How One Mil­len­nial With A Lib­eral Arts De­gree Landed A Six-fig­ure Job

ForbesWeekly - - NEWS - BY DEB­O­RAH L. JA­COBS, FORBES STAFF

Stephanie Phair was head of busi­ness devel­op­ment at a startup called DropShop, sell­ing lux­ury goods on the se­condary mar­ket, when a cus­tomer from Green­wich, CT caught her eye. This client, who bought a lot of Chanel and Her­mès hand­bags, was es­pe­cially picky and emailed sug­ges­tions about how DropShop could im­prove their list­ings. Oc­ca­sion­ally a 16-year-old who iden­ti­fied him­self as the client’s son would come by to drop off purses.

In time the teenager re­vealed that it was he—not his mother—who had been com­mu­ni­cat­ing on­line with DropShop’s cus­tomer care team and that he was run­ning a busi­ness trad­ing hand­bags for his mother and her friends. He had “a ne­go­tia­tor’s mind­set and knew his stuff,” says Phair, who is now direc­tor at The Out­net. And he was “be­yond his years in terms of his poise and his pres­ence.”

The client turned out to be Matt Rub­inger, who now heads the lux­ury ac­ces­sories divi­sion of Her­itage Auc­tions—the largest auc­tion­eer of col­lectibles in the world. Her­itage hired Rub­inger straight out of col­lege at a six-fig­ure salary to launch this busi­ness three years ago even though he had never run an auc­tion be­fore. To­day, at 25, he’s in charge of three sales a year that to­gether reaped $9 mil­lion in 2012.

He got there by net­work­ing, de­vel­op­ing an ex­per­tise in a sub­ject that in­ter­ested him and fill­ing a need in the mar­ket. At a time when counterfeit de­signer hand­bags are ram­pant and most man­u­fac­tur­ers won’t au­then­ti­cate items bought on the se­condary mar­ket (see How To Spot A Fake De­signer Hand­bag), Rub­inger thor­oughly ed­u­cated him­self about how to tell the real thing from a fake. By the time he fin­ished col­lege, he was one of the best in the field. And his ex­per­tise set him apart.

Grad­u­at­ing into a mar­ket where jobs are scarce forces mil­len­ni­als to think out-of-the-box, Rub­inger ob­serves. “Baby boomers think we are lazy—that all we do is text each other,” he adds. “But we are a very creative group of peo­ple and we are think­ing of how to change the sta­tus quo.”

For Rub­inger, it started dur­ing high school when he and his brother were buy­ing and sell­ing things on eBay. Their mother, who owns an as­sort­ment of hand­bags, was in­ter­ested in one she saw on­line made out of candy wrap­pers. Rub­inger vol­un­teered to help. In the process he no­ticed that the same bag went for vastly dif­fer­ent prices, de­pend­ing on the web­site. Be­fore he knew it, he was trad­ing hand­bags.

At first he “just thought of them as wid­gets,” he says, but as bit-by-bit he moved up in price, he needed a deeper knowl­edge of the prod­uct. With each ad­di­tional brand that he sold, he would ed­u­cate him­self about the fea­tures, even go­ing so far as to in­ter­view cob­blers who had re­paired purses by par­tic­u­lar man­u­fac­tur­ers. He learned that with an Her­mès bag, for ex­am­ple, the feet are bolted on and high enough that the leather never touches the ground; the zip­per stop­per varies from year to year (one way of dat­ing an item); and the wax on the edges of the bag wears in a par­tic­u­lar way. He soon be­came a con­fi­dent judge of au­then­tic­ity.

His father, Michael Rub­inger, pres­i­dent and CEO of Lo­cal Ini­tia­tives Sup­port Cor­po­ra­tion, a non­profit that funds hous­ing and health clin­ics in in­ner cities and poor ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, knew his son was trad­ing on eBay, but was not ini­tially aware of the scope of his ac­tiv­i­ties. He learned the full ex­tent of it when he read Matt Rub­inger’s col­lege es­say not­ing, among other things, that his son was buy­ing and sell­ing hand­bags in Hong Kong, In­done­sia and Europe. “That was the first time I un­der­stood the depth of his knowl­edge and how se­ri­ously he took it, and how good he was at it,” he says.

