Inside a former fish house on Custom House Wharf in Portland, sewing machines hum and a burgeoning business operation thrives. It harkens back to Maine’s cut and sew industry heritage. Sea Bags President Beth Shissler is proud of that, citing Maine’s history in traditional industries as an inspiration for her work.
Shissler has run Sea Bags since 2006, and while it is larger, the values still remain the same from the early days. They still use old sails to make their products, but they are not just a team of three elbow to elbow cutting, sewing, and packing. No longer is that work done out of a 400 square foot space and their biggest customer a store on Isle au Haut. The company now has a global reach with customers including Nautica and Sperry Topsider. Sea Bags has nine of its own retail stores in the U.S. and plans to open half a dozen more in the next two years.
The growth hasn’t been easy, though. Shissler describes scalability as a constant challenge even comparing it to a game of ‘whack a mole.’ Shissler explains, “Once you’ve found one solution, another challenge crops up, and the cycle builds as the company grows. If you have enough employees, you have to find the money to pay them and provide benefits. If you have enough sales, you have to find more raw materials. And then more employees to handle those raw materials.”
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Initially, Shissler solved the challenge of finding employees by utilizing the Industries Program through the Maine State Prison. However, as the company grew, working with that program was simply not sustainable. Shissler’s involvement with that program launched Sea Bags as a company that helps people re-enter the workforce. The company now partners with Goodwill Industries and volunteers with Catholic Charities to recruit and assist folks in need of employment.
Sea Bags also developed an internal associate’s program that brings in high-achieving college graduates. The program is designed to give them exposure to multiple facets of the operation and ultimately determine where the employee and company would mutually benefit from their job placement. One recent success story is a former reporter who now heads up social media and public relations for Sea Bags.
Shissler says she is most proud of watching and supporting her employees as their career trajectories take shape. Her own career followed a diverse path before taking the helm at Sea Bags. She started out working young in life. As a kid in her hometown of Topsham, she delivered newspapers, worked at a hotdog stand and a local market. She attended college in Ohio and from there, she headed to Japan for a study abroad program and internship that eventually led to a full-time position. Shissler attended business school at Boston University and prior to starting Sea Bags worked for Philips Semiconductors where she spent most of her time traveling overseas.
Shissler always knew she would return home to the state she loves, and for the past ten years has focused on building a vibrant business and providing jobs. Sea Bags has grown to 83 employees and is looking to reach 100 employees.
However as the company grew, Shissler chose not to handle this growth alone. As Shissler looked for investors, she actively sought out people to leverage much more than their financial involvement. She now has two strategic business partners which she refers to as her “dream team”. Don Oakes, a native Mainer and seasoned executive from LL Bean, and Fran Philip who has a product and merchandising background and serves on several large corporate boards. Both bring complementary skillsets while agreeing on the foundational values that built Sea Bags.
Though Sea Bags continues to grow, Shissler and the team is committed to keeping the company a Maine brand. She loves Maine and is a passionate advocate for business startup and growth in the state.
“All these people who say it’s tough to do business here, I can point them to a hundred reasons why it’s a great place to do business,” she says.
Shissler’s passion is one of the reasons Sea Bags partners with small companies to incubate them and help them gain traction in the marketplace. One such success story is their partnership with Chart Metalworks. The two companies started with a mentoring relationship that lead to sharing workspace. Eventually, Chart Metalworks outgrew the space and relocated within Portland. In September 2015, Sea Bags made the move to acquire the company to incorporate them into their brand portfolio. By sharing resources and keeping the owners in place to run the business, Shissler believes they can assist in growth.
Shissler believes in the advantages of Maine, one being that it is one small community where everyone knows everyone. She also cites the strong Maine work ethic, a concept she is closely acquainted with through her family. Her dad worked at BIW for many years while other relatives worked in manufacturing including the famed Hathaway Shirts factory.
Shissler also notes the state is rich with resources and for the Sea Bags focus on sustainability that’s no small thing. Since their sail recycling efforts began in 1999, the company saved over 500 tons of used sails from going to landfills. And of course, she says “Maine is just a beautiful place to live and work.”
Shissler could have continued living and working for large, international corporations. Instead, she took a risk and jumped into a young startup in the home state she loves. She employs a diverse population, supports them and other small businesses, and encourages sustainability all while building up the Maine brand.
Shissler doesn’t believe she is a Maine Icon—but hopes Sea Bags will become one.