Scaled-down business helps spa owner rebuild from personal tragedy
by: jonathan house, After a five-year period in which she lost her house, was forced to scale down her business and then lost a beloved son to suicide, Oregon's Grand SalonSpa owner Donna Harris-Earl finds it a little easier to smile these days.

When Donna Harris-Earl abandoned her hairstyling booth in Tigard to start the Grand Salon and Day Spa, she went all out.

'We took an old bank and refurbished it,' she says of the building at 4200 S.W. Watson Ave. 'We put a half-million dollar renovation into it. The goal was to make it a resort-style salon and day spa.'

The lavish, 7,000-square-foot oasis had 27 employees: hair stylists, massage therapists, nail technicians and facial technicians, you name it. Customers responded in kind.

Then, in the fall of 2008, the stock market, as Harris-Earl's put it, 'crashed and burned.'

'Our phones just stopped ringing. We found ourselves scrambling, looking for ways to advertise, getting help from the landlord,' she recalls.

Brought to her knees by a cascade of business and personal tragedy, the longtime Beaverton resident emerged this year from the other side - both stronger and wiser.

Now operating the 1,500-square-foot Oregon's Grand SalonSpa with 12 employees at 4180 S.W. 110th Ave., Harris will celebrate five rocky, but ultimately triumphant, years in business with an open house on Wednesday, June 13, from 3 to 7 p.m. The public is invited to the event, which features food, beverages and some spa services discounted to $25.

'We have a lot of repeat guests who come back over and over. This is our way of thanking them for supporting us these last five years,' Harris-Earl says. 'We're going to lavish them with our greatness.'

Around Christmas of 2011, greatness was nowhere to be found in Harris-Earl's world. She was forced to decide between her house and keeping open a scaled-down version of her business. She chose the latter.

'For the old (spa) on Watson Avenue, we were counting on The Round (at Beaverton Central) being a success,' she says of the complex on Southwest Millikan Way. 'But The Round was fizzling too.'

Then suddenly another event occurred that made her business trials seem like a stroll in the park. Her beloved 25-year-old son, Neal Harris - secretly struggling with drug addiction - committed suicide in his downtown Portland residence.

Devastated as only a loving mother could be, Harris-Earl was also, in time, visited by a sense of clarity she'd never felt before.

'It just made everything easier because it put it into proper perspective,' she says.

''Oh, your business is not doing well?' That's OK. I'll just downsize and go smaller.

'You're gonna lose your house?' That's OK. I won't let my ego get caught up in that.

'Your son just committed suicide?' That's not OK.'

'All that stuff was less painful, because I'd experienced the worst pain you could have,' she says. 'It's like the real meaning of life was right there in front of me.'

Harris remains grateful for the support of her family, particularly Ken Earl, her husband of five years, as well as the three sons she had with Neal's father, who resides in Idaho. She rejects any notion that her resilience in the face of utter tragedy was somehow heroic or stoic.

'The alternative was to fall apart,' she says of Neal's suicide. 'I didn't see any value in that. I think I spent my share of days in bed shedding tears. I didn't see the value when I could be accomplishing things and just keep myself moving.'

Paradise found

Diane Dennis, who started as Harris-Earl's public relations consultant and ended up as dear friend, marvels at Harris-Earl's ability to combine from-the-gut emotion with pragmatic resilience.

'She told me, in a conversation with her husband when she found out they were not going to renew her lease - and her house was involved with it somehow - her husband said to her, 'You cried. Then you got in your car and went to look for new locations,'' Dennis says. 'Even he was blown away.'

Dennis describes Harris-Earl's first spa and salon as 'very beautiful, with nice amenities. It was like stepping into another world, like going to Italy.'

But time - influenced by the downward spiral of the national economy - was not on Harris-Earl's side. As the flow of spa customers subsided, and creditors started to close in, she and Dennis became confidantes in arms.

'I think of her as a business person who can roll with the punches,' Dennis says. 'You think of those folks as hardcore and not having feelings. This is a woman who feels her feelings, cries when she needs to cry, and gets up and puts her boots on.'

Choosing a new location across from Chuck E. Cheese's on 100th Avenue, Harris-Earl quickly said goodbye to the old and hello to the new.

'We did not miss a beat,' she says of the opening over last year's Memorial Day weekend. 'We only had to be closed one working day, and we were open for business.'

Though it wasn't part of Plan A, scaling down turned out to be a blessing.

'It's a lot less stress and pressure for me. I think even the employees can tell,' says the grandmother of six. 'I'm sure my husband can tell. It was definitely the right move.'

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