STONE HARBOR - John Settelen and his wife, Kathy, had no experience in retail before opening the gift and clothing stores Onni in Ocean City and Stone Harbor.
Settelen had spent a career as a certified public accountant working with investment companies in the energy industry. His wife was a stay-at-home mom.
"I left the corporate world. I was a CPA and knew I could handle the business side. She is a people-person. We just had to understand the business," he said.
Onni, named after the Finnish word for happiness, offers a mix of clothing, gifts for men and women, home decor and jewelry. The Finnish influence is from Kathy Settelen's grandparents, who came from Finland.
Dressed in shorts and sandals, John Settelen has taken well to his second career as a small-business owner at the shore. But he said running a business is just as taxing as working in finance.
"Everything is stressful," he said.
They started their business by attending a retail seminar in New York, taking a crash course in finding a good store location and the art of buying.
They opened their first shop in Stone Harbor in 2010 near the entrance to town on Third Avenue. A year later they followed up with a second location on the Boardwalk at 14th Street in Ocean City.
"We saw the Boardwalk as an opportunity. There were not a lot of boutique stores on that part of the Boardwalk," he said.
The two towns have a lot in common as seasonal resorts. Both are walking, pet-friendly retail districts that attract tourists, year-round residents and second-homeowners.
The Boardwalk store is open much earlier and later in the season than their Stone Harbor location, which is open about eight months of the year.
In a partnership with Ocean City's landmark Johnson's Popcorn, Onni offers tubs of caramel popcorn at its Stone Harbor store.
Ocean City's Boardwalk attracts a lot more daytrippers than Stone Harbor's downtown. But both see plenty of foot traffic in the summer.
In Stone Harbor, downtown merchants are awaiting the opening of a new luxury hotel, the Reeds at Shelter Haven, which opens Thursday.
The couple attends trade shows in Atlanta, Las Vegas and New York to find suppliers who match the store's target audience.
"We're getting a lot of dog owners buying things related to their pets," she said.
Both stores cast a wide net for customers, offering items to appeal to men and women. They stock the front of the store with sports-themed gifts to encourage men to come in off the boardwalk or street.
Much of the store's inventory was made in the United States. This includes art prints of dogs in surfboats that can be customized with the names of the pet and the hometown.
"We try to get a cross-section of shoppers," he said.
Businesses that succeed in one shore town often find similar success when they expand to nearby resorts, said Michele Gillian, director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"If your brand is strong and your reputation is good, it carries throughout the county," she said.
Ocean City and Stone Harbor have a lot in common as resorts with a large population of second homeowners, she said.
"We share the same kinds of guests - the second homeowners and vacationers," she said. "When we see businesses expand, it usually means they have a good reputation."
Like other businesses, Onni had to close its doors twice in 2012 and 2011 for countywide evacuations because of looming hurricanes.
"While we didn't have a lot of store damage, we lost a lot of business during both events," he said.
Another challenge in operating stores 15 miles apart is staffing. The couple tries to schedule employees when they are most needed. But demand is largely dependent on the weather. On rainy days, the stores can get especially busy.
Settelen said he has a plan to grow the business until they are ready to sell it and retire to their vacation home in Maine. But for now they are optimistic about the summer.
"I think there's an uptick in people coming down. We'll see what this year brings," she said.
Contact Michael Miller:
Locations: 1356 Boardwalk, Ocean City; 9502 Third Ave., Stone Harbor
Owners: John and Kathy Settelen, Ocean City
Revenue: Not disclosed
Phones: 609-368-2112, 609-399-0306