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Upstream Focus: Brandix’s Afham Ali on Speed, Sustainability & Strategic Partnerships

Upstream Focus is Sourcing Journal’s series of conversations with suppliers, associations and sourcing professionals to get their insights on the state of sourcing, innovations in manufacturing and how to improve operations. In this Q&A, Afham Ali, director of Sri Lanka-based apparel manufacturer Brandix Apparel Limited, explains how Covid has helped advance the company’s digital collaboration and how its choice for strategic rather than transactional relationships has made a difference during the pandemic.

Afham Ali Brandix
Afham Ali, director of Brandix Apparel Limited Courtesy

Name: Afham Ali

Title: director

Company: Brandix Apparel Limited

What’s the number one question you get from your clients now that was never really a consideration before?

We are most often asked, “Are we seeing stability improving in our chosen manufacturing locations on account of the Covid-19 crisis?

Which processes have you put in place due to Covid that you’d like to see continue even after the health crisis is behind us?

Maintaining heightened awareness on the importance of personal health and hygiene. As we are in a labor-intensive environment, this is a critical strength when handled effectively. It helps set our locations apart and ahead of competing countries and companies.

Advances made in digitization of work and embracing the notion of working from home. The circumstances posed by the pandemic paved way to eliminate duplication and improve clarity in work. We now have the advantage of saving time that was earlier spent on conveyance.

Continuously questioning and reviewing what truly adds value in our business, with a quest to weed out any non-value additions in the process.

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How are you evaluating potential brand and retail partners differently now compared to before the pandemic?

As an organization, we inculcated the importance of strategic partnerships over transactional relationships with our customers. This came through as a lifesaver throughout the Covid crisis. At the very beginning, when markets in the West took a downturn, we were called on to act in a spirit of partnership in how we cost our product, hold off on inventory and orders, manage the manufacturing capacity accordingly and the management of accounts payable. When our manufacturing locations in India and Sri Lanka faced some challenges, we experienced the same spirit of partnership from our customers. They stood by us and assisted in ways that truly mattered.

This crisis reinforced the ways in which we evaluate our brand and retail partners.

What is the main thing brands and retailers could do (or stop doing) right now that would immediately improve product development?

  • Streamlining processes relating to understanding end consumer desire and the introduction of data science and technology towards this end.
  • Intensifying the introduction of technology in partnership with supply chain partners. For example, 3D sampling technology, digitization of parameters such as color, more practical and end-to-end usage of PLM (product lifecycle management) tools, wider usage of EDI (electronic data interchange) platforms.
  • Closer coordination between design and merchandising that could potentially bring efficiencies in decision-making upstream, thereby reducing rework.
  • Empowering and accrediting supply chain partners to take on some approvals/decisions. Adopting an “eyes on, hands off policy” and encouragement in building trust in the partnership.
  • An increased sharing of information with supply chain partners, especially pertaining to POS (point of sale).
  • Adoption of an end-to-end value stream view in the business and collective focus on waste elimination across the value chain. For example, rather than focusing on beating a few cents of an upstream supplier, focus on how to truly build better collaboration to reduce waste in the form of markdowns.
  • Collective commitment towards process discipline and operating within a pragmatic set of rules of engagement, rather than an approach of “get it done somehow.”

How are you adapting your operations to support quick-turn, small run orders?

It is in our DNA and particularly in our value proposition to understand and support our customers’ requirements relating to speed. Brandix has spearheaded such operating models to leading brands over the years.

We witnessed a shift from the importance of agility and speed to an intensified focus on suboptimal cost reduction in pockets at certain points throughout this period.

With challenges posed by Covid, we hope to see a renewed commitment towards such models. However, this requires consistent leadership will across the chain.

In this challenging retail environment, how are you working with clients to balance sustainability needs with cost efficiency?

Brandix has consistently led the way in embracing sustainability as a means of doing business. Our approach has always been to excel in our key focus areas with an intent to become a benchmark for the industry in sustainable manufacturing. Several of our manufacturing facilities are LEED certified, with one recognized as the world’s first apparel manufacturing facility to be certified as net zero carbon, a milestone in our journey to achieve net zero carbon operations by 2023.

Our CSR strategy too is designed to empower sustainable development in the communities we operate in, primarily in providing access to clean drinking water, followed by our goal to support the education and development of our associates and their children.

We dedicate our efforts towards sustainable development because it truly is the right thing to do. What we have experienced as a result is that when you have the right priorities and reinforce it with the correct strategies, it makes commercial sense to do so.

When it comes to quality and compliance, what are the biggest challenges?

During this period, a key challenge we encountered was the logistical disruptions caused via sporadic lockdowns across various geographies, and its impact on the network of supply chain partners.

How has Covid enhanced your remote collaboration capabilities? Which piece of technology or innovation have you found most useful during this time, and what remaining hurdles still exist in managing projects with limited travel?

Covid has forced industries to actively embrace technology, particularly in communications. Necessity has proven to be the mother of invention as always, and the uptake on using these technologies has indicated remarkable progress.

Network infrastructure, infrastructure at homes for a positive WFH environment, and managing priorities of household members during a working day are some of the challenges we faced and are continuously addressing. Further, we are mindful of the human need for physical networking and are assessing how we can incorporate these aspects into balancing our work environment in the future.

What is the best decision your company has made in the last year?

Zeroing in on and intensifying our work in the following key priority areas: focus on people, focus on customers, and focus on technology as a gamechanger.

What keeps you up at night?

The possibility of a disruption in our customer or manufacturing locations that goes beyond what we envisage.

What makes you most optimistic?

The strength of our partnerships with our customers and supply chain partners, as well as the combined vision and drive from our own teams to deliver “Inspired Solutions” across the business.

What’s in store for Brandix in 2021?

A year of unlearning and relearning and making hard strategic choices.