Never ship snow globes across the Pacific Ocean in the dead of winter – they tend to freeze and explode.
That’s just one piece of sage (if ironic) advice that brothers Jeremy and Nick Oldland, the chief executive officer and creative director, respectively, of Hatley Little Blue House Inc., have to offer their fellow entrepreneurs.
The Oldlands share the story with a laugh and a nod to the many challenges their family has overcome to turn Montreal-based Hatley, a maker of children’s rainwear, clothing and accessories as well as women’s casual apparel, into a global brand. The company has grown steadily since the duo, along with their brother and company president Chris, took the reins from their parents 20 years ago.
While that ill-fated shipment of 5,000 shattered snow globes may have cost the trio about $10,000 and delivered a valuable lesson in oceanic freeze-thaw dynamics, it marks a rare comical misstep on an otherwise impressive managerial record.
Over two decades, the brothers have grown Hatley to 325 employees from eight, built more than 30 corporate retail outlets and established an international e-commerce business with 4,400 active accounts in 37 countries. They have also posted annual revenue growth of about 14 per cent over the past decade.
All of that success has come amid disruptive changes in the fashion and retail industries. Headwinds ranging from currency shocks to the rise of e-commerce giants such as Amazon and increasing global competition have crushed many of Hatley’s rivals.
None of that has fazed the trio, who had almost no idea what they were doing when they took over the family business.
“[Our parents] literally handed us the keys because they were struggling … and said, ‘Take this company and don’t call us,’” Nick recalls.
“Walking away was the best thing they ever did because it didn’t matter whether we succeeded or failed. They didn’t care,” he says. “We were able to make all kinds of mistakes.”
After building a business selling kitchen aprons and other accoutrements featuring family matriarch Alice’s pig and cow designs, and growing the quirky company to $1.8-million in annual revenue, the elder Oldlands – including father John, a university business professor – found themselves exhausted by the rigours of running a tiny, relatively unprofitable cottage enterprise from their home base in North Hatley, Que.
With their parents about to pull the plug, Chris Oldland, who was working in the fashion industry in New York, proposed a fraternal takeover.
The brothers combined their diverse skill sets and haven’t looked back since. “It was sink or swim,” Nick stresses. “We all run very different parts of the business. Jeremy runs production. I run design, and our other brother runs marketing and sales, and we stay out of each other’s hair.”
Their vision was clear from the start: Hatley would produce stylish, durable clothing that was made to last. Their children’s garments, for example, are designed to withstand basement wrestling matches, puddle jumping and every other playtime activity imaginable – yet still be passed down between siblings. “Our biggest critics are our children and our wives,” says Jeremy.
Real-world wear-and-tear, design improvements and a focus on giving back eventually produced a sustainably minded eureka moment.
“We struggled many years ago with people asking about our environmental policy,” he recalls. “Then we realized there’s nothing better when it comes to being environmentally friendly than creating a product that lasts.”
That’s why the brothers and their team pay regular visits to the company’s contract factories in India and China, source high-quality cotton and eschew the temptation to work with lower-priced manufacturers.
“If we get a quote from a factory and the price comes back too cheap, we know we’re not going to get what we’re designing,” Jeremy says. “You need to inspect your supply chain, get to know the factories you’re working with, and pay a fair price.”
To stay a step ahead of fashion trends, Hatley employs an in-house team of illustrators and designers to create custom prints each season. Such attention to detail is costly but fruitful, Nick says.
“Our return rate online is 0.04 per cent,” he explains. “We don’t get e-mails saying a button has popped off [our clothes], we don’t get returns. I totally believe the little decisions we’ve made over the years have provided us with future revenue.”
So, too, has an aggressive approach to adversity, not to mention a willingness to make counterintuitive strategic manoeuvres.
Case in point: Not long after taking over the company, the brothers spent nearly two years in a court in China defending their trademark after it was stolen by local trademark pirates. Rather than paying what was effectively a ransom to reclaim their brand, the Oldlands fought their case and eventually won.
And when the value of the Canadian dollar surged in 2007, Hatley’s profitability tanked. In response, Jeremy Oldland hopped on a plane to China, built manufacturing relationships and off-shored production. That quick response saved the company. “We would have gone bankrupt,” Nick recalls.
And just as industry analysts declared the collapse of brick-and-mortar retail, Hatley decided to expand its retail footprint, opening 15 stores over the past three years.
“One thing we discovered a long time ago is that people enjoy shopping in stores while they’re on holidays,” says Jeremy. “Shopping is part of the holiday experience, and we open stores in areas where people are shopping as a form of entertainment.”
Hence the reason visitors to ski resorts in places such as Vail, Colo., or Mont Tremblant, Que., can shop for Hatley pyjamas or women’s wear before hitting the slopes.
In the end, Nick credits much of the company’s success to an unyielding trust between him and his brothers. “I’ll never get on my brothers’ cases for making a mistake, because in a week’s time, I’ll make one, too,” he quips.
Now we know why no one took heat for the snow globe disaster.