ENTREPRENEURS TO WATCH: LEE/COLLIER
ERIKA PEÑa designs
The Pena Sisters
The MTV Music Awards are later this month and you can be sure Erika Pena will be there to add to the bling.
Pena is among a handful of jewelry designers invited to display her wares at an MTV Awards "gifting suite," where stars browse the offerings and take what they want as "gifts." There will be Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie, Jessica Alba and a gaggle of other glitterati you've probably never heard of. "They all pretty much go," Pena says.
The hope, of course, is that Pena's jewelry will adorn the stars when fashion and celebrity magazines snap their shots at the big party. It's that kind of publicity that sends customers rushing to the more than 400 stores around the world that now carry Pena's jewelry.
Erika Pena, 32, keeps up a furious pace of travel, jetting around the world. She'll be at Fashion Week in Germany sponsored by Mercedes Benz in July and a similar event in Moscow, Russia, in August. Then it's off to Spain in September, followed by a trip to exotic Bali in Indonesia to research new production.
The hunt for publicity has paid off. Pena's creations have been featured in dozens of fashion magazines, including recent shots in Harper's Bazaar and InStyle. Although revenues haven't hit the million-dollar mark, they're growing fast.
Back at headquarters in Fort Myers, Erika's sister, Bielka Pena-Bevillard is the financial brain behind the operation. She makes sure the accounting, sales and distribution run smoothly.
Pena-Bevillard scrutinizes every bill but makes sure they're paid on time to maintain the company's good credit. Erika travels cheaply, staying with friends and riding public transportation. They're not afraid to reach far to save money: Their elaborate Web site, Erikapena.com, cost $1,200 because it was designed in Argentina. Similarly complex Web sites can easily cost thousands more in the U.S.
Pena-Bevillard, 36, is the worrier of the two sisters. She was disappointed with sales last year, expecting to do more. "I'm a numbers person," explains the former banker. She's seen a marked slowdown in the U.S. "Americans are very careful with their spending," she says. "I'm trying not to let that worry me."
The downturn in the U.S. means stores aren't buying as far ahead. Generally, fashion stores buy merchandise as far as six months ahead. For example, in June they'll be buying for the spring 2009 season. But now, some are buying month-to-month.
For now, the European market is performing best. "Right now, I'm in business because of the European market," says Erika.
Pena's newest lines of jewelry are doing especially well there. Other markets are doing well too. "I sell great in Dubai," Erika Pena says. "I sell amazing in Japan," she adds. What accounts for better sales overseas? "They're stylish!" she says. "My stuff is really edgy."
Erika Pena is particularly sensitive to the different ways of selling jewelry in different cultures. For example, Europeans generally avoid buying jewelry that's popular with celebrities. "They don't want it if Paris [Hilton] is wearing it," she says. "I don't show my press book in Europe."
Pena, who started making and selling jewelry at flea markets in Puerto Rico, is expanding her line to include headbands and men's jewelry, which includes lots of skulls, saints and buddhas. Eventually, the idea is to have a full line of fashion accessories, from jewelries to purses, including selling online via their Web site.
Of course, you can count on the Pena sisters to have a party for the official opening of the e-boutique.
Q. What is your toughest challenge as an entrepreneur?
A. Erika Pena says finding good employees is the toughest challenge. "If you have a good staff, you're going to get ahead," she says. Past hiring decisions have sometimes backfired. "I hired people, trusted them and got excited about them and they ended up being a mess," she says. Pena, 32, speaks like a seasoned entrepreneur when she discusses young hires. "The problem with young people is they want tons of money and want to reap the benefits and don't work their ass off," she says. Now, Pena won't hire anyone until they've interned with her company for free and have demonstrated some dedication. "Then you see their dynamics," she says. I'm not a prima donna fashion designer. I'm not like that. I'm not curing cancer."
BY THE NUMBERS
ERIKA PEÑA DESIGNS
Year Revenue* % change
2005: $ 66,440
2006: $351,948 430%
2007: $545,870 55%
3-year ave. annual growth: 243%