The 'art' of commerce - Young entrepreneur weathers setbacks, grows business

Published: Sunday | June 21, 2009



Contributed
Kevin Frith, entrepreneur and principal owner of PCF Company Limited.

Avia Collinder, Business Reporter

The story of PCF Company Limited, a producer of branded items and art-based memorabilia, is one of perseverance by a teenage artist, determined to build a business with his own hands, literally.

The business, with headquarters on Slipe Road, Kingston, was started in 2003 by Kevin Frith, only 19 at the time, but with artistic skills he leveraged to create an entrepreneurial venture producing graphic-art products for a growing market.

$12-million asset base

From its genesis as a home-based operation with no machinery or other working capital, just Frith painstakingly hand-painting cups to sell at a little more than cost price, the business now boasts a $12-million asset base, sales in excess of $4 million, three outlets in Kingston, a staff of 27, and at least one sales representative in every parish.

Frith next move is expansion into North America.

Image Plus is the merchandising line of a still diversifying PCF.

In this line of business, the now 25-year-old Frith and his team superimpose company and other institutional brands on to souvenir items, having successfully tapped into a growing local and overseas market.

Contributing to the company's growth is yet another production line, Preserving Memories, which specialises in air-locking photographic images on wood, stone and other materials to create beautiful and long-lasting memorabilia.

Partnership

The business has benefited from a partnership which Frith forged in 2007 with Patrick Cawley, a 46-year-old banker, who walked away from his position as a credit manager at RBTT Bank to invest in and manage PCF.

That's how much, Cawley told Sunday Business, he believed in the company.

In the first two months of 2009, the business, in which Frith is responsible for marketing and strategic development, turned over sales in excess of the total of $4.3 million it did in all of 2008.

Frith believes he is now reaping the rewards of persistence despite significant setbacks while building the business.

In 2003, the teenager graduated from Dunoon Technical High School in the Corporate Area. He immediately set about earning an income from hand-painting images on coffee mugs, T-shirts and scrolls.

With his painted mugs fetching $100 each, the artist responded to increasing requests for his product by selling a car he had acquired with compensation money from a motor-vehicle accident and investing the proceeds in the business.

In those early days, the cups were sold to schools as graduation souvenirs, to companies as gifts, and to individuals for Mother's and Father's day presents.

The enterprising Frith recalls that one of his earliest supporters was Thelma Azan of Azan Supercentre in Kingston.

"Thelma Azan was really good. She believed in me as a young person and encouraged me."

Customers' deposits

But he remembers, too, being dangerously dependent on customers' deposits to keep the business going. Many times, none was made.

The mugs were selling well and a machine was needed for faster production.

After an Internet search, the emerging businessman spent US$1,000 on the purchase, only to realise after receiving the equipment, that the machine worked only with a particular kind of cup. Frith says he exhausted his funds buying the cups, which turned out to be the wrong kind.

Working with his first piece of equipment was "a terrible experience," he recalled, noting that he had to learn along the way.

After two months of trial and error, he discovered a way to get the machine to print designs on local cups and the budding entrepreneur landed his first order of 60 mugs for Cornwall College in Montego Bay, which accepted the delivery even though it was late.

Later, after more trial and error, Frith discovered a laminate which permitted the fixing of images on wood, stone and other materials. Preserving Memories was born.

The search for capital began in 2005 when Frith approached the Micro Enterprise Financing Limited (MEFL) for $50,000, which was used to buy raw materials and rent operating space at East Street in downtown Kingston.

At the new location, he also employed a carpenter to cut wood, and two other workers to do sanding.

"It was quite difficult to put almost everything earned back into the business," said Frith, then the father of two. But reinvest he did, and by the end of 2005, he recorded sales of over $1 million, but did not make a profit.

"There was a lot of spoilage because the workers were new and I had to be training them myself," he explains.

Additional financing

In 2006, Frith increased staff and sought additional financing. He received a line of credit from Hardware and Lumber and a second and third loan from MEFL, after paying off previous ones.

Having refurbished the East Street location with the last loan in a bid to attract walk-in customers, extortionists struck and the business place was broken into and plundered.

Frith lost all his finished goods and equipment with orders to fill and loans to repay.

"I was back at square one. It was a massive blow," he remembered.

"I knew within myself that it was a test of my faith to see if I was strong."

It was one of his customers in Kingston, who offered him a loan to start over. He moved with his family, from his Ocean Towers studio apartment back to Duhaney Park.

For him, August to December 2006 was "a really rough time."

In 2007, as the then 22-year-old approached RBTT for a loan, his luck started to change for the better.

Not only did he get an unsecured loan of $400,000, but Patrick Cawley, the credit manager with 23 years in banking, pulled up stumps at the finance house and invested his own money and time into the fledgling business.

Significant sales impact

"What Frith was doing had the potential to make a significant impact in terms of sales," says Cawley.

"There was also the possibility to diversify the product line with more resources."

PCF was registered in April 2007 as a limited liability company and the push began for product diversification, capacity building and growing market share.

The newly registered business made its debut with a raft of memorabilia for entertainer, Jah Cure's Curefest show at the Trelawny Multi-purpose Stadium.

The company also recently produced the album design for singer Coco T's Barack Obama.

PCF has expanded to three locations in Kingston with plans to establish a sales outlet in Canada.

"We are expanding the capacity of the factory so that when we do get the jobs, we will be able to produce on a timely basis," Cawley said.

Frith, the persevering artist and entrepreneur, says his major challenge now is finding suitable workers for his growing business.

avia.collinder@gleanerjm.com