Waltzing Matilda, a small, Wayne-based leather-repurposing business, has taken another step in its ultimate mission to create product and employment throughout the United States via a network of micro-factories.
Founder Mike Balitsaris has made a deal to buy the assets of a handmade-sandals company in Geneva, N.Y., a hard-pressed town 45 miles east of Rochester in the Finger Lakes region. Waltzing Matilda's line of handbags, sandals, flip-flops, and accessories will be produced in a former American Can Co. plant where, in 2010, a local entrepreneur launched a venture similar to the one that now replaces it, but did not have the capital to sustain it.
"I do feel saved to a large degree by what Mike's been able to do," said John Eades, who dissolved his Vere Sandal Co. USA at the end of 2016, after halting production in September. Eades is now one of two employees Waltzing Matilda has in Geneva.
At its peak, in 2014, Vere Sandal had annual sales of $250,000 and 18 employees. The workforce was down to two, including Eades, when he closed the venture. Balitsaris foresees staffing returning to near 2014 levels and possibly more.
"There's a need for what we're doing in just the sandal piece. I can see this going at a couple hundred thousand pairs a year. The capacity is there to do that," Balitsaris said. "If we can make that happen, that would bring back a dozen jobs easily."
That's in addition to eight employees at Waltzing Matilda's studio in Wayne, another eight in Philadelphia, six to 12 (depending on the time of year) at two factories in Maine, and four in New York City/New Jersey.
Balitsaris said he hopes to open an artisan collaborative workshop/store in Philadelphia "ASAP. All depends on sales." Annual sales are $1.5 million for the company, which reached profitability in 2016 and which Balitsaris elevated from a hobby to a full-time endeavor in 2013, after Apple Inc. ordered 15,000 bags made from leather scraps.
Before that, Balitsaris, 48, made bags while on business trips for Preferred Sands, a fracking-supply company based in Radnor in which he still has a partnership stake. Balitsaris and Preferred's leader, Mike O'Neill, both Villanova University alumni, also spent 18 years as partners in another venture, Preferred Real Estate Investments, where they developed commercial properties through adaptive reuse.
"I'm looking for opportunities where we can create value and create jobs," Balitsaris said Thursday of his focus at Waltzing Matilda, named after a song he would often listen to with his father.
The opportunity in Geneva -- which he estimated will cost at least $350,000 in employee training, equipment, leases, and marketing -- has not required a tremendous amount of capital outlay so far, in part because of the cooperation of local officials there, Balitsaris said.
The City of Geneva, which owns the 250,000-square-foot former American Can facility, is allowing Waltzing Matilda to use its 15,000-square-foot portion without paying rent for 30 days "until we can figure out an equitable rate that would allow us to continue to hire people," Balitsaris said. "They're being creative on how they're going to allow us to stay in the space to ultimately survive."
In addition, the man who bought most of Vere Sandal's equipment and is selling some to Balitsaris "gave me a fair market price, allowing me to not pay for it until next year," he said.
Help is coming, too, from a Philadelphia musician: Garrett Dutton, better known as G. Love, frontman for G. Love & Special Sauce, an alternative blues/hip-hop band. The 44-year-old Center City native is collaborating with Waltzing Matilda on a design for "Love" flip-flops expected on the market by spring.
Dutton first met Balitsaris surfing in Avalon, and the two got to talking about applying some of Dutton's hand-drawn designs to footwear. They agreed on one of his backdrops -- which says love over and over in graffiti-style type. Dutton said he wore a prototype pair "all over Hawaii" on a New Year's acoustic tour.
Calling his band "a small business, family-owned and run," that is producing "a high-quality" artisan craft, Dutton said he saw the same in Waltzing Matilda and considered it "a perfect match."
Another business boost for Waltzing Matilda in Geneva is coming from the company that introduced Eades to Balitsaris -- Faherty Brand, a New York-based clothing company started in 2013 by twin brothers Alex and Mike Faherty. They are expected to order "a couple thousand pairs" this year, Balitsaris said, "enough to at least prime the pump."
For Eades, 45, "it's a little bittersweet from my standpoint because it's the end of the company that I formed." The industrial designer was raised in Geneva and spent 15 years after college working in footwear design for New Balance, Airlock, and Reef before a layoff in 2010 from the latter prompted his return home and the start of Vere Sandal.
"But the opportunity with what Mike's doing and to be part of that and manage the production side of that is really exciting," Eades said. "For this town, it could mean great things."