THE COMEBACK: Unlocking Adaptability

Published: 18 May 2020

A factory that went into liquidation a few months ago, not only became the breeding ground for another idea, but an entirely new business in just over 3 weeks.  Within this global crisis, were the seeds of opportunity and demand grew to supply.

As ex-Foschini Head of Merchandise, Alex Harris, soon realized, a big demand for quality face masks would soon flood a depleted market which could provide a wonderful opportunity to launch an integrated supply chain for the manufacturing of 3-ply commercial masks.  He approached David and Natasha Black (Natasha Black Designs) and Deon de Klerk ( ex-factory owner) and a week later, in a factory in Kensington, production of masks began for distribution

After the factory closed, it sure seemed like the end of the road.  Alex, business consultant to the retail sector, believed that the design, production, execution and manufacturing could be done locally rather than importing it from elsewhere.  This would not only address an industry need but could create employment in a job-stressed economy.  

“While adhering to government social distancing regulations, we are now proudly employing 23 people who have either lost their jobs or have been retrenched due to the recent crisis. This after only opening 2 and a half weeks ago”, Alex mentioned.  “We aim to grow this team of 60 employees over the next few weeks as supply increases”.  

To pull something like this off, would require the right people at the right time and they were just a phone call away.  “Surround yourself with people who are passionate and hungry, who will benefit directly and indirectly and let them create something of meaning.  Believe in the cause and let them share in the profit.  Alex says, “At Natascha Black Designs we allow each employee to share in the profit in the same way as the founders of the business.  They are invested in more than one way.  This is about giving back – in more ways than just creating jobs.”

With his 30 years of corporate, retail experience and the past 3 years of working as a consultant in various industries, Alex realized that the biggest obstacle most business owners face is the relentless cash flow and time pressures and as a result thereof they can often find themselves in a rut and uninspired.  He advises that when a business owner is in the position where they need to change the business model or strategy, it is important to follow the steps:  do the research; understand the market; find the right people with diverse talents, but a meeting of the minds and sharing of the same vision.

Once they had the idea and the team, they needed to perfect the product.  In this case functionality trumps fashion and it was critical to align with the various governing bodies to ensure that the factory would adhere to all the safety, hygiene and regulatory requirements.  The product needed to be breathable (so, manufacturing and production were key) but also affordable – so getting the pricing right while not sacrificing on quality was the main objective.  It is the dance of the numbers.  Once you know what the masks should retail for and you have costed the manufacturing process, you can work yourself backwards to ensure that there is still a shared profit percentage while offering sales commissions.  “For us it was important to let each person have an equal share in the supply chain”, explained Alex.

Was it easier or harder during this lockdown period?  Alex observes: “I have been working on the concept of a virtual supply chain for a while, but people have been slower to get off the mark.  With the additional economic pressures, I have found that business owners, timelines and business parameters have become more flexible focusing on turnover and not just pure profits.  There has been a definite shift in mindset and each industry has already changed and adopted to do things differently.  Speed has been exponentially higher.  Typically, you would have hedged your bet and waited weeks for the approval or spend hours finding the person with the final say, i.e.  to get a logo signed off, would typically take weeks, now it gets approved over the phone in hours.  We have already seen that people are working smarter, decision making is faster and remote working has forged an environment of higher trust and accountability.  Longer turnaround times are expensive – quicker is cheaper.  Because you are decreasing your operational cost, you reduce your costs per product and even if turnover is less, a business can still see increased profits.”

Business can thrive when they are lean and mean.  With the social media communities and platforms available, there is no longer a need to go through a lengthy business startup process.  The team went from idea to product in 2 weeks and are relying on their networks and 2 agents for distribution.  Alex says, “public feedback is extremely important, hopefully businesses have taken the time to engage (virtually) with their customers face to face.”

Even though he prides himself on being open to change, the recent global lockdown taught Alex that it is highly overrated to stick to a plan and a preconceived journey, but rather to be agile and step out of the path.  Use the skills you have and surround yourself with people you can trust, who are hungry for adventure and then let them get on with it.


Stay closer to your customers than ever.  Set up virtual meetings and ask them ‘how they are doing’.  Allow them to get to know you.  Remember – not everyone handles situations the same and they need to know that you are putting them first.  Personalize your service and be known for authentic engagement.

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