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Q&A: Rodney Richardson, Owner, Rare Design

Back at home and using some true ‘grit’ to make a difference

Rodney Richardson is owner of RARE Design in downtown Hattiesburg. Richardson spent several years working for NIKE in Portland, Ore., after earning a degree in graphic design at the University of Southern Mississippi. He and wife, Christy, thought they would stay in Portland indefinitely, but moved back to Mississippi to be near family and start RARE. Together they have three children. Richardson is passionate about promoting Mississippi “Grit.”

Q — How did you land a job at NIKE in Portland, Ore.?

A — During school I worked with a small design shop here in Hattiesburg. Several of my friends from school had gone off to work for Fossil. Tim Hale, who was creative director there, had a pretty good relationship with John House, a professor at (the University of Southern Mississippi.) Tim had come and talked, and they hired a couple of our guys. One of my buddies said that NIKE had hired away a couple of their designers and said I should check into it. A few days later I got in touch with a head hunter, and that started what was a year-long process of landing the job.

At first she said, “They don’t want to see any of your work. They just want to see your resume.” And I thought NIKE is going to be getting books from top design schools, so I kind of went nuts with the design of (my resume to make it stand out.)

I went out there to work with NIKE in the team sports division and spent most of my team managing the NBA category. We managed their brands. We re-branded some like the current Miami Heat and Laker uniforms. Then I transitioned from the NBA category to the NIKE basketball category, and then I moved back to Hattiesburg in 1999.

Q — You have a number of out-of-state clients like the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Texans and Florida State University. How do you attract and maintain those?

A — With today’s methods of communication, it is possible. Yes, it takes greater effort, but when you’re intentional with that effort to maintain those relationships with people who don’t live in town with you, they can be maintained. If somebody is an hour away or 10 hours away, it doesn’t really matter. You’re going to do most of your communication via web conference, telephone, email, iChat, text. You stay on top of your communication, building your network and mining relationships.

Q — Why did you pick downtown Hattiesburg, and what have been your biggest struggles?

A — We began RARE in ’99. For several years we were just growing, and then we had that economic dip around ‘03. After that year we got back up like we had never stopped. RARE had the most projects we had ever had. Then in ’06, we needed a bigger space. I like the community environment that you get in a downtown area. It’s vital for a creative shop like ours. Somebody told me about the old Bakery Building (a 1920s building of 30,000 square feet). It was in terrible, terrible shape. Everybody I got to come look at it with me thought I was losing my mind just because of the amount of work the building was going to require.

I thought, the way we’re going, we’ll be fine. And so I got the building and got halfway into phase I, and then it was like somebody just pulled the rug out from under us. Within the course of a couple of months, we lost 50 to 60 percent of our business.

Just within this last year have we started to really get some momentum back. As we have persevered with the business, with RARE, we have got great retail tenants up front with the Depot Coffee House & Bistro, Blooms and a new church plant having services out of The Venue (our event space). That is the vision that we had for so long — to help contribute to the fabric of life and community down here.

Q — Explain what you call Mississippi “Grit?”

A — “Grit” is this thing that is starting to take on a life of its own. You can go to reddirtgrit.com (which is in the process of being rebuilt). Grit was born from interactions I have had with a lot of these clients we pitch to all over the country. A lot of these projects, particularly athletic identities — when we worked with the Memphis Grizzlies, when we did the Houston Texans – we have to pitch against agencies from all over the country. When we make the short list, we go and present face to face. And inevitably, we get the question, “Why in the world should we hire someone from Hattiesburg, Mississippi?” So I started having fun with that. I share a little bit about this region that I’m from that gets beyond the stereotypes and the cliches.

One of the things that I’m proudest of when I look at our state and region is the ingenuity and perseverance that is very much part of the fabric and the character of who we are. When you grow up in a region that historically has been the poorest and one of the more beat-down, you’ve got some choices. Either you believe it and you allow that to color who you are, or you persevere and you let that drive you to a place where your creativity and your ingenuity pushes you beyond that.

You look at all these areas – music, food, art, literature – that all have their heart and soul here in Mississippi. I start a lot of those presentations by throwing up a picture of Bo Diddley and ask them if they know who it is. And then I throw up pictures of Britney, and Brandy and Snoop … I say, “All these people are from the area where I grew up.” I launch into this thing about Grit, using the analogy of kids running around on a baseball field with that red dirt. If you ever gotten that red dirt in your white tube socks, no matter how many times your mother washed them, they were stained forever. That’s what this region does to people who group up here. That character and texture and those flavors – they get in your blood, and they don’t come out. The Grit concept is an approach with our branding: it takes Grit to do it the right way.

Q — Do you have any advice for people starting a business in Mississippi?

A — I spoke to a group of young professionals recently. The subject of the talk was taking risks in business. How you interpret risk is subjective. It all depends on what lens you’re filtering through. There’s financial risk. There’s business risk. There’s life risk. There’s moving back from a job with NIKE in Portland — a job which I was growing in — to move back to Hattiesburg and start my own business. There were people looking through a financial/business lens who told me, “You are absolutely out of your mind.” But for us moving back, it was totally a life move. Both my wife and I came from large, close families. We didn’t want our children not to have that experience. To do anything but move back would have been the greatest risk.

You should do all in good conscience you can. Do all the financial projections. But at the end of the day, it is going to be harder than you think. It is going to take longer than you think. It’s going to cost more than you think. That’s just part of life .That’s where that concept of Grit and determination comes. If you don’t have that, and you get dismayed, then you will find yourself floundering.

More on Richardson:

Favorite movies: Action flicks or indie films

Favorite foods: Anything local and Southern

Favorite books: Historical books


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About Amy McCullough

One comment

  1. Linda Albin McMurtrey

    I’ve known and worked with Rodney for years and have always thought he was one of the best things that ever happened to Downtown Hattiesburg. Belief in who and what he is, not to mention where, means all the difference.

    Oh, and did I mention how creative he is? How talented? Then there are the brick and mortar contributions, hard to come by these days. The transformation of the old bakery building is amazing. I’ve lived just around the corner from that building for 30 years and believe me, it’s transformation is making a huge impact on downtown.

    All good, Rodney, all good. Hang in there.

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