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From the Factory Floor: Tunisia’s Forum Groupe

Less than 20 miles from the airport in the Southeast Tunisian seaside resort town of Monastir, the Forum Groupe factory specializes in swimwear in a facility mostly spread over one floor, except for the second-level administrative offices.

That is where you’ll find Forum Groupe CEO Lamberto Poli, who remains upbeat about production despite the challenges of the past 18 months. Though Tunisia is one of Africa’s worst-hit Covid countries, and embroiled in political uncertainty since President Kais Saied dissolved parliament and dismissed the prime minister in July, the flow of goods continues unabated, he said.

On Oct. 11, the country appointed its first woman prime minister, Najla Bouden Romdhane, and installed a new government.

Given that she is the 10th prime minister since the 2011 revolution that brought democracy to the country, many have missed a sense of stability coupled with mounting frustration over economic woes. At the new cabinet’s swearing-in ceremony, the president said he is “confident we will move from frustration to hope,” something that the more than apparel industry’s 200,000 laborers in some 2,000 factories are watching keenly.

Approximately 1,580 of these factories are centered on exports, down from 1,656 prior to the pandemic.

Poli noted the Forum Groupe neither closed during Covid, nor suffered from a lack of orders, having quickly switched to medically necessary products for a time.

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“Nothing changed. There aren’t more police in the street, for instance,” Poli said. “What has changed is the state of expectations. Great things are expected from the leaders now, and people believe that change must come.”

Pragmatically, he added, changes won’t come instantly. “You cannot imagine a 180-degree change in a very short period. It is not possible for the economy. Tunisia as a system cannot change everything.”

Although Tunisia remains one of the top apparel suppliers to the European Union, many brand representatives have been hesitant to travel there, prompting manufacturers, like the Forum Groupe, to maintain an office in Europe. “This ensures that any of our brand partners can conveniently reach us,” Poli said, referring to the firm’s Italian quarters.

His sense, after more than 14 years leading the company in Tunisia, is that a combination of emotional intelligence and adaptability is key to production. “Here in the Mediterranean the only way to survive is to have innovation, and a great capacity to adapt,” he told Sourcing Journal, emphasizing the focus on quality control in different spheres of the factory.

Lamberto Poli Courtesy

The factory houses the entire manufacturing process, from cutting to production, until the dispatch of the finished products, with special attention to packaging, labeling and quality control. An additional factory, 40 miles away in Squassi, adds on to the 3,200-square-meter space in Beni Hassen.

Brands sourcing from the factory include Armani, Elizabeth Hurley Beach, Guess Inc., Aquasphere, Canepa, Be Loop, Zerod and Asos, among many others, with a production capacity of 800,000 pieces per year.

On the factory floor is Souhir Ben Amor, manager of the cutting department, promoted to the position after 12 years at the company. “One of the difficult things about my job as manager is that I have to tell the people who were my friends what to do. I had to change with the job—to become more bossy,” she said.

Poli too has had difficult moments, not necessarily related to Covid.

“I think the most difficult thing was to establish the way of communication. Those who come here with arrogance are not able to make it work. You have to show that what you are doing is the right way, and good communication is essential because you are talking to people with a different traditions and different ways of thinking,” said Poli, the factory’s lone Italian. “If you want to be successful you have to be adaptable and open to change yourself.”

“I use emotional intelligence, which is an interpretation and how to manage emotion,” he said, and “the most modern way of conducting business.”

Other big picture problems are the same that have led to the growing frustration and changes in political leadership in the country: bureaucracy, for instance, which Poli pointed out, four times worse than it is in Italy.

At the Forum Groupe factory, however, technology has helped. “In September 2015 we bought the bonding machines,” Poli said, describing the set-up as a small department of very expensive but complete machines able to build swimwear without even 1 centimeter of thread. “We have learned everything from scratch because everything is different with this technique: from modeling to packaging and finally to the tenacity of the welds.”

As the bikini turned 75 this year in July, Poli observed the gradual shift of orders, with a substantial decrease in bikinis, and an increase in one-piece swimsuit orders. He also noted the growth of the burkini, the more covered swimsuit popular in the Arab states.

Having weathered this past year, Poli said that the coming year is expected to bring a 10 percent increase in revenues, with Tunisia maintaining an advantage over neighboring Egypt and Morocco. “The real advantage is the quick delivery to Europe and the labor,” he added.

While labor productivity may not be the best, the salary is one-third that of Europe. “We are here for this, to be honest,” he said.

But he amended that after a moment’s thought: “One of the treasures of Tunisia is that people are young; it is not an older population like Europe. It is one of the greatest resources of this country—more valuable than petroleum, more than gold, more than anything. They are able and open to learn.

“Really the future of clothing is here in Tunisia,” he said.