chatWITH… Allen Rice
A chatWITH… Allen Rice
“The harder you work, the luckier you get,” Allen Rice said with a chuckle. For him, a solid work ethic is critical to success, but a little luck doesn’t hurt, either.
Rice related one of his most risky actions as a young entrepreneur when he employed reverse logic to sell his product. He bought a newspaper advertisement titled, “Hard Work, No Pay.” Rice recalled his advertisement emphasized what a terrible place his company was to work. He hoped to attract attention just by doing the unexpected. He admitted, “I didn’t know what I was doing — I was just throwing something at the wall to see if it would stick. I wanted to be different from every other company pitching the normal, ‘We’re the best!’” Somehow, the unusual approach worked. At least one large manufacturer appreciated Rice’s humor. Soon after the advertisement was published, Rice received a call from Charlie Clifford, who was then the President of Tumi. Clifford was interested in contracting Rice’s business to manufacture his product. The pair came to an agreement and Tumi grew from $4 million in sales to $135 million in sales within 20 years. “It was luck,” Rice said. “What were the odds of Charlie seeing the ad?” Rice is President of Savannah Luggage Works, which he co-owns with his brother, David. As of 2021, the company has been operating in Vidalia for 45 years.
Rice’s life has been a series of adventures punctuated with amazing happenstances and seized opportunities. After graduating from Auburn University and serving in the Army, the Vidalia native moved to New York City to work in sales for a company that recruited him before his military service. Rice said that during his time in The Big Apple, around 1977, running as exercise became a passion. “I really got into running. I got addicted to it.” Little did he know where his daily runs would lead.
One day, he was completing a jaunt in Central Park when a familiar face passed him. “I was running around this track at the reservoir and a man who I recognized ran by with a friend. I realized it was one of my fraternity brothers from Auburn University. I had not seen him since college and I called out to him and told him who I was. He remembered me and came back to talk.”
Rice was flabbergasted when he realized who his fraternity brother was with — none other than Jackie Kennedy Onassis. “He introduced me to Jackie and we ran around half a loop of the track. She told my friend that she would see him back at the apartment and I was so confused,” Rice said with a laugh. “I asked my friend, ‘What on earth are you doing with Jackie Onassis in her apartment?’ and he told me he was a Secret Service agent.” Of course, former Presidents and First Ladies are entitled to Secret Service protection.
This was not the only time Rice had an unexpected experience while jogging. In September one year he was running in Central Park when he noticed two individuals close by. During this time, New York City was hosting the United Nations General Assembly, which meant the area was filled with Secret Service agents who were guarding the diplomats.
Rice, who enjoyed having running partners, caught up to the men in front of him and asked to run with them. They kindly obliged. “We continued running and one of the guys asked me three questions. He asked, ‘Where are you from?’ I said ‘Georgia.’ He asked, ‘Where in Georgia?’ I said ‘Vidalia.’ He then asked what my last name was, and I told him Rice.”
Those three questions told the agent all he needed to know, and he then asked, “Is your father’s name Kaepers Rice?”
Rice said he was dumbfounded that the agent had identified him through three simple questions. He immediately asked the agent how he knew Rice’s father from such scant information. “I’m a Secret Service agent now, but I used to be a revenue agent in Swainsboro. I chased moonshiners all over your father’s property,” the agent replied.
“I couldn’t believe it. I almost fell out,” Rice said. “You truly never know who you’re talking to.”
Rice’s time in New York City continued to be productive in supplying him acquaintances, friends, and even a wife.
“I became aware of the Hamptons, which is an amazing vacation spot on Long Island. It was the place to be during the summer. So, I would rent a house from July until the end of August. I ran an advertisement in this publication called The Village Voice to fill the extra rooms.” The advertisement explained that individuals could purchase half shares of the rental, meaning they could vacation at the house every other weekend, or full shares of the rental, which allowed them to come every weekend.
“The trick was to fill the house with as many beautiful girls as you could,” Rice said with a laugh. “You’d let a few guys in the rental so you weren’t the only guy out there, but you definitely wanted more girls than guys.”
Rice’s wife, Nancy, was one of the “beautiful girls” with whom he filled the house, and their meeting was nothing less than luck.
“One day, I came into the house and screamed ‘Who’s here?’ and she answered. I said ‘Get up, get dressed, we’re going out!’” he emphasized. “I had never seen her before. I had no idea who she was.” The couple married on October 25, 1984. Rice had come home from New York one weekend and informed his family that he planned to enter the luggage business after having developed a design for a simple runner’s bag. For the time being, he would continue to live in New York but partner with his brother in a business based in Vidalia. The siblings took over an apartment behind the house in which they grew up on Church Street as their headquarters. They hired one employee and purchased one sewing machine to get started. “We couldn’t get any smaller,” Rice explained. “It was either go out of business or grow.”
From there, Rice’s career in the luggage business took off. A company out of Vermont picked up Rice’s design and agreed to make the bag. Rice would come home on the weekends and work to develop new designs and sell the product. “If we sold two bags a week, we had a big week,” he explained. Rice continued to channel his work ethic into the developing business, and as always, the luck followed. As the business grew, Rice became aware he would need to move back home full time to operate the company. He put his salesman techniques to the test to convince his new wife to make the change.
“I work in sales, and I am really good at it,” he chuckled. “I have learned the key is to just listen to someone so that you know continued from page
how to pitch things to them. If I talk to someone long enough, they tell me everything I need to know about them.” People love to talk about themselves. “It’s good. It’s not bad to talk about yourself. Talking is great but you can learn a lot more by listening,” he said.
Through the years Rice has watched the textile industry die out because of the transition from American production to Chinese production.
“The United States textile industry has been destroyed by China and others,” Rice lamented. “Remember China’s goal — they’re very public with their intention — is to be the number one industrial power in the world. If we’re not careful, they will be.” He added, “And guess what? When we lose our industrial base, the game is over. We will not have good roads, good schools, etc.”
This is the reason why Rice is so passionate about free enterprise and industry in America. He also firmly believes in crafting a business that is focused on the customers and the employees rather than the administrators. “Our business is all about our people,” he said. “It’s certainly not about me or my brother.” When asked who influenced him most to develop this work ethic, attitude, and outlook on life, Rice explained his parents were the source. His father was a dominant force who made sure that his sons knew how to work hard, while his mother possessed more of a gentle strength that helped Rice to work with the public. “They were both very powerful in very different ways,” he summarized.
A combination of those attributes has allowed Rice to be successful through hard work and by capitalizing on the luck that has come his way. When asked if he ever was content with the rural town lifestyle after spending time in one of the biggest cities in the world, Rice commented, “I’m a happy person. I feel good wherever you put me. There are good and not such good things happening everywhere. You have to find a way to be happy and content with yourself.”