Bright Ideas: Bow tie renaissance

Bow ties, it seems are undergoing a bit of a renaissance and that’s fine with David Kramer and David Mutter, Co-CEO’s of Beau Ties Limited of Vermont.

“This was a niche market, bow ties. 10, 12 years ago this company was really one of the only games in town. That is not true now,” says Kramer.

Their “Bright Idea,” was to leave their somewhat more traditional careers behind so they could see if they have what it takes to run a small business. By 2012 Kramer had been working as a New York investment banker and Mutter as a California management consultant. It was something they’d dreamed about as far back as graduate school, when they first met, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. It didn’t have to be bow ties, but Beau Ties was a good fit.

“As an undergrad, I wrote a business plan for a mail order catalogue business,” says Mutter, “we looked at bow ties and kind of came full-circle. It’s a mail order catalogue business. There aren’t very many of ‘em around.”

It didn’t have to be bow ties but Beau Ties was a good fit.

“It checked a lot of the boxes, “ adds Kramer, “This is a product made in America. It’s a unique product. It’s handcrafted by the women right here in our building. There’s a direct relationship with our product and our customers and we want to continue to do what the founders hoped to accomplish when they started.”

The founders, Deb Venman and her late husband, Bill Kenerson, began selling Beau Ties out of their home as a side business in 1993. The man Kenerson bought his own hand-made ties from in California had gone out of business several years earlier. After he died Kenerson and Venman contacted his family to see if they could buy his mailing list. The first answer they got was “no, thanks,” but they had lots of leftover fabric they were looking to sell. So Kenerson bought the fabric, convinced them to include the mailing list as part of the purchase and went into business.

Venman says her husband promised they’d have a great time traveling the world looking for fabrics but soon learned he really wanted his small business to get bigger, “in the back of his mind he was always saying this could be a million dollar business. This could be a two million dollar business.. but he had enough sense not to convey that to me until we were a little further down the path.”

By that time it was obvious he was right.

After selling 3500 hand-made bow ties the first year, at roughly $35 dollars a pop, Beau Ties was just trying to cover its costs. Nine years later they moved out of the house and into their own production facility, where they were designing, crafting and shipping out more than 40-thousand ties a year. Kenerson, who had worked for the Addison (Vermont) County Economic Development Corporation, was now putting people to work himself. There were 25 employees, many of whom are still working for Beau Ties.

When they moved into the new building in 2002, Kenerson and Venman knew a time would come to sell the company. By the time Kenerson had taken ill in 2012 the couple had passed on several potential buyers, some of whom might have moved the production out of Vermont, “it was very important to us that whoever bought this building intended to keep it in Vermont. Keep our employees and basically continue what we had begun,” says Venman, “one of the things that we were counseled against was making the ties here because it is very expensive… and Bill and I thought about it and said nope that’s not what we want to do philosophically.”

They created jobs, made a first-rate product and provided high level customer service by cutting ties in various widths, taking design suggestions from customers and even turning old ties sent by customers (and sometimes shirts and other pieces of clothing) into bow ties.

It’s that kind of personalization that the Daves believe, sets Beau Ties apart, “we think of personalization as differentiation,” says Mutter, “you wonder why you keep manufacturing jobs in the United States? This is why… because you provide your customers exactly what they’re looking for.

Venman and Kenerson, though, had been though several prospective buyers by the time Kenerson had taken ill in 2012 and their broker didn’t think the Daves would be the ones to finish the deal.

“It was a flat out no. We had to sell ourselves to the broker and then we had to sell ourselves to Bill and Deb,” says Kramer. In fact, they took the broker’s resistance as a challenge of sorts. When they finally got to meet with Venman and Kenerson, they showed up wearing Beau Ties products and it didn’t take Kenerson long to figure out the Daves, despite the fact that their families lived on both coasts, had every intention to keep the business right where it is in Vermont.

In late 2012, the Daves bought Beau Ties and, while they both claim to be bow tie wearers (Mutter, in fact, had been a Beau Ties customer), they knew there was a lot to learn.

“It had been flat-lined for a number of years and it needed some attention in some new areas. It was profitable but it was on a path where there were some danger signs starting to emerge.”

One area they’ve upgraded is the beautiesltd.com website. There have been photography and page design tweaks. They’ve also taken step into uncharted marketing territory by signing on with five winter sports athletes. Four are Nordic skiers and U.S. Olympic hopefuls and the fifth is a dog sled racer, Matt Failor, who has competed in the last two Iditarods and expects to race again, beginning March 1st.

Huh?

“Our customers are distinct,” Mutter explains, “they have the confidence in themselves to wear a non-traditional tie. That’s what they like. They want to see people like themselves who do the same thing, following their passion. And so, if you’re a cross-country skier, you’re doing it because you wake up in the morning and you love it. You’re wearing a bow tie, you’re waking up in the morning and doing that because you love it.”

The explanation isn’t far off from the sales job the Daves had to do with their families when they decided to try to buy Beau Ties, “if you’re, you know leaving your traditional career path and buying a small business you’re doing it ‘cause you love it.” In fact, they love it so much, they think it would be just great if their kids were grow up and become interested in running the company too.

“Dave has got two boys 12 and 10, my children are 10 and seven,” says Kramer, we want this to be a generational thing.” Mutter concurs, “We’re long-term guys. We may be relatively new to this company but we want to be here, we think, generationally.”

The timing may have been right, not just for the Daves, but for the bow tie business too. Once a defining wardrobe touch for the likes of Harry Truman and Winston Churchill, not to mention entertainers, writers, doctors and lawyers, bow ties are kind of hip these days. Some call it “geek chic,” the perfect touch to compliment horned rim glasses and worn out oxford shirts. Geeks are so chic that bow ties are putting some of the pop in pop culture these days. Rappers have written about them. Superstar athletes are wearing them. One, NBA-er Dwyane Wade, even put his name on a line of bow ties sold by The Tie Bar.

That’s why clothing powerhouse PVH Corp. (the former Phillips Van Heusen, the world’s largest shirt-maker) projected that bow ties would make up seven percent of the 850 million dollar U.S. neckwear market in 2012. That’s up from four percent just a year earlier.

Bow Ties are cool and on-line shopping is easy. Beau Ties rode those dual waves to a record December. Sales were up 55 percent year over year and it was their busiest December ever. Not bad in a relatively flat retail market.

It seems the Daves are doing their best make Bill Kenerson proud.

“He looked at us saying this is the kind of invigorating this business needs at this point. I wish I could do that but he was just at a point in his life where it was impossible,” says Kramer.

Mutter says the feeling was, and is, mutual, “He looked at us and said gosh I wish I could be you when he never realized we looked at him and said that we wish we were you. He built this great American business. He did it his way. He created wonderful jobs in this community. We looked at him the same way he looked at us and I think that’s why it worked.”

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