Linda Lester, owner of The Etc. Shop, takes to the Orient.
It started with a small line of men's belts in 1982.
They weren't anything fancy, but they were classic in design and remain in style today.
"I still carry some of those original designs," said Linda Lester, owner of The Etc. Shop.
The belts came from a California company called Brighton, and while Lester already had been in business for more than a decade, she had no idea that her decision to begin carrying Brighton products in her store would change her life.
A couple of years after she put the men's belts out on the floor, she added the Brighton line of women's belts and wore one when she attended a retail men's show in Las Vegas.
"I was waiting for a taxi and the (Brighton) owner saw me and said, 'Good looking belt,'" Lester said.
Not knowing to whom she was talking , Lester told him how much she liked the product and the name of the company.
That was all it took for Lester to form a deep and enduring relationship with Brighton owners.
On the road
Now, thanks to that chance encounter Lester takes twice-yearly trips to California to talk about product design and see how the leather products are made.
"It's a small business, and the owner knows what's going on and listens to retailers," Lester said. "It's a good classic product. It never goes out of style."
Since its inception, the company has added handbags, sunglasses, wallets, shoes, picture frames, perfume, candleholders and clocks to its line. All have a distinctive look that includes sterling-silver plated hardware in the design. Many designs are ornate and incorporate hearts, fleur-de-lis and flowers in the hardware.
Lester carries it all, and true to her claim that she stands behind the company's products, she can often be seen wearing two or three accessory pieces as she works.
The Etc. Shop was named as one of Brighton's 300 "Heart" stores in the nation. To be a heart store signifies superior customer service and attention to detail.
That attention has earned Lester
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something else, something she never expected.
"I got the invitation on Valentine's Day," she said. "It came in a big box of Godiva chocolates."
It was written in book form, and it wasn't until she reached the end of the "story" that Lester learned the company was inviting her on an expense-paid trip to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
"It's the trip of a lifetime," Lester said. "I had to get a passport. It's my first trip out of the country."
Shop 'til she drops
While in Asia, Lester and 30 other "Heart" store owners will get to see how the hardware that makes each Brighton product distinctive is made.
She will also get six days to shop in Hong Kong.
"I never go shopping," Lester said. "I won't know what to buy."
While Lester was surprised by the invitation, Brighton employees were not.
"She just goes for it all the time," said Sheri Rogers, Brighton marketing director.
While in Asia, Brighton representatives will take pictures of the tour group and post them on a Web site each day so customers can check out their activities.
Lester also will have the opportunity to help make a piece of Brighton hardware by stomping on a mold made by sand-casting, Rogers said.
"It's just an incredible journey," she said.
Rogers said the company is going to such great expense as a way to say "thank you."
"We have about 650 employees and last year we had $109 million in sales," she said. "I've been here 12 years and the first year I was here we did $9 million. Every single day is exciting. The owner believes in helping other people build their businesses, which helps build ours."
-- JL Watson's phone message number is 832-7145. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.