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7 trade secrets from a successful wholesale company

4-minute read

Irene Gillespie - Owner of Indaba Trading Ltd.

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, she and her team comb the world for her handpicked line of products, ranging from vases to gilded frames and cocktail cutlery, for her Vancouver Island wholesale company—Indaba Trading Ltd., which caters to homeware retailers.

Gillespie has been able to keep her business in good financial shape with a rigorous management approach.

Reach out for advice

"When things were going well before the 2008 recession, I took the opportunity to trim costs and expenses," Gillespie says. "When my sales figures then dropped by 20% 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 finances."

Make the online transition

While a team of sales representatives continued to cover the national and U.S. territories, Gillespie's company 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 built up the company's brand recognition by launching a dedicated Internet page for direct consumers.

Create a buying plan

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."

Keep the focus on customer service

With high pressure from retailers to get products on shelves in time for seasonal sales, Indaba has also focused on keeping customer service at the top of its agenda.

"It's not enough to just be 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."

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

  1. Be proactive and get your company in financial shape when times are good
  2. Get a business coach to help strengthen your financial management skills
  3. Invest in your business
  4. Continually identify creative ways to reach your customers
  5. Make sure your business is inventory-light to maintain cash flow
  6. If you're selling online, keep your website updated regularly
  7. Keep customer-service promises to reinforce your credibility with clients