Business orthodoxy 101: Pay your bills
Avia Collinder, Business Writer
Genevieve Blake, the 50-something owner of the Kim Sue Dean house of design (KSD), dropped out of school twice but has been cushioned by an entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for fashion that has become her support.
Blake says she has managed to make a "fair living" out of custom work and uniform manufacture in nine years of registered operation.
The last four, however, have been challenging.
Year 2011 ended with KSD being more than J$1 million in the red following a misunderstanding about general consumption tax payments and a break-in and robbery in the Kingston business place.
Blake says she is undaunted and is optimistic that this year will see a turnaround for the small business.
The businesswoman describes her guiding philosophy as being: to hang one's basket in places where it is easy to reach.
For KSD, this means renting instead of owning shop space, which costs no more than current revenues justify, and paying the bills regularly - especially the rent and electricity. If these two are paid, she insists, no matter what shocks occur, the business can stay afloat.
Marketing oneself also helps. Blake has formed linkages with fabric providers who also funnel manufacturing jobs to KSD. In addition, two of three daughters who were schooled with the income from personal and company projects over a 15-year period are now working in the business, providing support.
While KSD was incorporated nine years ago, Blake says she has been sewing all her life, going from factory to fashion house in a bid to learn critical skills.
When one six-month course at a school in Cross Roads, Kingston, left her dissatisfied, she opted for 'trial-and-error' training, which involved working with other designers while she honed her craft.
At some factories, she recalls, "I stayed back on late shifts to learn new stitches and as soon as I learned somethings, I would move to another factory into a higher field where I could earn more money and other skills," Blake tells Sunday Business.
"Eventually, I started cutting up clothes at home and making them over. I started falling in love with dressmaking to the point where I started designing. I got clothes where the material was nice but style not so nice and made them over for my daughters."
Going into business was a decision made because of the financial challenge of caring for three daughters. "I was fully responsible for my daughters in terms of financing. Also, I did not like the treatment from my employers," she said.
The seamstress started earning from projects done at home before renting her first shop in the Ideal Trading building on Maxfield Park Road in Kingston. KSD shared space with a hair salon, but the cost was only J$800 and no more than Blake could afford.
Income from sales was enough to cover the expense.
"I always make sure that this (rent) is covered ... by paying your bills you keep advancing yourself and things will turn around," Blake said.
After one year, noise and traffic forced a relocation of business back home for one year and then another move to more congenial space in a basement in Commerce Plaza, off Hagley Park Road.
The rental for the bigger and more central location was J$10,000 monthly, but again it was justified by a plan for a larger operation.
"The shop was important because I wanted a bigger business. Staying at home is for a hand-to-mouth existence. You can't advertise and no one sees you. Getting a shop with signage and paying taxes, you become visible."
Blake spent 10 years at Commerce Plaza, during which time the business grew from the employment of one worker - herself - to eight.
"I went there with one industrial sewing machine and a domestic serger. When I left, I had nine machines and workers after starting alone."
The very first loan taken to build the business was J$36,000 borrowed from JN Small Business Loans Limited during the first year at the Hagley Park base to construct signage. The company also used income to list in the Yellow Pages in a push for visibility.
Blake recalls: "We made fliers and called around company, taking samples."
The next loan taken was to buy machinery, and today KSD has received a total of 16 loans from JN.
"When I finished each loan, I would take another to buy machines and build the company. Whenever I am short of cash, I would also take my loan," she said.
KSD's largest loan was J$400,000 at the height of the recession to fund the purchase a buttonhole machine from China, which cost J$500,000. The purchase was delayed. Instead, the money was used primarily for cash flow.
KSD's troubles continued with a break-in and accounting challenges with the tax office.
Since then: "The problems were cleared up and I am looking for better," said Blake.
"A business is just like a child. Take small steps before you can run. Sacrifice to pay rent and other bills. If these are paid, you can continue to work."
The company, which has in recent times moved to Tangerine Place in Kingston, also benefits from walk-in clientele. But the bread and butter of the business are current contracts with Singer Jamaica Limited, Jamaica Urban Transit Company, LP Azar Limited, the Transport Authority, Guardsman Limited, Marksman Limited and the Victoria Mutual Building Society.
The biggest boost for KSD, the owner notes, came from a relationship built with LP Azar which provides all fabrics needed for manufacture and also provides references for contracts. This company also bids on projects, using KSD as a manufacturer.
A staff of 11 works as long as it takes to complete jobs, with Blake noting that the women are highly motivated because they work to pay themselves.
"Sometimes we are here until 8 and 9 o' clock. Whatever they sew that is what they can get pay for."
One of her greatest challenges, she notes, is the search for new sewing talent. "It's very hard to find a good dressmaker. If I interview 100, there is only one that can really do the job. They can sew but what they are giving you is not what you are looking for," said Blake.
"A good dressmaker has neat finishing similar to any executive wear in a store. That is what we do here. When ladies get their uniforms, it is truly custom wear. If finishing is not good, in addition to fitting, it's no use," she said.
Now that KSD has a total of 11 industrial sewing machines, production is increasing.
Looking ahead, Blake hopes to land bigger jobs for companies within the Caribbean and to diversify into producing logos.
"Things are coming up, although most of money goes back into expenses. This year should be better," she said.