Our offices are abuzz as we near the end of our 30th Anniversary Celebration. And while the milestone means something different to everyone, it’s incredibly sweet for those who have been with Vera Bradley the longest. We gathered four ladies, each from different departments, each with more than a decade of loyalty, to reflect on the earlier days of the company. (There’s some good stuff here; Java Blue could have been Java Pink?)
On the guest list:
Lita H. (LH), Product Safety and Social Compliance Manager
Began May 2000
Miller Bag in Animal Kingdom
Debbie W. (DW), Executive Administrative Assistant
Began April 1995
Miller Bag in Jasmine
Patti P. (PP), Sales Consultant
Began December 1997
Mimi Backpack in Chanticleer
Elit H. (EH), Sr. Product Designer/Sample Room Manager
Began October 31, 1991
Pleated Tote in Poppy Fields and retired style in Greenbriar
Sharon H. (SH), Cut Order Coordinator
Began June 18, 1986
Retired style in Black Walnut
How did you hear about Vera Bradley?
DW: We moved here from Illinois when my husband took a job with Do It Best, then HWI, and I was new to the area and didn’t know anybody. Through work, he met a friend whose wife worked at a recruiting company. One day, she called and said, “I’m so excited; I have a job for you at Vera Bradley!” And I said, “Great, what is that?” She just told me I would love it, and I started as the receptionist. I worked as a temp for two weeks, and they extended it and then asked me on full time as [Co-founder] Barb’s assistant. I didn’t know if I could do it, but I’ve been her assistant ever since. Right place, right time.
LH: I was working in quality at a marshmallow factory. It was fine, because, let’s face it, it’s fun making marshmallows, but there’s only so much you can eat before you’re totally sick.
DW: Oh, the smell …
LH: My husband would always tell me how sweet I smelled. But then I saw an ad in the paper for a job at Vera Bradley and I had seen pictures from the sale and bags at local retailers, so I applied and was hired as a quality auditor, and the rest is history. Been a lot of fun since then. I remember the old days when we had a potluck practically every day.
PP: Talk about the “freshman 15”! That’s where the cookbooks came from, I think, because we were always swapping recipes and all such great cooks.
LH: Ah, birthdays were always such a big deal. And when you heard, “Awww,” you knew there was a baby in the office.
SH: My sister started here, then 6 months later I was hired, and 6 months later my Mom came on board. Then we had a death in the family and it shut down the cutting room because we were the cutting room. It wasn’t pretty. But that’s how I got my job!
EH: When I started, I had no idea what Vera Bradley was. I was new to the country, and the wife of my husband’s friend told him Vera Bradley was looking for sewers. I applied, and didn’t hear for a week. Then they called and I was hired as a monogrammer. I was in monogramming for 9 months and my husband came in with our girls, then 9 months and 4 years old, in clothes that I made. Barb and [EVP of Design] Kim said, “I think she’s wasting her time in monogramming.” So they created a position for me as Product Development Coordinator. I was so excited when I got an industrial sewing machine and could make prototypes accurately. I was Product Development. I was it.
LH: I remember if people had a seam failure, they would go upstairs and see Elit to get it fixed.
PP: I worked for [local clothing store] Nobson’s in Fort Wayne until they closed. I started selling another designer bag line until I got an interview with Barb. She said, “Get your foot in the door, and then I can really see you going places.” I was hired in the morning and started that afternoon because someone was having surgery. I started in Customer Service and since then, I’ve worn a lot of different hats. Now I’m a sales consultant.
Tell us more about the early days at Vera Bradley …
EH: We used to stop our job and pitch in if they needed help with shipping.
DW: The shipping department was in the same area as monogramming and inventory. We would move shipments with laundry baskets.
PP: I was the Store Locator. I would find where people lived and then tell them, using a map, where to go to find product.
LH: We all did everything.
PP: You couldn’t get off the phone. People sent such treats because they were so grateful. And there was no promising people things back then.
LH: And we ran out of Duffels every year.
What was the moment you thought this is going to be big?
PP: I relate it to patterns.
LH: Well, Java Blue.
EH: When we first introduced 4 colors all at once, our fans went nuts.
