When Leon Buhr started his business in April 2001 in a small 115m² mini-factory, he had five employees, a few machines, some materials and a single order from a local retail chain. Today the managing director of belt manufacturer, Equator – The Belt Factory, employs 92 people and has the capacity to produce more than a million belts a year at its 3 500m² factory in New Germany.
As South Africa’s leading belt manufacturer, Equator supplies more than 20 large retail chains and their subsidiaries throughout Africa, over 500 independents and exports to America and Australia. Buhr, who started his business in the wake of the virtual implosion of the textile, clothing, footwear and leather sectors during the 90s, has courageously created what he describes as “a place of craft and science”. The craft in a belt is the design, use of materials, the buckle and the overall aesthetic and functionality, while the science is in understanding consumer behaviour, changing tastes and new developments in raw materials and sustainability. Equator lives in the space where these work together for a better end product. Buhr says establishing a solid business is about maintaining a balance, increasing efficiency and driving up productivity and sustainability. As a result, the import side of the business is shrinking while local manufacture and exports are growing. The factory is well on its way to being four-star rated by South Africa’s Green Building Council, despite being located in one of the city’s oldest and grimiest industrial areas. “If something is not sustainable or renewable, then it is pointless in the long run. Inherently, I have an aversion to rampant, throw-away consumerism and I abhor waste and believe that the way we are consuming is damaging. For me, a circular economy and carbon neutrality must be end goals.”
Buhr has come a long way since knocking on one of South Africa’s largest clothing retailer’s doors, and was turned away because his product was not up to spec. He returned with an 18-point list of shortfalls determined to focus on, and corrected each and every one. Quality became a priority and today his products hold their own internationally. His growth between 2003 and 2007 was steep, allowing Buhr to build working capital in an under-capitalised business. In 2009, Equator was approached by jeans giant Levis to manufacture for them and, again, he and his team worked hard to take the factory up a notch to meet their standards. But the major turning point came in 2012 when Buhr was approached by the world’s largest men’s accessories company, Randa. By 2013, Equator – The Belt Factory, was officially an African affiliate of the 110-year-old company which delivers 60 million units globally and has offices in 11 countries across five continents. Buhr says local employees now travel to Randa’s international offices for specialist training. Equator also benefits from Randa’s technical expertise, extensive research and consumer-behaviour data that tracks and understands changing global consumer tastes, evolving distribution channels, innovation in raw materials and the need for ever-increasing speed-to market. It is this that Buhr uses to build strong relationships with local retail giants, providing sound analytical data and insights.
But growing a relatively small local market where the average South African male buys a belt every 12 years is going to be difficult. The average American, on the other hand, buys a new belt every three years. That means greater focus on growing exports as well as increasing its reach into Africa. Buhr also intends pursuing micro trends that are fast becoming macro trends internationally – demand for products made in sustainable factories from plant-based or recycled materials as opposed to fossil-fuel based polyurethane products which are the current alternatives to animal-based products.
To view the full KZN Invest publication, follow this link and scroll to page 13 for the Equator feature: https://equator.group/press/KZN-Invest.pdf