Working for the perks at Starbucks

Monday, April 27, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — James St. John relocated to St. Louis from Seattle in March 2006, excited about his new position with Starbucks.

It's a job he had lobbied for — regional coordinator over stores in parts of Missouri and Illinois.

But last July, as the company downsized amid a souring economy, St. John's job was eliminated.

"I came home angry as all sin," St. John said.

He felt his loyalty to the company was in vain. He worked for Starbucks largely because he was attracted to how employees were treated.

"I drank the Kool-Aid. I lived its principles, defended it in all aspects," he said.

St. John, 43, reacted by going into a spare bedroom, ripping off wallpaper border, moving out old furniture and dragging in pieces from other rooms. He didn't realize at the time that taking out his frustrations on the room that day was the start of his new career — a business organizing and decorating homes and offices.

One catch though: How was he going to start a company without health benefits? St. John had a solution. It began with swallowing his pride.

He took a part-time job at a Starbucks, working for a manager that he once supervised. By working about 20 hours a week at Starbucks, he was able to get health care benefits for $60 a month that would have cost more than $400 a month.

"Pride be damned," St. John said. "I realized that if I sat on my laurels too long, I'd lose my impetus for what I wanted to do."

That didn't mean the first few days taking latte orders was easy. But the environment of inclusion that has made Starbucks a household name helped. And St. John kept his predicament in perspective. Starbucks benefits from his experience at the ground level, while he gets to grow his business with the financial assistance of the coffee company.

With unemployment creeping to its highest level in 25 years — about 9 percent in St. Louis — it has become more common for those out of work to take lower-paying jobs until something better comes along. But St. John's decision to go back to the company that laid him off is rare, said Anna Navarro of WorkTransitions, a career-counseling company based in Clayton. "That's not something you usually hear about," she said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track the number of people who return to the employers who laid them off, but the agency does track how many people work part time "for economic reasons."

In March 2008, just more than 5 million people fell into that category. A year later, that number is 9.3 million. The first month after he was laid off, St. John created a Web site, fliers and business cards for his new endeavor. He got a business license. Then, he started doing free work for friends.

"I couldn't make money until I did freebies," St. John said. "There is no way you can sell your product unless you have some kind of references."

His first pro bono work was the home office of friend Shelley Donaho. It was a room she would keep off limits when giving tours of her Magic Chef mansion in south St. Louis. Now, the door stands open. Old, unused computer equipment is gone, along with excess furniture. The walls are a sunny yellow. The carpet was removed, the floors refinished.

"You get used to your own clutter. You don't like it but you get used to it," Donaho said. "He zeroed in on what to do."

St. John calls it "bringing order to chaos, sense to disorder."

Although he had his business approach in hand, he needed a name for the venture. Something catchy. It came to him during a jog in Tower Grove Park with his partner, Shahrdad Khodamoradi.

"We were talking about how to redo Shelley's office and it just stuck — Redo," St. John said. The official name is spelled "Re:Do."

He focuses on reusing many of the items his clients already have. For home improvement television show junkies, his business is a blend of "Clean House" on the Style Network and "FreeStyle" on HGTV. His starting point is usually taking everything out of a room.

"Most of it will not come back," he said. "It is either sold, given to charity or thrown out."

For clients, it can be therapeutic and a bit traumatic, especially for the pack rats, collectors or sentimental types. But a practical, clean space changes the way people do things, from office work to cooking, St. John said.

"I want to change people's feelings that they need stuff," St. John said.

Although he is not thinking of quitting his part-time job, St. John says his business is taking off and has been more fulfilling than he expected. Whereas the perfect coffee drink might make someone's morning, redoing someone's space can transform a life, he said.

Does that mean he would set aside his new business if Starbucks offered his old job back?

There was a pause.

"No," St. John said. "I've started making a name for myself and like the balance between part time and promoting my business. To go out there and take people kicking and screaming into change. It's fantastic. I'm a whole different person."

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