Marsha Churchill

Vanessa Croome

In the early 2000’s I was regularly commuting to Fernie on weekends. With each year, I noticed subtle changes to the downtown. New shops, cafes or restaurants opening their doors, some making it through the off seasons, others not. One not so subtle addition that seemed to be standing strong was Hempire. Its bright colours and distinctive name were eye-catching, and immediately piqued my curiosity. 

I first met Marsha Churchill, the woman behind Hempire her on our way to a stagette in Canmore, catching a ride in her bright and sometimes controversial Hempire car. Within minutes of our trip, I was in awe of her honesty, strength and determination.

Originally from small town Ontario, Marsha opened the first Hempire in Canmore, AB in 1998. She noticed the town was extremely busy in summer, but not winter so did some research on up and coming mountain towns and decided to open a second store in Fernie. “Canmore was getting too big for me,” she admits. In 2001 she came to open the store, and never left. “You could roll a bowling ball down Main street in summer and not hit a soul, and I had such a close group of friends. I loved it here.”

Around this time, Marsha was also coming to terms with the fact that she has MS – an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system. “This year is the 20th anniversary of my first symptom,” she tells me. Her legs went numb, and having done her own research she self diagnosed and her doctors never questioned her. It was the Neurologists who officially diagnosed her 15 years ago. “I cried for two weeks,” she says. “A good friend called me and told me a story about a 90 year old woman with MS.” She was in the hospital dying, but not from MS. He spoke with her to find out how, and she said that in her 20’s she couldn’t get out of the hospital bed. One night she was so fed up, she said ‘#$%& this place, tomorrow morning I’m getting out of this bed and never coming back.’ And she did. “You tell your friend it’s all up here,” she said, pointing to her head. “And that’s when I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself. The next day, I found a location in Banff and went on to open my third Hempire.”

Stress was of course a big concern, but to Marsha sitting around “thinking” about MS and suppressing her natural entrepreneurial spirit was more stressful than going for it.

With multiple stores, Marsha outlined processes and created manuals to ensure the businesses could “run themselves.” It was then the idea of Franchising came to her. “I had the procedures in place, so thought why not?” With two kids in diapers, her partner Curtis also starting his own business, and continually working on being as healthy as possible, it was an intense but productive time.

It didn’t take long for Marsha to feel the weight of all she had created. The years of managing businesses, a household, children, and her health were adding up and she knew it was time to streamline. In 2007 she sold her two stores in Alberta, followed by the Fernie. She had a brief stint with a business in Fernie, but it wasn’t in line with her passions and was causing her stress. “Open the restaurant,” Curtis said to her. Marsha had been talking for years about this project, something they thought Fernie needed. She had a book she’d been writing in for years, basically outlining the entire business – Lunchbox was born.

Lunchbox was a success from the beginning, both for their family and the town. Marsha enjoyed the work, and was also able to attend all of her kids’ activities. Life was starting to feel easier, the weights lifting off one by one. A few years ago, they decided to list Lunchbox for sale on Kijiji… “Three days later, a guy from Calgary came to town and bought it.”

Curtis and Marsha decided she would help run his business, Valley View Contracting, and they also started a mini-storage business. “We had been so disconnected, focused on our own businesses. Now we’re focused on the same projects, and our relationship became stronger. I wish I would have done it sooner,” she tells me. “But when the kids are little, it’s tough to simplify – you’re just trying to survive.”

A new passion of Marhsa’s is volunteering with Junior Achievers. “I go into the schools and teach Fundamental Entrepreneurship and Financial Literacy to Grades 5-7,” she says adding that her goal is to also teach Grades 10-12. “I was that person who didn’t know any of it after graduating, and it’s a time kids are under so much pressure to make decisions.”

As we finish off our long coffee date, we hone in on all of the lessons Marsha has learned on her path to simplicity… focus on what you’re passionate about, learn how to delegate, hire experts to allow you to focus on what you’re good at, stop working with people who stress you out, and sometimes you’re more successful when you do less. All great points, in life and in business. Thank you, Marsha!

1. When did you first arrive in Fernie and what brought you here? 2001, and I moved here to open Hempire. Didn’t plan on living here!

2. Where did you first live in town? Ridgmeont condos.

3. What was your first impression? That the people were nice.

4. What keeps you here? The people. The sense of community.

5. Do you have a favourite Fernie memory? I love the Wam Bam Dirt Jump Jam. I offered to host it with Troy Nixon last year, but everyone was bagged. I am amazed by all of the events this town comes up with.

6. What is your favourite time of the year in Fernie and why? Spring, because I love sunshine and the beginning of the warmer weather. Having a BBQ with your friends and hanging out outside.

7. Where do you see Fernie in 5 to 10 years? I would love to see Heaven’s Gate closer to being completed. It’s Heiko’s, and I would love to see it fly.

8. How do you start your day or what is one of your daily rituals? I start my day with lemon water.

9. Tell us something people might be surprised to learn about you. I’m a bit of an introvert, I like quiet.

10. Quote to live by: People do not decide their futures; they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures. F. Matthias Alexander