Ashroff Omar wants to see fewer pieces in the supply chain jigsaw

Ashroff Omar wants to see fewer pieces in the supply chain jigsaw

Few have been more instrumental in the positioning of Sri Lanka's 'garments without guilt' apparel industry than Ashroff Omar. Joe Ayling interviewed the Brandix Lanka chief executive during a recent visit to the country.

It is just-style's final day in Sri Lanka and as the taxi pulls up to apparel supplier Brandix Lanka's headquarters in downtown Colombo they appear modest. Until, that is, it transpires this is just the side entrance leading into one of the downstairs offices.

Ashroff Omar's workplace is a little more plush - ocean facing and with so many windows it feels like a goldfish bowl. The air is fresh.

"Nice office," is just-style's opening gambit, peering across at the crashing waves of Colombo's coastline.

"Better before they built the road," Omar replies, referring to the coastal highway that now runs between his office and the beach below.

Our opening exchange would turn out to be symbolic in a few of ways. The road, for instance, showed Omar's awareness of how things could always improve, even if it appears not at first - with the apparel supply chain being a case in point.

The tropical environment itself, meanwhile, is the pillar of Sri Lanka's green supply chain model, which re-defines how garment factories should look in the future.

Supply chain mission
Improving the garment supply chain is high on Omar's - and Brandix's - agenda. Last year he delivered a revolutionary presentation to hundreds of international delegates gathered in Manchester to say as much.

He is calling for the apparel industry to offer more value to the end consumer, and draws parellels with other industries.

Omar says: "We compared the apparel industry with automobile, airline, footwear and telecoms industries, where the consumer is getting much better value than in apparel.

"All those prices are cheaper now then they were 30 or 40 years ago. Only apparel is more expensive than 30 or 40 years ago, while the product has not improved."

To blame for this shortfall in value, Omar believes, are supply chain inefficiencies on the buyers' part.

He argues that as retailers have spread their sourcing across multiple countries to chase cheap labour and trade agreements, their supply chains have become more fragmented and require more monitoring.

He tells just-style: "Because of supply chain fragmentation, the retailer is doing 70% of the stuff we should do. They have a design team, which is very good, but then they have a fabric procurement team, a fabric approval team, a team to approve bills, a team to follow work in progress, and plenty of other policing."

Half-way through our interview Omar again loads up the powerpoint slides from Manchester on one of his four flat-screen monitors. "Gadgets turn me on," he later admits.

Sri Lanka consolidating
Brandix, which supplies apparel for brands including Victoria's Secret, Gap, Next, Marks and Spencer, Liz Claiborne, and Abercrombie and Fitch, now has 32 manufacturing facilities in Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. "We are looking at Pakistan further down the road," Omar tells just-style.

Together with the likes of Hirdaramani Group and MAS Holdings it is one of the country's leading apparel powerhouses showcased at the Sri Lanka Design Festival.

Latest figures suggest apparel exports from Sri Lanka have rebounded to 6% growth last year, having contracted 5.6% the year before amid falling demand from key Western markets.

So demand appears to have returned as the country moves on from the recent setbacks of a civil war climax and the 2004 tsunami.

"At the moment we don't really feel the recession. We are seeing very good growth for the whole region. This year [2010] specifically is much better than last year, and I suppose customers are looking at other options to China.

"So, while Sri Lanka reported a marginal drop in figures last year, a lot of the major companies still reported much better results. Maybe this shows there has been some kind of consolidation."

The European Union also removed the Sri Lanka's GSP+ (Generalised System of Preferences) status in August last year, making some apparel products more expensive to European retailers.

"Ultimately we didn't have a sudden impact [from GSP+ removal], other than pressures on margin. I don't know whether the impact that was predicted will come gradually or whether the changing global value will help the country to absorb it and move on," Omar adds.

Green future
Omar was one of the key drivers of Sri Lanka's Garments Without Guilt campaign, launched in 2006 and now involving 135 of the country's 200 garment factories. He was also instrumental in setting up the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) - the country's leading apparel industry body.

One of JAAF's current selling points is Sri Lanka's positioning as a sustainable producer. Each of the major groups have invested in green eco-factories with the backing of leading Western retailers like Marks and Spencer.

These facilities use half the water and energy of normal factories, with Sri Lanka's monsoon climate permitting systems like solar powered lighting, harvested rain water systems and 'evaporative cooling'.

Omar says elements of the eco-factories are being rolled out across the entire Brandix Lanka group too, including offices.

The cool marble floors of Brandiix HQ go beyond climate control, of course, but represent what this family business has acheived over the years.

As we part, Omar's handshake is as firm as it was half an hour ago, perhaps unsurprising as it turns out he was a second row rugby player at school.

It should also come as no surprise he was scrumming while the rest of Sri Lanka was playing cricket, because Omar is a man with strong willpower.

For this reason, and considering the success of Sri Lanka's green apparel model, his strategy for the wider apparel industry should be seriously noted.