Since its relaunch in December last year, Island Style has been going growing in “leaps and bounds” according to founder and chief executive, Warren ‘Wazo’ Wareing.
By staying true to his vision of selling products made by a surfer for surfers, Wazo has created a quality offering that enables him to declare that Island Style’s signature slops or beach thongs are guaranteed for 2 000kms and that the company’s surf board bags are guaranteed for life – that of the buyer, that is.
Wacky humour aside, his declarations are backed by confidence. Through developing and testing products themselves, the Island Style team trusts its own, he says.
After the rand hit a wipe out during recent months, being proudly Durban is paying dividends. Whereas, in the past, being home-grown counted against Island Style at the till point, it is now an advantage and Wazo says that the introduction of new technology and strict quality control means that products are on par with international brands but priced better.
For example, a substantial investment in new equipment has seen a leap forward in both quality and styling of traction grips for surf boards. During the first quarter of this year, sales in this category alone increased by 500%.
Products are also moving with the times. The introduction of on trend “fluro leashes” has gone down well with “the lighties”.
Wazo’s appreciation for quality, almost unbelievably, comes from the world of baking rather than surfing. His parents founded Wareings Bakery. “My father told me that if you use good ingredients, you will get a good cake,” explains Wazo.
Same recipe just a different product.
He admits that, because of his association with this successful family business, entrepreneurship came naturally. The idea behind what was to become Island Style and the brand name took shape whilst he was living on Sunset Beach on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
It was winter 1980 and he was on a round the world surfing holiday. Thanks to his baking experience, he had a job at Country Donuts.
His vision was of a surfing company that satisfied the real needs of surfers in a credible way.
However, it was some time before he acted this. When he returned to South Africa in 1981, he decided to “do something serious” and settled down to a job in the hospitality industry. “But the travel bug was semi out of me,” he admits.
The one that remained was surfing and he began doing the rounds of surf shops in Durban. “They were much like those in California and Hawaii but I noticed some gaping holes. Everything was imported. If you wanted leashes, you were often told that because they were imported, they were waiting for them. I thought if the Australians and Americans can make them, why can’t we?”
He set up Island Style with a single sewing machine in a small factory near Warwick Junction and began making leashes and Velcro nylon wallets for surfers. Rent was a whopping R128 a month!
Island Style began supplying the many independent surf retailers of the time which stocked multi brands. Within just a year, it had grown to the point where six machines were turning out products. These were not only being sold locally but also exported to America and France. Whereas he’d supplied orders of around 20 leashes to local independents, Wazo suddenly found himself with orders for 3 000!
By 1984, Island Style had outgrown its premises and relocated to Verulam, setting up a factory to benefit from decentralisation incentives provided by the government of the time.
However, by 1986, sanctions closed the tap on exports and Island Style down sized and he returned to Durban to
rethink the strategy.
While big surf wear brands Gotcha and Instinct relocated to Lesotho, Island Style headed to Mauritius, setting up a small offshore operation in 1987 to complete the semi-finished items sent across from South Africa.
In 1992, Wazo also moved to Mauritius. With him at the helm, the company grew from 12 to 44 machinists. It flourished and he added four surf shops in Mauritius.
“The success of Mauritius is that it allows raw materials in duty free but taxes finished products coming into the country 100 percent. It’s a case of cut it, make it here,” he says, pointing out that this is a lesson for South Africa.
By 2000, Island Style had 75 percent of the South African surf accessories market.
Although he didn’t know it at the time, another significant thing to come out of Mauritius was the strong friendship that he formed with Shawn Thompson. Shawn was working at the State Bank of Mauritius after a stake was bought by Nedbank and, after he returned to South Africa, he headed up uShaka Marine World for a number of years. “Shawn always said that if ever there was an opportunity he would love to be involved. We didn’t know that opportunity would come,” he smiles.
Realising that something was amiss back home, Wazo sold the Mauritian operation and returned to South Africa in 2003.
He’d given members of the management team shareholdings in the South African operation when he left – a decision that he came to regret. Costs were out of control and the company was spiralling downwards. Having relinquished control of the business, Wareing was left fighting fires, powerless to stop it.
