Global Commerce Insider occasionally seeks input from leaders on vital issues that affect our businesses and economy in a global context.
Founded in 2004, Montreal-based distributor Freemark Apparel Brands (FAB Inc.) has established itself as a storehouse of what's hot in fashion globally, having formed strategic partnerships with several leading and emerging global brands.
With expertise in retail, wholesale, and e-commerce, FAB is a resource for the country's retailers looking for design, supply-chain and marketing expertise.
The company services a point of sale network that encompasses Canadian independent boutiques, specialty chains, department stores and mass merchants. Its current roster of brands includes Bench, Esprit, Scotch & Soda, Garcia and Silvian Heach.
Lawrence Routtenberg (below), FAB co-owner and vice-president of sales, says that remaining innovative and fresh while staying focused on building world-renowned brands for the North American market has driven the company outside Canada's borders in search of opportunities for further growth.
He told The Globe and Mail about how the journey to success involves overcoming obstacles that other Canadian companies wanting to take their business abroad ought to be aware of before heading overseas.
Why have you chosen to work outside Canada's borders?
In the nineties my partners and I owned the licence for the Guess Jeans brand in Canada. By the time Guess was reacquired by the licensor in the early 2000s we had vast experience running wholesale and retail with a global company and wanted to work with more internationally renowned brands. At the time many U.S. brands were already in Canada so I elected to spend a lot of time in Europe shopping the market there. I visited department stores, retail locations and trade shows and found many strong and exciting brands looking for a foothold in Canada. Our brand building experience enabled new partnerships and Freemark Apparel Brands (FAB) took off from there. We continued to bring world-class apparel brands, such as Esprit, Scotch & Soda and Bench, to the Canadian market.
(Scotch & Soda's Fall-Winter 2016 New York Fashion Week presentation. FAB Inc.)
What are the challenges you have faced?
Over the years FAB has launched many international brands in Canada, and while some have been very successful, others have faced obstacles. One of the largest factors in seeing success is a strong supply chain. Delays in product delivery, high shipping costs and currency issues can all present challenges in bringing product to market at a good price-value relation. We carefully vet the supply chain of potential partners, and typically establish partnerships with brands that are prepared to allow us to work directly with their supply chain and import directly into Canada from source of manufacturing. Design acceptance is also key. Elements we look for are diverse lines with seasonal offerings.
How have you found trusted partners to work with?
Before entering a new partnership we will travel to the prospective company's head office and invite them to visit ours. Socializing with and understanding the true values of a company are important to us; we seek to work with like-minded companies that are good, honest, ethical and will result in mutually beneficial partnerships.
Do you conduct business face-to-face?
We are continuously in touch with all our brands on all touch points of the business through face-to-face meetings in Canada and in Europe throughout the year. Of course we use video-conferencing, portals, e-mails and traditional calls to stay in touch, but I'm a big believer in face-to-face meetings. In fact, I would never partner with a brand without having met in person; it adds a personal element that doesn't come through any technology I've used.
Do you travel a lot?
Yes. I travel to Europe at least once a quarter and more often each year to visit wholesale customers and to our stores throughout Canada on a very frequent basis. In addition to our Canadian business we are involved with the operation of Bench in the U.S., which also requires shorter international trips throughout the year. I would estimate about 50 per cent of the time I'm working I'm travelling.
What new technologies make doing business abroad easier than before?
We take advantage of simple connecting tools such as FaceTime and Skype for some day-to-day communication. In addition, all our brands share digital assets that are available around the clock on platforms like Bynder. Of course, the easy transmission of large files, through file hosting services like Dropbox, has made the business of global branding more nimble, allowing us to retrieve large, shared marketing files used for various aspects of the business, from in-store visuals and signage to social media content and advertisements, quickly and easily. We also run e-commerce websites and are connected from distribution to point of sales via enterprise resource planning software and point-of-sale systems.
What about cultural differences?
Fashion is a culture all its own and is definitely universal. The brands that we work with for the most part speak English as a first or second language and business communication has never been an issue. We are quite selective about the brands we choose to partner with and we always consider whether the brand and product offering will translate well to the Canadian consumer. Typically we've been most successful with brands that have developed a very strong business in central and northern Europe or are well established in the majority of countries around the world.
How do you determine what fashion brands will be successful in the Canadian market?
We look for brands that are either well established or are emerging and building momentum. For us to seriously consider a partnership, a brand must demonstrate a strong supply chain and design team. Generally we look for brands that have multichannel distribution, including wholesale, retail (main-line and factory outlets) and e-commerce. In addition we find brands that can support our Canadian seasonality, enabling us to ship new climate-appropriate items 12 months a year.
How does a fluctuating Canadian dollar affect your business?
Every collection is priced each season with the value of the Canadian dollar factored in. Since we are importers, our pricing does fluctuate a bit. When the dollar swings dramatically, it becomes difficult to increase or decrease prices too dramatically and we end up passing on a slight increase or decrease to the consumer. This is can be a challenge.
Responses have been edited and condensed.