One of Indian Country’s only Native-owned and operated clothing companies has partnered with Wal-Mart to sell its Native-themed clothing line.
Native Threads merchandise can now be purchased at nearly 130 Wal-Mart locations.
“I’ll be honest it is still very surreal,” said Chris Rubio, Wholesale manager for Native Threads. “Every time I see our stuff in Wal-Mart I get that good feeling inside and can’t believe it's really happened.”
Rubio, Chiricahua Apache, was the one who brought up the idea to Randy Bardwell, CEO of Native Threads.
“Ironically I believe the first time I brought it up was during my interview process,” Rubio said. “I had the idea that Native Threads has the potential to be sold at Wal-Mart.”
Bardwell, Pechanga Band of Luiseno, and Rubio first meet in February 2011.
They began talking seriously about the idea in fall 2011, and in January 2012 committed to going after the largest company in the world.
“It was not something we did or took lightly,” Bardwell said. “We spent months talking about the pros and cons.”
One day, Bardwell came across an article about Walmart and discovered, Pepe Estrada, Wal-Mart’s Director of Corporate Affairs and liaison to the Native American and Alaska Native community. Bardwell forwarded the article to Rubio and told him to get in contact with Estrada.
“I sent Pepe an email telling him about Native Threads and what great opportunity it would be for Walmart to sell our merchandise,” Rubio said. “Pepe wrote back with a few questions and I responded.”
Estrada then informed Rubio that he was going to put him in contact with Ronny Cerniga, Supplier Diversity Project Manager for Wal-Mart.
Rubio was put in touch with Cerniga, who quickly introduced him to Tom Dougherty, Director of Purchasing for Wal-Mart.
After nearly three months to the day, Native Threads was assigned a buyer Larry Smith, who is the Senior Buyer for Men's tops at Wal-Mart.
Rubio said Smith’s assistant asked if they were excited and wondered how long of a process they had to go through.
“I told her a few months and she was shocked,” Rubio said. “She told me that the process for a business like ours would usually take three to four years.”
“From that point, we knew we had a great opportunity before us if we were able to get leverage so quickly,” Rubio added.
Native Threads brand has been around since 1990; in 2009, Bardwell took full control of the business, relaunching the brand in April ofthat year. Ninety percent of the company's products are made in the U.S., Bardwell said.
"Native Threads is different because we aren't a tribally operated business and we don't have financial backing from tribes,” he said. “We are a true entrepreneurship and went out to find money from the private sector as most entrepreneurs would.”
“From that standpoint we are really out there making it happen just like the average Joe and we're very proud to be part of mainstream American business," Bardwell added.
The company decided it wanted to drive customers to Wal-Mart while continuing to serve retail outlets that had always been Native Threads' bread and butter — casinos, trading posts, mom-and-pop smoke shops, and other stores that cater to Native populations. After many discussions with these store owners, Native Threads decided to have certain designs sold at Wal-Mart.
“By having different designs we can drive customers back to the core stores for other products,” Bardwell said. “Also we didn’t want to create any competition between Wal-Mart and our core stores.”
However, Bardwell admits he and his employees did have some apprehension and wondered if this was really going to work. They were pleasantly surprised.
Bardwell traveled to Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Arkansas and made a presentation to an internal Wal-Mart group called Tribal Voices, which is made up of Native American Wal-Mart employees.
At one point, Smith stood in front of everyone and stated that Rubio’s passion for Native Threads was the reason Wal-Mart wanted to sell the company's merchandise, Bardwell said.
“Larry also said if Chris didn’t have that passion, he wouldn’t have given us a second look,” Bardwell said.
Bardwell’s eyes began to tear up and he felt validation as a CEO.
Bardwell called Rubio afterwards and told him everything that Smith said. Rubio couldn’t believe it and became a little overwhelmed as well.
“For Larry to say what he did made me feel very good,” Rubio said. “I was very moved and my eyes started to tear up.”
“It makes you feel good to have the support and appreciation from the ones you work with on that level,” Rubio added.
Native Threads' first shipment went out the week before Thanksgiving. The merchandise was targeted to be on the shelves by Black Friday, Bardwell said. However, some made it in on the shelves while some of it didn’t.
Bardwell, who lives in Escondido, California, drove five hours to Parker, Arizona, which was the nearest store that had put Native Threads’ merchandise on the floor.
“It was great to see it finally out and on sale,” he said.
Native Threads made a second shipment on Dec. 31 to refill the stores that are moving the most merchandise.
“We started off with 96 Wal-Mart locations that sold our merchandise and we recently added about 30 more stores,” Bardwell said. “In total we have about 125 stores that now sell Native Threads merchandise.”
Many of the additional stores are located in the Northwest, but Oklahoma has the most stores of any state.
Rubio said Wal-Mart has expressed interest in selling Native Threads merchandise on Walmart.com and Walmart.ca (Wal-Mart's Canadian online store). Native Threads is also designing a spring line for Walmart.
“We worked really hard on this project and took a lot of time,” he said. “There was a lot of work involved and there were a couple of times we thought our product wouldn’t hit the shelf…but with the support of our team we made it happen.”
And now Native Threads is part of the Wal-Mart family.
“It is all warm and fuzzy when we talk about it,” Bardwell said. “Being welcomed into the family of the largest company in the world is pretty big and pretty humbling.”
Bardwell also sees this partnership as an template for other Native businesses.
“For Native entrepreneurs to create a product and have it sold at Walmart is a pretty big in Indian Country,” he said.