“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” – Dr. Seuss – Oh, The Places You’ll Go!
Since I got back, many have asked: “How was your trip to Africa?”
The first week in March I took a trip to visit a couple of factories that make shirts for us in Ethiopia and Ghana.
Yes, I flew Ethiopian Airlines. I was in-and-out of the Addis Ababa airport twice in the week before the accident. It was a fantastic trip – my first to that part of Africa. There was absolutely nothing about the area, airline or airport, that would have indicated any suspicion of trouble on the horizon. Yet when I woke up the morning after my return, the crash was the lead story on the news.
The trip to Africa was the latest in a 35-year history of factory visits. I’ll go into more detail about the Africa trip in next week’s post. But first, some context …
The first sourcing trip…
My first sourcing trip was in the early 80’s, and the destination was North Carolina. I was a freshly minted Business School graduate and, in my idealistic determination to make custom embroidered polos as good as the original Lacoste Alligator shirt, I learned that the key to the softness and durability of that great shirt was a special yarn made from two thinner strands of yarn running side by side in the fabric, compared to a single, thicker yarn. Fabric made from this yarn was expensive and difficult to make. I couldn’t find anyone who would make it for me.
Back in the day, if you had a problem, you got on the phone and started making calls. If all else failed, you went to the library. Well, one phone call led to the next, and pretty soon I had been convinced that it is really no big deal at all to buy raw yarn, send it to a fabric knitter, buy some more yarn and send it to a collar knitter, send all that unprocessed fabric to a dyer/finisher, and then send it all to a cut and sew factory for final assembly. I guess the process appealed to my sense of adventure. In hindsight, the only somewhat simple thing about it was that all these factories were within a couple of hundred miles of each other and mostly in North Carolina. Yes, I was intimidated, but it appeared to be the only path to making the shirt that I was committed to selling. I didn’t have any money, so I didn’t have anything to lose. To this day, I don’t know why these factories trusted that I would ever pay them.
In the beginning, I was working out of my apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City and got my mail and deliveries at my “official” address, an antiques/junk store on Amsterdam Avenue. Norman, the owner of the store, had an antique post office window for sale which no one in Manhattan wanted to buy, leading him to become a pioneer in the private mailbox service business.
I was renting warehouse space in the Bronx and my embroiderer was in the Astoria section of Queens. It took a while to make the circuit, but it could all be done on the subway. I eventually did get a car but as anyone who has ever had a car in New York City knows all too well this created a whole new set of complications, mostly around where and how to park.
Managing contractors several hundred miles away doing work I knew nothing about and having to get on a plane to visit them, took me into an entirely different realm of operational and logistical complexity. I am sure I had been on a plane before my first trip to North Carolina, but I hadn’t been on many, and probably never on my own. That’s just kind of the way it was back then. Normal people didn’t fly all that much. On my first trip to North Carolina it really felt like I was going to an exotic locale.
I was expecting the Southern accents. In New York, everyone had an accent, so not really being able to understand anything someone was saying was nothing new. You generally just kept nodding your head, hoping to pick up a word or two and get the gist of what someone was talking about. That was basically what I did on my first trip to North Carolina. I was also prepared for a segregated environment and was a nervous about what that would be like. What I saw surprised me for I found that in fact in many ways North Carolina felt less segregated than New York. In North Carolina, while far from being ideal, it felt like Blacks and Whites actually dealt with each other, and more or less lived and worked side by side. In Connecticut where I grew up, and in New York, you could go for days without seeing or interacting in more than the most superficial way with more than one or two people of color.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how hot it was in North Carolina in August! I had grown up around my Father’s handbag factory in Norwalk, CT, so I had been around manufacturing before, but the factories in North Carolina were ovens, and much bigger than anything I had ever seen up North. The factories were also noisy, dirty, chaotic, and no one seemed to be in much of a hurry. There were no computers, so everything was manually tracked. Sheets of paper were everywhere. They were making my stuff, though, and the final product was surprisingly nice. I didn’t feel like I belonged there, but it was very exciting to see how it all came together. Probably the last thing that would have occurred to me on that first sourcing trip though, was that in just a few years, I myself would be living and working in North Carolina.
