Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Beth Shissler had had enough of the corporate life. She was in her mid-30s, a globe-trotting executive with Philips Semiconductors, still thrilled by it all but not cool anymore with sleeping apart from her husband two nights out of three. The travel was killing her--literally, her doctor warned. Time for a change.
Something entrepreneurial, that was her starting point. With her MBA and her long experience at Philips, Shissler believed she was ready to run her own business. Something at least as stimulating and potentially as lucrative as her high-flying corporate gig. ("I didn't want to slow down, not at all.") Something tangible; not a consultancy but an honest, value-multiplying enterprise, offering good jobs with good pay and benefits. And above all, something rooted in her beloved home state of Maine. "The only thing I didn't have was a product," she says.
Then she stumbled upon Hannah Kubiak--or rather, her handiwork. Kubiak is a Mainer, too; she practically grew up on a boat. Her dad taught her how to make useful and beautiful things with old sails instead of throwing them away. Eventually she was sewing totes and selling them to tourists under the Sea Bags label. It was more or less a hobby. Kubiak did much of the cutting and sewing herself in an old building on Custom House Wharf in Portland, and sold word-of-mouth to tourists and locals who happened by.
Her one retail account was a little place called the Sea Urchin on Isle au Haut in Penobscot Bay, and in time it was taking half her annual output: 30 or 40 bags. The owner of the Sea Urchin was another old Mainer, Martha Greenlaw, who's now retired. Greenlaw had four children, including Linda Greenlaw, the real-life sword boat captain portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the 2000 film The Perfect Storm, and Beth Shissler.
Anyone could see that the bags were beautiful, well made, environmentally responsible, and unique. Shissler, looking closer, saw growth potential. She'd deliver stock to her mom's store whenever she came over from the mainland, and women would meet her at the dock asking, "What'd you bring for bags?" Even at a 100 percent markup, the bags sold. "I knew I could take this and build it," Shissler says now. She had found her product.
Marketing the lure of the sea
Shissler says she and Kubiak "dated" for three summers --"Would we, could we, should we?"--before she finally quit Philips in 2006 and bought a 50 percent stake in Sea Bags. She rented additional space on Custom House Wharf, hired seamstresses and designers, and ramped up production. Wholesale first, selling logoed gear to corporate clients ("I knew it would get us big orders fast, and cash"), then more stores and, finally, online. An early appearance on HGTV led to a surge in orders that almost sunk the ship before it left port. But Shissler recovered, and Sea Bags set sail.
Investors noticed. Shissler "took every meeting," she says, "because I wanted to see what they saw in my business." But she never seriously considered taking on another partner. That is, until she found herself at dinner one evening two years ago with Don Oakes and Fran Philip. Oakes is a Harvard MBA who'd spent 22 years just up the road in Freeport, Maine, at LL Bean, the past 12 as senior vice president in charge of the brand. He left Bean when he realized he wasn't going to make CEO ("My timing wasn't quite right"), and launched a fund with Philip, Bean's former chief merchandiser.
What Shissler saw in Oakes was an investor who could deliver cash himself, plus other investors (Kubiak wanted an exit), but more important, "bandwidth, capacity, and help." She wanted to keep growing, and she knew she couldn't do it all by herself.
What Oakes saw in Sea Bags was "a great product and a wonderful brand that really hasn't done a great job of telling the story," he says. "We believe strongly there is a potential white space for more of what we call a nautical lifestyle brand." Not just bags but also wallets, clutches, pillows, placemats, and laptop cases, all tailored to the New England coastal set, and wannabes everywhere.
In the end, Oakes scrapped his plan to join the investor class and signed on full time with Sea Bags as CEO. The title-sorting called for some "deep soul-searching" on Shissler's part, she says: "He's worthy of the CEO title, that's what it comes down to. It was a pretty easy decision to make to get him to come on board with me." Shissler kept the title she's always had: president.
A tote bag in every port
Today Shissler and Oakes sit opposite each other at an authentic antique partners desk on the second floor of 25 Custom House Wharf in Portland, across the street from Sea Bags' original quarters. Their office is a former storage room. Most of the sewing happens downstairs, in full view of the customers. Tote prices start at $110 and have gone as high as $1,000 at auction for one-off designs with authentic vintage markings.
Oakes has been on the road a lot this spring, opening stores No. 4 and No. 5, both in Massachusetts. He also tracked down a used Red Bull delivery truck in Brooklyn, which he drove back to Portland and had painted Sea Bags blue and retooled as a mobile retail kiosk, suitable for street fairs and store openings.
Sea Bags distributes through J. Crew, Tommy Bahama, and Sperry; ships to 900 retail accounts; has nearly 50 employees (everyone starts well above minimum wage, Oakes says), and will sell 77,000 bags this year, continuing its recent string of 40 percent annual growth. (The company says it's profitable but declined to disclose total sales.)
A single sail can produce as many as 12 bags. They're Dacron these days, not canvas. Sea Bags stores the raw material in a bulging warehouse in South Portland. One wonders about the sustainability of the supply chain, but Shissler and Oakes swear it's not an issue. Potential donors can request a postage-paid mail sack on Sea Bags's website. They're compensated with a one-of-a-kind tote, sewn from their donated sail.
So far Sea Bags claims to have recycled 500 tons of sail that would otherwise have gone to landfills. While helping Shissler sleep at night, in her own bed.