Photos: Kris Kathmann
Randy Appel and Karissa Baukol stitch together family and fashion to build two locally-owned businesses.
Neck ties are how Randy Appel made his mark in the apparel world. Family ties, though, make up the fabric of his being.
“I do all of this for the family,” reflects Appel, as he looks around at the rows and rows of ties, shirts and sweaters that will soon be shipped out to destinations all around the world from his 12,000sf distribution center in North Mankato. Appel owns F/X Fusion, an international apparel designer, manufacturer and distributor. Appel has seamlessly turned a passion into a thriving business.
“I started in the men’s apparel business in retail when I was 15 years old,” says Appel. “I walked into the store in the little town in Iowa where I lived, I knew the owner, and told him I wanted a job. He hired me on the spot. I went on to work for him and stayed with that job all the way through high school and college. I worked my way up and eventually started doing a lot of the buying for his store. It was a great learning experience and it meant trips to LA buying shows when it fit in with my college schedule. I went on the road as an apparel rep for many, many years. I learned a lot about the whole sale side of the business by being on the road.”
That road eventually led him to Minnesota where he met his wife, Patty, and her two young daughters. Knowing Mankato was their home, he committed to a commute and took a position as National Sales Manager with a Minneapolis-area company in 1997.
“A few years into that, in 2001, I knew I was ready to do something on my own,” says Appel. “Ready as far as knowing the business, but it was a big decision. I had a good paying job, I had just married Patty, we had two daughters. So I had to make sure it was right.”
“So far it’s worked out,” he smiles. “At the time it was hard to leave something that was very secure but I had great mentors that pushed me and I had the support of Patty and the girls.”
He started F/X Fusion in his basement and he started by focusing on one item: neck ties. His “work crew” at the time; his family.
“I remember I was 12 and in middle school,” recalls Karissa Baukol, “The ties used to come in plastic bags without the tie riders on them to hang them on the hooks, so he would pay us to put tie riders on all these ties…hundreds of them. So we would be watching TV putting the riders on. I was involved in the business at a pretty young age.”
As the business has grown, so has Karissa’s role. As Chief Financial Officer, she now handles all of the back office duties for F/X Fusion. She is fully entrenched in the operation, which quickly outgrew that basement in Mankato.
“By the time I was in college it had really grown,” says Baukol. “So during college I would come help on weekends or at night. Then business got really hot. I remember at one point we rented a semi and we were literally pulling orders out of the back of a semi. That’s when we knew, we just needed the space.”
The company has been housed in a couple of different locations over the years, but Appel says it was really never a question of moving out of Mankato.
“I choose to stay here because of family,” he says. “Most apparel distributors are on the East and West coast. There are some in the Midwest, particularly Minneapolis and St. Louis, but not a lot compared to the coasts where distribution is a bit easier internationally. But we will stay here, this is home.”
And “here” is about to expand. Appel recently purchased the lot next to his current facility on Webster Avenue in lower North Mankato.
“We have plans to expand here,” he says. “We have the land and will do it sometime in the future, we are just looking at timing. Which may have to wait until after our ‘busy’ time!”
The busy time of the year is now. Shipping hits its height in July through September. Then the busy season turns to attending apparel shows, and already he is starting the design process for Fall of 2018.
“We have to work that far ahead to know what to buy from factories, who will need the time to make it, and have samples ready, etc. The whole process takes months from getting the product designed, to sales to the different markets then on to manufacturing and distributing. In total each season is a six-month process.”
Depending on the time of year, F/X Fusion has up to 20 employees, along with a 10-person sales force scattered throughout the country.
“We have a nice-sized company,” says Appel. “It’s not huge, it’s not small. We sell to probably upwards of 2,000 stores in the United States, Canada, Dubai, and England.”
Then about five years ago, with F/X Fusion well on its way, Randy saw a new opportunity.
“I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to get back into the retail business and things just sort of fell into place,” he says. “I was talking to Gary Kratzke and he said he wanted to sell his apparel store, Graif Clothing. So I said, well, I’ll buy it! So we started negotiations and during that time Karissa came to me and said ‘how about if I buy in with you?’ And I said, ‘perfect!’’
The purchase of Graif Clothing, allows Appel to test and hone his own designs.
“It just makes a lot of sense for us to have our product in there locally along with a lot of other products,” he continues. “It’s a good way for us to keep an eye on what’s going on as far as trends and styles and colors. It makes both companies stronger and better.”
