Webjet + Bambinoz = Finding Success In Tampa

Nestled among the tree-lined streets of Hyde Park live a couple who know firsthand that great companies don't just happen: They start with a really good idea.

Carren Rieger and Mathias Friess -- CEOS at work, husband and wife at home -- head up Bambinoz and Webjet.com, two emerging and very different Tampa-based enterprises.

It is the couple's entrepreneurial spirit, innovation and dedication to their creative industries, their toddler girls and each other that make them success stories wherever they travel.

Meeting, Marrying, Moving

Friess hails from the Black Forest region of Germany and always dreamed of starting his own online travel business. He built an extensive airline background, serving Germany's largest carrier Lufthansa as its North American head of sales and designed a proprietary reservation technology that he hoped to use one day.

Rieger, a Tampa native and graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the Columbia School of Business, was a Wall Street strategy consultant when the two met. Within a year, they were engaged and soon after, married.

Friess turned down a job opportunity to return to Germany that would have isolated his new bride in a country where she didn't speak the language. So when Virgin Blue Group called with an opening in Australia, the decision was easy. They were headed to the land down under with plans to start a family.

Bambinoz Is Born

After moving to Brisbane, Australia, the couple found themselves frequently traveling to visit family, not an easy feat with daughters Carina (4) and Sophia (2), made even tougher with longer international flights. Rieger was inspired, and delivered her next bundle of joy, Bambinoz.

"There were no well-designed, portable high-chair solutions for families traveling. I tried what was out there, but they either wouldn't fit the chairs or were so bulky or heavy you couldn't pack them," Rieger says.

She hatched Bambinoz in Australia in 2007 and launched the PortaChair, a portable, high chair harness with an adjustable strap system adaptable to most chairs and designed for children ages five months to 2 1/2 years. The PortaChair earned a Mom's Best Award as one of the Top 10 Terrific Products of 2010.

"Like any parent, I want the best for my kids. It has to be safe, it has to be stylish and it has to be functional," Rieger says. "You don't want to compromise on those three."

Employing instant heat technology used in sports medicine to create immediate heat without batteries or electricity, Rieger designed her next breakthrough product, the Instant Bottle Warmer Pack with fully insulated bottle carrier. Now moms still breastfeeding could keep stored bottles cool and warm up milk while on the go. With a click of a disc, the reusable gel pad heats within 15 minutes. Creative Child Magazine named it 2010 Toy of the Year in the Bottle Accessories category.

Bambinoz products are carried in nearly 40 stores across the U.S. and in specialty baby retail stores throughout Australia and New Zealand. In the Tampa Bay region, the PortaChair and Instant Bottle Warmers are available at Seedlings, 1530 S. Dale Mabry Hwy. in South Tampa, where both items are popular sellers.

"We started carrying Carren's products last spring. I've had nothing but positive feedback," says Tatiana Faust, general manager at Seedlings.

Rieger says that getting her business off the ground took time, commitment and a serious investment: personal savings to totally fund the venture on her own and full use of her skills and education to take on the design, strategic management and research and analysis functions throughout start-up, something that most companies would have been forced to outsource but because of her experience and background, she was able to do herself.

"I focused the money I did have on the things that really mattered to the product and cut back on all of the administrative and overhead expenses, enabling me to use somewhat limited funding," Rieger says. She notes that some costs, however, were unavoidable, expenses such as patent lawyers, liability insurance and quality materials and fabrics. Still, she was able to launch her business for well under $100K given that she could absorb some of the development costs in-house.

Webjet.com Takes Off

While Rieger oversaw Bambinoz, Friess continued working for Virgin Blue Group as general manager for global sales and distribution. Within a few years, the couple decided they wanted their children to grow to know their extended family and set a goal to return to the U.S. Friess began talking with Webjet Australia, the largest online agency in Australia and Pacific region, which expressed an interest in launching a North American operation of Webjet. Friess shared his technology and interest in returning to America, and a joint venture came together in October 2009.

"They told me 'you pick the destination, you get the brand, you've got the technology, so run with it.' And I think they've been happy with the results," Friess says.

Webjet Australia extended venture funding in the amount of $1 million for the new joint endeavor, with Friess committing a significant amount of capital as well, including his own technology and the equity from a privately held online travel agency he had been operating in the U.S., now rolled up into the new enterprise.

On April 1, 2010, Webjet.com, the North American sister of Webjet Australia formally launched and has been booking at a rate of 40,000+ international tickets per year. The team is small – nine people in Tampa Bay in mostly service-based roles. Jeff Garton, Webjet.com vice president of marketing and business development, worked with Friess since Virgin Blue and credits his longtime colleague with creating a supportive workplace.

"Mathias created a culture that values operational excellence and efficiency while at the same time promotes personality, initiative and a fun work environment," he says. "The shared belief that we're all a part of something that's going to be big creates a very ambitious culture and keeps an inspired and energetic vibe in the air."

Who's CEO At Home?

Though Rieger and her daughters moved to Tampa in Fall 2009, it wasn't until April 2010 that Friess could join them, when he opened Webjet.com's Hyde Park office near the couple's home.

"In New York, my office was 30 miles away. Now, I can walk to work. The quality of life is great. I think we've won the jackpot living in Tampa," Friess says.

Rieger says that moving her business operation to Tampa was a smooth transition with a team left in place for sales and distribution in Australia, and the hiring of Tampa vendors for packaging, printing and distribution.

"I've met so many fantastic people, and getting products into the Port of Tampa has not been a problem at all," she says. "It's easy to do business here."

Wherever independent business ventures may take them, Rieger and Friess still consider their marriage a partnership and their family a priority.

"We both have successful businesses, we both work a lot, but I'm able to come home at six o'clock, and be a father and put my kids to bed," Friess says. "And once they're in bed, I can still do some work remotely from my laptop sitting on my porch, and the same for Carren, and that's just beautiful."

The family may be staying put in Tampa for a while, but both CEOs share plans to expand their company's marketplaces in 2011. Bambinoz will add more U.S. retailers, and soon products will reach a new shore: Japan, followed by Spain.

Rieger will continue to lead product design, but expects to hire five additional people for marketing, quality control and account management.

Webjet.com will be launching sites for Canadian and South American audiences, and Friess anticipates expanding his Tampa team to 20-25 people, primarily experienced travel agents and customer service specialists.

Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer who lives and works in the 'burbs of Tampa with her husband and her assistant, a 12-year-old dachshund-Chihuahua. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

 


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