The Women of Sea Bags Maine

The Women of Sea Bags Maine

Teamwork Forms the Fabric of the Company

Beth Shissler. Photo by Jason Paige Smith.

Ask Sea Bags President and Chief Sustainability Officer Beth Shissler how long a Sea Bags tote lasts. “I don’t think we know yet,” she said. The company gives recycled sails a new life, transforming them into durable and fashionable tote bags and accessories.  

On the wall in her office hangs a bag she affectionately calls the Jeb Bag. It belonged to a fisherman named Jeb, who used it every single day for many years to carry his lunch and supplies to his boat.  After he died, his wife gave it to Shissler. It’s well-loved, but still very functional.

Beth, who is also a part-owner, came on board the company in 2006. She, along with CEO Don Oakes, who has been with the company since 2013, has been a push behind the tremendous growth and success of the company. Sea Bags began in 1999 as a hobby business and now has 33 retail outlets in Maine, Michigan, and California, as well as robust online sales.

“We were doing sustainability before sustainability was cool,” she said.

Beth is proud not only of the success of the company, but of the staff, which is 80 percent women. Meetings at the headquarters along the Portland Wharf are bilingual, as there are a number of staff members from Cambodia working in the manufacturing department. Beth envisions the business to be successful for decades to come, and she is the first to tell you that it hasn’t just been one or two people that have helped Sea Bags grow. She has woven together a team of dynamic individuals, all experts in their respective fields, who make up the fabric of a business built to last, just like its products.

Sokunthy Yean came on board as a bookkeeper ten years ago, and after six months she was promoted to finance director. Now, she’s the general manager, and everyone in manufacturing reports to her. “I was very lucky that Beth gave me this opportunity,” she said. Sokunthy said she got to know the company from a numbers standpoint, then learned more about the real “ins and outs” of the business. She took time to study the structure of the company and learn as much as she could, as she saw the potential of e-commerce and retail and had a feeling that Sea Bags was going to grow exponentially.

Since its inception, the company has kept more than 700 tons of sails out of landfills. The sails come from all over the world, as Carrie Mack, Vice President of Sails Acquisition, can tell you. An Army veteran with a 110 captain’s license who had been all over the world, she came to Sea Bags in January of 2007, looking for something different. Carrie has traveled throughout Europe, the United States, and the Caribbean acquiring sails for the company. She said it’s an amazing experience to meet the people who support the business by providing sails.

“All of the material that we get has a story, and it’s really neat to be able to put that to a particular place or event or person, and they can tell you more about it,” she said.

Sailing lies at the heart of the business, and Sea Bags sponsors an accomplished women’s sailing team. Erica Beck-Spencer, skipper and co-captain of the Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team, was awarded the honor of “Top Female Skipper” in the 2018 and 2019 J/24 World Championships. The team also won a trophy both years for the top female boat.

“It’s an honor of a lifetime, sincerely, other than raising my kids,” said Erica, who is also an educator. “I wouldn’t be able to compete at this level if it were not for Sea Bags.” She has been part of the company’s sailing team since 2015, and said that Sea Bags has always instilled in the sailors that they were champions. The company offered support by hiring coaches and by encouraging them to excel by running the team like a business and setting goals each year. Beth said one of her goals with Sea Bags was to grow jobs and career paths, and competitive sailing is one of these paths. The sailing team is a distinctive piece of the Sea Bags narrative.

The Sea Bags story has many other layers, too—about who owned the original sail, where was the sail used, what kind of boat was it on, when was it taken off the boat, and where did it end up before it came to Sea Bags to get stitched into a bag.  And finally, the story is about the creation of the finished project at the wharf in Portland, Maine, according to Laura Hnatow, Vice President of Marketing and E-Commerce for nearly seven years.

Telling the stories of Sea Bags is a major part of Laura’s job. “Not one of these pieces of sails is the same as another,” she said. They have different textures and designs. Some have weathered the elements longer than others. Laura helps customers to better appreciate the sails’ background and the bags made from the sails.

While many of the sails come through acquisitions, some also come through the company’s barter program, through which customers bring in a sail in exchange for a bag made from the material. Often, the sail coming through the barter program have emotional value to the consumer. It may have belonged to their grandfather, or it may have been on their first boat. No matter where the material it was made came from, a Sea Bag is not just an ordinary handbag. It’s got history.

At first, the designs on the bags were created from the insignia from the sails, and outside of that, the designs weren’t varied. They may have had an anchor or star added, at most. “When we first started, one of the big miscalculations I had was I really thought our first customers were going to be sailors,” explained Beth Shissler.  “To my surprise, that wasn’t the case. It really was people who were into sustainability and people into fashion.”   

Tara Knupp, product design manager, came to Sea Bags four years ago with an extensive background in fashion, after moving to Maine to escape the hustle and bustle of New York City.  “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be working for Sea Bags,” she said. She recalls saving up her money to buy her first Sea Bags tote, and she knows that for most people who own one, it isn’t just a bag bought on a whim, but it’s a special purchase.

Tara’s guidance has helped Sea Bags maintain itself not just as a maker of durable, sustainable bags, but as a maker of durable, sustainable bags that are also fashion accessories, with fresh nautical and beachy styles. “We’re all experts in what we do individually. We don’t necessarily know each other’s expertise,” said Laura. The key is the team’s ability to work and collaborate and bring together their knowledge, she said. “It’s so authentic.”

“Here, there are no silos; it’s one big collaborative pot,” said Tara. On any given day, she could be working with any member of her team, or all of them. “When I come to work every day, we have a huge studio. It’s all open,” said Laura. “It lends itself to immediate collaboration.” Instead of scheduling a meeting in a conference room, she and her colleagues can gather together and quickly nail down what needs to be done.

Sokunthy said that trust plays an important part of the relationship among the team members. She said she’s always been able to sit down with Beth and have open and honest conversations, and the support has been empowering. Beth cares about her employees, said Carrie. “Beth has done whatever she could to make sure that everybody was healthy and well and able to do their best, and that is part of the great success of Sea Bags.”

That support was an integral part of the company’s success during the COVID-19 pandemic. Team members were able to continue collaboration and work remotely, while many of them balanced working with home-schooling their children.

The company has continued going to move forward during the pandemic, and through Laura’s guidance, the company was able to connect with customers through the website and social media.

Immediately after Sea Bag’s Don Oakes had a conversation with U.S. Senator Angus King about the need for personal protective equipment, Sokunthy got to work, getting the materials needed and setting up so that her team could produce face masks.

“We don’t have a girls’ club at work, we have a go get ‘em club,” said Beth.  

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Liz Gotthelf

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