In difficult times, success requires ‘moving forward constantly’

Dave-Swanepoel-May-2013

And even though we have a long way to go to get to the right skills levels, the internet has made it possible for anyone with a passion for technology to really stay up-to-date with the latest developments. The clothing industry is moving in the right direction, which is forward.
Dave Swanepoel
Rightback Embroidery

When a business owner faces a difficult scenario, the options are often those of the soldier – retreat, cut your losses and wait for a better day, or push forward with sheer determination. Dave Swanepoel’s instinct is to go for the latter, except that he believes in aiding his determination with the latest technological fire power.

Dave started his high-end embroidery business, Rightback Embroidery, in 1997 in Tongaat near Durban. Given the steady decline of the South African clothing industry over the past two decades, it seems like a pretty crazy thing to do. But on closer inspection, it was a solid business move.

As a trained electrical engineer with years of experience at a large clothing corporate’s manufacturing division, Dave was teaching workers how to run and fix the latest hi-tech clothing equipment, including embroidery machines. He had built up an intimate knowledge of the clothing industry, knew where the gaps were, and was passionate about the technology that could fill those gaps.

The corporate, not wanting to lose his skills, reluctantly let him start his business as a sideline. He bought a couple of second-hand embroidery machines, which he was able to fix and service himself, and set up shop in a Business Partners workshop in Tongaat.

Three years later he was ready to step out and become a full-time business owner. It was a very difficult decision, because he was giving up a very good salary and had to sacrifice lucrative share options.

For a while it looked as if he had made a mistake, because just as he stepped out of his job, South Africa was hit by a flood of cheap clothing imports and the industry went through extremely painful spasms. Clothing retailers outsourced vast quantities of their orders to the East, which meant that value-adding services such as embroidery also got done overseas.

Rather than crawl back to the corporate world, Dave decided to “really go high-end”. He bought the latest in embroidery technology, and targeted luxury clothing brands such as Polo and Pringle, as well as corporate contracts from groups such as KFC and Spur. Financing the machines was extremely difficult, but in the end a contact in his extended business network put him in touch with an institutional financier who was willing to take a risk on a fledgling hi-tech business.

Dave’s philosophy of “constantly moving forward” with the latest technology – he only buys the latest Japanese and German machines for their quality – makes for a wild ride of constant change. The fact that his carefully trained technicians tend to be poached in the local skills-hungry environment does not make things any easier.

Under such circumstances, it helps to have a steady base from which to work. He has been renting factory space from Business Partners since he opened up his business in the 1990s. At the time, it was affordable, well placed and managed, and still is. Because of his growth, he had to move to a bigger space in the same complex.

Dave throws an interesting light on the importance of the location of a factory that is not often considered. Because the Business Partners premises are based in the community of Tongaat, his workers can walk to work. This makes it possible for Rightback Embroidery to run a round-the-clock shift system.

The importance of this factor became painfully apparent when a second factory which he tried to start in the Durban CBD failed, partly due to the fact that setting up a shift system was plagued with problems because workers had to travel far to get there.

Dave is right at the forefront of the widely accepted strategy that South Africa needs to adapt to cheap clothing imports not through putting up trade barriers, but by specialising in high-end, value-adding services and custom-made clothing. This, he says, is much easier said than done, because acquiring the latest technology needs not only major finance, but also high levels of skills to use and maintain the technology.

Yet Dave is optimistic about the prospects of the clothing industry in South Africa. “Several government job-creation investments in the clothing industry are starting to pay off, he says.

“And even though we have a long way to go to get to the right skills levels, the internet has made it possible for anyone with a passion for technology to really stay up-to-date with the latest developments. The clothing industry is moving in the right direction, which is forward,” says Dave.