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Africa Outlook

Manufacturing
Labels
RFID
ITL Group
apparel industry
South Africa manufacturing

ITL GROUP

Growing in Style

ITL Group’s Chris Currie reveals how the Company is continuing on a path of double digit growth, powered by innovation and expansion into new markets 

Writer: Tom Wadlow

Project Manager: Lewis Bush

Last year $1.7 trillion of apparel and footwear was purchased around the world. A market in which demand will never cease, this figure is forecast by Euromonitor to grow by $34 billion by 2022. 

Childrenswear and high-performance outdoors and sportswear are major drivers of this upward trajectory, the latter growing by 6.8 percent last year, well above the overall market rise of four percent. 

Behind the scenes, these shifting dynamics are prompting manufacturers to innovate, not least in the labelling space. For South Africa’s International Trimmings and Labels (ITL Group), innovation and agility has propelled it into a growth phase that shows no signs of relenting. 

Printing 3.5 billion labels annually, ITL Group is building on more than 40 years of experience in apparel labelling, helping some of the world’s most recognisable brands enhance their image and share vital information with customers. From Next, Dunnes and Tesco to La Senza, American Eagle, Monsoon and Marks & Spencer, as well as most large South African retailers the Company has become a go-to for numerous apparel retail giants and many other fashion outlets.  

ITL Group not only produces customer-facing brand labels for clients around the world, but also supports supply chain operations through smart labelling solutions which provide crucial visibility for logistics, product identification pricing and on stock levels.  

Charged with identifying new opportunities for growth is Chris Currie, Executive Director for Developing Markets. Since joining in 2006, he has spent most of his career with the ITL Group and has loved every moment of it. 

“It has been a fantastic learning experience,” he says. “I work with high calibre South African businesspeople with great values and vision. 

“Together and under the leadership of experienced and dynamic CEO Fred Christopher they have created a business that, whilst relatively large and complex with many business lines and operating in over 15 countries and growing, has maintained a customer focussed entrepreneurial culture with enough corporate structure to manage the risk and support further growth in a healthy way.”

Global network

Since achieving its first international blue-chip accreditation from Marks & Spencer in 1991, ITL Group has rapidly expanded its manufacturing footprint outside of its home country. 

The Company has built bases in major garment producing hubs, including Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, China, Bangladesh, South Africa, India, Mexico, Turkey, Vietnam and Ethiopia as well as offices in the UK, North and Central America. 

“We continuously target expansion into new regions identified with sufficient business opportunities; such as Mauritius, Lesotho, Ethiopia, North Vietnam and North China, all of which we are at various stages in the process of setting up,” Currie adds.

Building expertise has also been critical to ITL Group’s continuing double-digit growth. “We have been growing strongly for a long period of time, new business and acquisitions has played a big part,” Currie adds.  

Remaining relevant 

One such acquisition, completed in 2015, was that of Canadian firm Overheer. Specialising in RFID software, the Overheer move has enabled ITL to offer clients its own end-to-end RFID business solution, Reflect RFID, designed to empower head offices, store and warehouse managers by raising the level of inventory accuracy. 

“A big problem for retailers is not knowing exactly what levels of stock they have at a detailed level in a fast-moving environment 100 percent of the time,” Currie explains. “This presents problems when customers come into a store and they don’t always have the item they want in their size and colour when they want it. This only happens because stores often don’t easily know exactly what they’ve got. 

“RFID enables stores to quickly and cheaply count stock on a daily basis before they open for trading, making sure they order and put the right stock on the floor. This can result in sales uplift of around seven to 10 percent.”  

The solution is integrated into ITL’s LabelVantage as well as the customers’ ERP systems on a non-invasive basis, with one of the benefits for customers being they don’t have to invest in heavy IT infrastructure due to its cloud-based platform. 

Proof of concept projects have already been implemented and production commenced in Q2 of last year for US brands Macy’s and Bloomingdales, with several South African retailers of various sizes also on board. The firm is currently engaged with a number of other retailers and brands over the deployment of RFID as momentum is rapidly building in the market for this new technology-based business solution. ITL is even testing the technology in its own operations. 

Another technological trend Currie highlights, and one that the Company is forging ahead with, is digital printing of both fabric and paper-based labels and heat transfers. With a number of digital printing machines already in place, further bespoke solutions are also being developed. 

Currie adds: “There is definitely still a large space for the traditional old school way of printing, because they produce fantastic high-quality end results, but the processes are capital and labour intensive. 

“It is critical we develop these digital solutions as a complimentary service offering, especially at a time when smaller orders with more changes are becoming commonplace, and with ever shorter lead times being demanded by the market. The technology is improving, and we must be at the forefront.”

Strong values

ITL Group’s ongoing expansion and innovation drives are underpinned by four core values which run through the Company’s team of employees and define its relationships with customers. 

The first of these is ownership, an ethos of giving 100 percent and taking 100 percent ownership of the job in hand, backed up by the second core value, integrity, which encourages staff to avoid just choosing the easy option. 

Trust and accountability complete these foundational values, demonstrated by the Company’s longstanding relations with both clients and suppliers from around the world. 

“We look to develop strategic partnerships with our suppliers and build healthy relationships based upon trust, service and value,” Currie explains. 

“We carefully select our suppliers and rarely change them as our credibility and future is in each other’s hands. We engage in regular compliance and performance audits and work together to share opportunities and grow our businesses in a balanced and healthy way.”

An increasingly vital component of these supplier relations revolves around sustainability. “We adopt a multifaceted approach to CSR starting with focus on key pillars of people, profit and planet,” continues Currie.

“For instance, there are many ways we reduce our environmental footprint, such as reducing waste in our processes, and using more water-based inks or recycled materials from sustainable sources.” 

Maintaining momentum 

In order to extend its phase of growth, ITL has identified numerous avenues that it continues to explore in the coming months, from expanding operations geographically to acquiring companies that add strategic value to its supply chain.  

The firm already has the global foundations of a much larger business, and leveraging this will prove vital in years to come. Further innovation of products and solution and implementation of lean manufacturing techniques are also highlighted as means to drive upside, helping continue a journey that still excites Currie 12 years on. 

He concludes: “It has been a fulfilling time full of growth and opportunities with more on the way. I am enjoying my time at ITL in a challenging, fast-paced and growth orientated environment. 

“We have so far been successful in achieving our goals over the last 10 years, key to that being the fact we have made mistakes and have tried to learn from these. Our plan is to keep our business relevant and to double it in size in the next four years; we are on track to achieve that.”