Ten Easy Pieces: Meet Bravo Fashion Founder Terry Smith

The Moodie Davitt Report brings you the latest installment in our popular series Ten Easy Pieces*, in which we get up close and personal with leading travel retail personalities via ten snapshot questions.

Meet Bravo Fashion Founder Terry Smith, the Australian-born, US-resident entrepreneur with a black belt in karate and a passion to succeed in travel retail.

1. Where were you born and raised?

I was born in 1948 in Kirrawee, a suburb in southern Sydney, Australia. My mother, Dorothy, was very loving but my father, Ross, definitely ruled the roost in our household. I was an only child and, from what I remember, very active from an early age.

In many ways mine was not an everyday childhood. Dad had a milk run to local houses and shops and I worked with him from the age of six. We used to get up just after midnight and I would literally run 14 miles through the night, every night, before going to school at 8am. On Saturday mornings, it was my job to collect the money. Then I would be on my bike, stopping to knock on doors from 7am to 9.30am when the milk truck had to be off the road.

 Empty milk bottles at the gate would have been a familiar sight for Terry as a youngster [Photo: Shutterstock]

We moved to Wollongong which… then was mainly a coal mining and steel mill town and I hated it. I was going on 15 and just starting to get interested in girls. Fat chance I had in a town where there were 500 to 600 men to every woman!

I guess it was a pretty hard life for a young boy. However, even having only four or five hours sleep, I managed to do pretty well at both primary and the early classes of secondary school. And I found time to go to the beach. I swam a lot, still do; it’s one of my favorite sports.
I was also desperate to play soccer. I joined a local team but that didn’t last because I was consistently late to practice.

When I was 14 my father sold the milk truck and bought an egg run. We moved further south to Wollongong which is now a popular coastal town. Then it was mainly a coal mining and steel mill town and I hated it. I was going on 15 and just starting to get interested in girls. Fat chance I had in a town where there were 500 to 600 men to every woman!

My father took me out of school before I turned 15. That was totally illegal but no-one said anything back then. I wanted to continue my schooling but I ended up in a roof tiling apprenticeship. I left home at 18 after a few hostilities with my father; I knew I had to get away although I still had pretty good relationship with both my parents.

I offered to work for a company dealing in Rank Xerox copiers for nothing for one month on the agreement that if I beat the company’s top salesman they would pay me and keep me on.

2. What were your plans then?

I moved to Sydney. I was still in tiling but desperate to get into sales. As a consumer I could see what salesmen were doing wrong; I knew that I had the hard-hitting personality, the talent, to succeed but I didn’t have any experience and, of course, that was what everyone wanted. I signed up for a Dale Carnegie sales course which, when I look back, changed my life.

Again I applied for jobs but was turned down all the time. In the end I offered to work for a company dealing in Rank Xerox copiers for nothing for one month on the agreement that if I beat the company’s top salesman they would pay me and keep me on.

That was in the late 1960s. I was married (my first wife Denise was from Sydney; unfortunately she passed away when she was just 26) and I was selling typewriter ribbons and paper. It was a hard sell but I did well and the company kept me on. The salary was low but my commission was good.

Within six months I was making them a lot of money and I was making good money. I was promoted to management level but then the company was sold and I was deemed too expensive by the new owners. I did another Dale Carnegie course and set up my own business selling typewriter ribbons and carbon paper.

 

Terry with his Sydney-born wife Denise, who passed away at just 26

That just about coincided with the launch of Nassau roll-feed copiers which were revolutionary at the time. In 1981, I started importing toners from Japan but a faulty shipment sent me into debt; over AS$1 million which was a lot of money then. I managed to pay that back within three years and moved into buying and supplying parts for the copying machines.

Good years followed; years full of strong business stories and some pretty ‘heavy’ experiences which taught me a lot about dealing with people who were classed by many as not-to-be-messed-with and others in business who, at the end of the day, were far worse than those ‘untouchables’.

I laugh whenever I think back on some experiences; no-one would believe the tales if I told them.

“Good years” kept Terry content in Australia until the US beckoned…

3. What prompted your move to the US?

It’s fair to say moving to the US was never in my plans. I had a good business in Australia and a good life but a chance conversation with a lady at the US Consulate got me thinking about a change; a big change.

I sold the business, got myself a green card and moved to New Jersey. I set up another company, Copier Parts, in 1984 and stayed in New Jersey for 15 years. In 1999 I sold again and moved to California.

America had become my home; I was comfortable but I wanted to explore. I had a look at the available locations for a house/business combo, keeping my options open, and managed to find one that would suit in California. I suppose I was drawn in by the promise of beaches and opportunities to hike with my family in the state’s stunning terrain.

4. And set up Bravo Fashion?

Bravo Handbags was set up in 2000. Many would think leaving the copying business to move into fashion, and particularly handbags, was a strange decision.

When I was considering my next step I thought of my wives and what I had bought for them over the years.

I should add here that I have been married three times. My second wife, Sheena, was Australian and my third wife Leah (Qiao Zhang) from Beijing, China.

I am very fortunate to have four daughters and a son: Nicole is 40 years old and is web developer; Ambre is 31 years old and a veterinarian and Briana is a psychologist. Leah and I have two children, 17-year-old Ken Hou and 12-year-old Brenda who are both students.

I realised then that I must’ve spent thousands of dollars on handbags; I was very familiar with manufacturing costs and that started me looking at the margins. I hooked up with a US manufacturer and he and I developed the enamel coating for Bravo Handbags.

A lot of people think the bags are from China, but they are wrong. The technology we use is not used by the Chinese; they can’t do it.

