“I believe people should help people,” the founder of Pawtucket’s Ahlers Designs Inc. said.
She has shared the insight gained through 21 years of operating a successful design studio with others in the same business. In return, she has received invaluable advice from those who, she frankly acknowledges, know more about the business world than she does.
“Running a business is different from being a designer,” said the 1985 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. “If Ahlers Designs is successful, it is due to the mentoring we’ve received … and given to others. For the first time, I am putting together an advisory board, because the more I know about business, the more I realize I’ve got a lot to learn.”
Located at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, Ahlers Designs creates a wide array of gifts for men and women, designed and manufactured in Rhode Island, ranging from pill cases to desk sets to key chains to checkbook covers, as well as jewelry boxes for the traveler. Each is adorned with a design Ahlers created in light metal and bold colors.
She has only four employees, but can fill orders in the hundreds or thousands, and about 100 stores nationwide carry her products, she said.
A New York native who grew up in northern New Jersey, Ahlers came to Rhode Island because of RISD, where she transferred as a sophomore. She started making jewelry in high school, tried business college for a while, but “it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she said. RISD was ideal.
“Art school teaches you how to think,” she said. “Design is problem-solving, problem resolution in 3-D.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, specializing in light metals, Ahlers went to work for local manufacturers to gain experience in metal work. She works in other materials, too, but “metal is my passion,” she said. She started her business with little formal business training and no formal financing.
Her company is now one of the few Rhode Island businesses – there were only 10 in 2008, according to the Center for Women & Enterprise – to be certified by The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.
Ahlers is well aware that she has much to be proud of and thankful for, when you consider how long she has been in business and the slim resources she started with. She credits Pawtucket, and Rhode Island, for much of her success and, to repay it, her business is as local as she can make it. The boxes for her gifts are made locally. The metal she uses on the designs that adorn her gifts is local, too, as is the leather-worker who makes her luggage tags and checkbook covers. The artisans who pour the metal, who engrave it, who give it the final finishing polish, all are local. “We try and get everything to be as local as possible,” she said. “We can ship all around the world, while we’re helping local people do what they do well.”
“My company has grown organically,” she said, “but it has taken me 21 years to get where I am today,” she said when asked what advice she might offer someone starting out today in the design industry. “If I had a better business plan and more funding [when I started] I would have grown my company larger and employed more people.” •