Some success stories are born in humble garages; theirs was hatched in a dorm room at Bowdoin College. "We had each been gifted a needlepoint belt from our then-girlfriends and became intrigued with these unique accessories," shares Peter. He and Austin realized there would be an appeal for such timeless items, and conspired to create a needlepoint belt line that was to become Smathers & Branson.01
Smathers & Branson began with an introductory line of 12 needlepoint belts and 12 needlepoint key fobs peddled to friends and family, and soon grew to a full range of hand-stitched, classic accessories offered across the United States.
Their range has also since expanded to custom products, and one-of-a kind Life Belts®. And through their licensing agreements, they now offer needlepoint products for many of the nation's top universities and colleges, fraternities and sororities, Major League Baseball® teams, and National Hockey League® teams. Score!
"Our biggest challenge was finding and training skilled artisans," says Peter. A contact at a trade fair had connected them to Mr Quang, a producer in Vietnam. After corresponding with him over email and sampling products, Peter and Austin took a leap of faith and flew to Hanoi.
"Working with Quang face to face sped up the product development process ten fold… Not only did it lay the groundwork of our production process and set the high quality standards that we knew we needed to take our product to market, but we began a friendship with Quang that would have been impossible to develop over email."
That leap of faith also extended into uncharted territory: no one was doing needlepoint out of Vietnam at the time. "Forms of hand embroidery are very common there and we thought that skill would translate to the art of needlepoint," reasons Peter. "Without realizing it, we had laid the groundwork for a cottage industry that, within a few years, would employ and provide opportunities for thousands of people.
As our company continues to grow, we have the satisfaction that our artisans' level of success grows as well." They also enlisted the help of One Step Vietnam, a corporate responsibility monitoring team, to help audit their manufacturing process and ensure positive conditions for the artisans who create their products.
More than simply growing their production and providing sustainable income for thousands of workers, Peter and Austin recognize that they have built a family halfway across the world.
"He has visited us a few times in the USA and both of his sons have traveled to the States and lived with us to learn English and learn about our business. It's a wonderful cultural exchange."
Whenever they're in Vietnam, Peter and Austin are also warmly welcomed into the artisans' homes, and sometimes even spot their own photos up on the walls! Their bonding secret? "Jokes over cold beers is one of our favorite ways to end a day of work—it's a great way for us to connect about things other than business and has been a great way to get to know the people we work so closely with."
Peter and Austin visit Vietnam on official Smathers & Branson business at least twice a year, and whenever they get a chance, they relish exploring the rest of Asia as tourists. Travel highlights so far include the food and landscape of Northern Thailand and the happening vibe of Seoul in Korea, but hands down, their favorite R&R destination is Japan.