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Impahla Clothing | Business growth | 10 year anniversary
January 2015

Impahla Clothing:you have to learn to walk

before you can run

2014 was a remarkable year for Impahla Clothing. They celebrated a decade in business and made a transition from manufacturing to also become the sub-Saharan Africa distributor of an international brand, and sponsor of one of our most popular teams. But they know that in order to grow a business, it first needs a solid base, reports CARIN HARDISTY

Despite starting their manufacturing business when many were closing their doors, Impahla (clothing in Xhosa) celebrated their 10th operating year last year. They started the business in April 2004 with 40 employees, when they took over a T-shirt factory in Lansdowne. Today they employ 452 people, 22 of whom have been with the company since day one.

“When we bought the business, the South African clothing industry was at a very low point, with people losing their jobs in droves,” says William Hughes, Impahla Clothing MD. “We realised very quickly that we had to find a niche for ourselves and do something different to everybody else.”

They decided to aim higher and approach brands to manufacture for them. Within the first year they were manufacturing for Puma, adidas, New Balance, Levi’s and Cape Union Mart. More recently, they were approached by Asics to manufacture Springbok apparel and they have been manufacturing Sharks’ replica for BLK since February 2014.

Impahla Clothing offers brands a quality product, made to the highest manufacturing standards, says Hughes — and not only in terms of manufacturing, but also social and environmental compliances. “We adopted a strategy of sustainability.”

In 2014, they celebrated their sixth year as a carbon neutral business.

Because of his farming background in Zimbabwe, where he worked closely with the labourers and their families who lived on the farm, Hughes has a lot of experience of managing many people. “You have to know how to treat people. You have to treat them with respect, which is fundamental to our management style.

“Our people are very crucial to us. Without them we are nothing, so we have to make sure we’re all one team with one goal. We’re labour intensive, so you have to make sure your people are on your team.”

He is also a strong believer in transparency, with all aspects of the business open for scrutiny.

Growing business

In the beginning, Impahla focused on manufacturing clothing, but in 2012 the opportunity to expand arose. Millennium Socks was liquidated and Impahla bought the assets and started manufacturing socks as well. “We’re not making a profit yet, but we’re growing the business slowly,” says Hughes.

Their fabric side is also an expansion of their business. Tomotex merged with Impahla in 2012 to become their fabric division where they mainly produce cotton based fabric, but also make polyester fabrics that are used in their replica manufacturing.

Impahla recently also branched out into footwear, focusing on basics such as sandals for BLK and Sharks supporters. They even have a range of footwear for babies.

They now have three manufacturing locations in the Western Cape: Maitland (head office, clothing and branding), Epping (textiles) and Elsies River (socks, apparel and branding).

From manufacturing to distributing

In October 2014 Impahla Clothing became the new BLK licensee for sub-Saharan Africa. “Manufacturing is very different to distribution and we considered this move very carefully,” says Hughes. “We saw this as a good opportunity to grow and improve our business. We really want to build a solid foundation and then grow the business from there: not try and run before we can walk and then end up in a heap.”

BLK, known worldwide for its rugby products, also offers clothing and accessories for a variety of other sports, such as netball, cricket, hockey and soccer. In fact, the Sharks Academy’s soccer division uses BLK’s soccer clothing.

“Soccer is something we’re very good at, at Impahla Clothing. We already manufacture a lot of soccer kit for Puma,” Hughes points out. But BLK won’t be competition for Puma, currently one of their main customers, he assures. BLK is much smaller than Puma and the brands operate on different levels. “Puma is a very well-established brand in Africa,” says Hughes. “With BLK, we’re starting from grass roots.”

In Australia, where BLK’s owning company WRS (World Rugby Specialists) Group is situated, team wear is about 70% of the brand’s business.

Over the past year or so, Impahla Clothing has manufactured kit for teams playing at school to national level; participating in local, Currie Cup, Super Rugby, Premier Soccer League of South Africa, 2013 CAN African Cup of Nations and 2014 FIFA World Cup competitions.

“Rugby is also taking off in the rest of Africa,” says Hughes. They’ve already received rugby enquiries from countries such as Zimbabwe, Namibia and Kenya.

BLK has been the Sharks’ kit sponsor since the beginning of 2014, which is a wonderful partnership for the international brand trying to find its feet in the highly competitive South African market.

