The 24th of September marks Heritage Day where South Africans are encouraged to celebrate the nation’s history and the contribution that everyone has made in building the country. For 36 years, K-Way has not only been equipping adventurers with apparel and gear to explore the great outdoors – a crucial component of the country’s historical inheritance – but has also played a part in addressing the unemployment crisis.
The proudly South African manufacturer, founded in Cape Town in 1981, has its roots in the bespoke tailoring industry; producing made-to-measure uniforms along with customised jackets and foul weather gear for the police force and security industry. Shortly after it was formed, the company began supplying South Africa’s favourite outdoor adventure store, Cape Union Mart, with technical clothing – giving the retailer a leading edge as this type of apparel was only available from overseas suppliers at the time.
K-Way’s technical clothing was and still continues to be crafted using the brand’s tried and tested methods which have been employed over the past 36 years. This includes stitching together coated or laminated waterproof fabric with conventional sewing machines and sealing the sewn seams with special machinery. These melt the polyurethane or PVC adhesive tape applied to the seams, rendering them waterproof with a hydrostatic head level of up to 10,000 mm – thus creating the foul weather garments with which K-Way has become synonymous.
The business performed reasonably well during its early days and in 1997, introduced a wide range of practical yet fashionable outdoor and active wear for men and women. These product ranges included fleece jackets, ski suits, protective foul weather jackets and highly reliable trousers used by researchers in the Antarctic.
In 2004, K-Way owner Philip Krawitz sought to boost the company’s productivity, sales and profitability by bringing in new management. Wanting to explore better ways of operating, Bobby Fairlamb, the newly appointed General Manager, joined the Cape Clothing and Textile Cluster (CCTC) who were investigating the possibilities of implementing a system of manufacturing being used successfully by the auto industry. A tour of KwaZulu-Natal’s automotive manufacturers was organised, enabling Fairlamb to see the system in action and devise a way of adapting it to the business.
On his return, Fairlamb immediately set about engaging and training his management team and staff on implementing this new system. At the same time, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) introduced several new programmes for the clothing and textile industry which injected it with some much-needed capital equipment funding that enabled K-Way to purchase state-of-the-art machinery.
The combination of these factors led to a number of improvements in terms of K-Way’s quality, pricing, innovation and delivery. This resulted in a spike in sales growth together with the company pioneering a number of firsts on the African continent. Among these were being the first manufacturer of rain- and storm-proof, seam-sealed, foul weather protective clothing; being the only African company to have been awarded a licence to manufacture clothing using the technical Gore-Tex® fabric and more recently, becoming the first African manufacturer to use Sew free® technology in the production of technical clothing.
In addition, K-Way’s improvement efforts have been recognised by the industry, government and other organisations, with the business winning a spate of awards over the past 10 years from the DTI, CCTC and Productivity SA. Other accolades accrued include being named Best Practice Workplace Provider by the Fibre Processing and Manufacturing (FP&M) SETA and taking home Leadership Management International Inc’s award for Outstanding Achievement.
Most importantly, the company has persisted in investing in its workforce, with staff across the board gaining valuable skills to continuously improve their daily work procedures, methods and systems. Not only has staff turnover and absenteeism reduced, but morale has improved dramatically, as has the staff’s motivation to ensure K-Way’s future growth. In addition, the company’s workforce has swelled by 65% and now employs over 240 staff – 50% of whom have been with the company for over five years. Furthermore, as the manufacturer is committed to local employment, a number of staff members hail from the communities surrounding the workshop.
The involvement of the Cape Union Mart retail team has been a fundamental element in the success of Fairlamb’s turnaround program. The retailer’s buyers, designers and planners identify key styles and work on a fast-react model that enables K-Way to respond swiftly to global retail trends. Ryan Weideman, Cape Union Mart’s Outdoor Merchandise Manager, says: “Retailers can play a significant role in the growth of local manufacturing.”
Fairlamb adds: “Much of our success is also derived from our commitment to social responsibility and local enterprise development. We have nurtured a number of smaller, outsource Cut, Make and Trim (CMT) factories, helping them with development and training as well as lending them machines. Currently, we have over 150 people permanently employed through these CMTs and this is an area where we will continue to grow our capacity to supply Cape Union Mart into the future. Being able to play a role in reducing the unemployment crisis South Africa faces is a key social responsibility that is close to our hearts and one of which we are proud.”
Today, K-Way is the number one supplier to Cape Union Mart and the best-selling brand in South Africa’s outdoor apparel market. Despite this, the business is committed to constant improvement and is always evolving to ensure that it remains ahead of the pack and on the cutting edge of technology.
For information, visit capeunionmart.co.za