Kansas roots helped launch Peruvian Connection
Expanding a birthday gift into a mega-million dollar international clothing business was hardly what Annie Hurlbut started out to do.
But today, Peruvian Connection, a Tonganoxie-based direct-marketing business that sells top-quality lines of alpaca and pima cotton clothing around the globe, has about 160 employees in the United States, Peru, England and Germany.
Besides that, the company's newly established Web site further broadens its world presence. This adds to the punch of outlet stores in Overland Park, Santa Fe, Maryland, Vermont and England.
Hurlbut doesn't take the success for granted.
"The business is hair-raising and scary at times," she said. "Yes, there's fun and challenge, but as somebody told me, 'You're only as good as your last catalog.'"
And the catalogs today number into the millions 3 to 4 million, in fact, three times a year.
Peruvian Connection began at the time that her mother, Biddy Hurlbut, turned 50. Annie Hurlbut was then a graduate student living in Peru.
"I didn't have the money to come home," she said. "But my grandmother, Corinne Miller, as a birthday present for Biddy, sent me a plane ticket."
Hurlbut wanted to bring her mother the perfect gift from Peru.
"I saw a sweater with fur trim in the marketplace. I felt it and it was incredibly soft, like cashmere. I learned it was alpaca. It also had a fitted waist, something she would like."
Her mother was amazed, Hurlbut said.
"She took it to show her friends. They said we should import the sweaters."
Annie Hurlbut and Biddy Hurlbut visited the folk art section of Hall's in Kansas City, Mo.
"A buyer, George Turbovich, a famous designer in Kansas City, loved the sweater," Annie Hurlbut said. "He ordered 45 of them on the spot."
At this time, Annie Hurlbut knew nothing about marketing. "I was a graduate student in anthropology. I had zero background in this I didn't even knit," she said.
"I rounded up some friends in Peru who I thought were mediums, larges and smalls," Hurlbut said. "So we tried to have sweaters made for those size ranges."
After Hurlbut finished her field work in Peru, she returned home and tried to develop a wholesale market for the products while working on her thesis.
"We built up some catalogs," she said. "I think we had 300 to 400 catalog requests from a series of ads. And it more or less paid for itself of course we didn't have a clue how direct marketing worked. But we survived. I remember at one point saying to Mom, 'Well, we have $3 left in the account we can go and buy a couple of cheeseburgers and discuss the future.'"
"The business would've ended probably right there I remember telling my grandmother She said, 'Darling, what would it take to keep this business going for one more season?'"
Hurlbut calculated the amount.
"I'll never forget she just went to her checkbook, wrote it out, and she just said, 'It makes me so happy to be able to do this.'"
"After that, we just kind of managed to struggle along," Hurlbut said.
Peruvian Connection sold to some boutiques in New York City for two years. This led to more sales.
"So, we had this little wholesale business," Hurlbut said. "It wasn't very big volume, but we were still in business. We had enough to do a letterhead."
They continued running ads, and even sent a press kit to various newspapers and magazines.
"The style writer for the New York Times got it," Hurlbut said.
"Something just sort of piqued her curiosity. She called here to Tonganoxie and spoke to Biddy."
From Biddy Hurlbut, the writer learned that Annie Hurlbut was in New York City doing a fashion show. She stopped by.
"She walked into the booth I was sitting up on a table with a friend of mine from Philadelphia just kind of lamenting what a disaster the show had been," Hurlbut said. "I was going back to grad school anyway that year I'd had it with this business ... She said, 'Hi, I'm Angela Taylor from the New York Times. Do you think you'll be able to do a story tomorrow?'"
The next day, after a photographer shot pictures of Hurlbut, she and Taylor visited in the coffee shop at the Times.
"We were just having a conversation I had no idea I was being interviewed she wasn't taking notes," Hurlbut said. Taylor inquired about Hurlbut's family in Kansas.
"It was too rainy to get in the fields that year or something like that and I told her about my dad and about how sad I was because he was basically not having too much luck with the farm," Hurlbut said.
"The headline was something like 'Starving Kansas farm goes alpaca,'" Hurlbut said. "The picture that went along with it invoked even more sympathy from the readers.
"It was a cute picture, but it looked like it was somebody you should bring in out of the cold."
The story came out in the Times, and then hit the wire service.
"Within two to three months we had about 5,000 catalog requests," Hurlbut said.
She responded with a personal letter or card to every request.
"At the end of 5,000 letters, we had a very loyal list of inquiries," she said.
From there, Annie Hurlbut and Biddy Hurlbut went to a local bank and acquired a small-business loan.
"It was that first loan that really got us going," Hurlbut said. "We were able to do a color brochure, and again it was successful. So it was little by little. It was built brick on brick nothing fancy and no smoke and mirrors."
Indeed, Hurlbut credits many for the company's success.
"Without the support of this local community McLouth and Tonganoxie we wouldn't have a business," Hurlbut said.
Carol Bates, director of corporate administration for Peruvian Connection, agreed, and even added that the company is like family. Employees work together on various charities, helping out with Habitat for Humanity, participating in the Kansas City, Mo., AIDS walk and the breast cancer fund-raiser run in Overland Park.
Each year, Peruvian Connection makes holiday contributions to local organizations, and annually sponsors two $1,500 scholarships for graduates of Tonganoxie High School.
These are just a few examples of how people matter at Peruvian, Bates said.
"It's not enough to just hire people," she said. "For instance, if employees have any problems, they can go to me or they can go to Biddy."
Biddy Hurlbut, recuperating from hip replacement surgery, said, "It's the fact that people care about each other it's not a cold-hearted business in any way. It's the kind of business that really cares if someone hurts themselves or if they have a loss in the family."
Bates, who has been visiting Biddy Hurlbut every afternoon after work since her hip surgery, agreed.
"You get off work," Bates said, "You stop by to see how she's doing, you have a glass of wine and you talk about your day."
Bates paused, smiled, then added, "They don't do that at IBM, do they?"