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Do you take this business?

The $32 billion, recession-proof wedding industry has more entrepreneurs saying "I do."

Harold Clarke always dreamed of making it big in the fashion business. When the Kingston, Jamaica, native came to the United States in 1969, his objective was clear: He would one day become a household name in the high-stakes fashion industry.

Clarke got his ambitious dream off by designing pants in his spare time while working as an orderly at New York City's Brookdale Hospital. In 1975, Clarke did what countless other aspiring designers have done before him: He attended classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Five years later, Clarke opened I&H Fashions, a women's clothing design studio in lower Manhattan. Weak sales and lack of access to expansion capital, however, forced I&H Fashions out of business only three years after the company was launched.

But Clarke never gave up on his dream. After holding several jobs in 1987, the risk-taking designer took a second stab at entrepreneurship. With a $10,000 loan from his wife, Iona, Clarke opened Harold Clarke Couture and started designing suede and leather dresses and jackets. Iona, a former Chase Manhattan Bank customer service representative, is Harold Clarke Couture's secretary, treasurer and partner.

Today, the Clarkes have moved on to a more profitable segment of the fashion industry--wedding gowns. Harold Clarke Couture's dresses, which wholesale from $1,100 to $2,000 each, are sold in upscale bridal salons in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Beverly Hills; Boston; Chicago; and Newport Beach, Calif. Clarke, who projects $250,000 in company sales this year, says his gowns have appeared in such major bridal magazines as Bride's, Modern Bride, Elegant Bride and Bridal Guide. Clarke, 42, believes that the decision to branch out into the wedding industry was a wise one.

"The wedding industry is recession-proof," boasts Clarke, who designed and manufactured more than 80 wedding dresses last year. "A lot of people are getting married today, and there are a lot of opportunities out there for business owners such as ourselves."

Adds Iona, 45: "Marriage is the thing to do today. Just about all your life you plan for your wedding day, and generally people don't cut corners in this business. Everyone wants to do it right."

The Wedding Business Boom

The Clarkes are right. The wedding industry is big business and boasts a solid outlook. The long-running recession has had little impact on the $32 billion industry. In fact, the bridal business is one segment of the fashion industry that saw its profits rise--from 10% to 12% in 1990.

Industry profits aren't the only figures that are increasing. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) in Hyattsville, Md., last year, 2.4 million Americans were married--and more than 11% of those couples were African-American. The NCHS says that according to preliminary figures, 2,448,000 marriages took place in 1990 compared with 2,404,000 in 1989--a 2% increase. The 1990 figure was the highest since 1984 and represents the third-highest number of marriages in U.S. history.

Now the trend has more Americans putting off marriage until their late 20s and early 30s when they're earning more money and firmly established in their careers. The NCHS says that in 1988--the most recent data available--the first-marriage average age for women was 24.6 years and 26.5 years for men, compared with 1985 ages of 24 for women and 25.9 for men. For African-Americans, those numbers were even higher. The average age when black women first married was 26 in 1988 and 27.6 years for black men.

"Black women are taking more time to get their education, and get their careers under way before getting married and starting a family," says Andrew Sawyer, publisher of Brides Today, a 3-month-old Northbrook, Ill.-based bridal magazine for black brides and grooms.

According to Brides Today, African-Americans spend an average of $7,000 to $10,000 on their weddings. (The national average for a formal wedding is $16,698, according to Modern Bride). With more than 200,000 blacks tying the knot each year at an average cost of $8,000 per wedding, it's estimated that African-Americans shell out more than $1.6 billion annually on weddings. "The bridal industry," observes Sawyer, "is one lucrative industry."

Experts say that divorce is yet another factor that pushes up the marriage rate. According to the Census Bureau, about 1 million couples divorce each year and almost 75% remarry. And the NCHS reports that a majority of women who divorce eventually remarry an average of four years after the previous marriage ended.

The Growth Areas

All across the United States, couples are joining hands and hearts in holy matrimony. But some of the best opportunities for entrepreneurs looking to open a wedding-related business are in the large metropolitan areas. Why? It's simple: A large population translates into more people walking down the aisle, which means more small business opportunities.

"Weddings are big business in California, New York and the whole East Coast from Boston to New Jersey," says Eileen Monaghan, vice president of the Association of Bridal Consultants, a Milford, Conn.-based organization made up of 950 independent bridal and wedding consultants and 54 corporate members. "Chicago, Houston, Dallas and pretty much all metropolitan areas are good locations."

The industry offers opportunities for a host of wedding-related businesses. They include bridal apparel designers, jewelers, caterers, florists, travel agents, bridal consultants, limousine service owners and photographers. Although the amount of money that's spent on weddings each year is substantial, most of the businesses in this industry are small--oftimes sole proprietorships or family-owned firms.

Industry experts say that one of the hottest industry segments is bridal consulting. Ten years ago, going to a consultant was almost unheard of. Today, more and more couples are letting professional consultants handle just about all the details of their wedding from helping with the invitations to the thank-you notes.

"Independent bridal consultants can go into business with a fairly limited budget," says Monaghan. "Consultants can start a business with as little as $2,000 to $3,000."

