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If The Shoe Fits

Rachmat Thomas, founder of Chic Shoes. Rachmat Thomas, founder of Chic Shoes.

Despite the challenges faced by some in the manufacturing sector, one entrepreneur has bucked the trend with help from Woolworths.

Business is booming for Chic Shoes, a family-run shoe manufacturing company based in Parow Industrial, which has seen its staff contingent grow by almost 200 in the past two years as a result of its association with local retail giant, Woolworths. 

Founded by Rachmat Thomas and two of her then co-workers in 2004, Chic Shoes has seen its humble operation expand exponentially since joining the Woolworths Enterprise Development (ED) Programme in 2011.

The company’s monthly orders from Woolworths have increased by 580% since their original once-off trial order, and today Chic Shoes' leather pumps are one of the retailer's most popular lines.

Commenting on Woolworths support, Thomas says: “Working with the Woolworths team has been an incredible learning experience. It’s been a challenge, and we’ve had to learn how to operate new machinery and spot new trends, but we’re now seeing unbelievable results. We’ve moved from focusing on saving jobs in the sector, to creating jobs not only for our own staff and their families, but for our greater community.”

Growing Pains

Prospects haven’t always looked so good for Chic Shoes, which was founded by Thomas along with co-owners David Arendse and Ivan Meyer, when their previous employer, Olympic Flair, closed the doors to its manufacturing arm and they had the opportunity to buy the business. Lacking in management and technical skills, Chic Shoes soon found itself floundering. In 2009, with business having slowed significantly as a result of the global recession, they made a last-ditch attempt to steer the business back on course. 

Persistent calls to Woolworths eventually resulted in a pilot order for Chic Shoes’ leather pumps which, with the help of the retailer’s technical and design divisions, were redeveloped in line with international trends and standards. 

Following the enormous success of the trial run, it soon became apparent that the company would require substantial support and guidance if they were to meet consumers’ demand for their shoes.

“Before we started working with Woolworths, we only knew about traditional shoe-making,” says Thomas, who, along with her co-directors, has a legacy of 125 years of combined experience in the shoe manufacturing business.

As an ED beneficiary Woolworths assisted Chic Shoes with funding to purchase raw materials in bulk from suppliers. Thomas adds that the support and mentorship they’ve received from Woolworths Technical, Design and Buying departments in terms of improving management, production, range development and design skills has been invaluable. 

Other areas of support include preferential payment terms which assist the business with cash flow, as well as access to technical engineers who have assisted with production efficiency, quality control, systems upgrades, product testing, and factory layout planning.

Looking To The Future

Chic Shoes is looking to expand to new, larger premises as the demand for Woolworths pumps continue to rise.

“We’ve gone from having 96 staff members in 2011, to 260 today,” explains Thomas. “At present, we’re running out of space to accommodate all our employees. Demand for the pumps is expected to grow, and we’re incredibly grateful that the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) - who has also worked closely with us and provided funding - has seen our potential for growth and supported our expansion plans. 

While the Woolworths pumps division of Chic Shoes makes up a large proportion of the business, the company continues to maintain a level of independence by supplying to a number of smaller independent shoe outlets and various government departments under its Bella brand. Woolworths is also working with Thomas and her team to develop footwear for premium brands, like Studio.W.

“Growing our business so quickly has been immensely stressful, and certainly hasn’t been without its challenges. But knowing that we are providing work for others makes it all worthwhile,” says Thomas, who is passionate about providing a sense of family and purpose for all Chic Shoes’ employees. 

Woolies and Enterprise Development

“We’re proud of our partnership with Chic Shoes,” says Thateng Shimange, Buying Group Head of Womenswear and Women’s Footwear and Accessories at Woolworths. “They are producing a world-class product that is loved by our customers. Working with Chic Shoes makes good business sense in all respects.” 

“Through our Enterprise Development Programme, we’re committed to developing emerging suppliers and high-potential entrepreneurs like Chic Shoes by providing them with tools to succeed and ongoing support to sustain their growth. Woolworths is a design-led company and our standards for our local suppliers are high. It’s been rewarding to see how Rachmat and her team stepped up to the plate every single time. Even by international standards, these are the best quality leather pumps in the market.” 

Says Dineo Skwambane, Acting Head of the IDC's Textiles and Clothing Strategic Business Unit: “Woolworths has taken an exemplary approach to creating an enterprise development programme that offers tangible results. They support suppliers within their programme to become truly sustainable businesses, and Chic Shoes is a good example of the positive socio-economic impact such a partnership can have. It's been wonderful to follow Rachmat and her team’s growth.”

About Woolworths’ Enterprise Development (ED) Programme

  • The Woolworths Enterprise Development programme is committed to supporting BEE supplier partners and developing new enterprises to enter its supplier base. Through this strategy, Woolworths assists emerging black-owned suppliers to become sustainable businesses.
  • The programme rests on four pillars - all of which are essential to help an emerging entrepreneur or small business grow into a sustainable entity: financial assistance, guaranteed business, targeted upskilling and a package of support which includes mentorship and the assistance of external experts.
  • Enterprise development is a key part of Woolworths ‘Good Business Journey’ programme. For more information, visit www.woolworthsholdings.co.za

Rachmat’s tips for women in business

  • Make your voice heard.
  • Retain your passion and enthusiasm in the face of challenges.
  • How you approach obstacles is a big part of your business’ success. You can’t give up.
  • Listen to constructive advice. Ignore the rest. Take rejection into stride.
  • Surround yourself with a supportive team. Also surround yourself with people who know more than you.
  • Embrace the challenge of leadership.
  • To lead your team, you need to be incredibly comfortable in your own skin.
  • Look for opportunities to stand out from the crowd.
  • Don’t second-guess yourself.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected. You never know who your next customer or client will be.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Be open to opportunity and be willing to take risks where it makes business sense.
  • Debunk the myth that women can’t have a family and a successful business. Skills that make a good business leader – organisaion, drive, trust, delegation and compassion – also go a long way to balance the responsibilities of work and family life.

Rachmat’s tips for entrepreneurs wanting to work with retailers

  • Listen carefully to the requirements of the retailer. Ultimately it’s linked to the needs of their customers.
  • Try and understand the critical issues that affect the retailer’s ability to deliver to their customers. Customer demand drives almost all decisions.
  • Ensure that the channels of communication remain open. Be proactive and maintain a positive relationship with your contacts within the company.
  • Should any problems or challenges arise, communicate them immediately.
  • Always keep thinking of and offering new options and innovations to remain ahead of the curve. Even if they don’t accept all your ideas, some will stick.
  • Establish a good relationship with the retailer’s buyers. Having insight into their planning and thinking in turn allows you to plan ahead more strategically.
  • Hone your business skills and educate yourself. This allows you to balance your passion and your analytical skills.
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