Another move that made the iconic Graif Clothing Store stronger, was a change of scenery. It would be a bold move, as the Graif Clothing store had been a part of Mankato’s history on Hickory Street for decades. But soon after Appel and Baukol purchased the store, the Civic Center located across the street announced its expansion plans. They were notified the street in front of the store would be closed for a year and a half, maybe longer.
“That could have been the death of us really,” says Baukol. “It probably would have been over. No one realized we had a back door! So we knew we had to move or it was done.”
So the duo started scouting locations. One thing they had learned in their short time as owners of Graif was that people went to the store for a specific reason, there really wasn’t much foot traffic. Plus, on Hickory Street there wasn’t enough parking. They found a property that fit the bill on North Riverfront Drive.
“Its all about location,” Appel says. “19,000 cars a day drive by us on Riverfront, so when this location became available at the end of Madison Avenue, it was perfect.”
Karissa confirms, the move has been a good one.
“It’s incredible. Business was steadily growing downtown,” she says. “And since we’ve moved it’s been even better. So it’s really been a fantastic move for us as a company.”
Location is one thing, Randy’s business sense helped out too.
“We had a vision. We knew we had to change the direction of the store,” he says. “We were looking for ways to attract a younger client base while keeping our older clientele. I think it’s working. We are now more of a regional destination.”
And both are quick to point out that location and vision mean nothing, if you don’t have the right people by your side.
‘We have great employees,” Appel says. “That’s the whole premise of our companies, customer service. It’s what sets us apart. I mean there are a lot of places to shop, both retail and wholesale companies that stores can buy from, so in the end it’s all service. That’s the thing that is going to set us apart. We like to make it a customer experience for both companies. For example at Graif, we have an on-site tailor. A lot of stores don’t offer that, they just sell you a product and out the door you go! Whereas we want it to fit properly so the customer can look great.”
As the years go by and their family and their business grows, Appel says they just continue to look forward.
“It’s exciting to see how much we’ve grown, but it’s more exciting to see the potential and how far we can take it.”
Partnerships Key to Growth
“While attending a trade show in Las Vegas in the mid 2000s, I met a factory owner from China that I felt I could really work with. So I went over there on a whim,” says Appel. “One day I just got on a plane and flew there. I didn’t really know where I was going or what I was doing,” he laughs.
“It was actually a little scary the first time I went over there. I didn’t really know anyone. I hadn’t talked to the factory owner since the trade show and we had only exchanged a few emails. But it seemed like the thing to do at the time. They met me at the Shanghai airport, then we drove 3½ to 4 hours to get to the factory. It was really quite the experience.”
His whim paid off, as that relationship has been one of his longest standing and has led to other key partnerships.
“I didn’t really go over there with a big agenda or anything,” says Appel. “But he was my first real international contact. He had a neck tie factory. He introduced me to a shirt factory and things just started growing from there. It was a bit of a leap of faith, but I wanted to make it happen.”
Randy Out Of The Office
Married for 20 years now, Randy and his wife Patty embrace the community. Patty recently retired after 32 years of teaching in the Mankato school system. Both love to be on the lake, with of course, their family.
“Truly it seems I’m always thinking business. Its hard not to when you have multiple companies and you are responsible for employees. That makes it hard to check out. But I do enjoy fishing, and hanging out with grandkids.”
Karissa Up Close
Karissa acknowledges she had an urge to start working and making money early on. She graduated from Minnesota State, Mankato with an accounting degree in three years. And without PSEO credits even! After graduation, Karissa worked for Eide Bailly doing taxes and then eventually landed in their bank compliance department. After a couple of years there gaining real world experience she was ready to answer Randy’s call for help.
“I asked her to come on board full time. It’s good because I don’t have to worry when I leave for trade shows or other business trips. I feel good knowing she is here watching all of the back end stuff. She plays a very important role.”
She also plays a big role at home. Karissa is a mother of four and a wife to Chris Baukol with the Mankato Department of Public Safety. Her oldest son Beau is 7, Brooks is 6, Bryanna is 4 and Braxton is 2.
“Work is my break!” jokes Karissa. “It is sometimes easier to come to work than it is to manage the chaos at home. On Sunday my husband and I will look at each other and say ‘is it Monday yet?’”
But Karissa does find time to do things she enjoys.
“I love gardening, that’s my outlet. Otherwise, watch sports!”
Phone: (507) 345-3355
Phone: (507) 345-3000
Address: 900 North Riverfront Drive, Mankato, Minnesota