How One Millennial With A Liberal Arts Degree Landed A Six-figure Job
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.”
MATT RUBINGER, 25, LAUNCHED AND HEADS THE LUXURY ACCESSORIES DIVISION OF HERITAGE AUCTIONS. HE GOT THERE BY LEARNING TO AUTHENTICATE DESIGNER HANDBAGS.