“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” – Jack Kerouac
Having just returned from factory visits to Ethiopia and Ghana, last week I reminisced about my first sourcing trip, traveling from the friendly confines of New York City to the wilds of North Carolina. I also talked about a trip a few years later to Peru. Those trips would not be the end of my adventures. Who knew the custom embroidered and printed logo apparel business would be so exciting?
By the mid-1990’s we had moved to North Carolina, but by then, the US textile industry was clearly shrinking. I was working with factories run and staffed by old people, and there was no question what direction it was all headed – we were vulnerable. If one of our suppliers were to shut down, we would have a very difficult time replacing them.
Custom Logo Shirts and The Jungles of El Salvador?
Without knowing how this would all resolve itself, it was an uneasy time. The business was continuing to grow, and overall, things were going well. With all this swirling around in my head, I got a call one day from a guy in Greensboro, North Carolina. His name was Victor and with his brothers back home in El Salvador, he was setting up a factory to make shirts. He had seen our ads over the years, loved what we were doing, and felt they would be the perfect partner for us.
Victor had grown up in El Salvador but had come to the US for college. At the time, El Salvador was just recovering from a brutal 12-year civil war, which the US feared could lead the country to join Cuba and Nicaragua as a communist nation at our back door. It was a place that made front page news for years for mass killings, terrorist attacks, and missing people – hardly the kind of place you would ever think of going on vacation, much less establishing a business relationship.
But Victor really seemed like a good guy, and this factory did everything – knitting, dying, finishing, cut and sew – all under one roof. They were also happy to take on the two-ply yarn challenge, which was still something many were not willing to do. We decided to take a look.
My trips to Chile and Peru had prepared me somewhat for my trip to El Salvador. The war had been over for a couple of years, but the crime was still a huge problem. We knew not to wander outside of our hotel. In many ways, El Salvador literally was a jungle. Everyone had guns, and people were still very wary. You could also see things were starting to function – traffic lights worked, stores were open, people were going about their business – and that was encouraging. If we stayed with our hosts, there were a couple of restaurants that we could go to at night. We had some good meals and a good time at night but we made sure not to stay out too late.
The owners of the factory spoke perfect English and were wonderful people. There were a few brothers that were involved, and we were all roughly the same age. They told incredible stories about living through the civil war and were very excited about their new venture, which was building on a business their father and his brothers had established before the war. They were cautiously optimistic about the future of their country.
It was all still very scary, though. Could I trust the future of my business to this environment and to them? It is not a simple project to change factories. Much planning and sampling needs to be done, and even then, only time proves reliability. Their samples looked good though and the prices were workable. These people were so nice and their desire to succeed so earnest. We decided to try a couple of orders and see how it went.
When the shirts finally arrived, they looked great. We immediately did our wash testing and were crushed when, unlike the samples, they shrank down two full sizes! Oh well! Back to the drawing board. It was with a heavy heart that we moved on. As we have heard from current news stories about migrants from El Salvador traveling through Mexico toward the US, the troubles in El Salvador are far from over. I am still in touch with Victor – he continues to live in the US, but their factory is no longer operational. Hopefully, better times are ahead for the country and region. Though it looks bleak now, I am optimistic as I see all the progress and positive development that is happening in the world.
Pyramids in Mexico.
After El Salvador, there was a trip to Mexico. At the time, the buzz in the industry was that Mexico was going to become what China ultimately became, the dominant source of production for the US apparel market. A tennis-playing textile engineer friend of mine had been doing some work with a denim company in Mexico City and had some contacts there. We talked about it. He made some calls. We got a few samples and headed down to Mexico City.
There were a couple of highlights of that Mexico trip. The first was one of the best street food breakfasts ever. One morning at 6 AM, we were waiting outside the office where we were supposed to meet for an early morning trip out of town. The sun was just coming up over the city. It was a spectacular morning. Everything looked and felt just perfect as the city was waking up and people were heading to work. Our contact was supposed to meet us at 5:30, but, in the days before cell phones, we had no idea where he was. I was to learn on this trip that this wasn’t unusual in Mexico. My more experienced friend, a very punctual German said, “Don’t worry, he’ll be here eventually!” and he was right. He showed up around 8!
It is said that there is a lot of great street food in the world, but I can’t imagine it gets any better than in Mexico City. We were hungry. We had no idea how long we were going to be there, and there were people selling stuff to eat all around us. We had a feast and some very strong Mexican coffee. To this day, it was one of my most memorable meals ever.
