Sewing Their Way To Success
by Charles McGuigan
This April Rich’s Stitches will celebrate its 25th anniversary—a very long time in a very competitive industry. They’re known for embroidery, screen printing and promotional items. Everything from golf shirts and billed caps to pens and mugs and stainless steel cups, all stamped with a logo.
The owners, Chris and Cecelia Rich, are identical twins, born seven minutes apart, and it’s hard to keep track of who is who. Even their voices are similar.
“I am the oldest,” Cecilia tells me in the front office of their storefront on MacArthur Avenue. “And I’m the president of Rich’s Stitches.” Age, like rank, has its privilege.
As hard as it is now to tell the sisters apart, when they were young, it was nearly impossible, even for their mother.
“After we were born my mother put baby name bracelets on us to tell us apart,” says Cecilia. “She had us in baby bracelets until we outgrew those and she got tired of replacing them—she strung the beads herself.”
The Rich’s right hand is Heike Smith who sits at the receptionist desk. “I never had a trouble telling them apart,” she says. “They look different. But when I looked at pictures of them when they were younger, the only way you could tell them apart was by the part in their hair.”
“That’s right,” Cecelia says. “I wore my part on one side; Chris wore hers on the other.”
The twins attended St. Patrick’s on Church Hill through eighth grade and then went to Marymount High School (now defunct) in Windsor Farms. “We never played tricks at St. Patrick’s,” says Cecelia. “I was afraid of the nuns and getting in trouble.”
That changed in high school. Both girls played basketball, and during one game, when Chris was called out because of mounting fouls, she and Cecelia at half-time retreated to the locker room and exchanged jerseys. “So I ended up playing with Cecelia’s number and we got through the game,” Chris remembers.
At VCU, Chris and Cecelia both studied general business and played field hockey, practicing with their teammates at Hotchkiss Field. After graduation Cecelia went to work at Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Chris got a job at Allied Chemical and then went to work for CP Dean. “I learned the trade of selling there,” she says. “I was doing team sales. I learned about what it took to make it.”
From the time they were very young, the Rich girls knew that they would one day work together in their own business. As Chris learned more at CP Dean about embroidery, her sister was growing restless at Blue Cross.
“I said to her,” says Chris. “You know we can do something together now. Why don’t we try this embroidery?”
The pair went to the super show in Atlanta, a portion of which was devoted to sporting goods. Cecelia watched the demonstration of a four-head embroidery machine that would enable them to do hats as well as other embroidery work. She watched closely, learning how it worked.
Something in the twins’ genes was at play here. Their father Leonard was a master machinist, as was his father before him. So it was no wonder that Cecelia felt comfortable around machines and was a quick study, to boot.
And Emmalyne, their mother, had taught the girls to sew. “Mother taught us how to sew,” Cecelia says. “And we were in 4-H growing up. Mother made a lot of our clothes growing up and we had to make some of our clothes ourselves. We’re very thankful and I thank her to this day.” Though virtually all the embroidery and sewing that comes out of Rich’s Stitches is computerized, there are some exceptions. “I’ll still sew on a patch by hand,” says Cecelia.
After the show in Atlanta, the twins borrowed money from their parents, purchased their first machine and received a week’s training from the distributor. Cecelia then quit her job at Blue Cross and they started up their business in the commodious basement in their brother Andrew’s house at 3617 Hawthorne Avenue. Here they would cut their teeth and finesse the machinery, fill their first orders and lay a strong foundation for a business that would remain stalwart even in a shaky economy.
Chris continued working at CP Dean for about another year. “We did get a little business from CP Dean just to get our feet wet,” says Chris. “But most of our business came from word of mouth and our contacts with athletics and so forth.”
One of Chris’s co-workers at CP Dean became a sort of mentor for the twins. His name was Cris Criswell. “He kind of helped us with questions we had and we had plenty of questions,” Chris Rich says. “We’d ask him questions and he had been at CP Dean for many, many years and knew a lot of stuff.”
