Published on Monday, 3rd December 2018 - 2:38PM12/03/2018
Beth Shissler, co-owner of Sea Bags in Portland, Maine, likes to say the raw material for her manufacturing company on Custom House Wharf comes with hardware and rope attached.
She’s not kidding.
Sea Bags literally recycles old sails into bags and totes with bold nautical designs on them, from big blue anchors to giant red stars. Everything is sourced in the U.S. and everything is made in the U.S., right on that wharf in Portland, one of the few commercial wharves in the city open to the public.
“I can tell you we will take in 7,000 used sails this year,” Shissler said. “We have a team of four people who work for us as acquisition managers, one in Seattle, one in Florida, one in New Hampshire and one at home in Portland.”
The Portland manager alone will take in more than 2,000 sails this year from individuals who agree to be paid in Sea Bags. The other three managers work with sail makers and yacht clubs with sails they want to retire.
“Because there’s no good home for used sails, people have not just one sail sitting in their grandfather’s boat shed, but a handful,” Shissler said. “We’ve saved 600 tons from the landfill since we started.”
Shissler joined founder Hannah Kubiak in 2006, becoming one of three employees in the company. Now Sea Bags employs 140 people and makes more than 100,000 bags each year. The company has 18 stores in Maine and New Hampshire, as well as on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod, Newport, Rhode Island and downtown Boston. That’s in addition to online sales at the company’s website.
Shissler won’t discuss revenue numbers, but says the business has tripled since 2013, when she brought in a group of investors that included current Sea Bags CEO Don Oakes, who came from another Maine icon, L.L. Bean.
“My previous partner and founder (Kubiak) wanted to be bought out at a time when I couldn’t afford to do that by myself,” Shissler said. “I needed to bring in capital. Bank money has always been within our reach, but I knew I needed more than money. I needed bandwidth and experience I didn’t have.”
Shissler said different people buy Sea Bags for different reasons. The bags aren’t cheap, costing as much as $275 with a custom design.
“Some people have a tie to the ocean, some have ties to Maine,” Shissler said. “Other people like our products because they are recycled, others because it was their sail and meant something to them. A number of customers are collectors, which is hugely thrilling to me. We’re not just one and done.”
Shissler says the Number 1 question she gets from potential investors is whether she has a supply chain problem, depending as she does on used sails as her only raw material.
“It’s the only thing that doesn’t keep me up at night,” Shissler says of the supply question. “We have a very small percentage of the used sail market. As long as there are sailors, there will be sails.”