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Navy Veteran Stitches Her Way to Success in Fredrick

Although Leslie Simensen served in the Navy during Operation Desert Storm in the early '90s, her toughest task may have been operating an embroidery kiosk by herself during the Christmas shopping rush.

But Simensen, 45, parlayed that hectic retailing experience into becoming the owner of the Frederick franchise of EmbroidMe, a global embroidery company headquartered in West Palm Beach, Fla. Privately held EmbroidMe has more than 450 franchise locations in eight countries, according to its website. It had revenues of about $85 million in 2009, said company President Mark Johnson.

A native of the Tulsa, Okla., area, Simensen participated in the Navy ROTC program while earning her bachelor's in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. She was commissioned into the Navy following her graduation in 1987.

Simensen worked in public affairs at the Norfolk (Va.) Naval Station, then was a marketing officer for Navy recruiting in Dallas before heading overseas to join Operation Desert Storm as a protocol officer.

"I was the only woman on the ship," Simensen said of her eight-month experience overseas.

Simensen also worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency and on the presidential inaugural committee during her time in the Navy. Following her discharge in 1994, she worked many different jobs, including stints in the telecommunications sector and at Walt Disney World in Florida.

After the telecommunications industry fell on hard times about eight years ago, Simensen was introduced to embroidery after wanting to create personalized items for her children.

She began creating embroidery for other parents and participated in craft shows.

While selling her embroidery at a kiosk in the Martinsburg (W.Va.) Mall during the 2007 holiday shopping season, Simensen was approached by Brian Smith, who was with his wife doing their holiday shopping.

At the time, Smith was the mid-Atlantic region vice president of United Franchise Group in West Palm Beach, which owns EmbroidMe. Smith, who has since left the company, said he approached Simensen because she was "doing an exceptional job despite being by herself in a tough shopping environment."

Simensen initially was hesitant about becoming involved with EmbroidMe, because she said she didn't feel comfortable being told what to do.

But after a visit to other EmbroidMe stores and the company's headquarters, Simensen said, she "fell in love with it. I knew it would be a great opportunity for me ... and in the two years that I have been here, the corporate office has been amazing with their support."

Simensen bought the Frederick EmbroidMe location in August 2008; she declined to disclose the price. The store produces specialty apparel and promotional items for large and small businesses, schools, churches and even firefighters.

Simensen also has created products for Frederick American Little League baseball and the Frederick Keys minor league baseball team. David Ziedelis, the Keys' general manager, said EmbroidMe has partnered with the team and sponsored its charity golf tournament. The store "produces a lot of our promotional items" and apparel for the Keys' stadium staff, he said.

"This is our first year working together and [Simensen] has been tremendous," Ziedelis said.

Simensen declined to disclose specific sales figures, but said she surpassed her total 2009 sales in June. So far, sales are up more than 60 percent from a year ago. She has one full-time and three part-time employees.

The Frederick store has won multiple company awards, including EmbroidMe's Top Store Appearance award at the company's annual expo in July. The Frederick store was one of eight EmbroidMe locations worldwide to receive the award and Simensen also received the Overall Improved Store award at last year's expo, the only U.S. store to receive the award, she said.

Johnson said Simensen "does an outstanding job" and is a "passionate" franchisee who "cares about her employees."

Simensen lives in Martinsburg with her husband and two daughters.