THE NEW FACE OF SA CLOTH­ING

Top tex­tile ex­ec­u­tive Her­man Pil­lay is work­ing hard to in­vig­o­rate the sec­tor

CityPress - - Business - LYSE COMINS busi­ness@city­press.co.za

TCI Ap­parel chair and CEO Her­man Pil­lay, at the age of just 41, is ar­guably the face of the new gen­er­a­tion of South Africa’s cloth­ing and tex­tile ex­ec­u­tives who are re­viv­ing the cloth­ing sec­tor – one fac­tory at a time – and pro­vid­ing lo­cal fash­ion de­sign­ers with a plat­form to show­case their work. Pil­lay, whose par­ents worked as a seam­stress and a man­ager in the in­dus­try, em­ploys 3 652 peo­ple in South Africa, and has busi­nesses in Turkey and Mauritius af­ter res­cu­ing a string of failed com­pa­nies on his way to the top.

He has won the re­spect of work­ers, union­ists and gov­ern­ment, which have all called on him at some stage to in­ter­vene in the flail­ing sec­tor.

His busi­ness is one of the largest sup­pli­ers to Woolworths, Tru­worths and Ed­con.

He op­er­ates three cloth­ing fac­to­ries in KwaZulu-Natal, a fac­tory in the Western Cape, a cloth­ing busi­ness in Mauritius that in­cludes a tex­tile mill, and is a part­ner in a suit man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­ness in Turkey.

He is the chair of the Wear South African cam­paign, which en­cour­ages lo­cal de­sign and man­u­fac­tur­ing of cloth­ing to sup­ply 24 re­tail stores, in­clud­ing Blue Col­lar White Col­lar and Ma­gents, across the coun­try.

He also re­cently es­tab­lished Africa’s first green de­sign cen­tre in Cape Town, where re­tail de­sign teams col­lab­o­rate with the busi­ness.

The cen­tre is the first in­dus­trial green build­ing of its kind, with eco vinyl tiles, LED light­ing, so­lar power, in­door plants, strate­gi­cally tinted win­dows, en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive ceil­ing boards, liv­ing walls and a veg­etable gar­den.

But it has been an un­usual jour­ney for Pil­lay, who got his first cloth­ing job as a work study of­fi­cer at JC Cre­ations in Dur­ban, where then owner Jo­han Claasen saw his po­ten­tial.

“Claasen started me in the cut­ting room and moved me around dif­fer­ent parts of the busi­ness. I de­cided to learn ev­ery­thing and was very en­tre­pre­neur­ial in my think­ing, and he picked that up,” Pil­lay says.

Claasen had big plans for Pil­lay to head a new busi­ness in Mauritius, but three days af­ter an­nounc­ing this, he was mur­dered dur­ing a rob­bery.

Pil­lay later re­signed and started buy­ing and sell­ing ma­chin­ery and man­u­fac­tured goods, and, in 1997, he got his big break when a Mr

Price sup­plier ap­proached him to as­sist with pro­duc­tion.

“I found a fac­tory to man­u­fac­ture those or­ders and they were im­pressed be­cause what I achieved in two weeks they couldn’t achieve in three months, so they gave me a mas­sive con­tract to do all their pro­duc­tion,” Pil­lay says.

Pil­lay set up a sourc­ing agency and had 28 fac­to­ries work­ing for him be­fore he opened his first fac­tory in Dur­ban.

He also opened a men’s suit busi­ness, Sar­to­ria Mi­lano, in Turkey, and sev­eral other busi­nesses be­fore fo­cus­ing on cloth­ing. “In 2010, I de­cided to ex­pand to the Western Cape. I went to set up a busi­ness, but I was in­tro­duced to a busi­ness that was go­ing to close, so I thought I would buy it and save some jobs. It was about 200 jobs,” Pil­lay says. “When I saved those jobs, an­other busi­ness found out and told me they were also in trou­ble, and they asked me to go and have a look at it. While I do­ing that deal, the South­ern African Cloth­ing and Tex­tile Work­ers’ Union called,” Pil­lay says.

The union wanted Pil­lay to help res­cue two cloth­ing fac­to­ries owned by the then JSE-listed Seardel, the largest em­ployer in the sec­tor at the time, in the Swart­land, Western Cape.

“There were 750 peo­ple who lost their jobs. When the women in the com­mu­nity found out that a po­ten­tial buyer was com­ing, they all pitched up at the fac­tory to ask us to help and said that they had no money to buy food to eat. I had to do some­thing,” Pil­lay says.

When Pil­lay bought the third-largest cloth­ing man­u­fac­turer in Mauritius, Star Knitwear Group, in 2015, it was an­other bro­ken busi­ness saved.

“When I did the due dili­gence, I found they were sup­ply­ing Topshop, River Is­land, For­ever 21, Su­perdry and Ur­ban Out­fit­ters in the UK. They had the international cus­tomer base checked,” he says.

Now, Pil­lay is lever­ag­ing this busi­ness to im­port fab­ric he pre­vi­ously had to source from China due to a lack of lo­cal pro­duc­tion, and he pro­duces “fast fash­ion” for re­tail­ers with his fin­ger on the international pulse.

“The big­gest chal­lenge is the lim­ited re­sources we have in the sup­ply chain – avail­abil­ity of yarn and of mills in South Africa to re­ally step up and man­u­fac­ture the fab­ric that is in de­mand – and un­com­pet­i­tive trad­ing con­di­tions.”

How­ever, Pil­lay is up­beat about growth prospects. “In­vest­ment has to be made in the in­fra­struc­ture and sup­ply chain of the cloth­ing and tex­tile in­dus­try to give the in­dus­try a fight­ing chance – this could lead to thou­sands of jobs be­ing created in the sec­tor.”

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