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Winter 2005 Sterling Success

The road from Turkey to the United States was paved with silver for Ali and Seda Kulatti. After playing the State Department’s annual green-card lottery for seven years, Ali finally won in 1998, scoring one of that year’s 50,000 visas allowing immigrants and their families to live and work permanently in the US. And, as it is for so many immigrants, this was a dream come true for the Kulattis.

“We moved here in three months,” Seda says. “We moved directly to Orlando.” Consistent with their nature as risk-takers, they made the decision to move to central Florida based solely on glowing reports from family members. “My brother-in-law and his family were here for a long vacation,” she says. “They traveled all around the United States, and Orlando was their favorite. They said it was a great family place.”

New home, new venture

After earning degrees in graphic design in Turkey, Ali worked in the import-export business while Seda was an art director for an advertising agency. But she enjoyed making sterling-silver and beaded jewelry as a hobby. On one of his many trips to Australia, Ali brought some of her jewelry and marketed it. It sold nicely—nicely enough that it became the foundation for their American enterprise.

Once settled into their Florida home, Seda began making more jewelry, and together they sold it at craft shows. “We saw there was a potential in this kind of business and in this kind of merchandise,” she says. But instead of traveling from craft show to craft show as they had been doing, they searched for a permanent retail location. That search led them to Church Street Market in downtown Orlando, then a thriving mix of restaurants, bars, shops and street vendors—a popular destination for locals and tourists both. And so in 1999, the Kulattis started doing business as Seven Seas Enterprises, and set up their first cart selling sterling silver and costume jewelry. They were successful enough to open a second cart, this one for handbags, not long after. And it was there that the Kulattis met Judy Batson, owner of Cartworks Corporation, who would later help steer their new career.

After a year at Church Street, the Kulattis received an offer to open in Pointe Orlando, a tropical-themed, open-air shopping, entertainment and dining complex with more than 60 specialty retailers. Again, they sold silver jewelry on their first Pointe Orlando cart. Not too long after establishing that location, Church Street Market closed. The Kulattis opened a second Pointe Orlando cart, this one for beaded products.

Batson, the specialty-leasing manager at Pointe Orlando, approached the Kulattis about opening a cart in Boston’s Prudential Center. She told them it was a high-traffic location with lots of tourists. Ali and Seda’s reaction was “Why not?” They traveled to Boston to look into it, liked what they saw, and were approved to open a cart.

“We rented an apartment and went up there for a while… to establish the [cart] location,” says Seda. “It’s a great location [for] our product: it has maybe ten times more traffic than the average mall. I don’t know how many millions of people visit Boston every year, but I know that every one of them comes to the Prudential Center.” They opened the Boston cart in 2002.

Not that they abandoned Orlando: in fact, they expanded there. They opened two carts in Festival Bay, a 1,000,000-sq.-ft. retail and entertainment center in the International Drive tourist district in 2003, and a third cart in Pointe Orlando, for a total of six carts.

imageIn addition to the tried-and-true silver jewelry and beaded items, the Kulattis have successfully integrated gold-by-the-inch and handbags into their product mix. “We always look for new things, and gold was something we chose since we [already] had jewelry. We don’t go too far from our line—we try to stick [with] jewelry and accessories,” says Seda. “Handbags… I like them myself,” she adds. “It was fun to try, and it is doing very well.”

Seda doesn’t have much time to make jewelry anymore, so the Kullatis hired artisans in Turkey to produce custom work. “We get some custom-made sterling silver rings that are our best sellers—they are great,” she says. “We have a lot of customers coming back for those designs.” With prices ranging from $5 to $60, customers can easily afford to add new pieces to keep up with the latest looks.

All the latest

The Kulattis move product quickly. “Once something starts going slow, going out of trend, we do promotions and sales. We sell them out and get something new in,” says Ali. “We find the best and latest fashions, and change our product line very often,” Seda adds. “Whatever comes out new, we get and change our lines.” And that keeps shoppers happy—and keeps them coming back. Tourists are always ready for something new, and local shoppers have an incentive to come back time and again to see what the latest styles are, or score a bargain on a down-trending style before it’s gone for good.

Another way to keep things current is to stay in touch with mall management about scheduled events. This allows them to decorate or design their carts to complement what’s going on in the mall.

Two full-time employees work with the Kulattis; four more are hired seasonally, as needed. To attract good employees, the Kulattis offer hourly pay plus commission. “We don’t ever set limits, like you have to make at least $300 [or] $500,” says Ali. “[But] if they make a lot of [sales], they can double their salary,” says Ali. To ensure that everyone is on the same page, Ali or Seda give employees intensive one-on-one training every day for a full week before turning them loose on customers. “We teach them everything—teach them the product, teach them how to handle the customers,” says Seda. And the employees can get in touch with Ali or Seda at any time with questions or problems. “We [also] make sure all of our employees follow the mall’s guidelines. It is very important for us,” she says.

On the horizon

imageAlways ready to take on more risk, the Kulattis plan to keep their carts but expand their business with two or three boutique stores in the Orlando area, carrying trendy sterling silver jewelry. “I am in the middle of the talks with the management,” says Ali. “That’s our goal for the next five years.”

And as a result of the long-term relationships the Kulattis have built with suppliers and manufacturers in Turkey and elsewhere, another goal emerges. “After [the boutique stores], we are hoping to move into wholesale business, as well,” possibly within the next ten years.

While looking forward, the Kulattis have taken the time to look back and learn from the best and the worst of their decisions and experience. Their best decision: opening the cart in the Prudential Center. “It was a good move,” says Seda. “We learned that sometimes it’s good to try.” Ali adds that it taught them they could do business anywhere in the country, “as long as the location is right.”

Their worst decision: opening a second cart in Boston, this one in a traditional mall. Ali says “it was miserable there.” Seda expands on that: “It was a very nice mall but that year, actually, it wasn’t a very good Christmas. It was the coldest winter in 70 years [and] our product was kind of very summery for that location. It was snowing everywhere, and we were trying to sell summery necklaces and anklets and toe rings,” she says. And because it was a local mall, “we saw the same people every day, every weekend, same crowd. It didn’t work quite well.” They closed that cart and have since been attentive to matching the product to the mall’s demographic. As a cart location, the Prudential Center works for them because so many tourists visit there. “Our product is a nice souvenir, and there is something for everybody to take home,” says Seda.

The Kulattis work tirelessly to stay on top of things and keep a step ahead. Seda says, “We work really hard, almost seven days a week. We support each other. If one of us can’t be there, the other one is definitely there.” And that’s key: “If you are not there, as a small business owner, you cannot succeed. It’s very important that you are physically there.” Among other things, “being there” means being able to stay on top of inventory and display. “We know what we sold yesterday, and we put it back [out] the next day. We have full inventory in our carts—that’s one of the most important things.” Quite a task, considering that 5,000-6,000 sterling silver rings are on each cart at all times.

Ali says, “Following market conditions is very important. There is huge competition, so it’s very, very critical to change your merchandise, [to] very often update the styles and follow what’s happening out there.”

Attention to detail happens even on vacation: they keep their eyes open to everything wherever they go. “We always look around, like with our ‘business glasses’ on. See what’s around, what we can learn new, what we can pick up,” says Seda.

Alchemy

It’s the constellation of their talents—artistry, business smarts, moving fast, working in tandem, and more—that have brought Ali and Seda Kulatti this far. That plus their commitment to the ongoing success of Seven Seas makes their silvery American dream pure gold.


Patricia Sporer

Sporer is a freelance writer in Winter Park, FL.

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