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Sam Wagner Founder, Director and Designer, Sambag

07 March 2011

\"Sam Wagner's signature ballet flats and tote bags are the cornerstone of her formidable Sambag fashion empire, according to Vogue Australia.\"

For Sam Wagner - designer, director and founder of the fashion, shoe and bag house Sambag - the growth Vogue describes of her business has been both \"unexpected\" and \"organic\".

It surprises me that Sam uses these words because her neat, organized, efficient style speaks of a more planned execution. But then Sam's also nervous at the thought of our interview. It's something else I had not expected.

Adrenalin junkie

It's a warm spring day in Sydney and I'm sitting outside an unprepossessing burger-sandwich shop in downtown Waterloo, near where Sam's warehouse headquarters are situated, drinking very good coffee and chatting to her for the ruby connection about her fabric bag company and how it's developed.

\"I've been thinking about what's been the strangest thing that has happened to me in my business life and it's actually where I've come to so far. When I opened the Woolahra store five years ago, I thought, 'Great. I'll have a little corner shop, design my ranges, wholesale a bit and have a nice life with my two daughters.' And then it just got to me. It was like a drug – the adrenalin rush of growing the business. It was so exciting. Each week something would happen and I'd think, 'Wow, I can do this.' I just hadn't ever thought it was possible. I loved the passion, the drive and it was totally unexpected.\"

Sambag now has seven stores, two of which open this October, and the vision is for 20. Not 20/20 vision because, as Sam points out, she'll be 50 then and wants to achieve it before that.

\"Earlier this year, I looked at sites in London but given the economic climate there decided it was not such a great idea. We are looking at online and pushing the site through overseas media so we can get presence that way.

\"We've pretty much covered Sydney and Melbourne. The plan is to take the stores to Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and maybe New Zealand.\"

The story

The Sambag story began more than 10 years ago when Sam was in New York and working full time for a cosmetics company in marketing. From the age of 15 Sam had been involved with fashion and design and she classes it as her passion. In New York, she saw the launch of Kate Spade bags and the idea of doing her own fabric bags began brewing. Convincing her then boyfriend (later to become her husband and now her ex), to loan her $20,000, Sam began making and wholesaling bags, eventually moving into footwear and fashion.

\"I have a creative and financial sense. I'm not financially trained but I 'get' a balance sheet and I really understand its importance. My mother works for me in the business in accounts. She's got a knack. I suppose what I've got is a bit of street smarts about me with business and that's how I've run Sambag - with hard work, a sort of innate business ability and my sense of fashion.\"

Delving a little deeper into this it becomes more obvious that good old common sense, realistic targets and some very firm financial rules and boundaries are intrinsic to the success of Sam's self-described \"organic\" five-year growth. From 2005 the one-woman-band has grown to 30 staff with the prospect of hiring around 10 more staff for the new stores' opening during October, 2010. She also owns the warehouse premises in Waterloo and admits she's even now looking for new workspaces because they are fast outstripping what they have.

Why it works

\"It's not enough to start a business on a great creative idea. You have to consider the money. Every day I check our cash flow. What's going in, what's going out and why. I look at store turnover, doing budgets and projections to work out what we can afford to do versus what we want to do. We want to do everything but if we're doing it organically we have to keep an eye on it.\"

Sam is quick to point out that she chooses who she works with carefully, looks for get up and go and pushes her staff to their strengths. She has also learned that she cannot do everything and that you wouldn't be successful if you did.

\"I have girls that are hard working, studious, bright. I want people who want to work at my pace. I'm a doer but I've learned - physically and mentally - I can't do it all.

\"My General Manager is a very bright commerce graduate with a passion for fashion. She's fantastic and she's given me a lot of help and advice as I have to her. We've learned so much from each other. I don't tend to seek outside advice because I don't want to burden anyone with my dramas.\"

Advice for a start-up

What occurred to me was to ask Sam her advice on what she would look for in a start-up. She began by saying that obviously there needed to be a product and that she'd want to know what is being sold, how it was being sold, and what makes it unique. She also wanted to know where it would be sold from, if the business could afford what was necessary to make the product and be able to keep getting it, what the business plan looked like, and how would that plan be approached from the point of view of determining the market and where the product was to fit in the market.

\"Seeing it like a story board can really help define all of this. It sets out the process step by step from start to finished look,\" explains Sam, who was recently approached by two young girls with an idea that needed a lot more research.

\"It's not just about the costs of manufacture and of the things that go into making the product. It's about the expectation you've set up in the market for the brand itself. Sambag is positioned above your run of the mill High Street fashion but below the prestige fashion houses and that sets our prices to a degree.

\"I've always seen marketing and PR as very important and something a business needs to grow. We have a web presence and Facebook and Twitter and a full-time staff member deals with that social networking stuff on a daily basis. It's new to us but it's the way forward and you have to do that... move forward.\"

The way forward

Online has been a recent venture for Sam and one that is proving an even greater success than the retail stores. According to Sam, setting up the Sambag website and offering online shopping with free shipping and door to door delivery is about a quarter of what it would cost to do a store.

\"It's been really viable for us economically. We have two staff on it and that is a cost but it turns over much more. We get 'thank yous' from customers all the time because they pretty much get their purchases in 2-3 days.

\"From what we can see from the data our regional and country sales are very good but funnily enough it's the inner-city women who use it. They're all customers who know us and they know what they are after and their sizes. I think it's the convenience and it's easy to return. It's been phenomenal.\"

Key Achievements


Growth of the business

My property developing on the side

Personal Passions

My two girls



\"We launched our website in May this year and it's phenomenal. Online retail has overtaken some of our best store figures already.\"

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