Angela Baker-Brown, a former account executive with Charlotte Lipson Co., a New York-based public relations agency, did just that. "In March 1985, a girlfriend of mine was getting married and she wanted me to help plan her wedding," Baker-Brown recalls. "We were running here and there and I though, 'Why can't we just find one place where we can get all of this taken care of?'"

So Baker-Brown set out to open such a place. "I studied this business inside out. I read everything, got two videos on the wedding business--one by Debbie Boone called The Official Wedding Planner--and went to trade shows," she remembers.

Then Baker-Brown printed up fliers announcing her services as a bridal consultant and distributed them in her Queens, N.Y., neighborhood, as well as in the neighboring borough of Brooklyn. Initially, she began by helping brides-to-be order their wedding invitations. She also referred them to other black businesses that provided wedding-related services. A year later, she joined the Association of Bridal Consultants, which offered invaluable wedding courses and workshops. (See sidebar, "For More Information.")

In 1987, Baker-Brown took $4,000 from the money she made from her home-based business and moved to a small storefront, which she called Blushing Bride Wedding Center. Three years later, she moved to her new location in Jamaica, Queens.

While most bridal consultants charge anywhere from $25 an hour to 10% to 15% of the total bridal package, Baker-Brown says that she doesn't charge a consulting fee. Instead, she makes her money from the sale of invitations and bridal dresses and accessories. Last year, Baker-Brown, whose company handled more than 300 weddings, saw Blushing Bride Wedding Center gross $100,000 in sales. In addition to selling wedding dresses and accessories and serving as a consultant, Baker-Brown also sponsors wedding expos and publishes a new magazine called Blushing Bride.

"A lot of brides look for black businesses to work with," says Baker-Brown says. "They want to spend their money in the black community. These women spend a lot of money on their weddings and think it's good when some of it goes to black-owned businesses."

Despite the opportunities, African-American business owners are still small players in the wedding industry. Although hard numbers are not available, Brides Today's Andrew Sawyer estimates that "upward of 80% to 90% of blacks are spending their money with majority-owned firms" because there are so few black-owned wedding-related companies.

If more black entrepreneurs are looking to cash in on the marriage bonanza, another big-growth area is honeymoon travel. According to Modern Bride, four years ago, first-time newlyweds spent $2.5 billion on honeymoons. In 1991, that figure skyrocketed to $3.6 billion. "Unlike a few years ago, couples are now honeymooning at off-shore locations," says Howard Friedberg, publisher of Modern Bride. "They're going to the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada and Europe. In the near future, hot honeymoon spots will include Africa, Argentina and New Zealand."

One company that has been making travel arrangements for newlyweds is New York-based B&C Travel. Catherine Smith, 58, and her son, Bill, run the company, which was started in 1976 by her and her late husband William H. Smith Sr. with $6,000 in savings. The company, battered by problems in the airline industry and the Gulf War, in 1991 had $800,000 in sales. To help deal with the impact of the recession on the travel industry, the Smiths, over the past two years, have aggressively gone after a long-ignored part of the market--honeymoon travel.

"It's a very stable share of the market," says Bill, B&C Travel's 28-year-old vice president. "It's one of the few travel-growth areas, and we want more of it."

Last year, the Smiths booked 25 honeymoon trips for sales exceeding $60,000. Honeymoon trips can range anywhere from $500 to as much as $3,000 or more. Now that they have a foot in the door, the Smiths see a profitable future. They're projecting 1992 sales of $900,000 and within five years believe that more than 25% of their sales will come from honeymoon trips. To realize that goal, Catherine and Bill, who have five outside sales agents, recently took part in one of Angela Baker-Brown's wedding expos and have developed new brochures and travel destination videos and fliers. "We're trying to reach 5,000 families by placing fliers in their neighborhoods," says Catherine.

Wedding reception catering continues to be one of the most money-making segments of the wedding industry. Fully one-third of the entire cost of the wedding goes to catering the reception. (See chart, "Here Comes The Money.") Few catering companies do only wedding receptions--most do general catering and also specialize in weddings. One such company is The Gourmet Cos. Inc., the Atlanta-based BE 100s company. Founded in 1975 by Nathaniel R. Goldston III, The Gourmet Cos. is also a major food supplier for several of the nation's top black colleges. Last year, the company had $30 million in sales--and catered 20 wedding receptions. "We do what I call celebrity weddings," says Goldston. "We've done all three of former Mayor Andrew Young's daughters' weddings."

One of the most competitive areas of the industry remains retail gowns. "There's a lot more competition in that market," says Eileen Monaghan of the Association of Bridal Consultants. "It's also expensive. To open a small storefront in a metropolitan area will cost a minimum of $100,000, and most of that will go for your gown inventory."

Adds Jordan Harris, fashion advertising director for Modern Bride: "The competition is getting stiffer. The competition is making many of these companies diversify their inventory to include such accessories as evening wear, shoes, lingerie and wedding cake cutters."

Barriers To Success

While the industry offers many opportunities to small companies, it can be difficult for those firms to stay afloat without a sufficient amount of expansion capital, experts say. And that kind of capital is desperately needed to keep pace with competitors.

