Cape Union Mart turns 80 years old

(Supplied)
(Supplied)
Cape Town - Cape Union Mart, South Africa’s largest unlisted clothing retailer, celebrates its 80th anniversary this year.

The founding family are still actively involved and run the business together with a tightly knit team of seasoned professionals, who together have notched up over a hundred years of service with the company.
 
Cape Union Mart was founded in 1933 by the late Philip Krawitz, the grandfather and namesake of the current Chairman.

The company started out as an army and navy type store, selling everything from the proverbial anchor to a toothpick.

The company grew under the late Arthur Krawitz, who took over from his father Philip in the late 1940s.

In 1970 the current Chairman joined the business as a third-generation family member and began a cautious expansion trail. More recently, two of his three daughters, Martine Vogelman and Amanda Herson, joined the company’s management team as the fourth generation.
 
Strength in diversity
 
Today the Cape Union Mart Group employs over 2 000 people in nearly 140 stores countrywide and continues to see strong double-digit year-on-year growth in turnover and profitability.
 
Having firmly secured the lion’s share of the outdoor travel and adventure lifestyle market in South Africa, the company is planning a number of new Cape Union Mart stores and expansions which, by 2016, will see the company grow its footprint by more than 30%.
 
In addition to the nearly 80 Cape Union Mart stores countrywide, the group owns and operates 20 Poetry outlets and more than 40 Old Khaki stores.

Old Khaki and Poetry developed into standalone brands after the respective ranges, which were designed for different consumer sectors, proved to be very successful in Cape Union Mart stores.

The group’s activities also include a uniform business, Sparks & Ellis, which supplies security, traffic, fire and rescue, military and corporate uniforms.
 
The group’s manufacturing division, K-Way, which produces a large amount of the popular range of technical outdoor clothing and gear has been lauded as exemplary in its approach to boosting the local clothing manufacturing sector.

The factory has received a number of awards from government-run initiatives aimed at improving the competitiveness of the sector.

As part of the government’s Clothing and Textile Competitiveness Improvement Programme (CTCIP), K-Way received an award in July this year to acknowledge the factory’s commitment to best practice in world-class manufacturing.

It was also one of the first players to become involved in the Cape Clothing and Textiles Cluster (CCTC), a partnership between the Western Cape Government, 31 regional manufacturers and 6 major retailers.
 
In 2012, readers of Getaway magazine chose K-Way as their favourite brand in the apparel, backpack, hiking, tent and travel luggage categories, while Cape Union Mart was named readers’ favourite outdoor retail brand.
 
Despite the diversity of Cape Union Mart’s offering and its eight-decade long legacy, the company has never retrenched a single employee in the course of its operations.

A vast number of employees have been with the company for more than two or three decades and the company prides itself on attracting and retaining some of the best talent in the retail sector. This is done by creating a winning corporate culture and a workplace in which people enjoy their jobs.
 
A legacy of family values
 
“Many of our staff have been with us for over 20 years, and some have even been with us for 30 years or longer. You don’t find that kind of commitment in the retail sector,” says Philip Krawitz, chairperson of Cape Union Mart.
 
Krawitz believes that as a privately owned and family-operated business, the company has been able to take a longer term view that has allowed it to secure some of the best trading sites, attract good people and invest heavily in marketing, infrastructure and training.
 
“It’s this approach to ‘good old traditional values’ that has enabled us to grow our customer base, maintain customer loyalty and expand rapidly in the last decade especially," he says.

"I believe our understanding of our customers and our focus on value-for-money has been key in driving our success. Even during an economic downturn customers return because they are willing to spend money on durable, practical products that are well-priced.”
 
Looking to the future
 
Krawitz acknowledges that success does not happen automatically in a family-run business.
 
“It requires hard work and comes with its own unique set of challenges. To ensure ongoing success we realised some years ago that we needed to professionalise the business and made a conscious decision to start operating like a listed company, even though we’re not one," he says.
 
In pursuit of further professionalisation, Krawitz, his daughters and their partners participated in the Harvard Business School programme for multi-generational family businesses.
 
One of the key learnings was that no family member should enter the business without a good education and extensive experience outside the family business.
 
On approaching his 60th birthday, Krawitz started considering looking outside the company for chief executive officer.
 
They found this in current CEO, Andre Labuschaigne, who joined the group in 2011.
 
People and service first
 
Labuschaigne explains that the original service philosophy of founder Philip Krawitz Snr remains: “When he started the business in the 1930s, he literally found his little store nestled between a large OK Bazaars and a Woolworths. To keep his customers amidst growing competition, he realised that he had to find a differentiator for his business.”
 
This differentiator became personal relationships and personalised service, and today the company retains that service philosophy which is evident in the loyalty of its customer base.
 
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