“The Sharks is a fantastic brand and popular, and it’s an opportunity for us to leverage the BLK brand and make it well known in Southern Africa,” says Hughes. “From our side, we must now make sure that we deliver so that people can be exposed to the quality and in turn expose it to others.”

Most of the Sharks replica will be made by Impahla Clothing in South Africa and a very small percentage will be imported. Imported goods will be items such as BLK’s accessories and technical items.

Made in South Africa

“The Sharks should also leverage the fact that their kit is manufactured in South Africa. It’s very important for consumers to know the product is being made locally,” reminds Hughes.

Local manufacturers offer several benefits such as shorter lead times for replenishment of stock and contributing to the economy through job creation. Compared to when they first started, there have definitely been marked improvements in the local manufacturing market, says Hughes.

He lists certain improvements such as government starting to take a more active approach in the clothing industry through the Department of Trade and Industry and the IDC, the weakened Rand meant that eyes turned to within our borders for manufacturing options, and there has been a big push to stop illegal and unregistered importers that try to avoid paying duties on apparel. Manufacturing could again become a big industry and a big employer in South Africa, Hughes points out.

“We’ve found that several of the larger retailers have started looking at local manufacturing options, and we do business with a few already — even sports lifestyle chains.”

At times it can be difficult to get hold of the necessary raw materials — especially in the textile industry. On the very technical side they have to import, but these days there is an ever increasing number of local companies to use.

When importing, it’s very important for them not to opt for cheaper material that might not be suitable for human wear, for example material that might contain hazardous chemicals or buttons that have too high a lead content, because they are very concerned about manufacturing sustainably and being environmentally responsible.

Sustainability

When Puma commissioned an international report on sustainability a few years ago, ‘Transparency in the Supply Chain’, Impahla Clothing was one of the South African companies that was invited to take part in the project. Of the South African companies involved, they are the only one to have made sustainability a permanent part of their business and since 2008 they became the first African manufacturer to receive “World Cat Strategic Supplier” status from Puma.

“Sustainability has always fitted in with our thinking. We don’t do this to please somebody else — we do it because it’s the right thing to do. A lot of the things Puma asked actually made sense for us,” says Hughes. “We’re not going to do things for window dressing — it has to add value to the business, which it does.”

The Cape Town manufacturer and the South African Puma subsidiary have a long history of working very closely together. When they heard that Ronald Rink was retiring as MD of Puma SA at the end of 2013, Hughes approached Rink and asked him to join the Impahla Clothing board as chairman. “He offers us invaluable guidance,” says Hughes.

Impahla Clothing is also a member of the 110% Green project, a Western Cape Government initiative that was launched by premier Helen Zille on World Environmental Day in 2012. The project is a “call to people to commit to the Green Economy, to act on their commitment and to make an impact. Together our actions will lead to greater change,” states the Western Cape Government’s website.

Zille was also at Impahla Clothing’s Maitland premises to open their new solar panels in 2012. The 131 solar panels can generate approximately 50 MWh per year, which is roughly 5% of their annual electricity usage across their entire business.

The Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) also awarded Impahla first place in the Job Creation category and first place for Sustainability at the 2013 Business Partner Awards.

Expanding horizons

In the past, Impahla Clothing has exported throughout the world, and this is something they will be looking at again now that they are licensees for the BLK brand — especially into sub-Saharan Africa.

“We also have opportunities to export into Europe and the US, because of the preferential trade agreements,” Hughes adds.

Because they manufacture 100% locally-made products from African cotton, and can therefore export to those markets duty-free because they comply with the trade agreements’ regulations, other distributors of BLK are now considering working with Impahla Clothing to manufacture their products in South Africa and export to their respective countries.

Outside of Africa, BLK is also currently distributed in Australia, France, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, United Arab Emirates, the UK and the US. “We’re also getting a lot of enquiries on the Design Your Own portal on our website,” says Hughes. Through this area, you can design your team kit with easy-to-follow instructions. The process takes about six weeks from accepting the quote to receiving the kit.

The Hughes family, all involved in the business, have indeed come a long way from the Zimbabwean farm they were evicted from ten years ago by threatening land invaders. They will be entering their second decade in business with much more optimism and confidence that the many possibilities they created will be successful.


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