Harold Clarke says that he has put the brakes on growing his firm because of the trouble he's had attracting financing. In fact, Clarke says that he and Iona had to mortgage their house twice in order to raise $35,000 for their business.

"I did a show in New York recently and we got orders worth $150,000. Now that's only one show," says Clarke. "I was scheduled to do four other shows in major cities across the United States. But the worse thing that could happen to me is to get orders worth $500,000 or $1 million and not be able to fill them because I don't have a financial backer. So I had to cancel the other show just to concentrate on filling that one order for $150,000."

Clarke says that he has knocked on the doors of several lending institutions only to be turned away empty-handed. "The banks are telling me that they're having financial problems, and that we'd have to have $1 million in sales before they'll talk to us. Now, if I'm doing $1 million in sales, I really don't need them for the money," says Clarke, adding that he's looking for a group of outside investors.

Dorothy Payne-Cahee, owner of Bridal Service Center in Oakland, Calif., can definitely relate to Clarke's plight. The 57-year-old former education program officer for the government says that a lack of capital has also prevented her 9-year-old wedding gown rental company from growing. "Banks look at us as just another retail-type business or a boutique, and they feel there are enough of those types of businesses out there already," she says.

If you're a Harold Clarke or a Dorothy Payne-Cahee, check out "In Search Of Money," April 1992, for alternate sources of financing.

Making The Cut In Ring Business

Not all companies, however, have had serious cahs-flow or financing problems. When Nate Cash went to work as a porter with Chicago-based Macy's Jewelers in 1949, few thought he'd one day have his own jewelry store. But today, Cash, 62, and his wife, Verdelle, 59, are the owners of Nate's Jewelers, where they sell engagement and wedding rings, bracelets, necklaces and other jewelry and wedding accessories. Last year, Cash sold 800 engagement and wedding rings totaling about $250,000 in sales. Cash says that his engagement and wedding ring business made up about 50% of his company's total gross sales of $500,000 in 1991.

Cash was cleaning floors, washing windows and making deliveries for $18 a week. A jeweler, noticing Cash's interest in the business, decided to take him under his wing and teach him how to size rings.

Over the next three decades, Cash steadily progressed up the ladder at Macy's Jewelers. He went from sizing and designing rings to working in the firm's credit department to buying jewelry and diamonds for the store. He eventually was named to manage the store and its seven employees. In mid-1983 Cash sold the 10% stake he had in the company, mortgaged his home for $14,000 and opened his own jewelry store.

"I had a customer base already and diamond brokers trusted me," says Cash, who took about 20% of Macy's customers with him. "We leased a space and purchased equipment and shelving. I went to the people I had been dealing with and got jewelry on consignment. I would take a consignment for the month and at the end of the month, what I had sold I'd pay for. Then I would send the rest back and get another reassignment of jewelry. I did that until we created enough inventory."

Today, only about 25% of Cash's business is consignment and that's mostly diamond necklaces and bracelets. While African-Americans are underrepresented among jewelry store owners, Cash says it's a business that is certainly benefiting from the wedding industry boom. For instance, in 1991, $3.3 billion--or 10.3% of the $32 billion that was spent on weddings by first-marriage couples was spent on engagement and wedding rings.

"This is a good business to be in," notes Cash. "But you have to have an adequate amount of operating capital. To get started in this business today, it'll take you a minimum of $100,000--and that's very small, maybe 500 square feet with nothing fancy and a couple of jewelry cases. My success is tied to the fact that I've worked with diamond brokers who trusted me and worked with me."

If you're looking to break into the jewelry industry, contact the Westport, Conn.-based Independent Jewelers Organization (IJO) (203-226-6941), which helps independent jewelers compete in local markets through advertising, promotion and buyers' assistance. Other organizations include: New York-based Jewelers of America (212-768-8777) and Jewelry Industry Council (212-727-0130).

Learning The Industry

Not sure where to get your hands on all the industry material that you'll need to start or expand your wedding business? A good place to start is the Association of Bridal Consultants. Eileen Monaghan, the group's vice president, says that the organization conducts more than a dozen seminars a year across the country on how to get started in the bridal industry. The organization also provides advertising, publicity, referrals and information services.

Monaghan has another recommendation for current and would-be business owners: "Go to the library and read all the bridal books you can get your hands on. Go to bridal trade shows and entrepreneurial seminars and go to your town hall or city hall and find out how many weddings there were in your market area the previous year--that should be incorporated into your business plan."

Andrew Sawyer of Brides Today advises that you check your local city college to see what kind of entrepreneurial courses are being offered. "There, you'll get the training on how to run a business," says Sawyer. "You'll learn accounting, sales and how to work with personnel."

Monaghan adds a word to the wise for start-ups. "Remember, it could take three years just to start one of these businesses. Don't expect to become an overnight success. It takes time because you can book a wedding nine months to a year in advance, and you won't get your full fee until that time. You have to be in it for the long haul." Or until death and your business do part.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:wedding supplies and service industry
Author:Gite, Lloyd
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Establishing a political agenda for African-Americans.
Next Article:Healthy vacations.

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