SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Sept. 7, 2010 – Deborah Dower was met at the door Monday morning with a smile and a greeting. “Oh, you’re the boss’s wife,” the smiling man said. “No, I’m the boss,” Dower said, shrugging off the mistake with a smile of her own.

After all, her customer has been there from the beginning in March when Dower opened her business, turning a run-down laundromat in Citrus Heights, Calif., into a paradise – Paradise Laundry. With its motto “Wash Green. Save Green,” Dower touts Paradise as a “green laundromat,” with biodegradable detergents, energy-saving washers and dryers and discount rates for customers who use cold water instead of hot to wash their loads.

 “If anybody thought I would own a coin laundry, I would’ve thought they were crazy,” Dower, of El Dorado Hills, Calif., said. “But it’s recession-proof. People need clean clothes.” Yes, the economy is struggling. But some entrepreneurs still have energy, dreams and drive, developing ideas, opening storefronts, starting businesses and finding ways to succeed amid the deep recession.

Today, Deborah Dower is her own boss. She’d been the boss before, supervising hundreds of employees, overseeing nearly $1 billion in sales accounts as a national vice president at Hewlett-Packard. Then came June 22, 2009, the day she was laid off, ending her 25-year career just days removed from her 50th birthday. “I wanted to retire at 50, but I didn’t know it would be forced,” she said. “The layoff was a shock. I didn’t see it coming.” Dower may have been shocked, but she didn’t panic. She decided to turn her layoff into a business opportunity, opening a new door when one closed behind her.

Some studies have found that new business creation nationwide has grown during the recession, but not everyone is put off by the risks. Dower and others aren’t afraid to swim against the stream. And they’re finding some advantages to hanging their shingle during a downbeat economy, including plenty of commercial space available at prices far below just a couple of years ago. “Space is not an issue,” said Greg Roquet, a business broker at Davis, Calif.-based Murphy Business Brokers. “Now, landlords are hungry” to work with potential tenants, he said. That aided Dower, who investigated several business concepts before finding a website on owning laundromats that helped her plot a new course.

 Dower had rejected the notion of returning to corporate America after her layoff and wasn’t convinced that buying a franchise was the answer. With a franchise, she felt that “I was buying a job, not owning a business – that’s not autonomy,” she said. “It was deja vu all over again.” So Dower went to work. She found a newspaper announcement that led her to an orientation session for would-be business owners led by volunteer counselors at the nonprofit group SCORE. The meeting convinced her she was on the right path with her “green laundry” concept. Dower found business counseling, one-on-one coaching and, finally, a workshop through SCORE to fine-tune her plan for lenders and private investors. She did her homework, scouring census reports to learn neighborhood demographics – renters are more likely to patronize laundromats than homeowners – and sought out a laundry broker.

 “She came up with the concept of the green laundry. SCORE just put the polish on the plan,” SCORE chapter Chairman Jeff Hendy recalled. “You could tell that she had the energy and drive to make it happen.” She bought the run-down laundromat last December after whittling down the as-is $50,000 asking price to $30,000, selling off company stock to fund the deal. She was also able to negotiate a 10-year lease with two five-year options with the landlord, who was happy to get a long-term deal in a building that had other sites vacant.

She and husband Jim Dower, now the business’s vice president, then pulled $150,000 from a retirement fund to renovate the space, and worked with the washer and dryer manufacturer to finance another $150,000 in equipment. Small but sparkling with new equipment, Paradise Laundry is now busy with patrons toting and sorting loads. It’s a dramatic change for customers who used to dread coming here; who used to wonder whether the washers would work; who are so grateful now that they embrace Dower when they see her. “Cleanliness is very important to me,” said customer Crystal Corbin of Citrus Heights on Monday, washing a load for her family before heading off to work. “Everything works. I’m so happy they’re here.”

 Dower concedes setting out on her own is a risk, but she’s not being timid. Already, the Dowers have opened a second Paradise Laundry in Roseville, Calif. “It’s scary,” she said. “I’m not going to consider myself successful until the two-year mark.” Still, she’s not nostalgic for corporate America. “I don’t miss it,” Dower said. “Customers are happy to see us, and I get to build something from the ground up.”

Sacramentan Michelle Lutche, 42, met a similar fate to Dower’s, receiving a pink slip in February 2008 from the sales position she had held for nearly five years at a local wine and liquor distributor. Following her layoff, Lutche made her entrepreneurial debut in discount electronics sales with the help of online wholesaler, selling goods out of her home. Now, she is looking for sites so she can move her home-based business into a storefront by the end of the year. Lutche’s Sacramento store Deja New will specialize in home theater and other electronics. She’s using sales revenue to open the new shop.

 “I’m growing out of the house and into a retail location,” she said. She’s counting on the high vacancy rate to help her cut a favorable deal with a landlord. Washington, D.C.-based sells larger stores’ surplus inventory to small retailers and has a distribution center in Sacramento. Lutche found the online business almost by accident in 2009, looking to buy product in bulk after making an early profit selling equipment on auction website eBay. Executive Vice President Cayce Roy says businesses like Lutche’s are in tune with today’s budget-conscious consumer. “There’s a move back to value – customers don’t need the latest technology,” Roy said. “They still have needs, but are looking for ways to cut costs.” And Lutche hopes to carry over her success from the home to Main Street. “You get out of it what you put into it,” said Lutche. “If you’re ambitious, you can make a lot of money.”

© 2010 The Sacramento Bee, Sacramento, Calif. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services