Small Business: Overseas manufacturing - Wallace Cotton

Paula Wallace, co-founder with husband Bill, of Wallace Cotton, a bedlinen, clothing and homewear brand, a multi-channel retailer and wholesaler, based in Birkenhead

Bill Wallace of Wallace Cotton. Photo / Richard Robinson
Bill Wallace of Wallace Cotton. Photo / Richard Robinson

In which overseas markets do you have manufacturers working for you?

We currently work with textile mills and suppliers in India, China, Pakistan, and a little in Portugal.

How did you find the factories?

We have found our main suppliers through visiting trade fairs in Asia and Europe, or working through local agents who have long standing relationships with mills. Once we find a good quality mill, we tend to stay with them. Each mill is specialized in a type of textile production; weaving, printing, some are vertical with their own plants for growing and spinning cotton. Other suppliers will work with villages to produce handworked textiles.

What standards were you looking for?

The large mills are often cleaner and more technically advanced than you would find in Europe, most have ISO standard rating for working conditions.

Some of the small co-op ventures in India are not so advanced, however will be artisans of their craft, and will have generations of experience, so are fascinating to work with and support.

How often do you visit them? How else do you maintain the relationship?

We visit suppliers in India and China every 18 months, and also meet with reps at the trade fairs to discuss future business.

What do they do that you can't find in New Zealand?

Most of New Zealand's textile industry has disappeared since the tarrifs came off imported textile products in the mid-1990's. Bill and I started business with our own textile printing machine, and swiftly realized that the equipment, resources and prices were much better if we headed down the Old Silk Road route, than trying to bring the raw material into NZ then process it here on old equipment. Now we focus on designing our ranges here, and working with good quality suppliers who are expert in their techniques, and who supply other quality retailers around the world. We get to travel to some far-flung places that would never make it on the tourist route, and meet people from vastly different cultures who all have the common language of talking textiles.

How does it help your business model to be manufacturing overseas?

I'll point out the negatives first:

If it was financially viable, we would love to manufacture locally, and try to wherever possible. We will be stocking some woollen blankets next season made by a "farmer/designer!" in the Wairarapa.

Importing has a few hurdles to overcome, including large minimums to meet, which often means we need to order enough stock in each design for two seasons, creating much lower stock turns than we would like, which stretches our capital resources. Then there are long lead times for production and shipping, paying for stock sight-unseen while it is still on the water, and communication can be difficult.

Now the good bits:

Working with expert weavers, equipment and artisans can produce better quality products at affordable prices, which our customers in Australasia are quick to recognize. Textile plants offshore can produce much better quality, a greater variety of techniques and price than local manufacturing could, so our challenge is to make the most of the foreign expertise, while producing only as much as we require. A constant battle for us is to produce small enough quantities for NZ. Most foreign suppliers are looking for thousands rather than hundreds in an order, and some will not take us seriously because of the size of our population. We are not interested in building mountains of stock to dump on our small retail market. Our ethics are based around quality and sustainable production with beautiful design, rather than producing enormous quantities to meet minimums and price points, then discounting to move stock.

Any tips for other businesses beginning to look at manufacturing overseas?

Make sure your pockets are deep to support the upfront payments and meet your potential suppliers for peace of mind.

Next week: Many small businessses are extremely proud of their company culture and it's something they establish very early on. But what happens when your company gets bigger and the boss gets spread ever thinner. How do you protect and continue to nurture that small business culture?

- NZ Herald

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