From shotgun shell jewelry to high-end leather products, Kelly and Heather Abbott, owners of SouthLife Supply Company in Thomas County, firmly believe that necessity is the mother of invention
Earlier this year, the Georgia Department of Economic Development named SouthLife Supply Company a 2018 Small Business Rock Star. The annual recognition honors the entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and unique approach of Georgia’s small businesses. This year’s Rock Star winners also include AKESOgen in Gwinnett County, Gottwals Books in Peach County, and STRAND Clinical Technologies in Colombia County.
Thomas County is becoming accustomed to the Small Business Rock Star status, in 2017 Sweet Grass Dairy, which is located in downtown Thomasville on Broad Street across from SouthLife Supply, brought home the Small Business Rock Star recognition.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled for SouthLife Supply to be selected,” said Thomasville Tourism Director Bonnie Hayes. “They have worked hard to make a product that people, not just locally enjoy, but one that has become highly desired both in the South and beyond.”
Hayes said having two Georgia Small Business Rock Stars in Thomasville speaks to the community’s creative energy. “SouthLife’s business model and their commitment to their brand is what Thomasville is known for. Having a second business in a row selected to receive this prestigious award means that we are fortunate to have more creative people and companies choose Thomasville to start and expand their business.”
The Starting Point
In 2010, the Abbotts found themselves in professional limbo when they were both laid-off from their jobs in the healthcare field. As they were contemplating their career options, Kelly stayed busy making cord bracelets from parachute material, which he sold locally.
When Heather mentioned she wanted earrings to wear to a family gathering, Kelly offered to make a pair from a bullet casing.
“I wanted something cool and little funky,” Heather recalled. “I admit I was a little skeptical and wasn’t sure how they would turn out.”
With some 40-caliber bullets that his uncle had given him, Kelly crafted a pair of earrings that Heather wore to the family Thanksgiving dinner, where they were an instant hit.
“I admit I was surprised how they came out,” she said. “All they needed was a little bling.”
What started as a simple pair of bullet earrings quickly expanded into a full-blown line of bullet and shotgun style jewelry that was sold across the country under the name Lizzy J’s.
With the decision to use a wholesale model versus an online or retail store, the Abbotts began producing the jewelry in their barn and placing orders with retailers across the country.
“We were one of the first companies making shotgun shell jewelry,” Heather said. “We could mass produce at a good price.”
With more than 5,000 boutiques across the country, along with Bass Pro Shops selling the Lizzy J’s line of jewelry, the Abbotts were doing a million dollars a year in wholesale business and quickly becoming the leader in bullet and shotgun shell style merchandise.
“We hit our stride with the jewelry during what was the revival of handmade items,” Heather said, “and there was also a big market for outdoor and hunting-style merchandise.”
“From the start, we were totally focused on the wholesale side,” she said. “I was practically living in Atlanta for most of the year. We had 50 sales reps pushing our pieces in stores all across the country but mostly in the Southeast. I was also setting up shows in Philadelphia, Denver, and Dallas, plus eight shows a year in Atlanta. It became a physical grind.”
In 2015 with more of a focus on leather products, the Abbotts rebranded the company under the name SouthLife Supply Company and made the decision to open a retail store in Thomasville.
“At first I fought the retail store concept,” Heather said. “Kelly wanted to open a store where he could make leather belts and other products in front of customers.”
The first SouthLife Supply store opened on Madison Street in 2016, followed by a larger store on Broad Street in 2017.
“Our customers, especially the locals, have really molded the line of products we carry now,” Heather said. “We have responded to that feedback. You can come in and buy something as small as a leather bracelet or dog collar or as big as an overnight travel bag. All made right here in Thomasville.”
Failure Is an Option
If you want to find an opposite partnership, look no further than the Abbotts.
“Kelly is definitely the visionary,” Heather said. “I am the person who can execute the ideas, just give me a task, and I will complete it.”
The combination of Kelly’s creative energy and Heather’s business acumen has made a winning business model. However, Heather said the success has come with its fair share of failures.
“We failed miserably after our first show at AmericasMart,” she said. “We tell people don’t do it like we did and make sure you do your research, which we did not. You are going to fail, and we failed often. We lost all our money on the first show, and we came back home with nothing. We had to pawn the title to our car.”
With that severe blow, Heather said looking back you can see how God was in control.
“When we opened our first store on Madison Street, it was the same building where we came two years earlier to pawn our car title,” Heather said with a smile. “You see the circles when you look back. I think anyone who has a small business and is an entrepreneur sees the circles that are being completed along the way. “
The circles continued, as SouthLife Supply is now located in the former Jerger Jewelers, which is the same store that Kelly purchased clasps to make his original parachute bracelets.
“Kelly would come into this very store we are in today and ask for help to make his bracelets,” Heather said. “Then eight years later we are buying the store. You know that there are just certain paths that you are on that you know are right.”
The Abbotts recognize that they have been given a lot of help along the way.
“We haven’t always been able to live our life this way, we feel very blessed,” Heather said. “With the team we have now, everyone is using their God-given talents, and it is a blessing to come to work every day.”
Heather said being part of the Thomasville business community has given SouthLife Supply an advantage.
“It looks simple from the outside,” she said, “but there are a lot of moving parts to make our business successful. For us to take a leap and open a brick and mortar store was a bold move. If we had opened our business any place other than Thomasville, I don’t think we would still be in business, and I say that with the utmost confidence.”