My second sourcing trip…
My second sourcing trip was unexpected and unplanned. It took a while, but we slowly started to get comfortable with our North Carolina partners. Everyone was getting used to working together when suddenly, in the late 80’s, for reasons that I could never understand, there was a severe yarn shortage and it became very difficult to buy yarn. I was at a loss as to how to deal with this when one day, through a series of very freakish coincidences, I was on a plane flying to Chile to visit a friend from business school when I ran into a guy I had just met the prior week at a party. He was my age, and American, and was going back to Peru where he had a factory making cotton sweaters. We had talked about the yarn shortage in the US when we met the prior week, and he had talked up the high quality of the Peruvian cotton. When I saw him on that big plane, literally sitting in the row directly in front of me, I didn’t feel like I could challenge fate when he suggested that I come up to Peru while I was down at the tip of South America and he could take me to visit some factories.
My first trip South opened my eyes to some harsh realities but landing at the airport in Chile and being met by teams of soldiers with very visible shiny black machine guns got my attention in a whole new way. At that time, the infamous Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was clinging to power and obviously wasn’t taking any chances. I had never seen a soldier before, much less a machine gun. It was scary.
A few days later I flew up to Peru. Compared to Peru, Chile was like the French Riviera. I’ll never forget walking out of the Peruvian airport for the first time and seeing about three dozen flag poles, but only the Peruvian and Cuban flags flying. At the time, the Socialist government of Alan Garcia had no diplomatic relationships with any other countries in the world. Not even Russia!
There were plenty of soldiers and machine guns at the Peruvian airport, but after a few days in Chile, I was getting used to that. The trip into Lima from the airport however, was another jaw dropping eye opener. For miles on end people were living in barely standing shacks built three or four deep into the side of the road. This was poverty like I never knew existed. And it went on seemingly forever.
Seeing all of this just outside the airport, I didn’t know what to expect from our hotel. And once again, I was surprised when we turned a corner and all of a sudden were in the midst of what by contrast was a gleaming city. It was a guilty relief to arrive at our clean modern hotel. Despite all its challenges, Peru is an amazing place in many ways. There were some beautiful old buildings, landscapes with an incredible variety of vegetation and flowers, and very fresh and creatively well-prepared fresh fish, meat, fruits and vegetables. In that context, it made sense that Peruvian cotton would be world famous for its quality, softness and strength. Of course, getting pulled over and led down a deserted passageway by a police officer (with a gun) soliciting a $20 bribe was dramatic, but I have stronger memories of the delicious Peruvian ceviche and pisco sours, the margarita-like national drink that went down like freshly squeezed lemonade but packed an impressive punch.
The most enduring memory of the Peru trip however, were the actual factory visits. I understand things are very different now, as I believe they are throughout much of the world. The late 80’s in Peru, however, were apparently a tough time for the capitalists. In all the Peru factory visits we made, the buildings were walled off from the street with solid steel barriers. You would approach the factory slowly and the armed guards posted on the roofs of the factory would raise their guns and yell at you to stop. Someone would come out of a gate, which would close behind him and approach the car and collect business cards. There was a little pass through slit in the door that the cards would be submitted through, and after a few minutes, the gate would open to reveal a few more armed guards with their guns pointed directly at you. And then we would be waved forward to slowly enter.
I had some good meetings in Lima and met some very nice people but could never really get comfortable. The prices were also high, the logistics were going to be complicated, and being so far away, it was all going to take a long time. The shirts and fabric were very nice. I didn’t really connect with anyone I met, and just didn’t see a way to make it work.
Back in the US, the yarn shortage ended just as mysteriously as it started. My source of supply was safe for the time being, but what an eye-opening trip! There was a whole big interesting world out there and I was just starting to get to know it. The custom embroidered logo shirt business was shaping up to be a lot more complicated than I ever thought it would be, but it was a lot more interesting, too.
When I was graduating from Business School, I went on a couple of job interviews. Having gone straight from college to graduate school, the only work experience I had was the little shirt business I had started a couple of years ago. Of course I exaggerated the scope of my experience. Isn’t that what a resume is all about? “Why would you want to come work for us” my interviewers all asked, “when you have such a great business started?”
I guess my powers of imagination would only take me so far, and I wasn’t able to come up with a very good answer to that question. I didn’t get a single job offer and somehow my interviewers convinced me that was ok.
I was off on a journey and had no idea where it was taking me. I was OK with that. Though I know my friends from business school were doing interesting work on Wall Street, and were no doubt making more money than I was, I was never tempted to change places with them.
There would be many more mind-bending sourcing trips before I got to Africa, and next week I’ll talk about a few more of them as well as my most recent trip.
Happiness experts tell us that experiences such as travel are more valued and valuable than material possessions. That makes sense to me. I’m lucky that I chose a career that has allowed me to see the world. I am also lucky that I was born with an urge to explore.