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October 24, 2013

Splash: ODU Grads’ Mermaid Business Venture Going Swimmingly

feature1-lgElaine Luria and Robert Blondin at The Mermaid Factory
By Brendan O'Hallarn

Old Dominion graduates Elaine Luria and Robert Blondin didn't become mermaid entrepreneurs because of fairy tales or magic.

Instead, it happened because they tried to solve a problem.

A few years ago, the two ODU engineering management master's graduates were looking for a small mermaid to give as a gift to friends who were leaving Norfolk to return to England. No luck.

When Blondin's daughter Chloe was visiting last fall from Louisville, Ky., she was charmed by Norfolk's mermaid statues. "They're magical!" Chloe said. This sent the husband-and-wife team on another quest to find one - but again, to no avail. "So we finally figured we'd get a block of clay and make one ourselves," said Luria ('04).

After several failed attempts one weekend, the trio finally fashioned a modified replica of Norfolk's mythical mermaid statues, giving Chloe a keepsake for her return to school. Then Blondin and Luria kept making them.

"After a week, we had made 10 of them, and we thought, 'There's a business opportunity for somebody,'" Blondin ('06) said.

The more they talked about it, the more they realized it should be they who pursued it. They secured a licensing agreement with the city of Norfolk, and their store, The Mermaid Factory, opened on West 21st Street in Ghent Oct. 15.

At The Mermaid Factory, customers can purchase plaster mermaids fashioned after the statues that popped up outside Norfolk buildings in 2000. Customers can either buy a pre-painted mermaid, or paint and costume their own at tables in the store, using acrylic paint, glitter, fabric, shells and other materials. In testing the products, the entrepreneurs found that customers were particularly interested in creating their own mermaids.

"Honestly, I'm not a creative person. I'm an engineer. But there's something about this as a blank canvas," said Blondin.

Arriving in Norfolk through the U.S. Navy the year that the mermaid statues were introduced, Blondin and Luria instantly connected them to their new home as something distinctive and memorable. They found they weren't the only ones. "They're connected to the city. When you see the mermaid, you think of Norfolk," Blondin said. "2015 is the 15th anniversary of mermaids in Norfolk. Our hope is that the mermaid will continue to be the symbol of Norfolk."

Making a business of mermaids was another matter altogether. That's where the ODU education has come in handy for both Luria and Blondin, who continue to serve in the Navy.

"Engineering management has a big business component, because it's managing the business of engineering. The skills we learned at ODU have really helped us," Blondin said. In addition to their advanced degrees from the university, Blondin's son Clay is a current student at ODU, and Chloe is transferring from the University of Louisville.

The final push for Blondin and Luria to open their business came from their neighbor Erika Marsillac, an assistant professor of decision sciences in ODU's College of Business and Public Administration. "She was our guinea pig," Luria said.

They took prototypes of the painted, plaster mermaids next door to show Marsillac, whose expertise in supply chain management took over. "She asked what our business plan was, and wondered whether there would be a market for the mermaids," Luria said. "But then she said, 'Can I order seven of them?'"

A portion of the proceeds from every sale is donated to organizations that benefit arts in the city of Norfolk and youth in the local area. For more information about The Mermaid Factory, visit http://mermaidfactory.com.