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Vera Bradley Designs.

It all started in an airport for the Fort Wayne entrepreneurs.

It all started in an airport in February 1982.

During a two-and-a-half-hour layover in Atlanta, Pat Miller and Barbara Baekgaard watched women travelers. "There was not a woman who had a feminine piece of luggage," Baekgaard recalls. "They were all dressed nicely, carrying canvas bags. That is when the light bulb clicked on."

After the friends returned to their Fort Wayne home, they hired a seamstress to make a prototype. When trial bags sold well, they placed an ad for home seamstresses. By June, they shipped their first order.

They named their company Vera Bradley Designs after Baekgaard's mother. "Vera Bradley was just a classy lady," Baekgaard says, "and we thought that the name sounded good."

Baekgaard's basement was their warehouse and her kitchen, their office. The pair hired friends and relatives across the country as sales reps. By September they had $16,000 in orders, including a sale to Chicago's Marshall Field's.

A stroke of luck helped. The company needed to start buying fabrics wholesale. Baekgaard stopped at a major fabrics company in New York City. She thought it nice--given the size of Vera Bradley Designs--that she was ushered right in to see the vice president of the company.

"He started throwing all this wholesale fabric jargon out, like 'piece' (25 yards), which I didn't understand at the time. After a few minutes of continuous jargon, followed by confused looks from me, he stopped and said, 'Who did you say you're with?'"

"'Vera Bradley Designs,' I answered. "With that he blurted out, 'How did you get in to see me?'"

"As it happened," Baekgaard says, "the receptionist thought I was with Vera," an established home and women's accessory line.

He didn't dismiss her. "He really took us under his wing and sold us the material we needed, although it was far less than their established minimum," she says.

After just six months, the business outgrew its home-based office and moved into leased space in a north-side Fort Wayne industrial park. In 1987, the company won the Indiana Entrepreneur of the Year Award for a woman-owned business. That same year, the company built a 26,000-square-foot building in the industrial park.

Vera Bradley Designs needs that space: It sells products across the United States, and also markets and sells in Italy, Germany, England, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, Norway and Japan. Japan is its biggest foreign customer.

The company purchases advertising in trade magazines and has an outside sales force of 28 road reps. In fact, the real Vera Bradley was a rep for Southern Florida until her death at age 81 last year. Most of the business comes through trade shows, though. "We attend 27 per year," Baekgaard says, "which amounts to every major gift show in every major city."

Purses, accessories, clothing and table-decorating items are staples in the line, in addition to the luggage that started it all. "The borders on our products are really our trademark," says Miller. "We describe the line as traditional, yet timeless in design."

Famous customers include Paul Newman, Carol Burnett, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anne Bancroft, Beverly Sills and Nancy Reagan. Reagan bought cosmetic bags to give as gifts to wives of visiting foreign dignitaries.

Miller has advice for women thinking of starting a business: "Know your strong points, know your weak points and don't try to do everything. Surround yourself with good people."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Curtis Magazine Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:luggage designers
Author:Abella, Ma
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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