Though his par­ents paid for col­lege, Rub­inger kept up the busi­ness while ma­jor­ing in Euro­pean his­tory at Vanderbilt Univer­sity. “I was work­ing be­cause I liked it—I was in­ter­ested in it,” he says. Phair of­fered him a sum­mer in­tern­ship at her com­pany, which by then had changed its name to Portero,

and per­suaded him to come work for them full-time af­ter his ju­nior year, au­then­ti­cat­ing hand­bags.

By that point Rub­inger had al­ready made a name for him­self. Some of the wives of venture cap­i­tal­ists who had in­vested in the com­pany be­came his pri­vate clients. A 2007 Wash­ing­ton Post pro­file of Portero re­ferred to Rub­inger, then 22, as the com­pany’s “sec­ond­hand nose.”

Since both par­ents came from the non­profit world (his mother runs a foun­da­tion that sup­ports the ca­reers of women in science), there wasn’t much they could do to teach him about the lux­ury goods mar­ket. This distin­guished him from oth­ers of his gen­er­a­tion, who rely on fam­ily to help them net­work or fund their en­ter­prises. Rub­inger made his own con­nec­tions. “My job was to see to it that he didn’t get into any dif­fi­culty” —that he kept good records and paid taxes, his father says.

But when Rub­inger an­nounced he was tak­ing time off from col­lege to work, they felt hor­ri­ble about it, es­pe­cially be­cause there was no fi­nan­cial need to do that and since he was a good stu­dent. “My hus­band and I were ready to throw our­selves in the Long Is­land Sound,” says his mother, Karla Shep­ard Rub­inger, who works for Mary Ann Liebert, an aca­demic pub­lish­ing com­pany in New York. Their fear was that he would make so much money and have so much fun that he would never go back to school.

“If these peo­ple want you now, they’ll want you next year too,” they ar­gued, plead­ing with him to fin­ish the last year of col­lege be­fore tak­ing the job. “Your friends are there. These are the best years of your life.”

He would hear noth­ing of it, says his mother, who de­scribes her son as “a lit­tle bit of a Milo Min­derbinder”—a ref­er­ence to the wildly en­tre­pre­neur­ial U.S. Army mess of­fi­cer in Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22. Fi­nally, they reached a com­pro­mise: He could work full-time from June through De­cem­ber, miss­ing one se­mes­ter, but af­ter that he would go back to school. Even af­ter tak­ing a se­mes­ter off, he grad­u­ated with the rest of his class in 2010.

Mean­while, he had kept trad­ing hand­bags. Dur­ing his ju­nior and se­nior year in col­lege he han­dled be­tween five and 10 items at once, with prices rang­ing from $50,000 to $95,000 apiece. In the beat-up house that he shared with five fra­ter­nity broth­ers, there was a stack of Her­mès boxes in the corner of his bed­room. Each time he re­ceived a new list­ing, he would send an email blast to his grow­ing list of high-end clients. His an­nual gross in­come from the busi­ness had reached $500,000, with prof­its of $100,000.

As grad­u­a­tion ap­proached, Rub­inger in­ter­viewed for an en­try-level mar­ket­ing job at Proc­ter & Gam­ble, but it was in Cincin­nati and he wanted to move to New York. His girl­friend’s father got him a cour­tesy in­ter­view with Greg Ro­han, pres­i­dent of Her­itage.

Ro­han had blocked out an hour for what he as­sumed would be an oblig­a­tory lunch—at the Car­lyle Ho­tel. “I quickly dis­cov­ered that he was a walk­ing en­cy­clo­pe­dia with en­tre­pre­neur­ial zeal,” he re­calls. They wound up talk­ing for two hours, met again the fol­low­ing day and spent an­other hour and a half walk­ing around the reser­voir and the great lawn in Cen­tral Park dis­cussing the hand­bag busi­ness.

