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When Irene Gillespie first dabbled in importing from her native South Africa in the early 1990s, she relied on a fax machine in her living room and a passion for beautiful things. Today, her Vancouver Island wholesale company-Indaba Trading Ltd., which caters to homeware retailers-has annual sales of over $3 million and a 12,000 square-foot warehouse. She and her team comb the world for her handpicked line of products, ranging from vases to gilded frames and cocktail cutlery.

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In a sector that has been hard hit by a fluctuating economy, Gillespie's company is still anticipating 20 per cent annual growth over the next few years. And she's been able to keep her business in good financial shape with a rigorous management approach.

"When things were going well before the recession, I took the opportunity to trim costs and expenses," Gillespie says. "When my sales figures then dropped by 20 per cent during the peak of the recession, I was better prepared to take the hit. I had tight control of our operations and could handle it."

In times past, when the company was "bleakly undercapitalized," she went to BDC to take advantage of the bank's flexible financing.

As well, Gillespie has periodically sought the advice of a business coach to help her manage her company through rougher periods. "I realized that my passion for my business wasn't enough to sustain it. I had to get a better handle on the numbers. A part of that coaching was doing a crash course in reading financial statements. Now I understand cash flow and carefully watch my profits and margins."

Now, Indaba Trading is gearing up for the economic recovery by investing in sales and distribution. While a team of sales representatives continues to cover national and U.S. territory, Gillespie's company recently made the transition to selling online.

"We designed our website to be live and fully interactive. If retailers see a product on our site, it means it's actually available. We upload data to our server every day to make sure that they are getting real-time information."

As well, Indaba plans to build the company's brand recognition by launching a dedicated Internet page for direct consumers. "Right now, we're focused on retailers, but eventually we want to drive business to our retailers by courting the consumer." With increasingly savvy and budget-conscious consumers, Gillespie also attributes much of Indaba's staying power to focused buying strategies. "Before we go on buying trips, we first develop 'stories' for our collections based on current themes, colours and trends," says Gillespie, who buys in China, Vietnam, Thailand and India. "By doing this, we're better able to identify exactly where we're going and not waver from our buying plan."

To better manage inventory, Indaba also pre-sells to retailers a season in advance. That means we don't invest in the inventory until we have gauged market response. That sales model has definitely enabled us to manage purchasing and inventories and free up cash in our business."

With high pressure from retailers to get products on shelves in time for seasonal sales, the company has also focused on keeping customer service at the top of its agenda. "It's not enough to be just personable. We also keep our promises. If we say we're going to deliver, we do," Gillespie says. "It may seem like a very basic premise, but I do take care of my customers and employees, and it shows in their loyalty to my company." To motivate her team, she offers annual bonuses to employees who meet their targets.'They're motivated to sell and our customers feel that positive energy."

At 53, Gillespie is not actively planning her succession, but she is focused on the future of the company. "This business will definitely be my retirement. Right now, I'm working on building my company's assets and value. When I do sell, I'll get what I've worked all these years to build."

Lessons learned:

  • Be proactive and get your company in financial shape when times are good
  • Seek out business coaching to help strengthen your financial management skills
  • Invest in your business now to take the advantage of the economic recovery
  • Continually identify creative ways to reach your customers
  • Make sure your business is inventory-light to maintain cash flow
  • If you're selling online, keep your website updated regularly
  • Keep customer service promises to reinforce your credibility with clients

Content in this section is provided in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada. BDC provides entrepreneurs with financing, venture capital and consulting services. To find out more go to BDC.ca.

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