This week, small business editor Caitlin Sykes talks to business owners about supplier relationships

Amy-Rose Goulding is the founder and designer of women's fashion brand Julian Danger. The firm's clothing is manufactured by suppliers in China.

Why and how did you establish your supplier relationships in China?

The first time I travelled to China was around 2007. One of my final projects in my university design communication course was making some toys, and I was interested in getting them manufactured in China because I thought I could learn so much through that process. I've always made my own clothes and been interested in fashion, so while I was there I also had some clothes made by local tailors, and when I came back I had lots of really positive comments on them.

After I finished university I moved to Queenstown and worked at a retail store, where the owner had also started her own children's clothing brand. She got me to work as a designer and wanted to manufacture in China, so because I'd been there before I went there with her and we started manufacturing some children's clothing.


During that visit I also visited some other factories and fabric markets to do some research for my own fashion brand, which I wanted to launch. That's when I started to get my head around some of the real complexities of manufacturing in China.

What did you learn about those complexities?

The minimum order quantities - or MOQs - that most Chinese factories require are daunting, especially when you're a new brand on a limited budget. Things have changed a bit now, but when I started out around 2008, factories weren't flexible at all and it meant you had a huge amount of product to move. I initially got quotes and samples from about four or five factories and found I also needed to seek out a lot of information myself and think outside the square, because the factories aren't proactively going to offer you the solution you need.

I initially went into a production run with quite an established factory in China that worked with a few other New Zealand brands, but I struggled with the sampling process. I'd provide my design specification sheet that they'd interpret to make a sample, and they'd charge quite a high sample rate for that - it's usually two or three times the production price. But if they misinterpreted the specification sheet in any way I'd have to make a new sample and they would charge that full price again for the second sample. I suddenly found all my funds had been chewed up just trying to get a sample collection looking how I wanted it to.

That's when I learned you actually have to be there, and be hands-on through that sampling process. After some shopping around I managed to source a smaller, family-run factory that allowed for more flexibility with respect to MOQs, as well as a level of input and care that we didn't get working with larger manufacturers.

Since then I've personally spent on average two months a year in China, and I'm in constant communication with my suppliers when I'm back in New Zealand. Spending more time in China is an expense, but I've learnt it's money well spent, and that time I spend on the ground is also reducing now I've built up my relationships.

Have language or cultural differences been a barrier to building your relationships with your suppliers?

Communicating with our suppliers has presented a significant hurdle, but learning Mandarin through night school at Nelson Institute of Technology - as well as our suppliers' willingness to learn English - has certainly helped. Through that course I also picked up the importance of a lot of cultural factors that have been hugely beneficial in building my business relationships. For example, when I'm in China I often think I'm too rushed to go out for lunch or dinner with a supplier, but actually that's a really important part of doing business there and helps your relationships massively.

How has strengthening your supplier relationships ultimately benefited your business?

The main factory that I work is family run, and staffed by a group of aunties and sisters. They really benefit from my business, and vice versa, so we nurture the relationship. One example is because we have this very strong relationship, they're very flexible with payment. At the beginning of the season when I'm in China we sit down together and work out a payment plan. We work out a really good cycle that works for everyone and where no one is left struggling. That only comes from having a personal relationship that's developed through time spent on the ground.