By Judy Carmack Bross
“This place could use some color”, 43-year-old Barbara Bradley Baekgaard said to her friend Pat Miller during an airport layover in 1982.
The friends were headed to Miami and wanted to see some Florida-style color, but all they could see was a sea of drab, colorless and bulky suitcases. By the time they were back home in Fort Wayne, they had a plan that evolved into a half-a-billion dollar lifestyle brand called Vera Bradley named for her beloved mother.
Barbara Baekgaard recently sat down with interviewer Anne Coyle at one of Chicago’s most elegant private clubs to encourage women’s entrepreneurial leadership through her own remarkable story. She shared her book, A Colorful Way of Living: How to Be More, Create More and Do Morethe Vera Bradley Way which is filled with the colorful patterns and paisleys for which she is known and motivational advice which characterizes her leadership.
“As we looked at the bags in the airport, none had any feminine detail. We wished for a simple and attractive getaway bag with several compartments and preferably in a bright color,” she said. “We had worked together on a wallpaper business in Fort Wayne but we were basically stay at home moms. I had four children in five years. While we were familiar with popular brands like Laura Ashley and Pierre Deux their travel totes were not available in the Midwest.
“Before anyone could talk us out of it—including ourselves—we drove to Jo-Ann’s fabrics with $500, borrowed from our husbands, and bought as many yards of cotton fabric as we could afford.”
The two women took the fabric back to Baekgaard’s basement and used her ping pong table and Simplicity patterns to cut out three different functional, feminine and colorful pieces. They sent these samples to their daughters at college who rapidly came back with lots of orders and a cottage industry was born in Baekgaard’s basement. Zippers, piping thread and fabric filled that ping pong table. They found 60 home sewers and in the first year sold $10,000 worth of product which rose to a million by the third year.
Along the way people believed in Baekgaard, after she told a story at a dinner party another guest made a $2000 investment, saying that she could pay him back if she succeeded. She learned how to talk her way into a New York discount fabric location (where Vera Bradley is now the largest client), how to bring her basement booth next to kitchen magnets at a trade show up to the main floor (“it was a gift show and I had to convince them that a handbag was a gift”). A team of sales representatives came on board and the business moved out of her basement after the company’s second year when they brought in $100,000. In 1987 she was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
“I learned I had a good eye for looking at fabrics, and I looked to Asia and Europe for inspiration,” she said.
By 2006 Vera Bradley was shipping $2 million a day in product and in 2007 they established their first store in Nadick, Massachusetts. In 2010, Vera Bradley went public. She noted that, “Disney saw so many people at their parks were carrying our bags, and they came after us. Our retail store in Disney Springs is our largest store volume wise and we do have Mickey and Minnie prints.”
Anne Coyle brought out Baekgaard’s philosophy, so key to Vera Bradley’s non pareil success.
“I know my weaknesses and I have always believed that I should look for someone who’s really good at what I am not. Have at it I tell them. I firmly believe that there is no hierarchy to ideas.”
She feels that you can redesign the details of your life at work at any stage by building on your strengths and values. Here are some of her suggestions:
- Cultivate chutzpah and take chances.
- Make friends wherever you go.
- Choose nice.
- Keep the f in fun.
- Add a big cause to your purpose.
- Lean on your sisters.
- Slip up from time to time.
- Remember always: There is enough success and happiness for everyone.
Finding a big cause is one of her most important values. “My college roommate Mary Sloane who was one of our first reps died of cancer at age 50. In her honor I began a women’s charitable golf classic which recently brought in $1.5 million. We created the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer with proceeds going to the Indiana University School of Medicine.”
Baekgaard says that there are 400 people working at the Vera Bradley Design Center. “I can greet everyone by name but don’t know their job title, that to me seems right.”
A workplace philosophy—“when you find valuable people, find a way to keep them in your life”. At Vera Bradley there is a “happy committee” with its own budget to plan special events for employees. Even though there are now 3000 employees, she keeps the tradition of adding a $50 bill to a birthday card on each of her employee’s birthdays. “We do fun things, bring in ice cream trucks and have a gym on site,” she said.
Vera Bradley now has a new CEO, Jacqueline Ardrey. “She brings so much experience from her work at Harry and David and Hanna Anderson. Luckily they haven’t changed the locks.”
Because of her love of birds, Baekgaard is known as Birdie to her 12 grandchildren.
We particularly liked these words of wisdom from Birdie, exuding her continuous positivity and adaptability:
“In my experience, the people who get the most attention and respect are those who don’t apologize for who they are or pretend to be someone else.”