Almost simultaneously, the local surf market was turned on its head by the entrance of big international brands. The local textile and clothing sector was also disintegrating as cheap imports flooded the market.
It was only when Island Style hit rock bottom that he regained control. Determined to ride out the storm, he called a meeting with his creditors at the Durban Chamber of Commerce. He asked them not to call for the liquidation of the company but to give him a chance to turn Island Style around. They stood by him.
“I had to raise funds so I sold off non-profitable distractions and got back to our roots. I went back to our core to regrow the business,” he recalls. By 2010, he was back on his feet. Island Style had moved to a factory in Morrison Street, Durban and was again doing well.
But his hardships were far from over. The brand began to take a pounding from copycat brands in a difficult market populated by global heavyweights.
When a neighbouring competitor’s entire factory burnt down he stepped in to help by entering into a manufacturing agreement that would enable them to work from his factory. He believed this would not only save his neighbouring operation but also provide the economies of scale needed to ride out this rough patch.
His decision to allow this company to produce Island Style under licence along with its own brand was well intentioned but proved disastrous. Wazo was forced to rescue the brand yet again.
Now on the back foot, he replaced a bad manufacturing agreement with a good one. His new partner company was owned by Robin Smith, a former financial manager at Bearing Man. Realising the brand’s true potential, Robin took a stake in Island Style, injecting much needed funds and business know how into the operational side of the business.
Island Style had finally turned a corner and, between January 2013 and January 2014, revenue grew by as much as 80 percent, albeit off a low base.
A few months ago, Wazo invited Shawn, who had remained a friend and sounding board throughout his difficult journey, to buy shares in the company. “I was only too excited to take him up on it. It dawned on both of us that what we had discussed 10 years ago was meant to be,” he recalls.
Shawn strongly believes that the company would have been a casualty were it not for the resilience and tenacity of its founder. “Wazo remains the face of the business. He’s the innovator and the product developer. He stays in close contact with the industry. It is very difficult to buy 30 years of experience. He’s authentic and genuine. People know Island Style for that,” he says.
Now equal partners, Wazo, Shawn and Robin have set about righting many of the things that had gone wrong during the struggle years. Patents had lapsed and respected patent attorney, Brian Dury, came on board to re-instate these. He also became a minority shareholder.
With the restructuring and new shareholding came a further injection of capital. Island Style moved from its 170 sq/m factory to a new, 480 sq/m one in Springfield Park in mid-2014 and is in the throes of relaunching past successful products.
From the outset, the partners’ vision was to resurrect the many signature products that had fallen by the wayside. Shawn says he is constantly asked when the company intends bringing back the backpacks that were a flagship product back in the day.
The Island Style luggage rights were sold to international luggage brand Cellini three years ago. Meetings this week produced an agreement that will see Island Style design a whole new range of seven luggage items to be launched during the summer season. The range includes four backpacks (starting with a small one), a large rugged outdoor hold all that is perfect for action sports and two beach bags.
This marks an important milestone in Island Style’s new approach. “We don’t want our factory to become liquorice all sorts factory. We want to do a few things well,” Shawn says with characteristic Island Style humour.
On a more serious note, he explains that the new strategic direction is for Island Style’s factory to produce a select range of products that will be the best in their categories and then outsource the manufacture of other key items to companies that excel in these areas via licencing agreements. Already, he says, Island Style slops are made by one of the best footwear manufacturers in Durban.
The directors have also prioritised marketing, putting in place a digital strategy that will unfold over the next two years and will certainly keep a brand that was dreamt up long before the days of the internet young.
This goes beyond simply using social media more aggressively and includes a complete revamp of the company’s website and a joint venture partnership with The No Nonsense Group to create an online store that is already a hit.
“What we’ve done is open a 24 hour worldwide shop,” Wazo explains, stressing that this has been carefully managed so as not to compromise the interests of its dealers whilst reaching out-of-the-way buyers as far afield as “Blikkiesfontein and Vryheid”. Orders have come in from as far afield as Ghana and Zambia.
At this point, there is a lot more in the pipeline for Island Style. Although there will undoubtedly be new ranges and product lines, the important thing is for the company to stay true to its roots as an authentic Durban surf label…. and that will certainly be cool, ek sȇ.