Mike Balitsaris Quit Corporate Life to Follow His Dreams
The founder of Wayne-based Waltzing Matilda USA chose passion over stability.
Tessa Marie Images.
It’s two days before the Fourth of July. The sun is shining, and the beach in Avalon is packed. A few blocks away, Mike Balitsaris isn’t soaking up the sunshine, but working. That’s if you call hanging out with fellow Philly guy Garrett Dutton—aka G. Love, of G. Love & Special Sauce—work.
The unlikely pair—Dutton a musician, and Balitsaris founder and owner of the Wayne-based leather-goods brand Waltzing Matilda USA—randomly met at this Jersey shore town while surfing. Today, they’re shooting a promotional video for their recent collaboration, a line of leather sandals, the “Love Slipper,” which Balitsaris custom-made for Dutton and will now be available to the public.
Collaborating with people like Dutton, exploring the country while selling his handcrafted leather goods, and taking on the daily challenges of building a brand are all part of the journey Balitsaris embarked on four years ago. He did what so many dream of doing: He walked away from work that wasn’t emotionally fulfilling and went after his passion.
In the 54-second video, the essence of Waltzing Matilda USA is encapsulated in snippets. A shirtless Dutton rolls up on a bike, greets Balitsaris, and happily rides off with a few pairs of his new sandals in hand. Next, Dutton is playing a tune, wearing said sandals, in Balitsaris’ vintage 1958 Airstream. Cut to the beach in Avalon, where Balitsaris and his young daughter are clad in wetsuits and walking to the water for a surfing lesson. Lastly, these words flash: recycled material, domestic hides, made by hand, made here.
In less than a minute, the Waltzing Matilda USA brand is broken down into a digestible clip that Balitsaris hopes consumers will understand, relate to, and forge a connection with, ultimately becoming loyal customers. “Waltzing Matilda is a lifestyle brand that’s completely authentic and stays true to the goals that include keeping things in the U.S. and living and breathing the philosophy, which is to do things very well with good people and make the best products possible without compromising on quality,” he says.
When he’s not shooting a video at the Shore or on the road selling his wares, Balitsaris is typically at his showroom/workspace on West Avenue in Wayne, where a “Made Here” sign is prominently displayed in the window. It’s close enough to his home that he often rides his bike to work.
The space is a delight for the senses. The moment you open the door, the smell of fresh leather hits you. Each handmade piece, from totes and backpacks to wine bags and bifold wallets, calls out to be touched. There’s a section dedicated to the Love Slipper, available for both men and women.
Sandals are where it all began for Balitsaris. He’d make leather sandals for friends when he was a student at Villanova University. Upon graduating, he started to sell the sandals in beach towns up and down the East Coast. He did well, but not well enough, and felt the pressure of getting a “real job.” That led him to developing commercial properties through adaptive reuse—basically taking old buildings and converting them into warehouses and office spaces. He and his commercial real-estate partner turned that into a business mining sand for the oil and gas industry.
In his personal life, Balitsaris married and had four children. In his spare time, he eventually began making sandals and bags again, with no intention of starting a business.
Then fate—or at least the power of social media—stepped in. In 2013, Balitsaris’ wife posted one of his bags on Facebook, proudly showing off her husband’s talent. Turns out, someone at Apple saw the post and really liked it. Apple placed an order with Balitsaris for 15,000 bags. “After that happened, I knew I had to leave corporate life to try and make a go of this company,” he says. “When I made the decision to switch, it was almost like I couldn’t not do it. There was something that was pulling me to go for it.”
After 20 years of working with a partner, Balitsaris went out on his own. Although the journey has had plenty of bumps and detours, there have been signs that he’s doing what he’s meant to do. He’s had national press from Vogue, Esquire and Men’s Health. Last year, the company reached profitability for the first time. “I feel like things are finally in sync,” says Balitsaris. “I love the work today more than when I started four years ago. I feel like the efforts that have been put forth the past three years are starting to come to fruition.”