Finding treasures overseas
When earthquakes toppled buildings on the Indonesian island of Java in June, Inge Maskun felt the tremors half the world away. Maskun operates IM Imports -- a Duluth-based importer of unique Indonesian home furnishings and decor -- and many of he...
When earthquakes toppled buildings on the Indonesian island of Java in June, Inge Maskun felt the tremors half the world away.
Maskun operates IM Imports -- a Duluth-based importer of unique Indonesian home furnishings and decor -- and many of her key pottery suppliers call Java home. Upon hearing news of the earthquakes, she immediately picked up the phone to check on her colleagues' welfare, and her anxiety mounted as calls to eight busy shops all came up empty. She finally reached a supplier by cell phone.
"He said, 'We're OK, but it's just so bad here. Our house and our production ... They're all gone,'" Maskun said.
Still, the supplier left no question about his intentions to rebuild. In the following breath, he inquired about Maskun's next buying trip to the region.
"Ibu [ma'am], when are you coming?" he asked.
Maskun said the Indonesian artisans whose work she sells are resilient. They've had to be.
The past couple years have brought tsunamis, earthquakes, a volcanic eruption and a spate of terrorist bombings to the island nation.
Maskun does business primarily with craftspeople in the southern portion of Indonesia -- mostly Java, Bali and Lombok -- an area that was spared the worst of the 2004 tsunami damage.
Nevertheless, Maskun, who grew up in Indonesia, felt compelled to offer what aid she could to her homeland. In the weeks following the tsunami, she donated 10 percent of her sales to relief efforts and presented a hand-carved wooden bicycle to St. James Catholic Church for a raffle to benefit tsunami survivors. Maskun helped funnel the proceeds into an effort to re-establish a school on the hard-hit island of Nias
Maskun believes her orders of goods, too, will help some individual Indonesian families regain their financial footing.
Duluth might not seem like the most likely place to locate an Indonesian import business, but there's a simple reason why Maskun landed here.
His name is Charlie Stauduhar.
Maskun began corresponding with Stauduhar before he visited Bali with a friend. The two met briefly and continued to write to one another. During the next year, the relationship blossomed, and they arranged other get-togethers -- in Chicago, Germany and finally Duluth, where he popped the question. She said yes, and the two have been married for more than four years.
Stauduhar, a native of Duluth, owns and operates Liberty Liquor in West Duluth.
Maskun worked for a Jakarta advertising firm before moving to Duluth, where she began considering a new career.
During a trip back to Indonesia with Maskun, Stauduhar was struck by the unique furniture and crafts from the region in which they were traveling.
"The products and the craftsmanship were things we just don't see in the Midwest," he said. Stauduhar suggested there might be an import market for such items.
Maskun brought back several pieces to gauge interest, and soon IM Imports was born.
Before opening a story, Maskun and Stauduhar spent about 18 months making trips to Indonesia, searching out artisans.
"We met a lot of people by accident, traveling from one village to another," Maskun said. "Then we'd be talking to one person, and they'd tell us about someone else we should meet. So it just snowballed."
In November 2003, Maskun launched a warehouse store at 500 S. 59th Ave. W. In June 2004, IM Imports opened a retail store at Fitger's Brewery Complex. And last month,
its warehouse relocated to 367 Garfield Ave., in hopes that location would improve traffic.
Working with an Indonesian partner, IM Imports periodically assembles large shipments of goods from its suppliers, who deliver to a single location, where the items are consolidated and loaded into a shipping container. The containers are typically 20 or 40 feet in length and measure 10 feet wide and 8 feet tall.
From Indonesia, the containers travel by ship to Tacoma, Wash., where they are transferred to rail and sent to the Twin Cities. There, the containers are placed on trucks and hauled to Duluth.
The containers clear U.S. Customs in Duluth before they are unloaded.
"It's nice because even though Duluth is a small city, it's still an international port," Maskun said.
DEVELOPING A MARKET
Maskun said that determining where Midwestern and Indonesian tastes intersect has been a bit of a challenge, but her husband has been a useful partner.
"I grew up with some of this stuff, so a lot of it didn't seem out of the ordinary to me, and I didn't know what would appeal to people here," Maskun said. "But Charlie has Western eyes, and he has a good feel for what will sell."
Maskun said she also has drawn on the knowledge of other retailers to whom she sells wholesale.
About 60 percent of IM Imports' sales are to wholesale customers, and 40 percent of its business is direct to the consumer. Last year, she sold $200,000 worth of merchandise.
Dave Ziemer operates Hartford, Wis.-based Curious Worlds with his wife, Gwen, and has been buying items wholesale from IM Imports for about a year.
"The beauty about doing business with Charlie and Inge is that they have an inside track to Indonesia," Ziemer said. "They have a personal connection. They can tell you about the carver or potter who made an item and what it means to them."
Ziemer said having that direct knowledge helps make the items in his store come alive for customers.
By going off the beaten track, IM Imports has been able to locate some quite unusual pieces, said Larry Johnson, another wholesale customer and owner of Nordik Sleigh of Cable, Wis.
"Some of the pottery we get from them is like nothing I'd ever seen before," he said. "It's got its own personality, and the quality is a 10."
Some of the pottery pieces Johnson has bought from IM Imports use banana tree bark, mahogany leaves and egg shells in the finish.
IM Imports' primary wholesale market includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. But Maskun said the company also has customers in New Jersey, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and California.
Maskun admits the items she imports won't appeal to everyone, but she's convinced there's plenty of untapped market potential.
"The items we carry are all handmade," Maskun said. "They're not perfect, because they're not machined. But their imperfections are part of their beauty."
PETER PASSI covers business and development. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5526 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .