Huffer picking US as gateway to world

By Helen Twose

Dan Buckley (left) and Steve Dunstan say they refuse to 'Americanise' for the US market. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Dan Buckley (left) and Steve Dunstan say they refuse to 'Americanise' for the US market. Photo / Paul Estcourt

A potential joint venture turned sour nearly spelled the end of clothing label Huffer's foray into the United States market more than two years ago.

After successfully selling a test range to 16 out of 120 Urban Outfitters stores, the partner, which also manufactured 80 per cent of the company's New Zealand range, announced it was going out of business.

It was the kick in the pants Huffer founders Dan Buckley and Steve Dunstan needed to develop a detailed business plan, appoint a board of directors, raise capital, create a proper management structure and diversify production.

"We really needed to be focused and plan to get ourselves out of this situation," said Dunstan.

Huffer fulfilled its Urban Outfitters order, albeit delivering late.

"We made a decision to hang in there in the US as best we could."

Having got its house in order, the 2010 financial year was the company's best yet. After nearly 14 years in business, the firm has grown to the point where its three dot logo can be represented by three slices of tomato on a piece of Vogel's toast for a billboard ad - and still be recognised.

One of 10 University of Auckland Business School Entrepreneurs' Challenge finalists, Huffer is hoping to gain a share of the $1 million in funding and business support on offer to boost its overseas growth.

The focus will be on the West Coast of the US because, as the home of board sports, it reflects Huffer's own heritage.

Dunstan and Buckley began by selling snowboarding clothes in the mid-90s before expanding the range into streetwear.

While Huffer has a high profile in New Zealand, Dunstan said it would be relying on innovation, quality, design and competitive edge rather than brand awareness in overseas markets.

Its failed business partner had recommended Huffer Americanise its story, but Dunstan said they has ditched that strategy in favour of retaining the brand's character.

"Being who we are is going to give us a sense of originality and appeal in the US."

An Air New Zealand export award at Fashion Week could see Huffer grace the catwalks of New York Fashion Week. Coming on board to advise the company is Erica Crawford, the marketing nous behind the Kim Crawford brand she co-founded with her husband. Crawford is on the investment panel of the Entrepreneurs' Challenge but will not be considering Huffer's entry to avoid conflicts of interest.

Locally, Huffer will be consolidating rather than undergoing any radical shift in the business model.

Online sales are also tipped as an area for growth, according to Dunstan.

In the background the company is working to improve its supply chain in order to maximise margins while offering the best product and manage distribution to both Northern and Southern Hemisphere markets.

Dunstan said getting into the US market opened up opportunities for worldwide recognition.

The winner or winners of the Entrepreneurs' Challenge will be announced next month.

- NZ Herald

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