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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Handbag maker R. Riveter’s steady climb

R. Riveter is a handbag company created by two women married to a couple of Army soldiers. It has been around a dozen years.

The co-founders were on “Shark Tank” in 2016 where they got a $100,000 investment from billionaire Mark Cuban. They sell online but also have a store in Southern Pines, where co-founder Cameron Cruse lived for seven years while her husband was at Fort Bragg.

Lisa Bradley
Cameron Cruse

This month is their launch on HSN, the home shopping network. They are already on QVC. It has been a rapid climb for the company since Cruse and Lisa Bradley, living near a Ranger training camp in the mountains of North Georgia, decided to start a business with a couple of thousand dollars each, but a lot of creativity and courage.

I got to hear from Cruse in High Point last week. She now lives with her family in Bridge City, Texas, about 90 minutes northeast of Houston. They moved after her husband, George, retired from the Army.

Cruse was the lunch speaker at a conference put on by the Defense Alliance of North Carolina and N.C. State’ Industry Expansion Solutions. The focus of the gathering, at downtown High Point’s remarkable Congdon Yards complex, was how to strengthen what North Carolina’s manufacturing economy does to support the Department of Defense.

Cruse told a relevant story. Her manufacturing company provides income opportunities for military spouses around the country who make the handbag components in their spare bedrooms, attics, and garages. Helping military families is one important way to support the Department of Defense, really.

Riveter enables military spouses to earn income no matter where they are located in the country’s far-flung network of bases and camps, and how often they move. Military spouses often find themselves in out-of-the-way places with limited prospects; they have to move a lot, often every two to three years, and they need flexible situations. R. Riveter was way out in front of the work-from-home/flex thing.

The company is a good, young business, but it is a small, privately owned one, so after a burst of “Shark Tank” publicity and national stories were written, the spotlight dimmed. In 2018, Karen Pence, the vice president’s wife, visited their warehouse in Moore County and mentioned the company in her 2020 speech at the Republican National Convention. Once you’re past those sorts of things, it’s just the daily work of growing a business.

Middle of nowhere

Cruse and her husband met in Savannah, Georgia, where she was an architecture graduate student at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He was stationed at nearby Fort Stewart.

Her mother had grown up in a military family, and Cruse knew that she moved around a lot because of her grandfather’s job.  But, she says, she really didn’t understand what it meant to be a military spouse. Or what soldiers did.

This isn’t that unusual. Since we went to an all-volunteer force 50 years ago, fewer folks are familiar with military life.

The Monday after she graduated with a master’s degree in architecture, Cruse and her husband packed up a U-Haul and drove to North Georgia and Camp Merrill, where Army Rangers are trained to fight in the mountains. He had just been assigned as an instructor.

The couple lived with other military families in Dahlonega, a small town about a dozen miles from the camp. Cruse had an architecture degree she couldn’t use, because she was now, in her telling, in “the middle of nowhere.”

“I can tell you there is not a lot of architecture happening in Dahlonega, Georgia.” Cruse has called this her quarter-life crisis. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.”

When they had decided to get married, her husband told her that the military moved uniformed personnel a lot, and often to remote places. “‘Yeah, I know, I got this,’” she responded. “And then we moved. There was a lot of naivete.”

Another military spouse, Bradley, with a new MBA, was going through a similar crisis in Dahlonega, and they bonded.  “We became fast friends over the shared hardship of basically being unemployed.”

“And we did what unemployed people do. We complained a lot. We talked a lot. We worked out a lot. I was in the best shape of my life circa 2011,” says Cruse.

The two of them decided two things: Nobody was coming to save them. And a lot of military spouses were in the same boat. So they decided to make handbags, and invited friends to help, the proof-of-concept phase. “Like, come on to the garage, make some bags, have some fun, make some money.”

The garage, attic and spare bedroom are iconic American entrepreneurial incubators. Jobs and Woz. Hewlett and Packard.  But this was different. Traditionally, the point of getting out of the garage was to get in a bigger, central manufacturing building.  Cruse and Bradley realized that their innovation was to decentralize manufacturing, because that fit their workforce. Their workers — military spouses — could make handbag parts anywhere, with materials shipped to them by Cruse and Bradley.

“The second lightbulb moment happened for me to realize what happens when she wants to take her job with her, from Dahlonega and Camp Merrill to Florida or Colorado or North Carolina.

“So we have this huge realization that it’s not just flexible, but mobile income that we want to provide …. She could take her job with her no matter where the military placed her around the country. She could plug back in.”

So here’s how it would work. The interior liners of the bags would be made by military spouses throughout the country. They would ship them back to the company, where the components would be assembled and the bags finished and prepared for retail. In 2012, Bradley moved, but the partnership continued, as she kept managing business development and finance.

“I stay back to grow and manage operations, trying to learn how to work an industrial sewing machine. And we kind of start to convince people in North Georgia that we’re not totally crazy,” says Cruse.

Out of the garage

In 2014, her husband was reassigned to Fort Bragg. “And my husband’s like, Cameron, I love you, I support your business, please get out of the garage. I want my garage back.”

“So we opened up a facility where we could make bags. We opened the front door and inadvertently opened a retail store at the same time,” says Cruse.

“We’re a tiny little company still,” Cruse says of the 2014 days. “We’re just trying to make sure we can pay our team members, we can pay the rent that we just signed ourselves up for, and maybe at the end of the day, cover daycare costs for me and Lisa.  And we’re grinding, one foot in front of the other, one bag at a time.”

A successful Kickstarter campaign brought the company to the attention of a “Shark Tank” producer. Companies that appear on the show often get a significant boost. Business at R. Riveter surged from 2016 to 2017.

Today, the company has 45 remote “riveters” around the country and 35 employees. The goal is to hit $5 million in sales, says Cruse. The output has climbed from a couple of handbags a day a dozen years ago to 150.

The name of the company has historic roots. During World War II, women flooded into the factories of America’s defense industrial base to replace all the men who were now in uniform. The term “Rosie the Riveter” entered popular culture, in songs and  images, like the famous poster. The “We Can Do It!” poster was based on a photograph of Naomi Parker, who worked on aircraft assembly in California. R. Riveter’s products are named for iconic women, including the Naomi leather clutches.

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