The next step was to meet his part­ners, who would all be to­gether soon for a rare coin auc­tion in Philadel­phia. Ro­han told them, “I just met the most ex­tra­or­di­nary young man who is just like us when we started the busi­ness.” He wanted to hire Rub­inger and have him launch a rare hand­bags depart­ment.

Though nor­mally a tough au­di­ence, within 15 min­utes of meet­ing Rub­inger the part­ners agreed. Still, given how un­usual it is to hire some­one right out of col­lege and put him in charge of a new busi­ness, they told Ro­han to keep a close eye on him. Ro­han was also to ap­prove any purses for re­sale that cost more than $10,000. (Her­itage sup­plies Bar­neys bou­tiques and has its own stores in New York and Bev­erly Hills.) That lasted six months—un­til the first auc­tion, “when we saw that he re­ally knew what he was do­ing,” Ro­han says.

Dur­ing Rub­inger’s first year at the com­pany, Her­itage sold $4 mil­lion in hand­bags and more than dou­ble that the fol­low­ing year. This year, at a Sept. 23 auc­tion in Bev­erly Hills of fine jew­elry and lux­ury ac­ces­sories, hand­bags brought in $2.89 mil­lion— more than half the to­tal pro­ceeds of the sale, with ev­ery hand­bag sell­ing. That in­cluded 78 Her­mès Birkins, the most costly of which was a 35cm bougainvil­lea poro­sus croc­o­dile Birkin that opened at $40,000; was ex­pected to go for $50,000 to $60,000; and sold for $106,250. For Rub­inger’s tips on what to look for and how to get the best deal see “How To Buy Your First Her­mès Birkin.”

Rub­inger de­clined to give clients’ names. “We have al­ways op­er­ated un­der com­plete con­fi­den­tial­ity,” he wrote in an email. “Peo­ple who buy these bags are pretty para­noid about the pub­lic per­cep­tion of con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion.”

One po­ten­tial fu­ture client is Linda Roberts, founder of The Cos­metic Mar­ket in Nashville, who has been col­lect­ing “all things Her­mès” in­clud­ing hand­bags, for 20 years. Roberts, 67, who bought ev­ery­thing re­tail, con­tacted Rub­inger af­ter see­ing him quoted in a Wall Street Jour­nal ar­ti­cle about hand­bags as a col­lectible. She met him when he re­cently vis­ited Nashville and “es­tab­lished a re­la­tion­ship with Her­itage, be­cause at some point in time I would feel very com­fort­able hav­ing them rep­re­sent me,” she says.

Rub­inger was in Nashville to at­tend a friend’s wed­ding and speak to the class of his for­mer Vanderbilt mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor, Cher­rie Clay Clark. She, too, got in touch with him af­ter the Jour­nal ar­ti­cle ran in April. “My stu­dents need to hear the story of how you

got launched,” she told Rub­inger.

Chris­tian Braun­fisch, a 21-year-old Vanderbilt se­nior who heard Rub­inger speak in Nashville Oct. 15, has al­ready ac­cepted a job of­fer for af­ter grad­u­a­tion, from a New York in­vest­ment bank. He’s pre­pared for what Rub­inger de­scribed in his re­marks as “‘the gray hair syndrome’ —that some­one who doesn’t have gray hair is dis­counted.” One take­away from Rub­inger’s pre­sen­ta­tion is that mil­len­ni­als can over­come that by be­ing pre­pared, pre­sent­ing them­selves well and at the end of the day “never be­ing the first per­son out of the of­fice,” Braun­fisch says. An even more im­por­tant mes­sage: “never close the door on an op­por­tu­nity or rule out any op­tions.”

PHOTO: NEIL RAS­MUS/BFANYC.COM

MATT RUB­INGER, 25, LAUNCHED AND HEADS THE LUX­URY AC­CES­SORIES DIVI­SION OF HER­ITAGE AUC­TIONS. HE GOT THERE BY LEARN­ING TO AU­THEN­TI­CATE DE­SIGNER HAND­BAGS.

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