It might seem counter-intuitive to expand a business during a recession but Robin Valliear Barre is doing it anyway.
Barre owns Artizan, a wholesale retail company that specializes in fashion jewelry and accessories. She will open five new stores this year in North American airports. Add that to the other five she opened between December 2007 and November 2008, and you get an idea of how a creative entrepreneur operates when the rest of the world is running for cover.
"We're expanding because we're doing well," explained Barre. "In fact, we're benefiting from this economy."
While consumers might think twice about buying luxury items these days, they're not skimping on small pleasures, she said. "We sell affordable jewelry. Our business is sustainable because of the product, the price point, the marketing and the way we work."
"You may not be able to afford a $300 suit right now, but you can accessorize it with a necklace," said her husband, Guy Barre, who helps run the company part time.
Another reason Artizan is thriving when other retailers are struggling, Robin Barre said, is its dual structure.
"We're a wholesaler as well as a retailer. Our two divisions are inextricably linked," she said. "When retail slows down, wholesale is busy and vice versa. When the retail market is slow in January and August, our wholesale division is going crazy. They're at opposite ends of the spectrum and they complement each other."
The business was developed from a hobby.
In the mid-1990s, Barre, a former fashion model, taught high school during the week and made candles in her kitchen on weekends.
"I used to sell them at craft fairs and I would package them up as giftware," she said.
Barre left her teaching job in 1995 after giving birth to her first child.
"I was having a lot of success doing the craft fairs," she said. "I'd go to trade shows and was shipping the candles from my home. We had boxes piled up in the house and little passageways to walk between the piles of stock."
Her first big wholesale break came through at a trade show, when a buyer for the Stokes chain of stores spotted her work.
In 2001, Barre opened her own store and began juggling her retail business with its wholesale counterpart. She also began to shift her focus from candles and giftware to jewelry, much of which she designs and has manufactured in China.
There was a temporary setback in 2003, when her store burned down and she had to relocate a few doors away. She moved the retail business back to the original location once the building was rebuilt; it continues to be the company's flagship store.
"The business grew fast, particularly once we crossed over to fashion jewelry and accessories. The wholesale business became a majority of the business," she said.
In fact, the offices that house the wholesale business she and her staff occupied above the store became so cramped that she recently moved them across the street.
Artizan jewelry and accessories are now sold in 1,500 places across Canada.
In December 2007, Barre extended her retail business by opening a store in Montreal's Trudeau airport and another in Toronto's Pearson airport. In 2008, the company opened stores at airports in Ottawa, Calgary and Indianapolis. This year, Artizan stores will be opened in Pearson's Terminal 3, Trudeau's new U.S. departures terminal, LaGuardia Airport in New York and in two other U.S. airports, the locations of which are yet to be finalized. "It's a great formula for us," she said. "It's where we want to be."
Barre declined to reveal company revenues.
She says having her own retail outlets boost the company's credibility with other retailers. "When retailers come to our booth at the trade shows, we can tell them what sells well because we know it sells well in our own stores."
Guy Barre says one of his wife's strengths is her ability to predict fashion trends two years before they hit. "She was a model for a long time so she has that flair," he said. "When she says something is a winner, no one argues. You just let her go. She knows what people are looking for."
One of Barre's recent successes is a shawl she designed. Dubbed the Magic Shawl, it can be worn in many ways.
"We were at Montebello with our children and there was a senior women's curling tournament going on," she said. "We have a point-of-sale in a store at Chateau Montebello and I went in to help the owners set up our merchandise. I was wearing the Magic Shawl and demonstrated how to wear it to the ladies in the curling club. We sold $1,000 worth in two days. The Magic Shawl flies off the shelves at our airport stores."
Barre said she designs the kind of jewelry she enjoys wearing herself.
"The secret is that it looks expensive but it's not. I've had clients say they don't want to look at a piece of jewelry in the store because it'll probably cost $100. And they're always surprised to learn it's only $19.95," she said.
It is these small indulgences, she said, that her customers are snapping up, even during this recession.