Registered nurse Ardina Pierre believed there was a better, more natural way to treat a healing body and care for the whole person than what she found in some hospitals and home health care settings. In high school she had read Back to Eden, a classic on natural health and whole foods. And those concepts had influenced her, encouraging her to become credentialed as a certified nutritional consultant and master herbalist.

So when a friend told Pierre that a health food store in Hapeville may be up for sale, she was deeply interested. “I’d go to the store after work to ask the owner all about her business,” said Pierre. “I had researched the industry and felt that owning the store was doable.”

But neither the store’s owner nor the nonprofit business group advising her felt the sale would happen. “The owner, at first, thought I wasn’t serious,” she said. “And the consultants I was speaking to at the time, who had encouraged me to research its feasibility, advised me not to purchase it. “But I bought it anyway.”

Pierre purchased Nature’s Own Herb Shop, which specializes in natural healing, herbs, vitamins and health foods, in 1997 and started working with the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Georgia State University in early 1998. There she met with business consultant Peter Rassel, who encouraged her to attend the SBDC’s first FastTrac® – now GrowSmart® – program.

“The former owner had run the shop like a pharmacy,” said Pierre. “I had to reestablish the business, opening it up longer hours, advertising and doing other things.” At the same time, taking the SBDC course “was like earning an MBA.” She credits the course with helping her better understand the importance of business fundamentals like financials and marketing.

Rassel continued to assist Pierre with information she used to open a juice bar, purchase the building housing the shop and other tenants, and expand her marketing presence with an improved web site and social media activity. Her goal now is to increase sales by nearly a third, to more than $1 million annually.

“Ardina searches for best practices and finds good companies to support her. We’ll discuss her goals and choices, and then she makes her decision. My job is to advise and help her stay within the framework of the goals she sets for the business,” Rassel said.

For example, in 2010 when Pierre decided to update her building, Rassel suggested she seek funding from the Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE) Georgia Green loan program. She secured a $35,000 loan that allowed her to renovate the building’s façade, increase its energy efficiency and expand parking. ACE approved a second loan in 2012 for $180,000 that she used to refinance her building and reduce her mortgage expenses nearly 45 percent, allowing her to hire two full-time staff.

Pierre’s passion for her small business and skill in helping it grow earned her a 2012 Greenovation Award by ACE, which in 2014 selected Pierre and Nature’s Own Herb Shop to be featured in the CDFI 20th Anniversary Report as the exemplary small business owner and CDFI loan recipient in Georgia.

“When Peter comes into the store, he offers ideas on how I can continue to work on my business and tools I can use without having to spend a lot of money,” she said. “And sales have grown more than 80 percent in the last five to six years. The results are incredible.”