Terry manning his Bravo Handbags booth at a Taipei show in 2016

The bags were great for a while but it’s a difficult market. People are prepared to spend huge amounts for designer bags or they spend on fashionable ‘throwaways’. It’s hard to change that mindset. So I went back to my thinking about what I had purchased over the years and more recently; the handbag ‘craze’ was slowing but there seemed to be a boom in sunglasses.

What really hit home was my daughter telling me about buying her daughter a pair of brand-name sunglasses for her birthday. She’d been stuck for a gift but obviously hit the nail on the head as her daughter was quickly posting selfies on her Facebook profile.

Bravo Fashion’s Tiger print sunglasses were unveiled at Cannes in October

So I started looking at eyewear. During a trip to Tibet I met a monk who was making amazing frames. After many nights of convincing, and the promise to keep the integrity of the design intact, Bravo Fashion’s first line of sunglasses was developed.

I like to think I kept my promise to that monk. We were the first company in the sunglasses industry to come up with 12-layered lenses that are scratch proof, unbreakable and offer the best colour enhancement known to man.

I showed the latest collection, which includes a Tiger print range, at Cannes this year.

5. And set up Bravo Fashion?

It absolutely does. I’ve always had a passion for the environment, and funnily enough one of my daughter’s favourite animals are tigers. As soon as I heard of the fantastic road trip Wild Tiger Founder Gautom Menon planned, I had to get involved.

The decision to be a sponsor of the Roar Trip was one of my best business decisions. I was with Gautom and Paul George (Vedanayagam) for five days which flew by in spectacular fashion; I enjoyed every moment and wished I could have stayed a little longer. I’m donating 10% of sales – not just profits – from the Tiger print range towards Wild Tiger Foundation, run by Wild Tiger Rum.

Terry was the first sponsor and industry friend to join Wild Tiger Founder Gautom Menon (left) on a leg of his Roar Trip from India to Cannes. They are shown here with Yang Gaojian (sporting Bravo Fashion shades) during their visit to the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an

It was a surreal experience and meeting the wonderful people who obviously dedicate so much of themselves to conservation was a real highlight. I could see they feel as passionate about their cause as I do about my business and I think we connected over that.

I have a passion for what I do. I suppose that I can come across as aggressive to some but it’s only because I truly believe in the products that I showcase.

6. You have a reputation for being aggressive in pushing your products. Is that fair comment?

I have a passion for what I do. I suppose that I can come across as aggressive to some but it’s only because I truly believe in the products that I showcase. People can be scared to take a chance with a new brand or when purchasing a new product. I like to think that I am able to provide that little bit of extra confidence to the person investing in a product that they will love for years and years to come.

7. How established in travel retail are you?

It was a surreal experience and meeting the wonderful people who obviously dedicate so much of themselves to conservation was a real highlight. I could see they feel as passionate about their cause as I do about my business and I think we connected over that.

Taking a breather: Terry notes the “constant uphill battle” to secure a foothold in travel retail

8. Do you think the travel retail sector is sufficiently open to new and less conventional companies such as yourselves?

I definitely think it can be difficult to get your ‘foot in the door’. A lot of the products available in these sectors are well established and guaranteed to sell well. I think it’s difficult for some of these retailers to take a chance, even on high-quality products, without a 100% guarantee. This might be where some of my so-called aggressive nature comes from; I’m used to being told to prove myself and I am more than willing to do so.

But to answer your question directly, I would have to say in my opinion, they still aren’t although we are making progress, but it’s a constant uphill battle.

9. ‘Desert Island Dinner’ and you can choose four guests. Who would they be and why?

The Dalai Lama heads the guest list for Terry’s special dinner [Photo: Shutterstock]

Oh, that’s a toughie. I’d have to say that I would love to have the Dalai Lama there for a conversation. My recent trips to Tibet have definitely made me more grounded and I would love to have a conversation with him.

I might bring in Donald Trump as well to add in some entertainment and spice up the conversation.

Richard Branson would be a definite third. I’d love the opportunity to talk about our businesses and potentially make some connections. And, of course, Dale Carnegie, who was my inspiration and supported me when I was first starting my business.

10. What do you see as part of the next chapter in your life?

That’s a good question. I’m 71 now but I have no plans on slowing down. I keep myself fit by working out; swimming, hiking and playing tennis. I travel non-stop, both for business and pleasure. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all around the world, with definite favourites including China and Tibet which both have incredible landscapes.

Making the most of the sea and sunshine: Terry has always been a keen swimmer and loves the beach

I visit Tibet once a year to meditate and that’s not going to change. It’s part of me; part of who I am. That dates back to the early 1990s when I started practicing karate. After moving to New Jersey I wanted to fix a back problem that had been niggling for years and got into the sport. I ended up taking part in a load of competitions and hold a third level black belt.

Meditation is also something that I have found really beneficial living the fast-paced lifestyle I have. I like to take time to ground myself; to remind myself of my goals to offer high-quality innovative goods that will last. Meditation helps me to stay focused on my business and also reminds me to spend some downtime going to dinner with my family, or chatting to my kids.

Who knows what’s next? Whatever it is, it’ll be something different, another challenge. My business is always expanding to keep up with the demand. I am a big believer of being innovative and keeping ahead of the market.

I’m not one to sit around and do nothing but I enjoy reading, particularly memoires. Currently I’m hooked on the Wilbur Smith classic On Leopard Rock; you’ll often find me with a book on the flights to and from expos (and maybe accompanied by a sneaky beverage).

Who knows what’s next? Whatever it is, it’ll be something different, another challenge. My business is always expanding to keep up with the demand. I am a big believer of being innovative and keeping ahead of the market.

I don’t have anything I can disclose right now but I just have to say watch this space. I’m sure you’ll be seeing more from me and Bravo Fashion long into the future.

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