DYNAMIC DUO Founder and creative director Rafaelian and CEO Feroce. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]
Has Rhode Island ever seen a company as ambitious or as hungry to broadcast its name as Alex and Ani?
Before you answer, consider the following facts.
To date, Alex and Ani has entered sponsorships with the Newport Jazz Festival, the Newport Folk Festival, the Rhode Island International Film Festival, Newport’s International Tennis Hall of Fame, WaterFire, ABC6’s coverage of the Bristol 4th of July parade, the Miss Rhode Island USA pageant, the 2013 Rhode Island State Police 5K, the Boston Red Sox, and the cheerleading squads of the Boston Celtics, the New England Patriots — and the Patriots’ AFC East division rivals, the Buffalo Bills.
The company has donated $1 million to both Bryant University’s Chafee Center for International Business, where a conference room was dubbed the Ralph Rafaelian ’55 Conference Room in honor of Alex and Ani founder and creative director Carolyn Rafaelian’s father, and Rhode Island College, which hosted a ribbon cutting for Alex and Ani Hall earlier this month. A week after the RIC ribbon-cutting, the University of Rhode Island announced that their redesigned the 2013-’14 season basketball court, the Alex and Ani Court at the Thomas M. Ryan Center, will prominently display Alex and Ani logos on either side of the floor.
Meanwhile, Alex and Ani owns an in-house “strategic brand marketing, video production. . . media planning. . . graphic design [and] event production” firm called Seven Swords Media, which has produced, among other things, the 30-second Alex and Ani commercial that aired on millions of television screens across the country during the 2013 Super Bowl. The spot was filmed at Belcourt Castle, the Newport mansion Carolyn Rafaelian purchased — with much fanfare in the local press — in November 2012.
Seven Swords has also worked to promote Colour of London, the two-man pop rock group known as “the voice of Alex and Ani.” The Phoenix initially scheduled an interview with Colour of London to learn about the details of the band’s relationship to the company, but Alex and Ani representatives later swapped out the band members for Mark Coleman, Director of Alex and Ani Entertainment, who told us the partnership between the band and the company represents a “new way of introducing entertainers.”
The band, for example, has written a song called “Carolyn,” with a music video starring Carolyn Rafaelian, that has been viewed more than 10,000 times on YouTube. And this past summer, Colour of London embarked on an “acoustic tour” of more than 20 Alex and Ani stores, from Providence to Partridge Creek, Michigan, with stops in Florida, Vermont, and New York City along the way. “It works both ways, if you think about it for a second,” Coleman told us. “As Colour of London continues to grow or continues to bring more fans, they create awareness of Alex and Ani. And Alex and Ani creates awareness of Colour of London.”
In addition to all of this activity, there is also Alex and Ani University, which “offers workshops, Learning Journeys & Courses birthed to awaken, nurture, and inspire human development through self-understanding and systems thinking,” according to their website. For now, AAU courses are only offered to Alex and Ani employees, but some day in the not-so-distant future, after AAU moves into the building Carolyn Rafaelian purchased on Weybosset Street in Providence (Alex and Ani leases it from her), the general public may be able to enroll in courses like “LEAD 210 Triple Peak Retail Leadership™” and “ORG 110 CORE PLUS™ Positivity Training.”
And did we mention that Carolyn Rafaelian also purchased Little Compton’s Sakonnet Vineyard for $8.95 million in 2012? The winery, promptly renamed Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard, has plans to ramp up its output in the upcoming months to meet the demands of partnerships like the one with Boston’s TD Garden, home of the Celtics and Bruins. Track down a copy of the TD Garden’s 2013 in-suite dining menu online and you’ll see that a bottle of Carolyn’s Sakonnet Cabernet Franc sells for $76.
But all of this activity — the sponsorships, the donations, the music, the wine, the “university” — exists in addition to what has been the company’s primary business since its launch in 2004: the sale of recycled-metal, made-in-America bangle bracelets, from which birthstones or charms featuring sports-teams’ insignias or zodiac signs or words like “JESUS” and “HERO” dangle. These bracelets are infused with “the beneficial positive energy that scientists refer to as vital force,” the company says.
