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Published: Wednesday, 12/21/2005

From Findlay flow accessories featured at big retailers, on MTV

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Surrounded by caps distributed by Factory Direct International, Kristine Gibson crafts a new design. Surrounded by caps distributed by Factory Direct International, Kristine Gibson crafts a new design.
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FINDLAY - Fans of MTV's popular celebrity prank series Punk'd are interested in what's inside the head of host and ringmaster Ashton Kutcher.

Findlay business executive Shawn Rogers, 36, is more curious about what's on the head of the actor.

Chances are good that caps worn by Mr. Kutcher on the show are created by an unlikely fashion accessories design and importing firm in this conservative Hancock County city 45 miles south of Toledo.

"We're making millions of hats," said Mr. Rogers, president of Factory Direct International Inc., which has offices and design space in downtown Findlay. Customers include brand Zoo York, which supplies Punk'd, Mr. Rogers said.

Factory Direct, which had to rely on the goodwill of a Hong Kong manufacturer after being rejected for conventional financing 13 years ago, today boasts of being the "world's leading designers and manufacturers of fashion accessories."

That may be a bit of a stretch, conceded Mr. Rogers, who lives in Perrysburg.

Kent, left, and Shawn Rogers have expanded their company's merchandise from hats and caps to bags, jewelry, footwear, and belts.
Kent, left, and Shawn Rogers have expanded their company's merchandise from hats and caps to bags, jewelry, footwear, and belts.
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The firm is privately held by Mr. Rogers and his father, L. Kent Rogers, and they won't disclose sales for competitive reasons. Shawn Rogers acknowledged, however, that annual sales are above $10 million.

The firm stakes its claim to being a major industry player based not on revenues but on the extent of its product offerings and the number of retail customers: more than 60 in headgear alone.

That doesn't include women's handbags and other styles of cloth bags that vie with headgear as Factory Direct's sales leaders. Other lines include jewelry, footwear, and belts.

Factory Direct is among the top 10 suppliers to the New York retail chain Aeropostale, which has more than 580 stores nationwide, including one in Toledo, Mr. Rogers said.

"Their quality and customer service are excellent," said Barbara Konstantinidis, Aeropostale's accessories production manager. "They're on top of things. They get us our samples on time and work with us to make sure everything we order and approve gets into our stores."

Other major customers include American Eagle Outfitters, the Hard Rock Cafe chain, and MTV.

Although sales to major retailers have slipped somewhat, the firm has filled the gap by expanding business with brands linked to surfing, skateboarding, and urban markets, Mr. Rogers said.

For design ideas, Mr. Rogers and his staff do not look to Paris, London, or other traditional fashion centers. Instead, they concentrate on Asia.

"Asia is a great market to do research, especially Japan," Mr. Rogers explained. "Japan is madly in love with American style and culture. And that is often where we find the latest trends."

In headgear, popular new styles include fedoras and military-style hats called "Fidels" for the Cuban president Fidel Castro.

Products are made in independently-owned factories in China, India, and the Philippines. The firm also operates a factory in Shenzhen in southeast China as a joint venture with clothing accessories producer Tai Wah Manufacturing, of Hong Kong.

The founders of that firm, brothers P.T. and H.C. Lui, bankrolled Mr. Rogers and his father in 1992 when they were unable to get conventional financing.

Factory Direct has 50 employees in Findlay and at offices in Irvine, Calif., and Johnston, R.I.

The Findlay offices, which occupy two floors of a bank building, recently underwent $1.4 million in renovations. The resulting loft-style premises are intended to show visitors that "even though we are in Findlay, we are in tune with the world market," Shawn Rogers explained.

Brothers Bert and John Jacobs, of Boston, began buying caps and jewelry from Factory Direct three years ago. The pair, founders of the Life is Good line, started out in 1994 hawking T-shirts on the streets of Boston. Today Life is Good, which sells through small sporting goods stores as well as large chains such as Dick's Sporting Goods, rakes in $50 million in sales annually.

"They're great," Bert Jacobs said of officials at Factory Direct. "You need people that you can get along with and that are down to earth. They're similar to us. The grew their business in a homegrown, old-fashioned way and didn't boom up overnight."

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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