Vera Bradley settles SCORE
Retired executive’s advice helped start the success story
FORT WAYNE – Patricia Miller remembers where she started.
And the Vera Bradley Inc. co-founder also remembers the people who helped her company get where it is today, on the brink of launching an initial public offering worth $175 million.
George Cook, a counselor with the Service Corps of Retired Executives, advised Miller and business partner Barbara Baekgaard when the company was in its infancy.
Miller invoked his name often Tuesday when she spoke at the local SCORE chapter’s annual meeting, a luncheon at Fort Wayne Country Club. The non-profit organization pairs retired business executives with business owners who need advice in areas including finances and marketing.
Miller, now national spokeswoman and company director, recalled receiving that first SCORE questionnaire that asked which specific areas she needed help in.
“I checked them all,” she told about 30 people at the event.
Cook’s help, Miller said, laid the groundwork for Vera Bradley to grow from two employees to 1,100.
“I truly think I would not be here if it wasn’t for SCORE,” she said. “You were a tremendous help to us.”
Baekgaard, now chief creative officer and director, and Miller were cutting fabric for their quilted cotton handbags, luggage and accessories on a ping-pong table when they started. Now, the company operates internationally, occupies four local buildings and made net revenue of $288.9 million for fiscal 2010, which ended Jan. 30.
“See what George did?” Miller asked.
Cook, who died in January, was retired from Rea Magnet Wire Co. He taught the women to follow formal inventory protocols even when they barely had two purses to rub together.
“He made us do it the right way,” said Miller, who speaks at about three events nationally each month.
Securities and Exchange Commission rules prevented her from talking about plans to take the company public by selling stock. But Miller said the company came “through the recession fairly unscathed,” with increased sales, a rare accomplishment during an economic downturn.
Miller also bragged a bit about her “proudest achievement,” the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer. The foundation has given $10 million to the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis and pledged another $10 million. Vera Bradley’s success makes those gifts possible, and SCORE made Vera Bradley’s success possible, she said.
If the foundation’s work leads to a cure, Miller said, SCORE can claim some of the glory.
“You see what you all helped start?” she asked.