by Ben Swenson
Water soaked the seed of inspiration. Specifically, bottled water. The period that Hamilton Perkins spent earning his MBA was marked by endless commuting, rounds of hors-d’oeuvre-fueled networking and business lunches stacked on end. Perkins became, by his own admission, a bit plumper than he would have liked.
Water was part of his solution – calorie-free hydration that drowned the devil on his shoulder. And it worked. But for all the good that water did, he couldn’t help but note how many plastic bottles were left behind.
Others might have shrugged off that waste, but not Perkins, a go-getter with an eye for opportunity. Instead, he launched a business that was, in part, a solution to the problems with plastic. Six years on, Hamilton Perkins Collection offers consumers true trash-to-treasure products that combine style and sustainability, practicality and profit.
Now with a store in MacArthur Center, a presence in scores of national retail outlets and a booming online business, Perkins says it’s clear he’s feeding an appetite for what he calls “bags with a purpose.”
Part of the product line’s appeal is the man who stands behind it. He is genial and sharp, and his background is authentically homespun, a refreshing blend of gumption, curiosity and a genuine desire to do things responsibly. It’s a portrait that began during Perkins’ upbringing in Norfolk.
His family inspired in him an appreciation for art, design and fashion. He says his grandmother, now a centenarian, was always put together well – smart hats and jewelry accompanying a stylish wardrobe. Her attention to detail exhibited poise, self-respect and confidence that made an impression.
Business beckoned him as a schoolboy, and he obliged, selling candy and posters. At Catholic High School in Virginia Beach (formerly Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School), Perkins played basketball and began to appreciate sneakers and other trendy gear he realized had value on the resale market. Classmates joked he might be the next Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren.
Perkins’ official experience grew as an associate in local retailers as he earned a business degree from Old Dominion University. After college he segued into a career in finance with Bank of America. By the time he pursued the full-throttled coursework of an MBA at William & Mary, he had a couple decades of understanding about consumer preferences, retail and the wider world of finance.
So, when he began leaving all those water bottles in his wake, Perkins’ curiosity got the best of him. He discovered that we’ve made more plastic things in the past ten years than in all of the 20th century, and that Americans throw away 35 billion plastic bottles every year. Half the plastic we make is for single-use purposes and it’s ubiquitous – in bottles, yes, but elsewhere, too, including signs that businesses use to catch our attention. Perkins looked everywhere and discovered that creative solutions to the waste were sparse.
In 2014, the year he earned an MBA, Perkins started Hamilton Perkins Collection, a company that crafts bags from a durable fabric made of recycled bottles, lined with swatches of vinyl signs and billboards. The concept was simple: functional, high-quality and stylish on one hand, pitching in for the greater good on the other. He surveyed more than 1,000 people before making the first design, which he titled Earth Bag Premium. Success came quickly. Perkins launched a $10,000 Kickstarter campaign, which met its goal in under a week.
He won a statewide business pitch competition called Virginia Velocity Tour in 2016, winning a $25,000 prize, and the following year snagged a nearly $100,000 HUD Community Development Block Grant from the Norfolk Economic Development Authority. He also went to a trunk show at Bloomingdale’s in New York City.
HPC is a Certified B Corporation, a designation that for-profit businesses can earn signaling that they consider social and environmental impacts in the course of their business. The firm sources the recycled bottle fabric from the developing world and the vinyl lining from domestic businesses. He has manufacturing facilities in Los Angeles, New York, China and Norfolk.
The bags are unlike others available and so, too, is the business model that turns the gears. Perkins’ business relationships exist in two spheres – what he calls a “dual-sided marketplace.”
On one side are the consumers who purchase his bags. Priscilla Roady, a Virginia Beach resident and retired managing real estate broker, is all-in for HPC. What appeals to her is the total package. The bags, she says, are eye-catching, well thought-out and durable. “You’re not going to kill that fabric,” she says. Every male in Roady’s family got an HPC multipurpose travel bag as a gift. She has also purchased other styles, such as the backpack and crossbody bag.
The other half of Perkins’ business comes from large brands and public entities committed to limiting waste. Zappos, a footwear company, sent old signs to HPC, which made bags for the retailer to resell and give to company executives. The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia sent signs to the company, which in turn created bags the museum could sell in its gift shop. About half of Perkins’ business is corporate clientele.
Newport News-based industrial supplier Ferguson, a company with about 150 showrooms, goes through a lot of vinyl signs for promotions. Kelsey Bergan, Ferguson’s director of sustainability, says the some of those have begun to make their way to HPC. Bergan says it’s a mutually beneficial relationship that’s just beginning to blossom. “We want to make sure we’ re good corporate citizen and he’s done a good job of making waste beautiful,” she says.
Perkins remains committed to growing the company by buttressing the business fundamentals that have carried him this far. He continues to expand styles and is looking at expanding into women’s fashion. He wants to find new corporate partnerships “where we can both shine.”
Collaboration, a melding of minds, is central to his way of operating. For two years he has hosted a podcast to pick the brains of entrepreneurs, experts and innovators. These are conversations, he says, that would have taken place anyway over a coffee or beer, but are now preserved for eternity online.
And that’s a legacy that he’s proud to build. Ultimately his message is that business and benevolence can work well together. Perhaps his neighbors will find that when listening to the podcast. Perhaps they’ll see it when they browse the collection of bags. His goal, he says, is that some portion of them “will be inspired to live sustainably.”