Little Aussie business making a global splash

Meet the team behind a business that has gone from a one-person operation to a global manufacturer, with clients such as L’Oreal and globally renowned chef Claus Meyer.

Have you ever been into a restaurant and thought the wait staff were dressed rather funkily? There is a chance that these custom-designed uniforms were made by Australian business Cargo Crew.

The 22-strong team, based in Brunswick East in Melbourne, is the brainchild of former fashion designer Felicity Rodgers, who founded the business in 2002. She has since brought on her husband Paul and sister Narelle, who work across distinct areas of the business.

Felicity shares her experiences with My Business, including changes in the Australian manufacturing industry, what she has learnt expanding her business into offshore markets, and her approach to attracting and retaining corporate customers.

Changing face of manufacturing

“When I started the business 14 years ago, I used to produce everything in Melbourne. However, sadly I guess manufacturing in Australia in general, particularly in clothing apparel, is really hard to do,” explains Felicity (pictured).Cargo Crew founder Felicity Rodgers

“A lot of the manufacturers I used closed down. There hasn't been any investment in keeping up with fabrics and technology and machinery, and it's very hard to be competitive.”

The scarcity of local manufacturers, compared with the cost of using them, has seen Cargo Crew offshore its manufacturing to China. Yet Felicity says that the quality has not been affected.

“We've got very good long-term supply partners in China, and we're very strong on the compliance of the factories that we use,” she explains, adding that Cargo Crew seeks out only ethical manufacturers, to ensure workers are paid fairly for their efforts.

“We make regular trips there and they're our partners in the production [process].”

Working with corporate clients

Corporate clients are the ultimate pain for many SMEs, particularly when it comes to invoice terms, while others would give their right arm to land a large corporate client.

Corporates have always formed a large part of Felicity’s client base and, as such, she has a solid understanding of how to work with them on an everyday basis.

“L’Oréal was my first [client]. Basically at the time, my girlfriend was working at The Age as a fashion writer and she said to me, 'I'll organise a meeting for you', and I remember driving down to … where their head office used to be, and meeting with a couple of the girls there,” Felicity recalls.

“They didn't seem that interested in my offering, but a couple of weeks later they got in touch with me because their current supplier had let them down on a job, so they decided they'd give me a go.”

By learning from the mistake of L’Oreal’s previous supplier and maintaining high levels of service and quality, Felicity says her efforts paid off tenfold.

“Once I'd delivered that first job, and I was obviously extremely happy with what I'd produced, they kept on giving me more work, and introduced me to other brands within L’Oréal: they had the luxury division, they not only have L’Oréal, they have Maybelline and Garnier.”

According to Felicity, large corporations are generally familiar with engaging the services of agencies. As such, if you tailor your services to your corporate clients in a similar way, it will enhance your relationship with them.

“It's definitely about making sure that you've got the right product, the right service, and the extent of that is what we do with Cargo Crew now, really servicing our client, like an agency style,” she says.

“I think that's something people will appreciate.”

Managing seasonal stock levels

Seasonality is a big factor, particularly when dealing with corporate clients, given that most companies allocate their budgets at the beginning of each financial year.

So how does a business like Cargo Crew deal with these discrepancies throughout the year?

Cargo Crew founder Felicity Rodgers (centre) with husband Paul and sister Narelle Craig, who also work in the business“We have a dedicated planner within our business, a merchandise planner. She studies the sales weekly, does weekly reports and we're always planning out when things need to be reordered, because our business challenge is keeping things in stock for our clients to reorder,” explains Felicity.

“That's part of our offering that we promote: we hold stock in our warehouse in Melbourne. Items are shipped within two to three days of ordering if they're in stock. So managing that stock is definitely challenging. It's something we've got a very sharp eye on, with our planner focusing solely on that.”

Achieving this, says Felicity, means gearing up for the peak season of September through to November, while maintaining a safety buffer in case the demand proves different from their forecast.

“[For example] last year December was still strong,” she says.

But another key factor Cargo Crew must plan around is fluctuations in its production capacity, such as the Chinese New Year celebrations, which dramatically slow down the factory.

Felicity says preparing for such disruptions can be quite a challenge, and despite the best planning, it is best to always expect the unexpected.

“Sometimes you need a crystal ball, because you don't really know what's around the corner a lot of the time,” she says.

Launching into overseas markets

While the vast majority – around 98 per cent – of Cargo Crew’s business remains in Australia, the company is increasingly looking to pick up offshore clients. In fact, it now exports to more than 30 countries.

As well as helping to manage the seasonal order cycle by looking to new markets with different financial years, this enables the business to get extra life out of product lines across different seasons.

“With the market that we're in as well, it's not like we're seasonal like a fashion brand. [However] now with the international [clients], we can definitely see a trend where some of our heavier shirts, long-sleeved shirts, will be sold over [Australia's] warmer months overseas, so that's a great advantage for us to have that,” says Felicity.

The initial markets where Cargo Crew has found success are London and New York, the latter of which has provided them with a fantastic marketing opportunity to spearhead their expansion.

Cargo Crew is now manufacturing uniforms for the Great Northern Food Hall in the city’s Grand Central Terminal, which is operated by world-renowned chef Claus Meyer – the owner of the two-Michelin-starred Danish restaurant Noma.

“When Meyer’s team first contacted us, it was a momentous occasion for Cargo Crew,” says Felicity.

Yet the Great Northern Food Hall is not the only famous business using Cargo Crew’s uniforms, with the company’s clothing and aprons worn by staff at Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and Zumbo’s Just Desserts.

Business is about relationships

In the end, Felicity says the business adage 'it’s not what you know, but who you know' is the best advice for attracting new clients.

“If you get introductions, then you really have to use the opportunities that come your way and prove yourself, because corporate work like that is very competitive,” she says.

“There's always someone who's got a friend that they will introduce.”

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