Polycarbonate shells. 360-degree spinning, ball-bearing wheels. Telescoping handle. Compression boards. Antimicrobial linings. Water-repellent zippers. TUMI co-founder Charlie Clifford, BA’65, MBA’67, knows how to design an exceptional piece of luggage.
But if we go back to 1975, Clifford wasn’t selling hard-side luggage, he was slinging beautifully handmade leather bags.
“They were rustic leather goods—mostly duffel bags and weekenders. It was not luggage as we know it today,” he says. “We called it naked leather. It was a very natural leather where you could see the barbed wire markings from where the cattle were wandering on the range. In its own way, it was beautiful.”
In the early ’80s, TUMI began making luggage from ballistic nylon—a move that would make the company a true competitor in the mainstream market. This was the same time Clifford approached his partner about a buyout.
“While we had a good working relationship and had become friends, we had different business visions,” he recalls. “I thought the business would do better if one of us were running it.”
His instincts were right. By the early ’90s, TUMI had become the brand of choice for “road warriors,” the people (mostly men) who were traveling extensively for work.
“The road warriors were our most important market,” Clifford says. “Because we were using this rugged ballistic nylon and our hallmark look was black on black, there was more of a natural appeal to men. We also had a best-selling garment bag.”
In an effort to expand TUMI, Clifford gave a private equity firm controlling interest in the company in the fall of 2002. Two years later, after sales had recovered from 9/11 and a subsequent recession, that same investor was ready to sell.
“I said, ‘I think it’s too early. There’s lots of growth ahead.’ I didn’t have the votes,” he says. “I left the company in June of 2004 as we were beginning to meet with potential buyers.”
Clifford may have exited TUMI earlier than he planned, but he has nothing but positive things to say about the brand he built. Getting into the luggage business was, as he put it, “serendipitous.”
Clifford acquired his appreciation for handcrafted goods while living in Peru as a member of the Peace Corps. He and his wife, Martha (Beale) Clifford, MS’66, spent nearly two years in South America after leaving IU. The experience fostered his love for travel and eventually led him to launch TUMI.
“We started TUMI with no reservations, no itinerary,” he said. “I hate to say this, being a proud Kelley School of Business graduate, but there was no business plan per se. It was a belief in the product category, a belief that somehow, I would find a way.”
Clifford eventually found his way to another business venture—Roam. The unique luggage brand, which was founded in 2017, allows shoppers to customize the color of up to eight different components on their luggage.
With so many high-end luggage brands out there, Clifford says the extensive customization is Roam’s “competitive advantage.” That, and offering their customers an unprecedented 100-day trial period on all orders.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence that people will like our products,” he says, adding that the trial period is how the company gains trust as a direct-to-consumer brand.
When Clifford started TUMI, there were dozens of department stores in business—Lazarus, Marshall Field, Bullock’s, and Foley’s.
“Federated Department stores had roughly a dozen divisions of upscale stores. And most of those divisions would have anywhere from 10 to 20 stores, and they would all buy independently,” he says. “Direct-to-consumer represents a big change. It’s not the same as being in a four-wall retail environment where people can compare one brand with another and get feedback from a luggage expert. Now, we compensate for that. Our website is our store, and we put a lot of effort into providing helpful facts and features, so people can make informed buying decisions.”
While TUMI’s iconic design was black on black, Clifford says we’ve entered a new era, where the luggage you wheel around says something about you.
“Luggage is not just a utilitarian product. It reflects your sense of style and is an extension of your personality,” he says. “More people are expressing themselves with accessories.”
Roam’s custom luggage starts at around $550. Not unusual for a premium luggage brand, but Clifford understands the initial sticker shock.
“It’s an investment. This is luggage you can keep for 20-plus years,” he says. “You get a product that was made with more care and [is] subject to higher quality-control standards, and we provide a lifetime guarantee against manufacturer’s defects.”
Looking ahead, Clifford foresees Roam expanding into new product categories and establishing a strategic retail presence in key markets.
“Over the course of my career, we’ve practiced the Japanese business approach called kaizen, which means continuous improvement,” he says. “It means you listen to your customers. It means you listen to your team. You listen to everybody who has ideas. We have a lot of growth in front of us.”