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Alberta Strong clothing company. (Alberta Strong)
Alberta Strong clothing company. (Alberta Strong)

THE CHALLENGE

Tested by wildfire, Alberta startup ponders its next act Add to ...

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

On the evening of May 3, as a wildfire ravaged Fort McMurray and displaced tens of thousands from their homes, Jeff Kappes made an announcement on his company’s Facebook page.

“All donations from purchases in May will aid Fort McMurray,” he wrote in his notice, which featured the mountain-peak logo of his clothing line, Alberta Strong, atop a raging forest fire. His donation goal was a modest $5,000.

Within 10 minutes, the post was shared 600 times. Mr. Kappes went to bed, and the next morning he awoke to hundreds of online orders “blowing up” his in-box.

“We basically had 3,000 orders to ship out within 20 days,” he recalls over the phone from Lloydminster, Alta. “That post didn’t cripple us, but it sure put our ability to the test.”

For Mr. Kappes, the wildfire’s timing was serendipitous. He had launched the Alberta Strong line in February to contribute to a province suffering from plunging oil prices, mass layoffs and low morale. That meant giving $10 of each item sold to Alberta charities, $1,000 at a time.

But when the wildfire hit, Alberta Strong became a provincial catchphrase. Mr. Kappes raised $30,000 for the Red Cross from sales of his apparel, which includes T-shirts, hoodies, tank tops and hats.

Three months later, “we’re starting to breathe again,” he says, and the company is considering ways to keep fresh for the long term. “We have to make sure we remain in tune with what’s going on in the fashion industry.”

In addition to its online business, run by three full-time employees in Lloydminster, a wholesale supplier is distributing the line to Below the Belt, an Alberta-based chain of clothing stores with a dozen locations.

Mr. Kappes hopes to expand nationwide, while ensuring the brand’s design, printing and distribution stay entirely Canadian. He would also like to continue making philanthropy a priority.

As with most disasters, though, consumers have turned their attention elsewhere, and the deluge of orders has slowed. That leaves Mr. Kappes pondering the future.

The Challenge: How can Alberta Strong expand as a clothing brand as the Fort McMurray cause it has benefited fades from buyer memory?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Houston Peschl, instructor in entrepreneurial thinking, Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary

Alberta Strong has demonstrated that a business can be a force for good. We’re seeing these social enterprises, which produce profit and positive social change, more and more now, such as Hop Compost in Calgary and the Canadian apparel brand Tentree.

For Alberta Strong to build a resilient business model, you should go beyond the $10 charitable donation and focus on the entire impact of your organization. Look into your suppliers and make sure they are from Alberta, so that your company generates more jobs and skills training in the province. For a greater social return on investment, consider partnering with youth or indigenous programs.

Finally, look past measuring impact through dollars donated and consider how every decision in your business model can make Alberta “stronger.” Share your results with the community each month through an impact report. In the long run, consider becoming B Corp Certified, a benchmark of your company’s social activities that shows you’re making the province a better place.

Susan Langdon, executive director, Toronto Fashion Incubator

The Fort McMurray aid campaign was successful because it captured the community’s spirit and support. There’s lots of potential for you to expand your design offerings from Alberta-focused to regionally focused. You could donate to a charitable cause in each province, and then in select cities, each time creating designs that have impact and meaning to that community.

Also, start investing in design and begin developing your own products rather than purchasing blanks to print on. An apparel brand sustains success when consumers see value in its products, season after season, year after year. You can achieve value by having a distinct point of view that includes not only a philanthropic mandate and great imprinted designs, but fresh new styles and excellent fit and quality.

Karen Aboud, retail consultant and principal, K.A.A. Business Solutions, Toronto

It’s not unusual after a successful event for sales to go soft. Shoppers stock up and those who can’t get their size eventually forget. Once you’re back in stock, you need to get the message out.

Plan a sales strategy for the next year and add special events that will keep sales strong. Market these events on your website, Facebook page and Below the Belt stores. Then project your sales and inventory requirements by style for the next 12 months. Take into account sales history and these new events and peak your orders accordingly. Talk to your supplier and find out how fast they can replenish. Then update your sales projection every month for a rolling 12 months and place extra orders as required to ensure that you are not out of stock for long periods of time.

In addition, sell your apparel at a Banff store to maximize tourist sales, and add seasonal colours, especially for women, in small quantities to sell out.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO RIGHT NOW

Publish a community report

Show how the donations are having an impact on Alberta causes.

Expand the designs

Incorporate designs that reflect other cities and provinces.

Target tourist spots

Sell your products in Banff and Jasper to maximize lucrative tourist sales.

Follow Report on Small Business on Twitter at @globesmallbiz.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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