Designing Textiles for the World

The last 18 months have been a busy time for Zorbatex, a terry toweling manufacturing and distribution company based in South Africa. During that time, the company updated its factory with the most modern equipment and its facility is now one of the most advanced in the world.

“It is really phenomenal how much more productive the new machines are,” says Mike Wood, the CEO of Zorbatex. “They are so much more flexible and more reliable than the previous generation of machines. In the last 18 months we’ve really managed to make a major breakthrough in our productivity and costs.”

Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Zorbatex manufactures beach and bath towels, bath sheets, kitchen towels, dishcloths, baby cloth diapers. The company is a supplier to wholesalers and retailers and to major chain stores in South Africa. Zorbatex is currently exporting products into the world market and has sales reps in the USA, Canada and is now exploring the UK and European market.

New Equipment for Growth

“The company was started by my father in 1983,” says Wood. “He took over the remnants of a small kitchen towel factory which he proceeded to develop. And in 1987 we decided to move the company up to Ladysmith and at the same time bought the remains of another terry towel factory – and that got us into the terry towel business. In 1994, the company had grown to such a degree we decided to do a trip to Switzerland and we imported the latest Swiss and German manufactured terry towel weaving equipment. And basically that was when we made a major leap forward in growth.”

The latest addition in the new plant can produce a great variety of woven cloth, both terry and flat and this new equipment has enabled Zorbatex to create an original line of brightly coloured jacquard beach and bath towels. The company now has the capability to weave special features on the towels and in different sizes. Zorbatex also has its own design house to ensure that towels are made exactly to a customer’s specifications.

“We’ve done a lot of work on our jacquard line with our new equipment,” he adds. “The marketplace is evolving so fast that when we designed our new factory, we maximized the flexibility aspects to the business. Because what is on sale today is going to be copied by somebody and tomorrow the marketplace won’t really want it. So we develop new products all of the time.”

Another challenge that the company has experienced is the sale of illegal products which cut into the market share in South Africa.

“I think what happened in South Africa for a period of time, there was erred policing in customs and excise,” explains Wood. “People took advantage of this, mainly by under-invoicing or falsifying documents. They weren’t paying the correct duties and taxes on products. I think that damaged the textile industry tremendously in South Africa. But the government recognized this and I think they’ve put in place mechanisms in place to correct the situation.”

Think Global

While initially Zorbatex focused on the local market, the company in the last two years has focused on developing its growth across Africa. Through a multi-pronged approach, the company has established contacts with wholesalers and distributors across the continent. As well relationships with independent chain stores have been built.

Zorbatex has gained momentum with the installation of its new factory – the fastest in South Africa with the largest terry towel capacity – but moving forward, in order to grow even further, Wood says it’s important for the company to think globally.

“I think like most manufacturing companies in Africa, we’ve got to start to globalize in terms of the international market,” says Wood. “I think that we must be selling African manufactured goods to the world markets taking advantage of our core competencies and strategic advantages.

“Many South African companies have impediments because of closed market conditions previously. We’ve always been inward looking for our market, and I think in order to survive in the future, one’s got to have a finger in many pies. I think we will be exporting to Africa, Europe, the Americas, and to Australia. That’s really going to have to be our focus moving forward, we need to get beyond our national borders.”