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VIProfile: Sara Hedstrom Pinnell



Story by Gay Lyons with photo of Sara Hedstrom Pinnell by Britt Cole

Sara Hedstrom Pinnell, owner of Hedstrom Design, did not get to the day in 2007 when she opened her landscape design business magically. It’s been a journey.

Life took a difficult turn when Sara’s mother died six months after being diagnosed with leukemia, leaving her father to care for four children ages 14 months, five, eight and ten. Losing her mother at eight meant some drastic life changes including a stepmother and stepbrother. Her father, an architect, left the firm where he was employed for the security and benefits of working for the state.

“Before he died in 2014, my father told me he was proud of me for having my own business,” said Sara. “I realized it’s what he wanted to do.”

“Growing up, a lot of things just didn’t make sense,” she continued. “It was too difficult to talk, so we didn’t. There’s not a universal way people handle grief. We’re resilient, but there’s a cost. It makes you stronger. I hope it gives you empathy.

“I was outside a lot. We hiked, canoed, went to the ocean. It was a rich, kind of weird life. Looking back on it, you realize you were raised to be self-sufficient.” Sara’s sense of self sufficiency led her to leave her native New Hampshire for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She ultimately enrolled in Temple University at the age of 22.

“I opened a catalog and saw ‘landscape architecture’ and thought ‘that looks interesting,’” she said. “I worked my way through college. I loved college. I loved waitressing. I’m still friends with those people today. An internship with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society exposed me to projects like Penn’s Landing and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It gave me insight into how public lands in big cities are managed.”

The next stop on her journey was a job at a small firm in Westchester.

“It was really hard,” she said. “I was the only employee. But she taught me a lot, and I’m forever grateful.” Hearing from college friends that their firm, Carol Johnson, Associates, was hiring, Sara headed to Boston in 1997.

“It was great,” said Sara. “I was one of 16 new hires. I met a lot of talented people who influenced my career.” When she moved to Knoxville in 2003, she ended up opening a branch of the Boston firm, but she nurtured her entrepreneurial spirit with side jobs.

“You could take outside jobs as long as they weren’t in conflict,” she said. “I did small residential projects on the side. When opportunities came along, I have stepped up to them. I have always had it in my heart to own my own business. All these things prepared me. The timing was right. I was single and working hard. I hired an office manager who’s still there today, and I hired a cleaning person to clean my house. I started small, and we grew organically.”

Since opening Hedstrom Design in 2007, the company has grown to a staff of eight, including Sara. They take on all kinds of projects.

“If we think we can add value to a client, we’ll take it on,” she said. “If it’s a large job, we’ll partner with someone. If we think someone else can do a better job, we’ll recommend them.

We have to have the capabilities to fulfill what they want, and I have to be real honest about that. My favorite projects are when teams are fired up, and there’s mutual respect and information sharing--all on behalf of the client.”

“I want my staff to be engaged and to grow,” she continued.

“Responsibility with a safety net. I want to hire people who want my job. I want them to be aspirational.”

Opening her own business ushered in a new era for Sara. She met her husband Ben Pinnell, President of Hickory Construction in 2008, and the couple married in 2010. Son Henry was born in 2011.

“I feel very lucky,” said Sara. “My marriage is a gift; Henry’s a gift; my business is a gift. Right now my life revolves around work and family, but I have a network of strong women friends. People here are so nice. I’ve gotten kind of used to it.”

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