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 Relationships central in this thriving factory

 

 Lance Luiters is experiencing a problem that not many business owners think about. As his Cape Town based clothing factory, called Season’s Find, grows ever closer to employing 300 workers, he is finding it increasingly difficult to keep track of all his workers’ names.

The fact that he persists in learning every worker’s name tells you something about where he comes from, and about why he is so successful in an industry that saw its numbers dwindle from 88 000 to below 25 000 as cheap imports flooded the market over the past few decades.

As a boy growing up poor in Mitchells Plain, he used to do odd jobs in the clothing factories where his mother worked as a machinist. For him, a clothing worker could never be a mere number on a payroll.
As he rose up in the industry from his first job as a driver for a clothing factory, he soon realised that it was human relationships that made the industry work. It was how you got a team of workers to improve and maintain quality, how you got a product out in time, and how you got a large client to trust you with an order for the first time. 

To begin with, Lance’s grand ambition was to become a warehouse manager, and just to make sure his children do not have to walk to school in the rain as he had to. It was the early nineties, when South Africa had still stunted the dreams of most of its school leavers.

Six months after starting as a driver he was appointed assistant warehouse manager, a year later as warehouse manager, and four years after school as production manager. Lance was getting to know every single aspect of making garments, not only the technical details, but also the human relations that made a factory work. 

A few years later, he found that he was running the whole business in the absence of the owners and, as his confidence grew, so did his conviction that he could do it for himself. The final straw was a rejected request for a raise, and he resigned to start his own business with his wife Georgina. Between the two of them, they had a mere R2800, but they were able to take a second bond on their home to buy a few machines. 

They set up what is known in the industry as a CMT workshop, which stands for cut, make and trim. Such workshops, which became the default production unit of the clothing industry in Cape Town, received orders and fabric from middlemen who stood between them and the large retailers who sold the finished items. It was a brutal game with ultra-thin margins, no room for error and a constant shortage of cash. 

They also produced short runs of clothes as promotional items. Their first order was tracksuits for a local soccer club. 

For five years they struggled and just could not make ends meet. They closed the workshop and Lance went to work as a manager again. They still took orders for a much smaller operation which they set up at home, and Lance resigned nine months later because he could not stand the way his boss spoke to his workers. They threw themselves at starting their business again, and this time they were determined to get closer to the end client by cutting out the middle men. 

At one stage, they took orders from a company who in turn had orders from Woolworths, one of South Africa’s largest clothing retailers, and Lance soon became familiar with the standards and protocols which Woolworths insisted on. Yet he was still one middle man away from the client. 

For months, Lance kept phoning any contact he could in Woolworths, and at last a technician came to scope out his workshop, which was then based in Woodstock. The meeting felt like a real breakthrough, although it took a while to bear fruit. 

About a year later, with the Soccer World Cup looming, Lance and Georgina finally got a call from Woolworths to produce some soccer-themed garments for the giant retailer. Woolworths was suitably impressed by Season’s Find’s quality and speed to start placing orders directly with the company, and the company started growing rapidly as it became part of Woolworth’s enterprise development programme.

Georgina, who suffered from ill health, experienced some of the success before she passed away in 2015.

Today, Season’s Find, with its five production lines and 265 workers, only does Woolworths orders, not out of contractual obligation, but by choice, says Lance, because it enhances trust between him and Woolworths and strengthens their relationship.
Another illustration of how central relationships are to Lance’s approach to business is his choice of financier to buy one of three industrial units that Season’s Find currently occupies in Maitland, Cape Town. 

Although the banks were willing to finance the purchase, Lance preferred to accept the Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS) offer, because he saw value in the relationship that he was able to build with the financier. In contrast, the banks had moved away from relationship-based lending. 
Lance has no doubt that he will make use of BUSINESS/PARTNERS finance and technical assistance in future as he continues to grow his business.

Part of the way forward is through mechanisation. Lance recently purchased a folding machine that does the work of twelve employees, but rather than simply replacing them and letting them go, Lance has invested in his own in-house training unit to reskill the workers as machinists so that everyone can continue to grow.
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