25 Custom House Wharf, Portland
Founded: 1999; incorporated with Shissler as a partner in 2006
Products: Tote bags and home goods made out of recycled sails
Annual revenue: Did not disclose
When Beth Shissler joined Sea Bags as co-owner in 2006, she crossed something off her bucket list: running a startup. But the move wasn't just about padding her resume. "For me, my mission is to create jobs. That has a lot of importance to me, keeping business vibrant in Maine," she says.
Soon the business will expand into another 4,000 square feet on Portland's Custom House Wharf, more than doubling its current space and allowing it to hire more employees. Sea Bags has been turning out handmade tote bags and other products crafted from recycled sails on the wharf for 10 years. Shissler isn't sure when renovation work in the company's leased space will finish, though, saying it's on "wharf time."
"We could find more efficient buildings elsewhere, but this is core to our brand, and we love our neighbors on the wharf," she adds. Shissler can even catch a ride on a neighbor's boat to shorten her commute from Harpswell to Portland.
Shissler gave up a lucrative and adventurous career traveling the globe and managing distribution for companies like Philips Electronics and Northern Telecom to establish those kinds of roots. She met Sea Bags founder Hannah Kubiak in 2005 when Shissler bought some bags to sell in her mother's Isle Au Haut gift shop, and the two women decided to become partners. At the time, the company was selling fewer than 100 bags a year. Now, it sells between 2,000 and 3,000 bags a month through its website, at its two stores in Portland and Freeport, and in more than 400 stores. The company's products, which range in price from $15 to $245, have been featured in fashion magazines including Elle, Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Diversification has kept Sea Bags growing over the past five years, as economic woes squeezed shoppers' pocketbooks and competition in the sailcloth precuts market has intensified. Last year, it added home products, like pillows and coasters, and this year launched a swimwear line. It also expanded its international reach, selling "all over Italy." Shissler says sales increased 57% in 2010 and are on pace to do so again this year. "Through it all we've just tried to establish ourselves as the leader in the category," Shissler says. "When we started, we were the only ones doing it. Certainly, we're not anymore."
No matter how the business grows, Shissler focuses on the three missions she and Kubiak established five years ago: being sustainable in product and process, being an active member of the community and keeping production local. Sea Bags has donated $55,000 to the Maine Cancer Foundation and also helps fund a Sail Maine scholarship to teach kids to sail. Shissler serves on the board of the state's Make-a-Wish Foundation and the District Export Council of Maine.
Shissler also helped found the Advanced Textile Consortium, which is exploring ways to establish a cut-and-sew shop in Maine where companies could come to do textile cutting or sewing without footing the bill for expensive equipment or outsource the work. The facility could even function as a place where other U.S. companies bring their work in lieu of foreign manufacturing. "I believe the U.S. consumer really wants locally made products, and they recognize quality," she says, adding, "The Maine brand is the single most underutilized asset the state has."
As a kid in Topsham running a hot dog stand, Shissler knew she wanted to be in business. Her father, a longtime Bath Iron Works employee and now retired, has been her biggest source of business knowledge. "I always bounce things off of him," she says.
Lately, she's the one others seek for business advice, including her own employees, a few of whom have left to start their own ventures. It's only natural that this former globetrotter's guidance comes in the form of a navigational analogy. "A business plan is a decent map, but it's only as good as a paper atlas. You need a GPS and to be ready to take a detour if you need to."
IN HER OWN WORDS
What was the biggest challenge of your career? Balance.
When did you know you'd made it? I don't know that I have, I'll let you know when I do.
What advice do you wish you'd gotten early in your career? There's no shortage of advice — advice is everywhere. I don't think there's one big thing.
"I'll relax when… my employees are all in good spots personally and professionally, and my family is in a good spot personally."
What was your "Haven't we moved beyond this" moment? Every day when you're growing a business…is a cycle. We're on our third website… Every day it's, "Haven't we done this already, why is this back?"