Regular readers will be surprised at my choice of topic for today in this non-compensated post about the little woman’s accessory company gone global from the Northeastern Indiana close to where I grew up – Vera Bradley located in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Except that the company is not actually in Fort Wayne from what I can tell, but rather has its HQ in Huntington, Indiana (which claims Dan Quayle as a local boy except that he grew up and went to school in Phoenix, Arizona.) And Vera was not a founder. They liked the name. It was the name of a mother of one of the founders. When I spent five days in the Fort Wayne area in August, I thought I would follow up with Vera Bradley folks I met at the Windy City Soiree last year. Health events in my family kept me from having the time to pursue interviews. The soiree/event was at Water Tower Place in downtown Chicago just before BlogHer 2013. The Vera Bradley Store there was one of the retailers participating in the event.
I came away with a very positive impression of the company’s outreach to bloggers as well as the social media and marketing people and programs. I received a great little, but not chintz (pun intended,) swag bag.
Why did I love it so much that I carried it even though my dog nibbled the corner as soon as I arrived back in Tucson from the conference?
I was not new to the brand with this swag. I had been given a few small gifts over the last 15 years from friends in the Fort Wayne area.
I also won a drawing for a large travel bag that I also really like due to the sturdy, soft, stuff-it-to-the-gills design that I have used on short and long trips.
This company is a great case study for women entrepreneurs and companies with women-focused and tailored products several reasons:
- Women founded company
- Small local company that became a large global corporation
- Two woman privately owned cottage industry to publicly traded corporation
- Brand identity incongruity when production patterns changed
Vera Bradley which trades as VRA on the NYSE was founded by Barbara Bradley Baekgaard and Patricia Miller in 1982. It is headquartered in Huntington, Indiana though it is known as a Fort Wayne Company. Fashion and Fort Wayne might not seem like a likely combination but the city also claims Bill Blass as a native son.
To get a more complete picture of the history of the company and its identity, image, or brand ups and downs I recommend reading Indianapolis Monthly coverage of the company from 2009 that was updated in August 2013.
The basic story is that this was a home-grown, mid-western, crafty company that seemed sensible, old-fashioned, and part of a tradition or women’s culture that also included sewing bags, quilts, crocheted afghans, and many more types of fabric art that evolved out of generations of women decorating utilitarian textiles with personalized stitchery. Baekgaard, whose mother provided the name for the company, and Miller were not the first or only cloth bag makers from Northeastern Indiana. This bag was my Grandmother’s sewing bag. I begged my mother to let me carry it as a purse in High School, but she said, “No.” She did however make me one just like but with non-fragile handles.
Patterned bags are also nothing new. Here you can see my mother’s bead and metal flapper bag from High School.
The tradition of women’s decorative, utilitarian design inspired Vera Bradley original products and continues to be part of their bright, bold cloth items, though they included a leather line this Fall. But the partners developed some distance between them, and the IPO was in October of 2010 where shares opened at $24.85 a share, far above the $14 to $16 that was expected.
With the public offering success, it became obvious to everyone that the corporation was all grown up. Fort Wayne kitchen tables gave way to a New York apartment decorated much like a Vera Bradley handbag. Baekgaard’s Big Apple apartment signals her moving up in the world while still being a significant player in the company. Miller was tapped by Mitch Daniels, former Indiana Governor to serve as Indiana’s first Secretary of Commerce for the State of Indiana and CEO of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. Miller is also on the Board of the Vera Bradley Breast Cancer Foundation.
The big hoopla over hundreds of Indiana workers losing their jobs in 2008 and 2009 shifted lots of Hoosier perspectives about the company. Customers who bought the product thinking it was made in the USA did not like finding Made in China tags in their expensive quilted cotton bags. I understand. Internationally sourcing corporations probably should not try to seem folksy. Therein lies the challenge. Acknowledging original design, place, and customer-base while attempting to appeal to people who wouldn’t be caught dead carrying bright and pastel floral quilted items is going to prove very tricky.
In their favor:
- Some jobs are returning to or being created again for distribution and a few production activities in Indiana.
- The quality remains quite good.
- There are people who like colorful travel bags and wallets and would not carry a similar purse.
- Cotton is still favored over plastic by lots of folks.
- They have regular sales with significant percentages off.
- Their social media is quite good. Check out their seasonal screen-savers and backgrounds available for free download in desktop/laptop, tablet, and mobile sizes.
A few weeks ago I purchased another all-in-one cross-body that I will again carry as a wallet. If they have convinced me to still buy their product they may have a future. Quality and cotton count for a lot in my book, and they do listen to customers and constantly incorporate changes, so I will not give up on this once a women-owned, Hoosier business.