Business with Heart
Karen Bellingar started in ’78 from the back of her ’71 Pinto
By Sherri Huleatt
For Karen Bellingar, owner of Sunset Beauty Supply and Bellingar Storage, beauty supply stores aren’t just retailers offering fancy tubes of mascara, and storage units aren’t just empty metal boxes used for hoarding old household items.
Instead, her three-employee beauty supply store—the largest supplier of wigs in Northwest Washington—is a source of empowerment and care, particularly for women going through chemotherapy. “Our goal is to always support and encourage them on this journey with quality products to make them look and feel beautiful,” Bellingar said.
Likewise, her storage units—which she co-owns with her husband, David – double as incubators for startups and small businesses looking to grow. “Seeing many businesses that have rented from us go on to larger spaces and greater success is incredibly rewarding,” Bellingar said.
Bellingar took two straightforward businesses and turned them into sources of community support over a 39-year period. What makes it even better? It all started out of the back of her 1971 Ford Pinto.
“In 1978 we purchased a bare chunk of land without water, sewer, streets, or even an idea of what we were going to use it for,” Bellingar said. Without a clear plan and with payments piling up, Bellingar turned the property into a storage unit, hoping to convert it one day into a warehouse.
“With no office I rented out units from the back of our ’71 Pinto with our three young sons riding shotgun,” Bellingar said. “We continued to fill out the property until 1991 when we built the last six buildings and an office.” Because of Bellingar Storage’s eventual success, David Bellingar was able to retire 13 years ago. They have two full-time employees.
Sunset Beauty Supply has a different story. Bellingar told how she purchased the store in 2010 for two reasons:
One was to keep it from closing, which would have required women to drive to Seattle to purchase high-quality wigs. The second was to save a dear friend from losing her job after 20 years of empowering and supporting women.
“The talent she and the rest of the staff share each day is often miraculous to those dealing with hair loss,” Bellingar said. “The rewards are calculated in the heartwarming stories and beautiful ‘before and after’ pictures.”
Whether they’re renting out a new storage unit or helping someone find the perfect shade of ruby lipstick, Bellingar’s business creed stays the same: “To always give exceptional customer service. It doesn’t have to be big or earth-shaking, but do something to make it a better day for someone else.”
With the onslaught of online competition, the fluctuating Canadian exchange rate, and increasing business costs, maintaining a successful brick-and-mortar retail store has become more and more difficult, she said. The next big hurdle she faces is simply surviving the year.
Between five grandchildren, family deaths, and caregiving, Bellingar already has her hands full. “It’s difficult to create a balance while managing ones’ businesses, personal, and spiritual life,” she said. “I am blessed with a wonderful family and exceptional employees who are always supportive and helpful to share the load.”
In addition to her own personal business concerns Bellingar also worries about the community’s overall business climate. “We started out with no money or rich uncles. We were encouraged and supported by the banking community and the government entities that provided the permits.
“Today, it takes months to get through any loan process and much longer than that to get permits for any project, large or small. We have hope because there are still strong organizations, such as the Whatcom Business Alliance and its members, who go to work every day to make this county and the world a better place for us all.”
In addition to being a wife, grandmother, and business owner twice over, Bellingar also is involved with Love INC, Northwest Business Club, Republican Women of Whatcom County, Whatcom County Farm Forestry, Women Marine Association, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, Cub Scouts, Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, and Chuckanut Community Baptist Church.
The Bellingars have housed Love INC for more than two decades in their storage office. They’ve also supported the Welding Rodeo at the Bellingham Technical College, Relay for Life, OSLC, and CCBC, and have contributed to local grassroots organizations like Faces NW, Rebound of Whatcom County, Interfaith Coalition, Lighthouse Mission, Salvation Army, and the Whatcom County Pregnancy Clinic.
Karen Bellingar gives most of the credit to others for how she got where she is today: “…Through the Grace of God, blind luck, the support of a wonderful husband and great kids – daughters-in-law and grandbabies included,” she said. “That, and a strong work ethic that has kept us diligent in our vision to create not only a pleasant work environment, but also an enjoyable place for customers to bring their business.”