Sitting Down with Smathers & Branson
Helen Jon believes wholeheartedly in making the most socially responsible decisions about how we run our business. We deeply respect — and often learn from — the many other companies who share this value system.
Our world, now more than ever, needs careful consideration and attention. This can be expressed through business practices and in how we treat one another. Smathers & Branson is an excellent example of this. We are so pleased to introduce you to Peter Smathers and Austin Branson, two fine businessmen who had a dream and a vision — and discovered a way to make a difference while creating a beautiful and timeless product.
Tell us, how — and when — did you decide to make a business out of needlepointed accessories?
In 2004, while roommates at Bowdoin College, we decided to start a company that offered needlepoint belts. We had each been gifted a needlepoint belt from our then girlfriends and became intrigued with these unique accessories. After looking to buy finished belts, we realized that there wasn’t a company that featured these timeless items. From the start, our goal was to make the belts more available, attractive and affordable. We had always shared an entrepreneurial spirit and after discovering a concept that we were passionate about, we started working on the idea that has become Smathers & Branson.
Your business is a “cottage business,” providing tremendous support and opportunity to communities and villages in rural Vietnam. Being two guys who went to Bowdoin, a small liberal arts college in Maine, how did you get from there to here?
Our biggest challenge was finding and training skilled artisans. We had been given contact information for our current manufacturer by a friend who had met him at a trade fair. He knew nothing about needlepoint, but he was willing to learn. With our options quickly running out, we decided to spend the fall in Vietnam. Meeting our stitchers face-to-face enabled us to perfect our product to meet the high quality standards we set. 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 artisan’s level of success grows as well.
As the world today so often seems more divided and compartmentalized, what are one or two universal truths that connect people, despite geography and personal experience?
Loyalty comes to mind. As we’ve grown our business, we’ve stayed committed not only to one another as business partners, but also to our Vietnamese manufacturing partner. Our ability to grow our business is essentially limited by the number of trained stitchers we have making our beautiful products. Rather than setting up workshops in other parts of the world, we’ve allowed our producer to do his best to increase capacity, while maintaining and improving our signature quality. A loyal business relationship, particularly in a supply chain, can be fleeting, but we have found that by working so closely together with our supplier, we’ve built a rock solid foundation for our business - and theirs.
All of us at Helen Jon believe that persistence, courage, awareness for the greater good - and a bedrock belief that doing good and doing good business - can and should be intrinsically linked. Do you have a mentor, or philosophy that helped shape your business acumen?
We were each lucky enough to be raised and educated to appreciate our very fortunate place in the world. Bowdoin College’s mission of serving the common good helped teach us how to approach our duty to serve others. We have a pretty simple view that it should be the responsibility of a successful business to give back, but we don’t make it a gimmick of our business that customers need to support us because we do good. Rather, it’s through personal and private, but generous, commitments that we are able to do good for important causes.
Do you have a favorite pattern, theme or symbol?
Austin: What we both love most about our brand and our designs is that we speak so much to each individual with themes and icons that represent so many of our shared passions. Personally, I most often wear our Island Time belt, because it reminds me of where I was married in Antigua, our Bowdoin College belt, and finally, whichever DC pro sports team is currently in season.
What is the most unique personalization that you’ve ever been asked to complete?
Each of our pieces is stitched entirely by hand, so we have the ability to customize just one of any of our great items. Our Life Belt program allows customers to design their own belt with a variety of icons that they cherish most - somewhat like a charm bracelet for a guy. It’s an incredibly unique and thoughtful way to buy a gift for the guy who has everything.
The iPhone case is the perfect example of marrying the old with the new. Do you have any other ideas for future S&B offerings?
We’re always adding great new products to our line. This fall, we’re very excited to be launching needlepoint headcovers for golf clubs. It might not be exactly “old with new,” but it’s an entirely new product for a very old sport!
Preppy is as preppy does… and it never seems to waver. Was there ever a time when either of you delved into a passing trend or fad that you now look back on and wince?
Peter: We love that, in general, the traditional style our guys wear hasn’t changed much in 50 years, and probably (hopefully) won’t change that dramatically for 50 more! I have a hard time looking at old pictures of myself in pleated pants, and Austin still laughs at the fact that he didn’t get a proper pair of jeans until his late 20s.
We recently added a Monogram Shop to our website, which our customers seem to love! Feels like a natural complement to Smathers & Branson. Tell us, what would the ideal Smathers & Branson accessory be for a day in the life of Helen Jon?
Thank you, Peter and Austin. We have always loved your product line. But it is even more special now that we know the backstory and understand how the creation of these products helps people all the way across the globe.
You can read more about Smathers & Branson and their authentic and deep commitment to improving lives here.
And, don’t forget to order your very own needlepoint belt, key fob, hat, you name it, while you’re there. You will get something you will love — and you’ll be doing good at the same time. Win, win.