Marnie Lahtinen
Red Door Pediatric Therapy's Heather Arnt (left) and Kelli Ellenbaum are fulfilling their professional dreams as co-owners of a speech and occupational therapy business. (Marnie Lahtinen)

Longtime friends and business partners Kelli Ellenbaum and Heather Arnt share a laugh at a friend's wedding in 2008. (Submitted photo)

Red Door Pediatric Therapy is located at 1303 E. Central Ave. in Bismarck. The business recently expanded to a Minot location. (Marnie Lahtinen)

As undergraduate students at the University of North Dakota in the late 1990s, Heather Arnt and Kelli Ellenbaum joked about starting a business together someday. The speech pathology majors shared nearly every class, lived in the same house and traveled in the same social circles. Arnt, a native of Williston, and Ellenbaum, from Frazee, Minn., not only got along easily, but had complementary talents and skills. Why not open shop?

Fourteen years later -- after detours to Arizona (Heather) and Kansas (Kelli), marriage, children and other jobs -- the friends are co-owners of Bismarck's Red Door Pediatric Therapy. The private practice provides speech/language and occupational therapy to children from birth to age 12. Red Door is thriving and just opened a second site in Minot.

Be Magazine caught up with the duo to hear the longtime friends reminisce about their journey from college roomies to business owners.

Tell me about Red Door's start.

Heather Arnt: A few years after graduate school, life's circumstances brought us back to North Dakota at the same time. We started working together in a Bismarck private pediatric practice. It was busy -- Kelli had a two-year-old and was pregnant. I had just come back to working full days (following maternity leave). Honestly, we felt there had to be a way to do it differently, especially with babies in the mix.

Kelli Ellenbaum: After a year of working together, we felt driven to do our own thing. People said, "You're pregnant, you have babies; this is not the time" -- but it was! It was ideal because Red Door gave us the flexibility to raise our children and be super creative in the process of building our business. HA: That flexibility also gave us the opportunity to learn how to do every job. We had to do all the claims processing and submissions, payroll, scheduling ... everything.

On-the-job training?

KE: Yes, but we had planned ahead. We put together a business plan, a logo and philosophy. We met with a banker and an attorney. We put a lot of thought into it before we launched the business and went into every meeting extra prepared. HA: We were each 27 years old, and it took time to find someone who took us seriously. We moved around until we found the right people to help us get started. When we opened in November 2006, it was the two of us, one employee and two patients.

Has the business grown at a rate you are happy with?

HA/KE: (unison) Yes! HA: But Red Door grew at a rate that was manageable. KE: We didn't advertise -- (it was) completely word of mouth. HA: We visited with physicians and nurses to let them know who we were. In March of 2007, we added an occupational therapist part-time, and by May we hired another speech therapist.

What's it like to own a business with a very close friend?

KE: I think that, as time goes on, we grow more aware of how rare our situation is. We're best friends, and I don't know that there are many people who can spend this much time together without getting sick of each other. HA: We see each other every day. KE: We just plainly say whatever we need to say to each other. If something bugs us, we say it. HA: We've also learned to not be immediately reactive, both with each other and with the business. Early on, we wanted to stomp out fires immediately and prove that we were problem solvers. We've learned that we often make more sound decisions if we sit on it for three hours or revisit it the next day.

How do your clients respond to you, as young, female business owners?

HA: I think we have some advantages as women -- and as mothers. When families are making decisions about their children's needs, we often hear from the mother first. But as Red Door grows and restructures, Kelli and I have less contact with patients. KE: Now, we're focused on training the people who maintain contact with patients to have the same philosophy as us.

Where did the name come from?

HA: We chose the name Red Door because a door represents an opportunity. We believe our job is to unlock the potential of our patients. As we considered opening a second location, it wasn't about productivity, although that's certainly bottom-line important. It was a conversation around how to make people feel the same way they do here in Bismarck. Because that's why they come. That's why we have a waiting list. That's why it works.

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Editor's note: This transcript has been condensed for readability.

Marnie Lahtinen is the mother of five children and a Mandan-based freelance writer. In addition to her family, she loves travel, hiking, skiing, food, knitting, red wine and music.