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Jan Stimpson, founder of Burnaby, B.C.-based White House Design Co., which created the Sympli line of versatile clothing for women of all body types. (Ben Nelms for The Globe & Mail)
Jan Stimpson, founder of Burnaby, B.C.-based White House Design Co., which created the Sympli line of versatile clothing for women of all body types. (Ben Nelms for The Globe & Mail)

Mid-market Business

Canadian fashion designer conquers crowded U.S. market Add to ...

A series looking at the unique challenges facing Canada's midmarket companies and how they innovate, stay competitive and grow. In this piece: Operating off cash flow and being kind to retailers helped this company grow through the recession.

It all started with the hunt for a flattering T-shirt.

Jan Stimpson had worked in the fashion industry for years – as a wholesaler, retailer and designer. But by the nineties, her children were grown and leaving the nest, so Ms. Stimpson was looking to get more serious about building a company.

Inspiration struck while on a shopping trip. No matter which store she went to, the only T-shirt Ms. Stimpson could find was “an oversize box with no shape whatsoever.”

“I’m not a small person, but I’m not a large person, either,” says the Burnaby, B.C.-based founder of White House Design Co. Inc. “But I would go in a store, and all of a sudden I’m an extra large, and I thought it was really insulting. Styles were really cute but there was nothing that fit. And it wasn’t just me – so many women just couldn’t shop any more. There was very little, if anything at all, that you could find in a popular store or a little boutique.”

To remedy this hole in the marketplace, Ms. Stimpson decided to create Sympli, a line of versatile clothing for women of all body types. Each item would be designed in three different fits: snug (for smaller body types), relaxed (for “a 35-year-old who’s had a couple of kids and doesn’t want to wear skin-tight things,” Ms. Stimpson says) and tunic (for a fuller-figured woman).

“We offer the same style for everybody, we just reinterpret it so that they can wear that style in a way that’s flattering,” she says.

Since introducing the Sympli line in 2001, Ms. Stimpson has seen her business grow into a $14-million enterprise, with clothing sold in more than 700 stores in Canada and the United States. The line includes more than 300 designs in 38 colours. Sympli bucks the current trend of cheaply priced “fast fashion,” offering high quality wardrobe staples that are made in Canada with a “moderate to high” price point.

In the notoriously cutthroat world of retail in the United States, Sympli has flourished because the company spends a lot of time targeting and researching the stores and territories where they want to have a presence, Ms. Stimpson says. They find most of their vendors through apparel industry trade shows, showcasing their wares with models and plenty of samples. And, instead of just using U.S.-based agents to get them into stores, Ms. Stimpson employs her own agents, who live in Burnaby and travel back and forth to work hot markets such as New York, Atlanta and Las Vegas.

“We do a lot of targeting and visit stores just to make sure that it is, in fact, a good fit,” Ms. Stimpson says. “We want our retailers to really understand the concept and that they are not just appealing to one segment of the population. We are also pretty fussy about credit. So we do a lot of research before we commit to a vendor.”

Advertising dollars are spent almost exclusively on materials for Sympli retailers, such as style books, colour swatches, education tools and high-quality photographs. Retailers purchase the clothing outright, and order more if it sells well.

It’s a formula that helped White House Design thrive during the recession of 2008. The company actually grew, when so many in the retail sector were struggling. While this was partly a result of Sympli’s growing popularity with women, Ms. Stimpson says she also instituted some business practices that helped support the retailers who were carrying the Sympli line.

“We instituted a six-week turnaround. Most times in retail, you have to buy six to eight months ahead – or a year ahead if you’re buying from Europe – so you have to commit your dollars to really knowing how much money you’re going to have,” Ms. Stimpson says. “With a six-week turnaround, retailers could get right on top of the season. If the store was empty, they knew they could get something in six weeks.”

Ms. Stimpson also started an “in stock” program, so that best-selling items, or “proven sell-throughs,” would be stocked and available on a three-day turnaround.

“It was particularly instrumental for new stores, because they could come and buy just a few pieces, get a representation in the store and see how it was accepted before they committed more substantial dollar amounts,” she says.

Offering these kinds of benefits for retailers was hard work, says Ms. Stimpson, but it helped foster rapid growth during a precarious economic time.

“We were pretty pressed for several years there,” she says. “I could have said, ‘Let’s not sell quite as much, let’s stop growing, let’s not go into these new territories, let’s catch our breath.’ But I’d say something like that to the staff and the next day it would be like, it’s selling, so we have to go with it.”

Financial fitness is a priority for Ms. Stimpson. In fact, the company has operated solely on cash flow ever since an early financial setback having to do with a bank loan taken out prior to launching the Sympli line in 2001. Because the company needed to spend so much to launch the line and there wasn’t revenue coming in yet, the bank called in the loan.

“I said, ‘Oh no, not now,’” Ms. Stimpson says. “I borrowed a little money from my brother to bridge the gap and we laid off a lot of employees, and management worked for three to six months for little or no money – packing and tagging and bagging and all the rest – and got everything out.” Within six months, profits were coming in and they were able to repay Ms. Stimpson’s brother, rehire their staff and get back on track.

“As it turned out, the bank was very supportive and they could see we were turning it around and we’ve never looked back.”

Ms. Stimpson is committed to manufacturing all her garments in Canada – Sympli employs locals who want to work in their own environments, whether it’s from home or in smaller manufacturing sites they set up as a group.

“It allows them to take care of their kids, get home on time, work their own hours. A lot of them have elders they need to take care of,” Ms. Stimpson says. “The opportunity has been there [to manufacture overseas], but I’m not interested. We have a lot of talent, and we can afford to pay them. It’s not only better quality, it’s also the integrity of it. You’re supporting your own community.”

Ms. Stimpson says the company is focused on growing within Canada and the U.S., and possibly other countries as well. She is not interested in distribution in larger, chain retail stores because they generally want discounts, but she expects that the business will introduce new apparel lines in the future, and may consider franchise opportunities.

“Because we have managed to do this all on cash flow, we’re in a good financial position. There are so many areas we could go into,” she says.

Whatever the future holds, Ms. Stimpson is determined to stick by the principles she held dear back when Sympli was born.

“If there was a push button that said, ‘all women should feel beautiful’ when they get dressed in the morning, I would flip that switch,” she says. “That’s really what we want to get across.”

The company

Founded: 1992

Number of employees: 71

Number of stores in Canada that carry Sympli clothing: 284

Number of stores in U.S. that carry Sympli clothing: 450

Sample cost of Sympli garments to stores: tank top – $33, jacket – $140

2013 revenue: $14.1-million

Exports (percentage of revenue): About 57 per cent

Three-year revenue growth (from 2011 to 2013): sales grew by 89.75 per cent

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