During that period Rich’s Stitches was doing only embroidery—golf shirts, towels, jackets, just about anything you could stitch your name onto. If it can be embroidered Rich’s Stitches can do the job. “The biggest logo I ever did was 107,000 stitches,” Cecelia says. “It was a martial arts logo and it was probably a four-hour run and I could do six at a time.”
Five years into the business, growth was increasing so steadily that the Rich sisters had to find a new home for their business. “Our brother put up with the noise, he put up with the people coming in and out,” says Cecelia. “It was a great location but we just outgrew it. Sometimes we were working around the clock to meet orders. We needed a new space. And what we were looking for was a storefront.”
Both Cecelia and Chris were fans of Dot’s Back Inn, one of the few retail shops on MacArthur Avenue in those days. “We both knew Jamie and we knew the area,” Chris says. “Decatur’s was there and the electric shop, but nothing else except Cock and Bull.”
But there were plenty of vacancies. “So we picked this location, moved what stuff we had over here and have been happy here for the past twenty years,” says Chris.
“And now that we had a storefront we could bring more business here,” Cecelia says.
Business grew steadily. “And most of the business we’ve had since we started has been through word of mouth,” says Chris.
“Our increases have been incremental, ten to twenty percent each year,” Chris says. “And even during the big recession we’ve seen a little growth. We’re real excited.”
In the beginning their stock and trade was strictly embroidery. Then they expanded their services to screen printing and finally every conceivable sort of promotional item—advertising that never goes away.
“In 1995 we started doing promotional items to try to get people from going anywhere else,” says Chris. “Once they came to us we could satisfy their marketing needs. Anything you can put your name on that you can leave in front of your customer or a friend is advertising. You might as well be wearing something with your logo on it instead of Nike or Adidas. Adding the promotional items really increased our sales. We were able to hit people we weren’t hitting before.
Rich’s Stitches found its permanent home on MacArthur Avenue, and over the years the twins have seen vast improvements along this commercial strip. “Year after year it has steadily grown,” Chris says. “Neighborhood people come in, thinking they’re entering the coffee shop (Stir Crazy) next door. A lot of people have walked by this shop many times before one day it clicks, ‘This is what y’all do.’ A lot of people come in and think we do alterations. They see a needle in our logo and they think we do sewing or custom garments and stuff like that.”
Chris and Cecelia depend on their support staff, which includes Heike. “Heike joined us three years ago and has become my right hand woman,” says Chris. “Her main role is that she does the accounts payable. She meets and greets everyone who comes into our shop. She’s the one who answers the phone. She helps me put together orders and she corresponds with people. When I’m too busy she can answer questions, she can deal with customers. She can do a little bit of everything.”
And in the back of the house, Cecelia depends on Amber Smith, Tina Saunders, and the Rich’s niece, Madi Saunders, who literally grew up in the business. “I have a picture on the door of Madi building and setting up her own little store inside our store when she was a little girl,” says Cecelia. “She and Amber and Tina pick and fold and clean up the garments before we ship them out, before they go up front to Heike.”
The other permanent fixtures at Rich’s Stitches are the Rich’s dogs—Odie, a chocolate lab and Cody, a golden retriever. They’re friendly and dovetail perfectly with this family-style business. (Cody died recently and has a left a void at the shop.)
“We do operate as a family,” says Chris. “When you enter the front door we take care of you, we ask you a bunch of questions so we can get a good Idea of what you’re looking for. You can never ask enough questions. “
Cecelia nods. “We provide excellent customer service and I think that’s what refers other people to us all the time,” she says. “The word’s out about Rich’s Stitches.”
“It’s also the quality of work that goes out that door,” says Heike. “Cecelia won’t let anything go out the door that’s not perfect.”
Chris acknowledges that the internet has helped drum up more business, but hands-on customer service can’t be replaced. “One thing that has gone by the wayside in some businesses is customer service,” she says. “It’s hard to find customer service today, you get voice mail or you can’t contact anyone. We have always offered great customer service. That’s what keeps people coming back all the time. It’s about how you’re treated. We build relationships that last.”
4013 MacArthur Avenue