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New Timbuk2 CEO Patti Cazzato on her next chapter

Timbuk2 CEO Patti CazzatoTimbuk2 CEO Patti Cazzato
Patti CazzatoCourtesy: Timbuk2

It’s a big year for messenger bag maker Timbuk2. The primarily online retailer is opening seven new brick-and-mortar stores by the end of 2014, expanding awareness of the brand in cities including Toronto and Los Angeles.

Last week, Timbuk2 made another big announcement: veteran retail goods executive Patti Cazzato is stepping in as the 25-year-old company’s third CEO—and the first woman to lead the brand.

You may not recognize Cazzato’s name, but you know the labels on her long resume. In the ‘80s, she worked in sales and merchandising roles at Esprit and Ann Taylor before pirouetting to Sam & Libby, then a humble husband-and-wife-led startup designing bow-toed ballet flats that came to define women’s footwear for the decade. After Sam & Libby went public in 1991, Gap International then-CEO Millard “Mickey” Drexler recruited Cazzato to join his team in 1993.

Cazzato spent more than 11 years at the Gap (GPS), working her way up to senior vice president, helping Gap Inc. expand from 200 to over 650 retail locations and leading a revenue spike from $650 million to $1.7 billion. “I was able to take calculated risks in a large environment and see a huge payoff,” she says. But, she adds, “My job was on an airplane. All I did was travel the entire time.”

Some would say that’s a nice problem to have. But Cazzato is a single mom to two kids, just 18 months apart. “Honestly, I hit a breaking point where I could not have a family and do what I needed to,” she says. She decided, just temporarily, to lean back. “I took a year off to reconnect with my babies.”

Almost a year to the day, in 2005, Levi Strauss & Co. called and asked her to help put their women’s division on the map. Even then, Cazzato says that after spending much of her career in big business, “I was always really fascinated by experience at a startup like Sam & Libby. The entrepreneurial side of me really wanted to explore that for myself, to get my hands on all parts of business.”

Joining Levi’s, she made another bold choice many would never consider. “I said, ‘I’m gonna take this job, but I have this bug about needing to start my own business,” she says. “I felt very comfortable having honest conversations with them, and we’d check in every six months.” Levi’s has long been known for its employee-minded flexible working hours and generous benefits. “I was there a little under two years, and I left for the right reasons,” she says.

That reason was to found Clary Sage Organics, a B corp-certified, 100% organic apparel line hand-sewn in Northern California using pesticide-free fabrics. “It took me a year to decide what I’d leverage my house for,” she said of the company she cobbled together from scratch. She opened the 2,100-square-foot flagship store on San Francisco’s tony Fillmore Street in July 2008. “And I spent a fortune on our e-commerce site,” she says ruefully.

A few months later, the recession hit full force. Cazzato’s credit dried up. Investors pulled out. “For someone who gets paid to be a trend-spotter, I totally failed on recognizing the financial trends,” she says with a chuckle. “I had to get scrappy,” and she did—by self-funding the company and constantly retooling her business plan over the next six years.

Overseeing Timbuk2 is a natural progression to another resilient manufacturer-retailer. “Even when times got tough, Timbuk2 didn’t just close up,” she notes. “Instead, they leaned into making manufacturing a bigger part of the business.”

Timbuk2’s factory, which is attached to its corporate offices in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, pays workers above minimum wage and offers full benefits. Like similar retail brands Everlane and Zady, which focus on transparency and domestic manufacturing, Timbuk2 relies on regional expertise. All of T2’s highly technical, custom bags are made in the U.S., while the rest are mass-produced in partner factories in Indonesia and Vietnam, which T2 audits at least twice a year.

“We need to shift the paradigm that says domestic manufacturing can’t be done. It can be done. There are a lot of success stories,” she explains, pointing to her own companies as the most obvious examples. The naysayers, she says, are big businesses that weren’t built around domestic manufacturing.

At Timbuk2, Cazzato sees a huge opportunity for growth, both personally and professionally. Timbuk2’s seven-city retail expansion will enable customers to see T2 not just as a bike messenger staple but also as a lifestyle brand. “I believe the customer is so brilliant right now,” she says. And she’s certain that savvy consumers passionate about corporate transparency will continue to pay a premium for quality, domestically produced T2 bags.