A passion for leather that started with the crafting of belts in a guest bedroom is today a niche Johannesburg-based manufacturer of top-quality leather goods.
Vermont Leathercraft Manufacturers specialises in supplying and manufacturing luxurious leather fashion accessories, corporate gifts and a wide range of exclusive hospitality items aimed at five-star hotels, restaurants and lodges. More recently, it has launched a range of luxurious handbags and fashion accessories made from genuine South African ostrich leather.
The company’s story is one of chance, fortitude and a willingness to learn. Led by Mandy Owen who bought the business together with her husband 30 years ago, it has undergone significant transformation – most notably since it accessed support under the CTCP Production Incentive Programme (PIP) in 2010.
The company started showing significant improvement in 2010, almost two decades since Owen had bought the business. “Locally, we are recognised as a company that produces quality goods in the corporate gift and hospitality area,” she explains. “We have had a number of key moments in our history: we had a big strike in 2009 and we were closed for five weeks resulting in the loss of most of our customers.”
This was a defining moment for the business as its staff numbers fell to below 20 from 34 prior to the industrial action. At about that same time, however, the CTCP incentive programme was launched, and provided a lifeline to the business.
Given that Vermont Leathercraft is focused on producing handmade, quality goods, its challenges lay more in products, people, processes and market access improvements than in a heavy investment in machinery.
Owen says the improvement in her business since accessing funding under PIP has been ‘radical’.
The funding allowed her to invest in training her staff, new production software and a research visit to China to see how manufacturers there make high quality handbags at speed.
One of the key turning points was the ability to get expert help from industrial engineers who were able to help her redesign her workflow and factory layout to improve productivity. These activities were funded under the CTCP Competitiveness Improvement Programme (CIP). “This process forced us to look at what we were offering across all our different product categories and to look at the business and decide what to do in each area,” she says. “Our turnover has also turned around after we got training for our people on how to market and how to target the correct kind of customer. We are now a lot more focused.”
This turnaround has enabled the business to return on its growth path and steadily return the number of employees from its low of 19 to a current figure of 39. Owen takes enormous pride in being able to provide for her employees – of whom the bulk are women. “We are a factory of women,” she says. “It’s 90% women and we are all breadwinners, we are all workers. We now put food on our tables every week consistently, and we have a very strong provident fund so that people who retire have a strong pension.”
The focusing of the business on its strengths has been a key factor in its success over the past number of years.
These strengths are rooted in the ability to craft quality products, some of which are targeted at the corporate gift market, although Vermont has been building up its reputation and range of fashion handbags. “We are still working on our handbags,” Owen says. “They are pretty good and they last a long time, but we still need to get assistance to teach us the final points on things we don’t know yet.” “We have a saleable range and don’t have a problem selling our range, but we’re on a mission of continuous improvement.”