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Sibling entrepreneurs find niche in school bags

Published:Friday | September 2, 2016 | 12:00 AMTameka Gordon
Randy McLaren, co-founder of bag company, Bresheh.
A Bresheh bag on display.
A Bresheh bag on display.
Bresheh bags on display.

Randy McLaren is hoping to capitalise on back-to-school shopping for his brand of locally made school bags branded Bresheh, a market the young businessman puts at US$1.5 million.

Jamaica imported over 600,000 school bags in 2014, mostly from India, China and the United States, McLaren said, citing industry data.

Bresheh has eyes on at least 20 per cent of this market, which McLaren hopes to attain within two to five years.

McLaren and his younger brother Davian started the company in July 2015, "right in the middle of the back-to-school season.

"Within a week, we sold our first bag and sales have been rolling in steadily since then. I thought it would die down after the back-to-school season, but it has kept going," McLaren said.

As to why they chose that line of business, he said "we realised that people were doing sauces and other stuff, but there wasn't an established bag brand in Jamaica of this side of the Caribbean".

Had no training

Neither of the brothers had any training in stitching bags or even sewing in general, but Davian would practise after coming in from work, using an old domestic sewing machine that the family had.

Within a month, the younger brother quit his job at a department store in downtown Kingston and the two invested $45,000 in a second-hand industrial sewing machine.

The start-up cost ran close to $100,000 "for things like thread, needles, webbing and the machine," said McLaren, who is also a dub poet.

"We went in and talked to his boss and told them we were going on our own, and they basically encouraged us and told us all the best," he said.

The company has evolved from a two-man outfit operating from their veranda, to producing some 700 bags in their first year with a staff of five from their new base at the Alpha Institute on South Camp Road in Kingston.

"Clearly, we haven't even scraped the surface of the market yet, so there is still a lot of room for growth," McLaren said of the company's output.

So far, Bresheh has sold bags in Scotland and Japan, McLaren said, with payments facilitated by PayPal and direct debit.

The rented space at the Alpha Institute has also made manufacturing and distribution a lot easier for the team, he said, as the 962-square-foot facility means the company can now meet larger orders.

Funds received a month ago through an IGNITE grant, provided by the Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ), was also pumped into the company. Bresheh purchased another machine, McLaren said, as the company positioned for back-to-school shoppers.

The rented space also came with a machine that helped to boost production, he said.

"We are also in the Guinness Made of More competition," McLaren said, noting the company is hoping to leverage that experience and funds, if they win, to push for more growth.

The small company opted not to push its products, on a large scale, to corporate Jamaica just yet, "because you don't want to grow too quickly," he said.

"That can break your business, because if you get the demand for 100 bags and, at the end of the day, you cannot fulfil that, then they will think you are a joke and you are not serious about business," said McLaren, whose approach to the development of the business has been facilitated by training received at the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship.

"We want to take it in stages," he said, even while acknowledging that in order to grow, Bresheh must increase its markets.

McLaren says he hopes, by year end, to have a presence in gift shops around the island as well as in other Caribbean and North American markets.

Pencil cases, lunch bags, totes and duffel bags have been added to the company's product lines, and handbags will follow shortly.

"We will also be going to corporate entities to provide gift items for the customers for Christmas," he said.

Customised bags

Unlike the ready-made bags that are imported, Bresheh allows clients to customise their items with their names, company logo or image.

"Whatever colours or compartments they want, we can do that. If, for example, you want a secret compartment that you can hide your passports or other documents in, we can do that too," he said.

The fledgling company has also tapped into the entertainment market, creating customised satchels for entertainers/performers who use their image as their brands. These are built into the bags, he said.

Material for Bresheh's bags is sourced locally "but we have a problem with consistency," said McLaren.

To counter this, the company is forging relationships with larger entities that have established links to overseas suppliers who can import the fabrics in bulk on their behalf.

"We are trying to work the different angles to see what works best," he said.