Flip-flops to the res­cue

Two broth­ers or­phaned by the tsunami set up a flip-flop busi­ness to help chil­dren.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE -

HOW do you build an or­phan­age out of flipflops? That’s the task broth­ers Rob and Paul Forkan have set them­selves by next year, in time to mark the 9th an­niver­sary of the De­cem­ber 26 tsunami, in which they lost both their par­ents while trav­el­ling in Sri Lanka.

The broth­ers, who lost al­most ev­ery­thing in the 2004 dis­as­ter, have set up Gandys, a new “brand for good” sell­ing flip-flops which prom­ises to give 10% of the prof­its from ev­ery pair sold to help other or­phans around the world.

Start­ing out from a small flat in Brix­ton, south Lon­don, 18 months ago, the Forkans have built a brand stocked in 400 stores in­clud­ing Sel­fridges and Topman and won the sup­port of high-pro­file fans in­clud­ing Vir­gin bil­lion­aire Richard Bran­son and pop star Jessie J.

This week they col­lected an award for ac­ces­sories and footwear de­sign at the WGSN Global Fash­ion Awards in Lon­don, lin­ing up along­side big name awardwinners in­clud­ing Acne, Er­dem and Net-a-Porter.

Rob and Paul were 13 and 11 when their par­ents, Kevin and San­dra, pulled them out of school in Croy­don, south Lon­don, to work on hu­man­i­tar­ian projects in south Asia. In 2001, the fam­ily, in­clud­ing Rob and Paul’s younger brother and sis­ter, packed a back­pack and moved to Goa.

They were on hol­i­day in Sri Lanka when the fam­ily’s ho­tel was hit by the tsunami wave on Box­ing Day 2004. Rob and Paul saved them­selves by cling­ing to a metal bar high up in the build­ing but Kevin and San­dra lost their lives to the wa­ter af­ter man­ag­ing to get their younger chil­dren to safety.

Dev­as­tated by their loss and with no money or pass­ports, the chil­dren man­aged to hitch­hike 200 miles to the air­port and get to Bri­tain, where they were sup­ported by friends and fam­ily.

Rob and Paul fin­ished their ed­u­ca­tion and went off trav­el­ling the world again, get­ting jobs here and there to pay their way. But they had big­ger am­bi­tions: “We wanted to build a brand based on own be­liefs from our up­bring­ing and al­ter­na­tive life­style,” says Rob.

Hav­ing spent years wan­der­ing the world in flip-flops, that sim­ple form of footwear seemed a good place to start. When Rob woke up af­ter a night of par­ty­ing at a mu­sic fes­ti­val say­ing his “mouth felt like one of Gandhi’s flip-flops”, the brand was chris­tened. Rob and Paul had no idea how to launch a brand or set up a com­pany, but they didn’t let that stop them.

“Our par­ents had a fear­less ap­proach. As chil­dren, noth­ing was ever a drama. We just rocked up in In­dia with no plans. A lot of peo­ple wouldn’t be able to live with that sit­u­a­tion but that has helped us with what we are do­ing now,” says Rob, 26, whose dyed black hair and skinny jeans are more stu­dent than chief ex­ec­u­tive.

The Forkans spent time on the In­ter­net work­ing out how to get their flip-flops made, even­tu­ally find­ing a sup­plier via Alibaba. com, the on­line whole­sale search en­gine. With boxes of footwear piled up in the flat, the broth­ers set up a web­site, and tried sell­ing flip-flops at the beach.

With sales go­ing nowhere, the next step was to ap­proach stores.

On their first out­ing, an in­de­pen­dent shop in Spi­tal­fields, east Lon­don, took an or­der and the Forkans re­alised they were on to some­thing. Through­out 2011, they built up to about 40 small out­lets.

Their next tar­get was ma­jor re­tail­ers. They sent a pair of Gandys to Philip Green, the boss of Topshop owner Ar­ca­dia, hop­ing their shared Croy­don roots might help. When they couldn’t get an ap­point­ment, the Forkans hung around in the lobby of Ar­ca­dia’s head of­fice un­til some­one agreed to see them.

They man­aged to per­suade Bran­son to wear a pair of Gandys by promis­ing to name their red va­ri­ety of flip-flops af­ter Necker Is­land in the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands, which he owns.

“We are quite re­lent­less in our ap­proach. We have seen how quickly cir­cum­stances can change in life and don’t for a mo­ment take for granted or go to sleep with what we are do­ing,” says Rob.

When it came to find­ing in­vest­ment to help se­cure sup­plies for larger re­tail­ers last year, the broth­ers tracked down wealthy en­trepreneurs fea­tured in news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and TV shows. “We wrote to them and said, ‘ Why should we let you get in­volved in what we are do­ing?’” said Rob.

The plan re­sulted in £250,000 (RM1.3mil) in­vest­ment from Dominic List, a suc­cess­ful young IT en­tre­pre­neur who had been on the TV show Se­cret Millionaire and is now fi­nance di­rec­tor of the com­pany.

The rest of Gandys’ now 20strong team, based in south-west Lon­don, are mostly young peo­ple with en­thu­si­asm but lit­tle ex­per­tise, ac­cord­ing to Rob.

Sales have in­creased from 70,000 in 2011 to 250,000 this year and the busi­ness is in profit. Sales are fore­cast to reach 400,000 to 500,000 next year.

The aim is to get enough funds to make the planned or­phan­age in Goa. Be­yond that, projects will be voted for by cus­tomers and staff.

“The brand is cre­at­ing a com­mu­nity and get­ting peo­ple in­volved. It’s how we are grow­ing so quickly, us­ing the power of peo­ple,” says Rob. “If we build it to the level we think we can, like Hava­ianas (the Brazil­ian flipflop brand), the im­pact could be huge.” – Guardian News & Me­dia

Fa­mous feet: Gandys flipflops have high­pro­file fans, in­clud­ing Vir­gin bil­lion­aire Richard Bran­son and pop star Jessie J.

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