To achieve 35% annual growth in this tough economic climate, surely requires rocket science. Not so, says Hi-Tec SA and Duca del Cosma international owner Frank van Wezel. It is quite simple: business is all about human contact.
“When people like doing business with you because you solve problems for them and don’t let them down, they will want to make sure you are successful. Be the honest guy that give them a product they can make a profit from. That way everybody benefits as the shopkeeper will drive your sales.”
His ebullient, infectiously positive outlook makes it easy to enjoy doing business with Van Wezel – especially as he employs creative ways to personally solve customer problems (see below). After nearly 45 years of Hi-Tec growing into an annual 250-m euro global brand, it is also safe to say that it provides retailers with profitable products.
Two years ago, Van Wezel, aged 75, embarked on the third phase of his life after he and the family agreed to sell the Hi-Tec brand to Cherokee Global Brands, based in the US. He bought the Hi-Tec South Africa subsidiary out of the deal because he has always had a very good and close relationship with South Africa – where he owns properties in Camps Bay and more recently also in De Zalze, near Stellenbosch. “I love Stellenbosch,” he enthuses, especially as Hi-Tec now sponsors the Maties rugby team.
As a sideline, he also acquired the Duca del Cosma brand, whose exquisitely designed styles captivated him when he first saw the brand several years before. It was in liquidation when Van Wezel bought it in 2016, but it “is making steady progress,” he said in a telephonic interview from Amsterdam. Over the past year this stylish golf brand has contributed 7-10% to the company’s revenue growth and it is on track to becoming the #1 golfing brand, he believes.
Two years ago, the plan was that he would have more time for playing golf and tennis and relaxing at his Camps Bay home overlooking the sea, while still keeping an interest in the footwear industry.
Did this work out as planned?
Van Wezel laughs and confirms that yes, he does play sports – but early in the day, before his very busy schedule at the office takes over. “I have a good life, with plenty of things to do,” he says.
Duca del Cosma keeps him busy, he confirms, and he also has an interest in a bit of real estate and keeps abreast of developments at Hi-Tec SA. For example, the brand’s expansion into African countries like Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania and Nigeria, as well as the Southern African region (Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe). “Hi-Tec South Africa is going tremendously, we are beating the recession!”
Duca’s current strong growth comes from golf, not the lifestyle offerings he initially expected. This is driven by, for example, a prominent presence as official sponsor at the recent KLM Open. “We found that we owned the tournament – all the marshals, everyone on course, were wearing Duca del Cosma clothing and footwear. We also had a huge store, which was very well supported.”
There is also a big demand for Duca product from retailers in Germany and Great Britain, and they are making inroads into the Far East, while distribution into the US is there next target. The brand is internationalising rapidly, says Van Wezel. “But, we need to do things properly,” he cautions, which would entail bigger production runs, leading to more stock, requiring more sales and more sales channels, enabling the company to buy better and eventually improve the way they do business. Once the golf part of the business is nailed down, he believes the lifestyle range will sell itself.
His wife, Caroline (with him at the top), who is an experienced public relations officer, works with him as PR Director, ensuring that the brand gets the necessary digital exposure to build consumer interest.
Hi-Tec was born in 1974 because Van Wezel wanted to develop a decent, lightweight, squash shoe for the game he enjoyed so much. At that stage he was working for an international agricultural-chemical company in Kenya and Zimbabwe and frequently visited South Africa. But, once the market became aware of this new court shoe sensation he found out there was “a lot more to fish for” and resigned from his day job to concentrate on building a multi-million Rand global footwear brand, delivering 13-m pairs annually in more than 100 countries.
Stores in the US – quite rightly – believed that if Hi-Tec could produce a lightweight court shoe, they could make a lightweight hiking shoe, which opened new sales channels. In Holland their walking shoes drove brand recognition. “We re-engineered continuously for popular sports like squash, badminton, tennis, soccer, hiking, walking,” he says, proudly looking back.
When he created that first squash shoe, he could not foresee how big Hi-Tec would eventually grow. “Now I know a little bit more than in the squash days,” he says, and can therefore foresee the possibilities of Duca del Cosma becoming the top global technical golf brand, and then branching out into fashion lifestyle.
“Application! Application! Application – and being stubborn in what we do,” he responds to a question about the reasons for their success. “When things don’t work, we will apply ourselves again to solve the problem in another way. We have a never give up attitude.
“For example, if we have production issues in one factory, we will try another, if we have issues with sales, we will try another sales channel. But, we will not resign ourselves to the problem, nor give up trying to resolve the issue.”
One of the unique ways of solving the problem of customers who are unhappy with a product, is the now legendary letter and contact details of the chairman, inserted with each product sold. The practice of Hi-Tec’s chairman personally responding to the many emails of praise, personal stories about products, as well as some complaints, has been carried over to Duca del Cosma.
So often, when customers are unhappy with a product, they don’t know where else to turn apart from complaining to the retailer, who was not responsible for the problem, explains Van Wezel. By inviting customers to contact him directly via email or telephone, he not only shields the retailer from being hassled by angry customers but can also take direct action to ensure that the customer is happy because the chairman had attended to his/her problem personally.
He mentions the example of a woman who phoned to complain that a Duca del Cosma jacket had stained her white trousers. He was surprised, because he had the same jacket and never encountered a problem with stains, but instead of questioning her claims, he immediately offered to refund her the cost of a new pair of trousers. The 35 euro she quoted was an excellent investment, because she could hardly believe her ears and exclaimed that he had made a Duca del Cosma customer for life! “If she buys one pair of shoes, I would make that 35euro back over and over.”
Not to mention the good publicity the brand will receive when she tells her fellow golfers and friends that she received a personal refund from the chairman … as opposed to the damage an unhappy customer would do who complains to everybody about the damage she suffered.
Furthermore, it makes the shopkeepers happy. Because you do not make their lives unduly difficult, they will want to do business with you, he believes.
His son, Ed van Wezel, has swopped the corporate role of Hi-Tec International’s CEO for a more entrepreneurial role. His new company, International Brand Group, has taken over Hi-Tec’s distribution and licensing in Latin America, Asia Pacific and Middle East.
“If I could have my life over, I would do everything the same in a heartbeat,” Van Wezel concludes. “I cannot believe how blessed I have been.” Except, one regret: that he didn’t accept an offer to invest in a small sport start-up, which eventually became a multi-billion Pound business. But, he says philosophically, “sometimes you have to make a mistake to ensure that you do the right thing going forward.”
Perhaps thinking of the right thing he did when he purchased and turned around Duca del Cosma?