Charlie Clifford (Peru) — Creator of TUMI Luggage
Charlie Clifford (Peru 1967-69) started TUMI in 1975, after working as a marketing director for an industrial equipment subsidiary of a large food retailer. It takes its name from a Peruvian icon known to Charlie from his Peace Corps days.
Charlie says, “I was married in the Peace Corps. We had two terrific years in Peru, traveling throughout South America. I grew personally an enormous amount. I came back and worked in industrial marketing for about four years. Then I invested in a small entrepreneurial company and began covering the eastern region for sales for a company that was doing handcrafted products from South America.
He left that after a year or two to found Tumi with a partner as an importer of leather bags from Colombia with a total investment of $10,000. TUMI’s innovative introduction of soft, ultra-functional, black-on-black ballistic nylon travel bags catapulted the company to its current leadership position.
Charlie began by importing hand-crafted leather duffels from South America, but quickly pivoted into more durable and distinctive ballistic nylon bags. Business travelers loved them, and by the 1990’s, Tumi was spreading to Europe and Japan. It is a leading international brand of premium luggage, business cases, and accessories, and has a dedicated following among frequent travelers, including many international executives, famous athletes, and celebrities.
Today, Tumi is owned by Samsonite and its stores are in airports and shopping malls around the world. Meanwhile, Charlie—unfazed by the challenges he’s faced over the years—has launched another premium luggage brand, Roam.
Charlie graduated from Indiana University in 1965 with a BA in English and earned his MBA in marketing from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana U. in 1967. He went to Peru with an experimental Peace Corps program designed for MBAs, working as a consultant with small businesses and assisting government agencies with economic-development projects.
Over nearly 50 years in the luggage business, Charlie has built two premium brands and weathered three existential crises: the recession of 1982, the travel slowdown post- 9/11, and the extreme aftershocks of Covid.
Since his retirement from Tumi in 2004, Charlie has consulted with various companies in the leather goods sector and is a principal at Compass Partners International, a management firm which partners with international brands, who want to develop their business in the U.S. market. He is on the board of directors at Knomo, a London brand, which is known for its everyday work bags and business accessories.
He currently serves on the President’s Circle of ACCION International and the Dean’s Council of the Kelley School of Business.
Charlie is a former member of the board of directors at Aid to Artisans, a non-profit organization that helps artisans around the world to build profitable, sustainable businesses inspired by handmade traditions. He also served on the board of directors for the Travel Goods Association from 1996 to 2003 and was recognized in 2005 for excellence and outstanding contributions to the travel goods industry, the industry’s associations, and the community. In 2009, he was named as the Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year by the Kelley School.
Charlie and Cricket (his wife of 50 years) divide their time between their home on Cape Cod and an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village.
2 CommentsLeave a comment
Love Tumi! I had heard it was founded by an RPCV but didn’t know the story. This is great, thanks!
I’ve known other RPCVs who returned, got their MBA and it was off to the races. Many of them have had notable careers such as Charlies