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Luana Rubin receives Kile Award

Market Director Karey Bresenhan (left)
and Luana Rubin shortly after
the award presentation.

At the recent fall Market, founder/president of Luana Rubin was given the Michael Kile Award of Achievement.

The award was created as a tribute to the late Michael Kile, publisher of The Quilt Digest Press, longtime International Quilt Market exhibitor, and member of the Quilt Market Advisory Council.

Every year, Quilts, Inc. presents this prestigious honor to an individual who shares Michael’s enthusiasm and commitment to the art of quilting and whose work has significantly impacted the industry to which he belonged for so many years. 

Rubin—also a fabric designer and illustrator—recently spoke with eInsider about the award and her career.

eInsider: What was going through your head when you found out that you had won the award? Was it really a surprise?
Rubin: [Market Director] Karey Bresenhan announced the award just before the Bernina Fashion Show started on Sunday night. And although someone had slipped and mentioned something like "Congratulations on your award!" earlier that day, I really was not expecting anything like this at all!  

I happened to have my cousin on one side (to see my garment in the show) and a close business friend on the other side, so when Karey started to talk about the award and then describe the winner, at one point my cousin's eyes got really big and my friend started raising his eyebrows dramatically, whispering "Oh my God! Is it you?" Also, my staff was in the front, so it was great to share that moment with family, friends, and coworkers.

I attended my first Bernina Fashion Show in 1999, and have seen all the Michael Kile Awards given since then. So after seeing all the industry luminaries who came before me, I felt very humble and honored to be chosen this year.

eInsider: What was the reaction you received?
Rubin: I got very different reactions from young and old in Houston. The younger quilters said "The What Award?" when they heard about it. The old-timers got very excited, gave me hugs, told me they were so proud of me, and a couple got tears in their eyes. One of those was elinor peace bailey, who spent quite a long time telling me about the man for whom the honor is named—Michael Kile.

She remembered him very well, and told me about what an amazing source of inspiration and creativity he was for the industry. She told me about one Market where he decorated his booth with a border of fresh flowers, and nobody else had ever done that.

Last year's winner Donna Wilder was also the person who nominated me for this award, and she has been a very gracious and generous mentor over the years. This was the first Houston show since her retirement, and although it was sad that she couldn't be there to share the moment, I know that she will enjoy seeing her nomination become an award.

My mom was most excited of all, so it was really fun to call her up and tell her about the award the next day. She has worked in many groups that raise money and provide assistance to those in need over the years, so she was a very big inspiration for our own charity fundraising efforts.

eInsider: As a business owner in a time when there are huge economic challenges nationwide, what do you think the next year will hold for quilt-related businesses in terms of the health of the industry and what can be done to avoid potential pitfalls?
Rubin: I have heard many industry veterans say that this is a "recession-proof industry."  I believe that is true for those who run their business sensibly. Although we see vendors and shops struggling now, there are also plenty of suppliers and retailers who are doing very well. My husband and business partner, Paul, always plans for the future, including the inevitable economic downturn. If you don't have a plan for how to do business when the economy goes south, you are going to be in trouble.

Simple things like having ongoing excellent communication with your suppliers make a huge difference. And instead of blaming our suppliers for the cost of fabric going up, we need to educate ourselves about the complex reasons for the rise in the price of cotton, and then form a creative partnership with our suppliers who generally provide all kinds of free marketing tools and supplies.

Paying one's invoices on time seems like a pretty basic part of doing good business, but I am shocked when I hear how late many shops pay their bills, and what percentage of Market orders are cancelled due to bad credit issues. If your credit line dries up and you have no new product flowing into your shop, you are basically done. Hiring an excellent accountant to look over your books and give you the hard facts about your bottom line is not just an investment—it is an absolute necessity.

When we started our business, I did months of research and wrote a 34-page business plan. I approached it as a businesswoman, not a hobbyist. I never stop researching trends, and I never stop work on the business plan. Having a mentor or peer in a parallel industry (so there is no conflict of interest) is a really good idea, so you can share ideas and perhaps help each other. Networking as opposed to competition is the key—it is so nice to pick up the phone with a problem and get a different point of view for a solution.

eInsider: Brick-and-mortar shops in other businesses often feel threatened by online retailers. Do you think that holds true for the quilting industry and if not, how do the two work together if they are trying to attract the same customers?
Rubin: I feel that used to be true in our industry, but it is less true now. I think the online retailers that brick and mortar shops despise are the ones who are discounting brand new products.  Most quilt shop owners have no idea the incredible amount of time and money put into developing a collection, and the risk that a manufacturer takes every time they put a group into work. As a designer, I can tell you that it is extremely discouraging when a discount retailer gets hold of your new collection. Basically, it kills the sales of your collection, because the new products are instantly devalued.

And anyone who thinks that online retailers have a low overhead....well they are just uninformed. In order to be successful, we have to have well-trained efficient staff to ship orders ASAP, and we have to store the inventory just like a retail store, but we can't rely on "location location location!" so we have to spend money advertising to get customers to come to our sites.

Many quilt shops actually send their customers to us, because if they don't have it, they want to help their customer find the exact right fabric for their special quilt. On the other hand, when I design a new fabric collection, I urge my customers to check it out at their local quilt shop. Nobody can offer everything for every customer, and there is plenty of business out there for those who approach their day-to-day challenges with an upbeat creative and positive point of view.

eInsider: Any other comments?
Rubin: I have worked in many different industries, including fashion design in the garment industry, and fashion retail. But I truly believe that the quilting industry is one of the most wonderful career paths.

When I go to conferences and meet lots of unhappy people in other industries, who complain about their companies and their bosses and customers, I just thank my lucky stars. Quilters really love their quilt shops, and they truly want to support us. Most quilters do their thing for the benefit of others, and their quilts are gifts of love, healing, and generosity. Quilt shop owners and their staff are warm, caring people who love their work, and we get to look at beautiful colors and art-on-fabric every day we come to work. It is a tactile and sensual business, and we get to support people who are following their creative urges.

Every day in the quilt industry is a little slice of Heaven, and I believe that if you exude optimism and creative abundance, that is what you will attract and create in your life and your work.

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