Sharon Beal: A Champion of USA-Made
Situated on the corner of South Winooski and College Street in the heart of Burlington, VT is a shop named Common Deer. Stocked to the brim with well and lesser known brands such as Filson, Red House, Jeremy Ayers Pottery, Shinola, Queen City Dry Goods and more, this brick and mortar establishment may have small-town charm but its mission is big. Shop owner and USA-made advocate Sharon Beal, sat down to talk with us about small business and her pursuit to bring manufacturing back home, one vendor at a time.
What brought you to Vermont? What was the draw?
Quality of life I would say was number one. We came up from New York. My kids were nine and twelve at the time and we were looking for a safe environment for them to grow up in. There was Lake Champlain—we are a big sailing family—there was mountain biking, skiing. The lifestyle was important to us. And our family has always been entrepreneurs, so having a healthy small business environment was really key. Vermont was built on small business.
Vermont Business Brokers is your other business, that’s been well established for years. Your kids are grown and out of college. What made you want to start a whole new endeavor at this point in your life?
Being a part of Vermont Business Brokers, I sold a lot of manufacturing companies. And in the industry of manufacturing, so many companies had to source from or move entirely overseas. It just kept happening and it really upset me. So I said, I’ve got to do something about it, no matter how small, I have got to change a mindset. Plus, having a shop has been a dream of mine for 35 years. One day I just said, let’s do it. And I did.
I’m supposed to be retiring at this age, right? I’m going in the direction of putting more on my plate. I’m starting a different adventure and it’s fun. I’m meeting wonderful, talented people. I explain to my new team members that we are representing all of these entrepreneurs and are making it possible for them to support their families by buying their products. By getting their names out there, making sure other people and other stores buy from them - that brings US manufacturing back. It’s a different model than being a manufacturer but it’s making a difference and supporting a lot of families. My team has an important job when they open up the doors to the store. Not only are we selling great products, we are trying to support entrepreneurship.
Was USA-made the plan for Common Deer from the beginning? How has your mission evolved?
We were always about the story behind the product. In our first smaller location it started with products that were USA-made, fair trade or had a mission behind them. We found that, without a doubt, people were drawn to USA-made products. Once we moved to Burlington we made a decision to sell only USA-made. When people come through the door and we tell them that the whole store is USA-made, they get excited. Everyone loves looking at our huge USA map with the locations of our vendors. They really get on board with everything.
How much time do you take to get to know the vendors?
We spend so much time researching, it’s ridiculous! I know a lot of my vendors and spend a lot of time sitting down and talking with them about how we all can do everything better. You know, you’re talking to them and the dog’s barking in the background and the kids are running around … they’re all making superior products but they’re doing it around their families, at home or out of a barn. As entrepreneurs we are always trying to do better and listening to people is extremely important. In this industry, I learn everyday.
You have taken on the role of an influencer, encouraging vendors you want to work with to manufacture in the USA. Can you talk a little bit about these conversations? Does a request from a single shop owner affect change?
Oh, I’m always on my soapbox. I believe strongly in USA-made products. I have nothing against European-made or products made in other places. It’s just, my mission is to bring back US manufacturing in all sizes and shapes because I want to keep America working. A dollar spent on a USA-made product keeps more money here.
There are so many manufacturing facilities that are lying idle right now that actually kept entire counties employed. One factory job in the US is actually linked to six non-manufacturing jobs, so if one manufacturing job goes overseas those six administrative jobs related to it go overseas, as well. Everything is interrelated.
These conversations with the vendors are really encouraging them to actually look into the difference of the costs because they are changing. For example, the costs associated with manufacturing in the US compared to manufacturing in China within the next five years are going to be a dollar to ninety-six cents. The difference is negligible. And that’s not even looking at the shipping costs. The best solution is that the United States has the factories in place to bring manufacturing back.
We can’t control all the politics and legislation of other countries but what we can do is vote with our dollar, instead. By supporting products that are supporting countries with terrible regulations environmentally and socially then we are encouraging them to continue to have those slack regulations.
What’s your advice to manufacturers who want to make the shift to producing their goods in the USA but are coming up against challenges?
If you talk to other manufacturers that are making it happen here, they are very willing to share information. The networking that goes on among small entrepreneurs is amazing and inspiring. There is a whole company now called Makers Row devoted to helping businesses find a factory, get quotes and actually make it happen. It’s a great resource. Additionally, look at it not only from a cost analysis, but also a value analysis. Yes, the cost may be higher, but the value will also be higher.
As someone who knows a lot about small business, talk about the family aspect that characterizes many Vermont businesses, including your own. Why might that be important?
Vermont lends itself to small family business. It is a place where families want to stay and keep a legacy going. I am blessed with the fact that I have a family that is 100% behind Common Deer every single day. My daughter, my son and my husband participate in all different capacities and bring different expertise to the business. For the most part it’s me, but they always have my back; they are always helping to improve Common Deer on a daily basis. I love my family.
How does Vermont come into play at Common Deer? There is very much a sense of place about the store.
Thank you! I did my job. When someone comes in I want them to feel the comfort of Vermont. People in Vermont care about each other, they care about their lifestyle and about what they buy. They are very conscious of the USA-brand and the quality of the item they are buying. The store reflects Vermont in the lifestyle. People stop in on a regular basis to say hi, just to look around and be in the store. They often say they feel like they are coming home.
What’s your vision for Common Deer?
My vision for Common Deer is to continue the USA movement, to provide even more great products and help get 100% of our manufacturing back. The USA is what’s in my heart. I think it’s important and it’s important for our economy.
On another note, I’d love to know, where is the best creemee in Vermont?
I gotta be honest with you, I haven’t met a creemee I didn’t like.