Clothing with Culture
Pep Clothing has been producing carefully crafted garments for more than 50 years, its longevity a product of a company culture that puts people at its heart
Writer: Tom Wadlow | Project Manager: Kyle Livingstone
“I have a love affair with fabrics, and I love working for the group. Even though we are a publicly listed company, it feels like a family business and a family entity, with people at its heart and values that I closely identify with personally. I’ve been on an exciting journey and touched almost every part of the business over nearly 30 years.”
Marthie Raphael was destined to enjoy a long career in the garment industry at Pep Clothing.
Having funded a degree in Consumer Science from Stellenbosch University by making and selling her own evening and bridal wear, a passion inspired by consecutive creative generations in the family, the now-CEO has only worked at one organisation and its affiliates since graduating in 1992.
The organisation in question is Pepkor, a holding company which owns the largest retail store footprint in Southern Africa, with Pep Clothing operating as its garment manufacturing arm, based at a factory just outside of Cape Town for more than 50 years.
Raphael began her career as a Quality Engineer at this division (then known as Pep Manufacturing), moving to a Pepkor joint venture site in Malawi for four years before returning to South Africa in the retail wing of the group. In 2003, she moved back into the Pep Clothing business, working her way up through business development and logistics roles, becoming CEO in 2006.
Today, the company produces around 15 million high quality items a year for retailers all over Southern Africa, including those within the wider Pepkor group and external customers.
Its main product lines include school wear, underwear, flip flops and the recently added medical garment category, these carefully crafted products produced by a workforce of around 2,000 dedicated personnel.
And many of these employees share Raphael’s passion and love for the business. The CEO’s long career with Pep Clothing is by no means occurring in isolation – staff turnover is extremely low, and hiring only tends to occur in batches when a new production line is launched.
“People are our business,” Raphael says. “Values drive behaviour and culture, and our entire organisation, both at Pep Clothing and Pepkor, revolves around relationships and caring for our people. We are all based at one site, and therefore the relationships between us are critical to productivity.
“We have a very active culture calendar to reinforce our values, and actively seek to make a difference in our people’s lives. Our care committee helps employees who face difficult situations such as a flooded home, and we rally round to help each other. It is a testament to our culture because, even though individual staff may not have much, they are always there to help others in need.”
Indeed, culture is as important as competency when Pep Clothing does engage in recruitment, the CEO also explaining a preference to train new recruits from within, leveraging the considerable practical and virtual resources of Pepkor, which includes several modules on the culture and values underpinning the organisation.
Adapting to the new normal
For Raphael, this emphasis on values not only explains why she has stayed with the group for so long, but is also the single most significant factor behind its sustained success over more than half a century.
And today, during a time dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, this sense of togetherness is more important than ever.
Pep Clothing, a people intensive operation used to working at close quarters with one another, has had to adapt more than most in order to safeguard its employees and comply with regulations issued by South African health authorities.
“We actually had a bit of a head start here in Cape Town,” Raphael states. “This is because hand sanitising has been in place here for around three years due to Cape Town’s water shortages. Scaling that up has therefore been fairly straightforward, but we’ve faced other challenges in terms of wearing masks and especially social distancing.
“For our production lines to run effectively, people need to be close as we don’t have machinery which passes a garment from person to person. We have installed screens in the canteen and production line to reduce the risk of transmission, but we’ve not been able to avoid the need for people to get up and move products, so productivity has of course been affected.
“We’ve also developed a detailed contact tracing system, so if one of our employees tests positive, we can identify who they have been in contact with and quarantine those people. It has certainly been a challenge, but we have acted quickly and handled the situation well.”
Indeed, the introduction of the medical garments line is also a direct consequence of the coronavirus outbreak, which has struck South Africa particularly hard in comparison to the rest of the continent.
Pep Clothing will produce around 500,000 disposable gowns over the next financial year beginning October 2020, in addition to those currently in production, with plans to diversify into coveralls (boiler suit-like garments) around February 2021 once new waterproofing machinery has been installed at the Cape Town factory.
“Historically South Africa has relied on imported medical clothing, especially in the disposable segment, but we plan to keep this production line in operation permanently once the pandemic has passed,” Raphael says. “It has required a lot of collaboration between various stakeholders to create a suitable product, but we’ve developed a fabric with our textiles partners and are supplying local hospitals.”
On the front foot
The medical line of business joins flip flops as a new venture for Pep Clothing, which has carved a niche in this part of the footwear market after an extremely productive foray over the past 18 months or so.
Raphael reveals that 90 new hires were required to kickstart the operation, which currently produces around five million pairs of flip flops a year. Such has been the success to date, the company received a Disney Award for the best product in Africa last year in the flip flop category, what the CEO describes a major confidence boost.
“The award was tremendous recognition for the team and is a huge feather in their caps,” Raphael says.
“Being a clothing factory, we’ve never ventured into the realm of footwear before, so to create a whole new division from scratch with brand new people was a big task. The fact they’ve managed to win an award within eight months of production starting is a massive motivation for them – I am extremely proud.”
Growing output of both the flip flop and medical categories is a major priority for Pep Clothing over the coming year, these avenues seen as opportunities to offset any slowdown in business in more conventional product lines as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 impact on the national and regional economy.
This is one of three key objectives for Raphael, another being to develop more customers within the Pepkor group.
The third is to drive continuous improvement and build further efficiency within its operations, an ongoing goal which highlights the crucial nature of relationships with partners up and down the supply chain.
“We cannot afford to have any bottlenecks, and so our supply chain is critical, from packaging and admin to transportation and distribution,” Raphael says. “We therefore invest heavily in this area, not necessarily purely financial, but also in terms of time, effort and education.
“For the past six years we have run a very successful supply development programme, which has enabled us to massively improve our on time and in full performance across the supplier network – from about 66 percent up to 99 percent – with all of our suppliers.”
The CEO goes on to describe the personal nature of these relationships, the company opting not to use an agent and deal directly with partners – whether based in South Africa or internationally, Pep Clothing will visit supplier premises at least once a year.
Again, people are key to finding the winning formula, both inside and outside of the company. And for Raphael, the future hinges on the motivation of employees, their wellbeing continuing to be front and centre of considerations as the firm navigates its way through this extraordinary period.
She signs off with optimism, looking ahead to a bright future.
“I am confident about what the year ahead has in store. While we are not expecting, for obvious reasons, to see much growth, there are many focus areas that are cause for excitement.
“We have a saying here that we have to do something better today than we did yesterday, and that philosophy will carry us through the times ahead.”