill to Fort Mylner, spawned numerous successful niche sidelines, and helped sophisticate holiday decorating in the islands.
But in the beginning, the naysayers were plentiful. How much future, they asked, could there be in artificial plants? Once you sell to a customer, he won't need another plant, so where's the repeat business?
"The only person I had encouragement from was Frank," she said.
Seated in her heavily trafficked showroom, taking a break from the customers and the accounts, Jackson recalled the start-up years. She began with a concept: interior plant-scaping. "We're a busy society. People need maintenance-free plants."
Timing – or is that Fate again – didn't hurt. Hurricane Hugo had hit the islands in September 1989, so many people were redecorating their homes when the business bloomed.
Although it may be disputed, Jackson insists she is not creative. She says her talent lies in knowing how to put together a good team. In the first years of Silk Greenery the team consisted of two college students, Felipe Ayala, Jr., who handled the flowers, and Sheldon Turnbull, who made the trees; they assembled the store's plants. Turnbull has since moved on to a radio career; Ayala has continued to work with Jackson as well as to establish himself in a wide, Caribbean-flavored venue of art, architecture and history.
While they handled the artistic side, Jackson took care of business. She remembers calling the manager of Kentucky Fried Chicken and trying to sell him a few hanging baskets. When he told her the company brought decorations in from the Mainland, she told him, "We eat your chicken here" and turn-about's fair play. She got the account. And McDonald's, and Territorial Court, and more and more.
"I didn't even realize the potential when I started," Jackson said. She had tapped into a need most people hadn't even realized they had.
But her day-to-day success really paled when she started into the holiday decoration line. She and her crew hired out to decorate hotels, stores, banks and homes.
"My sales that month doubled what my salary was for a year" in the school system, she said.
That part of the operation has grown to about 40 or 50 clients, including all of the First Bank branches, several jewelry stores, most of the hotels on St. Thomas and St. John and even some in the British Virgin Islands, and about 10 private homes. "We work 16-hour days for a good month and a half," starting Nov. 1.
The Silk Greenery crew built such a reputation for tasteful decorating that people started using them for other events. Now they handle many local weddings and theme parties as well as setting up for In Style Magazine layouts.
Meanwhile, back in the store, Jackson has gradually but steadily added to her stock, always responding to customer needs. A big leap came in 2000 when she put a seagrass chair in a window display to set off home decorations. The reaction was so immediate that she added furniture to her offerings.
"My husband calls me a workaholic," Jackson admits. And all that work can take its toll.
There is little time for anything else. She relies on a housekeeper and generally eats out. She has dropped out of most civic organizations because of her workload. A former New York Marathon runner, at 53 Jackson laments that her exercising is "inconsistent" these days – though she did promise herself a personal trainer after the stressful holiday season and has delivered on the promise. She also has been an active member of the St. Thomas Association of Roadrunners for more than 20 years.
She loves to travel, and makes six to eight buying trips a year to home furnishing shows in North Carolina, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Dallas. But she goes for pleasure too. And, at least once a year, "I make it my business to go home." Her mom also visits in St. Thomas every Christmas, just after the holiday decorating rush.
Jackson voices no regret over the sacrifices she has made to build her business or the lifestyle it has dictated. She says she has gone places and met people she never would have met otherwise. And she
never would have done it at all if she hadn't made that first decision to come to St. Thomas "to stay a year."

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