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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 3, 2018 3 years ago

Entrepreneur finds new life in handbag manufacturing startup

An unexpected series of events led Gretchen Bauer to a previously never-thought of career transition.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Gretchen Bauer is an unlikely novice manufacturing entrepreneur.

She spent 20 years in interior design in suburban Philadelphia, working in some of the Main Line’s toniest mansions. “It was fabulous,” she says. “It was a great business. I never had to advertise.”

Bauer moved to Sarasota in 2012. She didn’t know anyone and didn’t have a job. She instead sought to design a big life change. She soon got involved with the Sarasota charity event-planning scene.

That led to a series of opportunities, including finding out, from an area painter and friend, about a struggling woman’s handbag manufacturer in San Antonio. Around the same time, Bauer read the popular Simon Sinek book “Start with Why," which she says changed her life.

Her new why was to help the handbag company. Bauer, 51, bought some machines and equipment for it, spending around $10,000. She helped redesigned the handbags. Through a partnership with the previous owners, Bauer named the company BSwanky. “I didn’t have any background in manufacturing,” says Bauer, but thought her fashion sense and entrepreneurial spirit would provide a boost.

With logistics between Florida and Texas growing complicated, Bauer recently decided to move the business to Sarasota.

Now, in a 2,400-square-foot flex office and manufacturing space, Bauer has embarked on an unusual mission: to manufacture high-end handbags. The plan is to have the facility up and running by September, with up to five new employees working on some $50,000 in new sewing and embroidery machines and cutting materials.

The differentiator for BSwanky, Bauer says, is the bag easily transitions from backpack to shoulder strap. So it’s good for the weekend traveler or the boardroom. “I want to create something no one else has, something transformational,” says Bauer, “that has the quality of Louis Vuitton.”

‘As a startup you have to be willing to hear a lot of noes. You have to keep putting yourself out there.’ Gretchen Bauer, BSwanky

To get transformational, Bauer has a bag full of challenges, from sourcing materials to marketing and branding to hiring. She’s invested at least $250,000 of her money into BSwanky and could seek outside investors by the end this year. “As a startup you have to be willing to hear a lot of noes,” says Bauer. “You have to keep putting yourself out there.”

One of the yeses came from David Szczepaniuk, a manufacturing consultant who previously held leadership posts in quality control with Tupperware Brands and Venice drinkware maker Tervis. Szczepaniuk is working with Bauer on the factory setup. “I understand what it takes,” he says.  

The manufacturing goal is to eventually produce 100 handbags a day in Sarasota. The process includes shaping and cutting leather and assembling metal pieces for the bag to be able to switch between shoulder and backpack. Bauer has already found three employees from word of mouth — all of them have sewing experience.

After being made in Texas for a few years, Gretchen Bauer, founder of BSwanky, recently moved production to Sarasota, in a 2,400-square-foot flex office and manufacturing space. Production is expected to begin in September.

Another ongoing challenge is marketing to the right customer. The handbags start at $215, and the company is working on some other lines, including one made with python skins, which could be sold for $900 each. So far, sales are only online and in a few popup stores around Sarasota. Bauer projects the company will hit at least six figures in sales this year. “We don’t have the margins to go retail yet,” says Bauer.

That makes BSwanky’s social media and SEO presence essential. BSwanky has two consultants working on that. More marketing comes from a friend from Bauer’s Philadelphia days, a reality TV show producer, who will do some video work for the company later this year. Bauer says some reps of celebrities have also reached out to get their clients a BSwanky bag — a marketing coup. Says Bauer: “We are starting to get a lot of buzz.” 


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