For more than three decades Kennith Barlow, the popular general manager of Cape Union Mart and Tread & Miller and outdoor merchandise director, was known as Kennith from Cape Union Mart. Now, for the first time in his working life, he will be identified as Kennith Barlow, family man and father of four.
After taking a reflective break from the company he first joined 32 years ago as a casual while still at school, he will explore what he wants to do with the second half of his life. He is adamant that he never wanted to leave Cape Union Mart to go to another company and therefore deliberately didn’t actively explore other options while still employed.
Among the many possibilities he is considering is training and mentoring young people, as this form of assistance he received at Cape Union Mart is among the things he appreciates most about working for the company. Always passionate about training and developing young talent himself, he beams with pride when talking about how well his teams have done.
“I cannot speak highly enough of the family [the Krawitz company owners) and the great opportunities they have given me, and the true love they have for the people in the company,” says Barlow. “Cape Union Mart is a corporate company that still has the values of a family business.”
”I was so lucky to have ended up in such a great company at such a young age with so many opportunities to grow.”
One of the things chairman Philip Krawitz has really driven is a culture of learning, he adds. The company partly sponsored his B.Comm studies and MBA, which he completed in 2003-4.
“Constantly moving forward and growing are ingrained in the culture of the business,” he says. Krawitz has two plaques against his wall: one says if the rate of change in the company is not equal to or greater than the rate of change in the market, the company will be left behind. Likewise, if the rate of change of the individual is not equal to or greater than the rate of change in the company, then the individual will be left behind.
Ironically, this culture of encouraging personal growth and learning could have planted the seed with him to explore new horizons outside the company, where he had been part of the top management structure for quite a few years. He has always thrived on challenges and constantly wants to learn new things, he says.
Praise for his mentors
The company always pushed boundaries, Barlow recounts, and one of his personal mentors throughout his career was Creative Director Ken Lazarus (now retired). The modern outdoor look of the stores, developments like the ground breaking world-class Adventure Centres in the V&A Waterfront and Century City, the Old Khaki and Poetry stores, bear testimony to his vision as a retailer.
Lazarus also taught him a lot about buying after he was promoted to footwear buyer in the head office. When travelling together, Lazarus would look at a product in terms of what it could become, not what it is. “He would suggest if you change this or change that … and it would bring the product to life. It was amazing learning from someone like him.”
Brian Murphy, current group COO, was another senior colleague that played a big role in his career. “Through his retail knowledge and the way he took action he became one of my mentors throughout my career,” he says. “He also showed me the ropes in negotiating.”
While Lazarus inspired his creative part, “Brian (Murphy) fed my business side, by showing how to bring it all together and get the best price and speed of action to the market.”
When Barlow started as a casual worker in 1988, Cape Union Mart consisted of three stores with a wonderful old-fashioned army and navy trading store atmosphere. Clothing, footwear and equipment were stacked on wooden shelves and blue carpet tiles on the floor.
Arthur Krawitz, son of Cape Union Mart founder Philip and father of the current chairman, Phillip, kept an eye on the salesmen on the floor. “He insisted that we must always have three things in our pockets for survival: a pocketknife to cut things, change for a phone call and I think a piece of string to tie things down,” recounts Barlow.
In the early 1990’s the stores in the company founded in 1933 started getting a new look, thanks to Lazarus. The first store he opened in the Blue Route Mall was decked out in wood and had an unique outdoor feel to it, which inspired a whole new look and feel in the group’s stores. This became a turning point in Cape Union Mart’s history as a chain, Barlow believes.
When the Victoria Wharf shopping centre in the V&A Waterfront opened in 1992, Cape Union Mart opened a store in the mall, which Barlow ran as weekend manager — tiny, compared to the modern spaces, yet a modern flagship in the early nineties.
Lazarus had mooted the idea of creating a chain of concept stores featuring their Old Khaki outdoor-lifestyle clothing in 1999, but the idea was originally developed as a store-in-store concept in the Cape Union Mart stores. “But, there was just so much potential for it to live in its own space and we decided to open the stand-alone Old Khaki stores.”
