VCU MBA Grad Launches Wristwatch Brand

Sept. 15, 2020 - Wendy Martin

In January 2020, VCU MBA graduate Jay Carpenter (MBA ’09) and his wife Alexis launched Handley Watches, a Richmond-based wristwatch brand designed for active professionals seeking a sophisticated, but flexible, timepiece. COVID-19 upended the duo’s event-based marketing strategy, but they quickly adapted a successful online business model.  

How did Handley Watches get its start?

When brainstorming potential businesses, I thought about things I used and liked. I’m definitely a “watch guy.” I have a meager collection compared to many, but I like classic and traditional watches.  

I realized there wasn’t a single watch that I could wear while training for triathlons or playing golf that could transition to a board meeting or entertaining clients at night. The metal and leather bands on traditional or classic watches weren’t functional for day-in, day-out use, and I didn’t want to damage a nice watch. Handley Watches fills that niche by combining a classical dial with a comfortable, safe band. 

You see these kinds of hybrids today in a variety of product lines – silicone wedding bands that appeal to people who go to the gym daily or work in a medical setting, or slacks that are flexible and comfortable but designed for professional settings. Nike and Cole Haan are currently collaborating on footwear that “looks like a dress shoe but feels like a sneaker.”  

How did the pandemic impact the launch of your business?

We source our movements from Switzerland and Japan, but our watch cases are assembled in China. I was interacting with our Chinese factories in December and January and felt like I was on the forefront of macroeconomics. They were telling me, “We are locked out of our facilities. This virus is a big deal.” I realized this pandemic was going to have a global impact. 

When COVID-19 came to the U.S., we had to scrap our marketing plans and our entire schedule of events for “point of sale” opportunities – festivals, golf tournaments, CrossFit events and surfing competitions. Thankfully both Alexis and I kept our day jobs. [Jay is director of business development for Fahrenheit Advisors while Alexis is a learning and development specialist for NVR Mortgage.] Despite the health crisis, we were able to secure a terrific brand ambassador and have earned some good media coverage, like a feature story in Richmond BizSense. We have some things up our sleeves to expand distribution, but right now we are direct to consumer via our website. 

Why did you choose Harold Varner III as your brand ambassador?

Harold is a Top 100 PGA player who built a reputation as someone who is a consummate professional but also a humble, down-to-earth guy. He made social media waves for finishing a tournament one day and mowing his parents’ yard the next. We love his values and his disposition. In addition to being our brand ambassador, we recently teamed up with him to produce a signature watch to benefit HV3, the nonprofit he started to give underserved youth greater access and opportunity in sport.   

What aspects of VCU’s MBA program have been most valuable to you? 

The School of Business motto is “Creativity at Work” and, in my experience, the VCU culture definitely encourages people to step out their comfort zones. I never saw myself as a “jewelry guy” or an “ecommerce person,” but what I learned at VCU is part of what gave me the confidence to ultimately venture out on my own. 

Learning the fundamentals of finance and accounting was critical, as well as the real-world examples we studied. Handley Watches is still a two-person business, so I’m wearing a lot of hats – handling everything from finance, supply chain and aesthetics to project management and marketing.  

Why did you decide to pursue an MBA?

I earned my undergraduate degree in psychology from JMU but, a few years later, I still wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do next. Both of my parents are long-time public-school teachers who taught me the value of furthering one’s education. Getting an MBA seemed like a good way to do that while getting up to speed on the business ecosystem. I felt it would enable me to professionally mature to the point where I could get a good job in a field that interested me or know enough to start my own company.

Why did you choose the Evening MBA program at VCU?

VCU was a perfect fit. I had just completed a year abroad in Australia and had a brother in Richmond. I’d always liked Richmond its personality. The Evening MBA program was a good value and the timing worked. 

Have you benefited from VCU’s alumni network?

My day job is with Fahrenheit Advisors, which was founded by VCU alumnus Rich Reinecke. He’s been a great mentor – a successful entrepreneur who sees the world the way I do. And the ‘Ram Network’ is strong, especially in the Richmond business community.