Stephen Bauer traveled almost 8,000 miles from South Africa to Baltimore to the land he now calls home. Trained as a commercial illustrator, he arrived in Baltimore 20 years ago, at the age of 21, with $1,200 in his wallet, and a dream to build a life in a new country.
Mary Sell grew up in Dundalk. Her mom couldn't read or write, but she did her best to support her family.
Life was difficult; we were very poor, Mary remembers. My mom worked as a maid on and off, and we also rented rooms in our house.
Mary worked at various jobs to get through high school and then college.
I went to school at Towson [University], she says. I received a Pell grant and worked two jobs. Mom died three weeks after I graduated college.
Mary took a job in marketing in Los Angeles where she learned the business from the bottom up. In 1994, she learned her dad had cancer, and so she gave up her job and moved back to Baltimore to be with him during his last days.
Shortly after my dad died, I met Stephen, and we fell quickly and deeply in love, Mary says.
They married, and soon Mary and Stephen were expecting their first child, Sebastian. As Mary's pregnancy progressed, they began looking for baby furniture.
Back then, there really wasn't a lot available, she explains. All you could get in 1994 was either very cheap or very high-end.
Not satisfied with a cheap crib and not happy with the thought of paying a big price for a crib they didn't absolutely love, Stephen drew up a design for an elegant wrought iron crib, and the young couple looked for a local fabricator. By now, they'd fallen in love with the design but were aghast at the $800 price tag. However, they'd gone this far, and so they had the crib made. As they placed little Sebastian in his new crib, they thought to themselves, Wouldn't it be neat if you could get furniture like this at an affordable price?
Several weeks later, Mary went to a neighborhood meeting of new moms, holding Sebastian tightly to her chest. When it came time for introductions, she found herself saying that she wanted to start a business marketing unique baby furniture, and in particular, wrought iron cribs. She went on to explain, though, that there were few wrought iron fabricators in the country and they were extremely expensive. Incredibly, one of the other moms, Joan Schenkel, piped up and said, I know a wonderful little wrought iron fabricating company in Nicaragua.
The Bauer's were in business. They named their new company Bratt Decor (http://www.brattdecor.com). Mary laughs about the name.
Stephen and I were sitting around dreaming of what to call our company, Mary recalls. I was reading a copy of Elle Decor magazine. Stephen had mentioned that he loved the cheekiness of American slang, like the word 'brat.' We put it together, and Bratt Decor was born.
When Mary's new friend, Joan, said it was a little wrought iron fabricating company in Nicaragua, she wasn't exaggerating. The tiny company was made up of two women who fabricated the orders as they came in from the Bauer's. This wasn't fast enough; the Bauer's were starting to get flooded with orders and they needed to be able to fill them quickly.
In 2000, five years after starting their little business, Stephen and Mary went to a trade show where they were referred to servicing agents who could help them do business in China.
It was a mind blowing experience for someone just starting a business, explains Stephen. We had to get financing up front because we had to pay up front and trust that our container would arrive just as we'd ordered. Overall, the quality was good, but sometimes we didn't get exactly what we'd ordered, and we had no recourse.
It was unnerving, to say the least, Mary adds, especially when you're a small company without a lot of capital.
Their anxiety was alleviated when they met Phan Hue Danh, a Vietnamese entrepreneur who was trying to make contacts in the United States. Stephen traveled to Vietnam with Danh and was impressed by the creativity and strong work ethic he discovered there. The Bauer's hired Danh to be their on-site production manager in Vietnam.
Mary bridles at the suggestion that Bratt Decor outsources - a term that has been used negatively in recent years.
There just aren't that many fabricators in this country that want to do this kind of detailed work on our small scale, she explains. By having our baby furniture manufactured in Vietnam, we've been able to create a viable business that puts people to work in this country, right here in East Baltimore!
Besides, that, she adds, we're creating new jobs in an emerging economy and helping raise their life style.
We're so grateful for the work, he says. Thank God for the American economy.
This is the only way a small company like ours can create the exquisite baby furniture that's the hallmark of Bratt Decor, Stephen adds. We exist because of outsourcing.
The furniture is exquisite - and popular. Bratt Decor sells out in high-end baby furniture stores across the country. When the Bauer's opened an outlet in Belvedere Square in northern Baltimore City, customers came from as far away as New York and Virginia.
Written by: Neil Young