One woman's smart formula: Don't only tend to your knitting
By Writer: Jan Alexander

(MONEY Magazine) – Eight years ago, Neuma Agins, a successful New York City fashion designer, decided to simplify her life by moving to the rural Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts to make her own sweaters. Some simplification. Today she runs a profitable $2 million-a-year sweater company, employs as many as 250 women who hand-decorate her designs and is turning a quaint 20,000-square-foot buggy- whip factory into a rustic mall ''with a strictly New England mood,'' as Agins puts it. Her Southfield Outlet & Craft Center, nestled on 1 1/2 acres beside a Walden-like duck pond in Southfield, Mass., offers visitors her own Neuma Inc. sweaters and other casual clothes at factory-outlet prices -- plus toys, antiques, yarns, locally made crafts and barbecued spareribs. Agins aims to turn the 11-month-old emporium, whose retail space is already about 50% occupied, into a major area tourist stop, riding on the boom in chic New England factory outlets. Says the seemingly serene Agins as she scans the shops for customers: ''I have done my market research. I am optimistic that this mall will succeed.'' Born and bred in Los Angeles, Agins, now 45, moved at age 18 to Manhattan, where she studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology while taking night classes in philosophy at the New School for Social Research. Over the next 18 years she designed sportswear for such companies as Jonathan Logan, Jantzen, Catalina and Wilson Sporting Goods. She was already longing for green spaces before she was mugged one evening in 1979 not far from Central Park. Then even more eager for change, she headed for the peaceful Berkshires with about $70,000 in savings and royalties and no particular business plan. She found a $130,000 two-story, wood-shingled house with a balcony and picture window overlooking the mountains, made a $30,000 down payment, and relaxed for nearly six months, confident that when the money ran out, she would find a way to design fashions. Eventually her entrepreneurial instincts took over. She used most of her remaining savings -- $25,000 -- to pay a Pennsylvania company to knit six classic-looking cotton sweaters from her patterns and to hire four local women to embellish them with flower motifs and lace collars in her home. When Berkshire boutique owners rejected her line at the then high wholesale price of $27 to $34 a sweater, Agins hired an independent sales representative to call on high-scale New York boutiques, where country designs were coming into vogue. In a year the rep helped boost her sweater sales to $200,000 -- enough for Neuma Inc. to break even after production costs and salaries. The next year, fiscal 1981, she earned a $15,000 net profit on sales of nearly $500,000. By 1983, with eight regional reps and sales approaching the million- dollar mark, her house was so jammed with supplies that her crocheters, then numbering about 90, hardly had room to work. At that point, Agins had to determine how large she wanted her company to become. If she shifted her manufacturing arm to Asia or Latin America, she could offer retailers more garments and more profit potential. She decided, however, against disrupting her amiable association with the local craftswomen -- and her relatively relaxed rural life. Sinking deeper roots, she rented out the first floor of the partially renovated buggy-whip factory built in 1791. Agins came up with the idea for the mall last year after opening her own factory outlet on the first floor to sell her sweaters for $30 to $75 -- about half the retail price. To date, outlet sales have reached an encouraging $150,000. When her landlord put the building on the market last December, she envisioned a mall with more factory outlets and a country-wares theme. She bought the building for $225,000 and went looking for tenants. So far, she has 13, including a sportswear outlet, a group of jewelry and craft designers, and a toy store where children are invited to demonstrate the merchandise. The factory's boiler room has become the Boiler Room Cafe, owned by Michele Miller, a popular regional caterer who was once a chef at the Alice's Restaurant made famous by Arlo Guthrie's 1967 ballad. In addition, local jugglers, mimes and magicians frequently entertain the crowds that reach 600 on summer weekends. With that much progress, Agins is confident that the mall's gross annual revenues alone will hit $2 million in three or four years, despite little business for the three frigid months after the Christmas shopping season. This year, Agins has pared down her sweater business slightly, employing a total of 88 people, and diverting much of her time to developing the mall. Neuma Inc. will earn around 7% after taxes on close to $2 million in sales. Agins is also working on ways to keep the sweater business growing. Among her ideas: selling Neuma franchises to stores around the country, which would carry her line of country knits exclusively. ''One of the attractions of the wholesale business, unlike the tourist trade,'' says Agins, ''is that you don't have to count on good weather for your livelihood.'' (Turn to page 46 for expert advice.)

EXPERT ADVICE Savor the present before you move on

The problem: MONEY asked Richard Echikson, chairman of Retail Consultants Inc., a Millburn, N.J. firm specializing in shopping centers and retail stores, to comment on Agins' various expansion options. His observations:

The advice: I felt relieved as soon as I learned that Agins' sweater designs follow a classic look. This way she doesn't have to worry about becoming last year's trend. She's also on a pretty sound footing with the mall concept despite her legitimate worries about seasonality. These days, there are so many outlets and off-price centers that you've got to have a gimmick, such as her country concept. She should be sure to stick to real factory outlet stores, however; bringing in off-price retail stores without strict continuity in designer labels would dilute her potentially strong image. Agins' customers should come to the mall knowing just what brands will be there. I suggest that she proceed very cautiously with the risky franchising idea. She might try a catalogue operation first or find a major department store that will set up a Neuma boutique. She would probably have to offer the store a sweetened profit deal and take some losses the first year, but she could establish a track record for Neuma boutiques without having to make another real estate investment. She could continue as is and live comfortably, but I sense she will want new challenges.

The response: Dick is right. I'll get bored if the company doesn't grow, and the finances will have to be more organized as we get bigger. I'm seriously considering the catalogue business. I've already started a mailing list of about 2,000 people who have signed the guestbook at Neuma's Factory Outlet. I'd want a direct-mail expert to manage it, though; I would find it rather uncreative. In any event, I'll stick with the mall for at least a year before I try any new ventures. I'll reserve the boutique idea for the future.