Eventually, our potential supplier did show up and we headed out of Mexico City to Puebla, which at the time was a beautiful, frenetic little city filled with old buildings and bustling streets. On the way, just as the sun was fully establishing itself in the Mexican Morning sky, suddenly we were driving by pyramids! I had no idea there were pyramids in Mexico. Sitting there in the middle of a dusty expanse, a few miles off the side of the highway. Very low key, but impressive.We had a great trip to Mexico, and to this day I have never seen any group of people work as fast in a factory as those folks working in Puebla. We were still a very small potential customer, though, and it was clear that the Mexicans we met were gearing up for big things. With the benefit of NAFTA, the Mexican garment producers, on their own time, did fine. However, they did it without us. Ultimately, the Asians came to dominate the supply of apparel to the US.
Still Looking …
Moving along on our journey, by the late 90’s we were settled in North Carolina and still working with our Southern vendors. By 1997, we had our first web site up and had established the first fully functional e-commerce web site in our industry. A breakthrough on the marketing side of the business led to the next chapter in our sourcing story.
Serving as sort of a bridge from the offline analog world to the online digital world of email and the Internet, a company called Efax was established in the ’90s that allowed a customer to set up a US fax number that could receive faxes into an email inbox. No fax machine was necessary. Efax had different service levels depending upon how much one wanted to pay, but with the free version, as part of the deal, the customer had to agree to receive promotional emails.
It was a popular service, and many signed up. By the early 2000’s we were sending millions of emails to eFax customers and it was a great source of new customers for us.
In addition to the orders, we also started getting emails from manufacturers all over the world offering to make shirts for us. As it turned out, many of them had US-based customers, and by setting up an Efax account, they could get a US fax number so their customers could send them faxes without paying any international phone charges. They received our promotional emails and pitched us for business.
I got emails from factories all over the world, which, in 2002 was still novel and exciting. We were approached by a French guy from Mauritius who had factories in Madagascar, off the coast of Eastern Africa. He was very entrepreneurial and eager to work together. He had moved to the US to try to build his business and came down to North Carolina to see us. I always got a kick out of the fact that this guy was French. It was the last thing I expected considering where the sourcing world was going. His samples and prices looked good, and he had good experience. We did a couple of orders with him.
Things were going well, and I was getting ready to go see his factories in Madagascar, but communications unexpectedly broke down and we had to scramble to replace the production. I was disappointed to miss the opportunity to go to Africa.
White Gold in Kilimanjaro
There would soon be another chance, though. A supplier we had been buying some other products from was working with a factory in Tanzania and was having some good luck with them. I was pretty much sold on trying this factory when I learned that to get there you flew into the Kilimanjaro airport, which was nestled right at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. The factory was owned by an Indian family based in London and they were looking for steady, easy customers, that could grow with them. It seemed like we might be a good fit.
This factory, too, was vertical, in that they did knitting, dying, finishing and cut and sew all under one roof. The cotton, which, like the world-famous Egyptian cotton, came from the Nile Delta just north of the country, was reputed to be some of the best in the world. “White Gold” they called it. It sounded interesting. We got some sample from them and they looked good, so we packed our bags and headed over there.
It took forever to get to Tanzania. I took the German textile engineer that came with me to Mexico on this trip too, and the connections were terrible. It took us over a day and a half to get there. What a sight when we arrived though! We did fly into the Kilimanjaro airport which was an old French designed and constructed building and you could see Mount Kilimanjaro from every window. The factory was in the nearby town of Arusha and the ride to the hotel was fantastic. With the mountain in the background, we saw all kinds of exotic animals and landscapes. Giraffes really do have long necks! Even a 30-hour trip didn’t ruin the experience.
That night we slept under mosquito netting in an open-air hotel catering to safari travelers. The hotel was rustic, charming, clean and had great views. With the fresh air, the long trip, and a great meal, we slept great.
The factory itself was kind of like the airport and hotel. Interesting, somewhat dated, but not without its charm. It was all open air and there was a nice breeze blowing throughout that was very comfortable, at least when we were there.
Even for the times, there was very little technology in the factory. While in most factories at that time, we were starting to see more and more machines replacing people and controlling quality, in this factory the shirts were still cut individually by hand with big scissors. To control shrinkage, the cut pieces were individually washed by hand and then hung out on a clothesline to air dry. It was a very labor-intensive process. There were people everywhere and it seemed that any job that could be done by one person was being done by three.
Indeed, the fabrics that this factory produced were very soft and nice, but there were all kinds of problems with consistency. Communications were also difficult due to time differences and language issues and deliveries were unpredictable. The people were fantastic, though. They just weren’t quite ready to service the world’s biggest market. As interesting, exciting and exotic as the whole experience was, it was clear it wasn’t a long-term solution. Once again…
Back to the drawing board.
Next week I’ll try to finish the story of how we got back to Africa after side trips to Pakistan, China, and India. It’s been an incredible journey, with each step and each year, we’ve gotten a little wiser, and the world has gotten a little smaller. I guess that is one definition of progress!