Most tourists enjoy shopping, but two former corporate executives took it a step further by importing the products they discovered on vacation.
Debby Ruth, an executive on the fast track at a major cable television company, fell in love with Hester van Eeghen’s quirky and colorful handmade leather bags on a shopping trip to Amsterdam in 2004.
“I was absolutely mesmerized and spent half a day in Hester’s boutique,” recalled Ruth, who is now the exclusive U.S. importer of van Eeghen’s handbags, gloves and wallets via Hester van Eeghen U.S.
Ruth admits she never planned to start a small business. But when she was laid off in 2008, she decided to invest her severance package in her own venture: selling van Eeghen’s goods in the U.S.
Amsterdam or Bust
Contacting van Eeghen to discuss the potential business venture was the first challenge. “It took eight months to reach her,” Ruth says. “Hester is one of the busiest women you’ve ever met. I finally hopped on a plane and flew to Amsterdam—without even having an appointment.”
When they finally met over dinner, they explored ways to sell the Italian-made purses, gloves, wallets and briefcases to American fashionistas. Van Eeghen’s hand-sewn bags are pricey, retailing for around $900 for a purse and $300 for leather gloves.
But Ruth’s persistence paid off and so far, the relationship has been positive, according to van Eeghen.
"Working with Debby on the HVE US online boutique was a natural way to have a greater presence in the United States,” said Hester Van Eeghen via e-mail. “We have found the American customers in our Amsterdam shop to be very enthusiastic about my designs. I thought creating the online boutique first would be an ideal way to reach as many people as possible but in a way that was organic."
A Walking Billboard
Soon after van Eeghen made Debby Ruth her exclusive U.S. distributor, Ruth tapped her husband, Tim Lenz, to help her design the sophisticated, minimalist website. Lenz also shot all the photos of van Eeghen’s wares.
Launched in 2010, sales have grown steadily. Ruth said she and van Eeghen split the revenue on the bags sold via the U.S. website. She declined to reveal the financial details of the arrangement or share annual revenues for the privately held U.S. company.
“Our goal is to get big enough to open physical locations,” Ruth says. Meanwhile, she is a walking billboard for her product. “Whenever I’m carrying one of Hester’s bags, people stop me to ask where to buy it.”
While Debby Ruth found a new career importing handbags, Ruth Frantz, a beverage industry executive, also had a life-changing experience while vacationing abroad. She was visiting several small, mostly family-owned vineyards in France when she was inspired to import the boutique champagne into the U.S. Frantz felt confident she could pull it off, having worked on the global marketing of Ketel One Vodka for a major liquor distributor.
“There are about 4,000 champagne producers in France, yet most Americans only know Moet and Veuve Clicquot,” Frantz says.
Her mission is educating Americans to enjoy the sparkling wine more freely. It’s a challenge, because most Americans drink champagne only for special occasions, Frantz says. Europeans, however, drink champagne to kick off an evening of eating and drinking.
She created a character called Henri and founded Connecticut-based Henri's Reserve about two years ago. For sale is a gift package called the “Guaranteed Seduction Kit” for $300, which includes truffles and candles. One top seller is the $160 "tasting kit" featuring three bottles of champagne and pre-printed cards for making notes about the different wines.
Frantz depends on food writers, wine bloggers, Facebook and other social media platforms to spread the word about Henri’s Reserve. “We started very small and now it’s all about scaling up,” she says.
Because importing liquor to the U.S. is highly regulated and complicated, Frantz relies on Robert Houde, a Chicago-based wine expert, to manage the logistics. “I source the wines and get them into the country for Ruth,” Houde says. “Our customers really like that these are real wines from real vineyards, versus mass blended wines from big companies.”
Small restaurants looking to set themselves apart from the competition by offering a selection of unique, boutique champagne are a growing percentage of Henri’s Reserve's sales. The privately held company does not release revenues, but Frantz says that although she started the business during the recent recession, sales are growing.
Have you ever drawn business inspiration from a vacation?
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