LRIW Member Spotlight: Sally Boven, CEO of Reflective Apparel Factory

A Big Transition to Reflective Apparel 

sally-boven

Photo: Sally Boven

Sally is the CEO of Reflective Apparel Factory, an Atlanta-based maker of a complete line of hi-vis safety gear.  Her career path to the railroad industry was by no means a straight line. “I’ve been in sales most of my adult life, primarily health care driven, selling what I knew,” she says in an interview. “I did that at a high level for a lot of years while my husband and I had a business on the side making reflective garments.”

Sally served as the main family breadwinner thanks to her senior management posts within CVS/Caremark, Express Scripts and Baxter International, while her husband was doing what she describes as “more innovative things” with the side business. “We’ve had our own business for 26 years and just kept reinventing it all the time,” she says. Once the business was profitable enough, she left the Fortune 500 world to work at Reflective Apparel full-time about 9 years ago.

The business started by doing reflective graphics for the public safety field (police, fire, EMS) and putting their graphics and logos on someone else’s garments. “We were a custom reflective personalization house,” as she puts it. As fluorescent-colored garments took off, the company began making gear for waste haulers, construction workers and some railroads.

“Our first wins in the railroad industry were the Genesee & Wyoming individual locations,” she says. One of the reasons for their early success in the rail industry was the fact that the company had no minimum order size. “Sometimes the railroad needed six jackets, all with different logos,” she notes. The business spread to their other properties and kept rolling forward as G&W expanded its short line holdings to now more than 100.

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Reflective Apparel’s largest single railroad customer is Norfolk Southern, but it also serves UP, BNSF and CN through direct sales or distributors. Its customers among railroad contractors include Railroad Controls, Herzog and RailWorks.

Hi-vis jackets are the company’s top seller. “There aren’t very many companies that make high-visibility jackets, particularly with the ability to add an “X back” and a logo.  Add in the variables of orange and lime with the various railroads, and the inventory requirements are immense,” according to Sally. She says the company’s strength is its winter gear, but cautions the summer months are filled with a large volume of tees, polos and vests.

Sally joined the LRIW at the suggestion of board member Tammy Matthews from RailWorks. She joined just before the nomination process for 2014 board members and she jumped right in as director of the LRIW’s Southeast Chapter. “It’s important to be a joiner, but you have to try to be selective. One of the things we as women don’t always know is when to say no…and we take on too much with kids and work. If you are going to join a group, take a role and make an impact…don’t just sit in the pew watching the church activities.”

Taking her own advice, she is active in many organizations across several industries and serves on safety committees with the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) and American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association (AREMA). In addition to making an impact nationally through organizations like NRC, AREMA and LRIW, some of Sally’s most fulfilling work is close to home where she is involved in angel investing. Her group in Georgia looks for women-owned entrepreneurial companies that are seeking funding and focuses primarily in technology.

“I’m pretty involved in some of those things to make sure twentysomethings and thirtysomethings have a better way to get funding,” she says, noting that only 6 percent of angel investment funds go to women.

Like many industry vendors, Reflective Apparel’s business comes from a variety of sales channels: trade shows, in-person sales calls, strategic relationships that lead to personal referrals, cold calling and search engines like Google.  One advantage Sally’s company has is it can afford to drop a sample of its products in the mail to prospects so they can see first-hand the quality. That prospecting worked with Davey Tree, after she put samples in the mail to their safety director. “We’ve been their sole-source provider for four years and I’ve never met him,” she says.

The company now does a lot of business with Pepsico and that’s an opportunity that essentially came over the transom. “We didn’t chase it. They just Googled hi-vis polos and now we have about 50 locations buying from us,” she says.

The company, which has 42-full-time employees, sells primarily to companies in the U.S. and Canada. There are some interesting international orders. “Once a year, we sell to a company in Hong Kong about $20,000 worth of gear, and everything is size small or medium. In Sweden, we have a company that orders from us once a month and it’s all from our big and tall line of 6X, 7X or 8X clothes,” she says.

Surprisingly, Sally says the company’s status as a woman-owned enterprise has not had an impact on their sales, and urges her industry colleagues to be cautious in the energy that they pour that way. “There are a lot of companies that say they are interested in buying from diverse suppliers. But you need to realize that that’s an absolute nice to have but it has nothing to do with how business works. I’ve never gotten any business based on it.”

Looking back, Sally wishes she had spent less time trying to understand the WBE process. “I never needed a shortcut, but if you aren’t careful, it can be a distraction to try and find a doorway marked WBE.  As a woman-owned business, we’ve been growing 25-33 percent for the last six years without the first dollar attributable to that status.”

“We found it better to just go ahead and pretend to be a boy,” she adds, with a laugh.

by Kathy Keeney, Publisher, RailResource, LRIW Scholarship Chair