In 2005 Barlow led a team to open the first Old Khaki store, and was appointed general manager of the rapidly growing chain, which now has about 70 stores. That was an exciting and momentous period in Barlow’s life.
Climbing Kilimanjaro and Elbrus
The company and the family invest a lot into its people for training courses and coaching. In 2004, Barlow and former Communications Director Evan Torrance completed their MBA studies — sponsored by the company — and the following year became part of a company team to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, before both joining the executive team and being appointed directors in 2005. This prompted the joke that you had to go up the mountain before getting promoted.
About six or seven teams of Cape Union Mart employees climbed the mountain kitted out in K-Way gear and equipment from their stores. “At one stage there were over 50 Kili summiteers working for the company,” recounts Barlow. That sadly came to an end when the rates became prohibitively expensive.
In 2012 he also planted the Cape Union Mart flag on Mount Elbrus.
Barlow was also appointed outdoor division merchandise director, in addition to running Old Khaki.
After a few years, he was appointed general manager of Cape Union Mart. A colleague, who was part of the team to open the women-focused Poetry stores, took over as Old Khaki general manager.
Always looking for new concepts, the executive team decided to open a new chain with a footwear focus and because of his experience as a footwear buyer, Barlow was asked to lead a team to launch the first Tread & Miller store in 2015. Under Barlow’s guidance as general manager, it quickly grew to more than 30 stores.
He enjoyed the challenge, even though he had a big portfolio as Cape Union Mart and Tread & Miller general manager as well as group merchandise director. He especially enjoyed travelling to trade shows in Germany and the US, looking at new equipment, footwear and clothing ranges and planning ranges, and making friends across the world.
The group now has more than 315 stores across 5 chains.Which begs the question: why did they succeed while so many other retailers failed?
They succeeded because of their unique team with an unique outlook and set of skills, he believes.
“For us it is all about DARE: Delivering Awesome Retail Experiences. We look at the whole retail experience from our customers’ point of view. What do our customers see in terms of merchandise and the friendliness of our people?
“We do a lot of training and development of people and growing people.”
Attending the annual long-service awards is an amazing experience for him because there are so many of the people who celebrate their service in 5-year increments that have been with the company for more than 25 years.
“We could not have achieved anything without the fantastic people in the organisation. There are so many good people who had been given the space to flourish.”
One of the most telling memories he has illustrates how the family values and love for people drives the company. Years ago, the K-Way factory made huge losses and Philip Krawitz was advised by his board to close the factory.
He invited the executive team to his home and all of them also advised him to close the factory. “He looked up with tears in his eyes and said guys we employ 250 people who support 250 families and even though it is making a huge loss, I can’t do that,” recounts Barlow. “For me, that is the essence of the company.”
Subsequently, the factory was turned around and nowadays the bulk of the K-Way apparel styles are made in the flourishing factory … vindicating Krawitz’ support of the workforce.
Snapshot of Barlow’s career
1988 – 89: Casual worker as matriculant and first year of varsity.
1990: Compulsory army service.
1991: Joined company full-time.
1992: Part of team to open the V&A Waterfront store, weekend manager.
1996: Footwear buyer at head-office.
2003-4: Completes MBA, partly sponsored by Cape Union Mart.
2005: Climbs Kilimanjaro.
2005: Open 1st Old Khaki store; GM till 2009.
2005: Merchandise Director of the Outdoor Division.
2008: GM Cape Union Mart.
2015: GM of Tread & Miller.
Group growth in Barlow’s time
1988: Three Cape Union Mart stores
2005: Old Khaki chain launched
2008: 1st Adventure Centre opened in
V & A Waterfront
2008/9: Poetry chain launched
2015: Tread & Miller chain launched
2015: Keedo chain acquired
2020: More than 315 stores in 5 chains