SH: Pewter Grey was popular when I started.
LH: Animal Kingdom came in right when I started. We were doing July and January launches then, and I still love that print. French Blue and French Yellow were popular, too.
PP: We always made new colors in the Mini Backpack because it had both trims on it and we had to see them.
DW: And prints stayed in for a long time.
PP: People needed to collect all the pieces.
LH: Every year I remember we had a goal, and every year we surpassed it, so I just knew we were going places. When I see it on television I realize we’re no longer just a local trend.
PP: I remember Barb and I going to New York and selling to a department store. That was huge.
Are there any old traditions we don’t do anymore?
PP: Birthdays and baby showers were such a big deal. They still are, it’s just different.
EH: We would all come together …
DW: And shut the phones off and everything.
EH: And we did breakfast on Friday mornings. The departments would take turns and we would stop working for an hour and gather for potluck breakfast.
DW: I’ll never forget, because we were the smallest department and we would cook for 40 people!
SH: I remember biscuits and gravy.
LH: And someone flipping pancakes with a Ditty Bag on his head. It was stressful. You loved it, but you didn’t want to let people down with cereal.
PP: Same with Soup Day. It started as soup, but then people added desserts and it was all about outdoing each other.
LH: Gosh, we’re really good at eating!
EH: The birthday cake. It started as a cake for every employee.
DW: Then it turned into one a month. Pat’s old office used to be our Conference Room, and we would all meet and celebrate.
LH: Valentine’s Day started more fights in more homes … Women would get paged to come get their flowers and if your husband didn’t send them, forget about it.
PP: Someone sent singers …
DW: It was my husband!
LH: And mine!
PP: I remember everyone hanging over the balcony watching.
SH: And we did Secret Valentines.
PP: You had to figure out who was your Valentine. It was like 5 days of gifts.
LH: We used to prank each other a lot, too.
Favorite memory from your time here?
PP: On your birthday you truly felt like a queen.
SH: When we went to [Co-founder] Pat’s lake cottage.
DW: Yes, and we got to go water skiing. Friday afternoon, we would shut down and be on the road by 10:05.
LH: I’ve been fortunate enough to travel.
PP: The gift shows …
EH: And when we used to go to the trunk shows in Chicago.
PP: Probably Halloween.
What does 30 years of Vera Bradley mean to you?
LH: I don’t know everybody anymore.
DW: You don’t know about everyone’s children and families. I see people walk in and I’m not sure where they work.
LH: It’s amazing to see four colors released four or five times a year. We could have never done that when I first started.
PP: I still get so excited when the new colors come out.
DW: It is so fun.
PP: When samples come, I’m just reminded how fun this job is.
Why do you think the brand has been so successful?
PP: Because there’s always something new.
DW: I have to say Product Development. They’re always looking so far ahead and figuring out what the customer will love.
LH: We are the customer, too.
EH: Word of mouth has really helped us.
PP: I can have my mom, sister, daughter and granddaughter over to look at samples and there will be something for everyone. From 12 to 84 they can all tell me what they like and don’t like. I can’t think of another brand that appeals to all those generations.
EH: Whenever people see my bag and they like it, I empty it and hand it over.
PP: Surprise and delight … it’s the best!
If you could bring back one color, what would it be?
DW: I don’ t think I have a favorite. I like 2 or 3 each season. Then I’m already looking at what I’ll want next.
SH: I like Lime’s Up, but nothing will be as big as Java Blue.
PP: No one dreamed of putting turquoise and brown together. It just exploded.
SH: We couldn’t keep it in.
EH: We weren’t going to put it in the line, but everybody who came through on tours loved it.
PP: Wasn’t it supposed to be pink and brown?
EH: It was, yes.
LH: It hit the warehouse and people went nuts for it. Everybody liked it. It was fun … fun and stressful.
PP: When people want something so much and you can’t supply it, it’s terrible. We had to turn business away.
LH: I pick one I love each season. But I do still love Animal Kingdom.
DW: I liked Tavern on the Green, too.
LH: Pink Elephants was my favorite Foundation color.
DW: Pinwheel Pink.
PP: Ribbons, too. Everyone loves Ribbons.