What began 10 years ago as a means to pay private school tuition has become a thriving business for former nurse Penny Keck.
Keck, 42, the owner of Today’s Uniforms, which has locations in Crystal Lake and Elgin, outfits medical, public safety, security and culinary workers in McHenry and Kane counties and surrounding areas. The shop also carries school uniforms, medical and public safety accessories, and serves corporate clients with onsite custom embroidery and heat transfers.
In addition, her customers include those who love Today’s Uniforms’ comfortable, non-slip footwear.
“I have people who work in retail, cashiers from Jewel-Osco, restaurant servers, hair stylists — anyone who works on their feet all day,” Keck says.
Though it might seem a big leap from nursing to retail, Keck says she’s been preparing for this career all her life, starting with her first job at the age of 14.
“I was a paige at the library, and it taught me to be organized,” she says. “Next, I worked at McDonald’s, which taught me about good customer service and how to work in an environment that changed quickly.
Of course, that was great preparation to be an ER nurse.”
Entrepreneurial Bloodlines An Algonquin native, Keck grew up fascinated by her parents’ careers in firefighting and nursing. As a child, she sometimes visited her fire captain father at work, and she enjoyed hearing her mom and dad’s dinner hour shop talk.
“I was always the one asking for more details,” she says.
At Jacobs High School, she played volleyball and participated in student council. Then, after graduation, she enrolled at Northern Illinois University in the liberal arts program, but she soon switched to nursing.
“I liked that [nursing] wasn’t a nine-to-five office job, because I’m definitely not a cubicle girl,” Keck says, adding that after years of hearing her parents’ stories, she knew what to expect. “It was a natural fit.”
During college, she also worked in retail — another experience that would prove valuable.
Keck began her nursing career at Centegra Health System working as a chemotherapy nurse, then in the emergency room, then as a supervisor. She also married and had two daughters.
“When the girls hit preschool, I discovered the Montessori system and knew this was what I wanted for them,” she says.
Rather than take a part-time job to cover tuition, Keck decided to start a business. She says she comes from an entrepreneurial family, with a great-grandfather who ran a sweet shop and an aunt who owned a restaurant.
“Even though my parents had traditional jobs, they also owned rental properties, so it was part of my background, just laying dormant,” she says.
She considered various ideas before settling on one that addressed a problem she, and many other nurses, dealt with frequently.
“Because I’m 5-foot-nothing, I had a hard time finding scrubs that fit,” Keck says. “Catalog shopping was frustrating, and I believe in shopping local, but there wasn’t any place nearby. I asked people at work, and they had the same frustrations I did.”
Her mother put in her in touch with a uniform shop owner in Florida, and Keck investigated her idea, which merged her nursing background with a retail business. She also worked with the McHenry County College Small Business Development Center to create a business plan.
Though counselors at the center felt the name “Today’s Uniforms” was too vague, Keck stuck with it.
“They preferred that I focused on scrubs, but I saw the possibility of one day wanting to branch out, and I like to keep my options open,” she says. “I’m glad I did, because police and firefighters wouldn’t want to shop at ‘Scrubs are Us.’”
Pulling It All Together A local bank was impressed with Keck’s business plan and her conservative approach to operating out of her basement and selling through local uniform fairs.
For the first month or two, Keck distributed promotional fliers at hospitals and medical offices and worked from her basement and her car — all while still holding down a nursing job. Though juggling family responsibilities and two jobs wasn’t easy, her nursing career boosted her customer base.
“People liked that I wore the uniforms I sold,” Keck says. “I’d get something from a vendor, try it and know right away if it worked on the job. I also had a rapport with my customers. I could talk shop with them. A lot of them still knew my mom and dad, so there was a personal connection.”
Business boomed and, within six months, Keck moved Today’s Uniforms into a former women’s golf apparel store in downtown Crystal Lake.
“It was already set up for retail, so I didn’t have to spend thousands of dollars to build it out,” she says. “I saw it as a sign that I was supposed to do this.”
She added public safety uniforms to her sales list in 2004, and McHenry Township Fire Protection District Chief Tony Heumann says Keck’s customer service goes beyond filling the department’s monthly order.
“She responds quickly to our needs,” Heumann says. “Sometimes she delivers our order, but [she] doesn’t just drop it off. She’ll ask if there’s anything else she can do. She has a great memory and follows through. You mention something once and she remembers. She’s easy to work with, and if there’s a problem, she makes sure it’s taken care of.”
Expanding The Business A move four years ago to another downtown Crystal Lake location — a storefront at 67 E. Woodstock, which is twice the size of her original store — enabled Keck to add embroidery equipment and a seamstress.
Today, her biggest challenge as a business owner is to find motivated employees, and she says she feels fortunate to have two excellent store managers: Janelle Bordeau in Elgin and Brooke Oltz in Crystal Lake.
Oltz, a Crystal Lake Central High School graduate and McHenry County College student, has worked at Today’s Uniforms for two years and says she considers Keck a career inspiration.
“I’d taken a semester off because I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Oltz says. “Now, I know. I’d like to own something like this.”
From Keck, Oltz has learned the day-to-day aspects of running a retail business.
“Penny is a great boss,” Oltz says. “She’ll tell me, ‘If you think it will sell, order it.’ I love it that she trusts me, and I love what I do.”
Keck also loves what she does, and she especially enjoys the flexibility that owning a business offers.
“I can work around my kids’ schedule,” she says. “As a nurse, I did well, and this [business] was just to cover their school. Now, it’s snowballed into much more.”