There are currently five Alex and Ani boutiques in Rhode Island where these bangles are sold: Newport, East Greenwich, Cranston, and at Wayland Square and Weybosset Street in Providence. Two of these stores are accompanied by Carolyn Rafaelian-owned coffee shops next door called Teas and Javas, which were created as “a comfortable environment for [customers] to continue to enjoy the experience,” CEO Giovanni Feroce told WPRI’s Ted Nesi in 2012. Because an Alex and Ani transaction is a “very special situation where there is a pre- and a post-discussion to the purchase,” Feroce said, Teas and Javas gives customers a place for those conversations to take place.
But even bangles don’t define the company. When the Phoenix visited Alex and Ani world HQ in Cranston on a recent afternoon, Feroce told us that the future of the company will “not be exclusive to jewelry in any way shape or form.” Bangles were simply the company’s “launch category,” he said, similar to the neckties that first launched the fashion juggernaut Ralph Lauren.
His words were reminiscent of something he had told URI’s alumni magazine, QuadAngles, this year. “Alex and Ani is a lifestyle brand,” he said. “Someday you’ll sit on an Alex and Ani chair, and it will feel better. Or you’ll eat off of Alex and Ani plates, and the food will taste better.”
Speaking with us in his office — sitting near a photograph of himself throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park and below two large flat screens affixed to the walls behind him (one silently tuned into Fox News, the other streaming sales information from the Alex and Ani’s 30-plus stores nationwide) — Feroce described what he hopes will one day be a “multi-billion dollar” operation.
“It’s just starting,” he said. “We’re a very, very young company.”
Once upon a time. . .
If 38 Studios is Rhode Island’s economic development nightmare, then Alex and Ani is its economic development fairy tale. And both stories hinge on a chance encounter at a party.
In the case of 38 Studios, it was a fateful 2010 meeting between retired Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling and then-Rhode Island governor Don Carcieri at a fundraiser at Schilling’s Medfield, Massachusetts mansion. The words they exchanged that evening lit a slow-burning fuse on a taxpayer-funded, $75 million fiscal meltdown which left certain aspects of politics and business in Rhode Island in ruins for years — and perhaps decades to come.
Alex and Ani’s runaway success, on the other hand, traces back to when Feroce and Rafaelian ran into each other at a fraternity/sorority reunion at URI in the fall of 2009. (Feroce has a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from URI; Rafaelian studied marketing there for two years in the ’80s; now, both hold honorary Doctor of Business degrees, awarded earlier this year.)
At the time Rafaelian — the daughter of the founder of Cranston’s Cinerama, Inc., a costume jewelry manufacture famous for their rhinestone-encrusted American flag brooches — had started a jewelry company of her own, named for her first two daughters, that boasted more than $2 million in revenue and a workforce of more than 20 employees. Feroce, meanwhile — a combat veteran with more than 20 years of military experience who served a term as a Rhode Island state senator in the early ’90s and also acted as state lottery commissioner — was an executive in a small retail eyewear company. By May 2010, he was Alex and Ani’s CEO.
This is where the fairy tale kicks in. Between April 2010 and today, the modestly successful Alex and Ani launched into a hyperdrive seemingly untethered to laws of physics or business in 21st-century America — let alone the notoriously business unfriendly Ocean State. The company, which opened its first boutique in Newport in 2009, will have more than 40 stores running across the country by 2013’s end, Feroce says.
“Founded in 2004, Alex & Ani is expected to post $75 million in revenue this year, up from $17 million in 2011, a person familiar with the company said,” The Wall Street Journal reported in October 2012. “The company expects revenue to double next year to $150 million, the person said.” Last month, Alex and Ani appeared at #94 on Inc.’s list of the 5000 fastest-growing US companies, alongside more eye-popping numbers: the company added 597 employees over the last three years and grew at a rate of 3569 percent.
So, how did it happen?