MDE 25: Mark Heiman of Lur Apparel. Beautiful clothes, beautifully made.
It’s fair to say that, as an entrepreneur Mark Heiman has known bad times as well as good. His first venture after graduating from Oregon State University with a degree in forestry was selling standing timber to local saw mills. But the economic downturn and rocketing interest rates of the early 1990s meant that industry all but shut down overnight.
But like all successful entrepreneurs, Mark was quickly back on his feet, eventually taking the reins of his family’s textile business. “My father wouldn’t let any of his children into the business until they’d been out in the real world, because he said ‘I don’t want you to be coming out of school and coming into the business and telling me everything I’m doing wrong,’” says Mark. By the time he joined, he'd accumulated some real world experience.
The original Heiman family business wasn’t destined to be a lifelong passion, however. After a successful stint in charge Mark left in 1998 and, after dabbling in different areas of the textile supply industry, decided he wanted to start something that “would make an impact on the world”.
In that respect, the final year of working in his dad’s business had been formative. Mark had lived in South East Asia and travelled widely throughout the continent. “It was the start of an awakening as to how we in the developed world are really the exception to how the majority of people live. I wanted to start something that used my knowledge and skills to give back.”
The result of that awakening is Mark’s current company, Tulong, a Filipino word which means help. The business was created in 2008 as a social enterprise with a "triple bottom line": social, ecological and financial. It is a company that strives to make a profit, but to do so in a way that makes a positive difference to the world.
Repair the World, which started trading in 2010, was the original Tulong brand. The company had developed efficient recycling technology and started making basic items - t-shirts, hoodies, and lounge pants - which didn’t contain or use any new natural resources. Later, after a period touring trade shows and fashion exhibitions, the company developed the Lur brand, focused on women’s active and leisure wear made in a similarly Earth-friendly way. Their focus for the past two years has been largely on Lur.
Lur was a challenge at first, Mark admits. With little experience in women’s fashion, the company initially struggled to appreciate the differing needs and tastes of women at different stages of life. “But we listened to our customers, and people came to us saying they liked our products and fabrics but the sizing didn’t work, so we were able to make some rapid corrections and those sort of issues have gone.”
Kind to you and to the planet
Another secret to the company’s success is that, despite the quality of products and their ecologically sensitive production, both Repair the World and Lur keep prices keen. “The philosophy comes from my dad who said ‘you can only eat one steak a day’,” says Mark. “We went into this business saying we wanted products to be affordable and accessible to as many people as possible. When the organics first came out what really hurt the market and the organic movement at that time was the price premium on products, so when we started we wanted to be moderately priced so that we were accessible, and could grow as a business and accomplish our social mission.”
How is Tulong different? Globally, an average of 15-20% of new fabric is thrown away in the garment production process. When you cut a pattern out of a square of material, the offcuts are traditionally discarded. Tulong takes these scraps, sorts them by colour, and mechanically mulches them into coloured cotton fibre.
“As well as that, approximately half our product is made from post-consumer plastic bottles,” Mark continues. “What’s the common natural resource of both polyester and plastic bottles? Oil. The plastic bottles are cleaned, chopped up, melted down and extruded through a spinneret – a device like a shower head – then cooled and texturized and chopped up into the specific fibre lengths that you need.”
The result of these techniques is that the company uses no new natural resources and no new colour dyes. And because they’re not dying or using virgin oil products for polyester the process also uses about 70% less water and energy than traditional clothing manufacture. The clothes of both brands are made in Guatemala, a relative stone’s throw from the company’s Ohio distribution plant.
Spreading the word
The products that result from this process are sold through the company’s website and, more importantly, through a network of nearly 700 boutiques and chain outlets throughout the United States. For a business just turning five years old, that’s a healthy distribution.
“We grew last year by almost 400 stores,” says Mark, “and to date this year we’ve added about 85 more. So it’s catching on, we seem to be becoming a more recognised name, and people really like our styles, our fabrics, price points and so on. We’re hearing more and more from our customers that they like that’s it’s casual, it’s active, and it feels as comfortable as wearing your sweats.”
The speedy acquisition of new bricks and mortar outlets has not been matched by traffic to the company’s website, which Mark admits has been a slower process. But it is an area the company is determined to grow.
No greenwash here
Another challenge the company faces is to distance itself from companies who merely pay lip service to environmental and social concerns. “People seem to like our unique story,” Mark says. “There’s a number of brands that will use the (green) taglines, but there’s not the substance in their product to justify that. We believe in being very transparent and factual and true, whereas there are companies who will go out and call a product ‘eco this’ and ‘eco that’, but it’s up to the consumer to look beyond the taglines and see that when a company says a product is 5% recycled cotton it might be better than nothing, but I don’t consider that to be an eco brand.”
Mark tells the story of walking into a department store and reading the hangtag of an item which claimed various environmental credentials. It turned out the claims only applied to the tag, and not to the product!
Nevertheless, a growing interest in recycled fashion means that many budding environmental entrepreneurs are looking towards the clothing market. Mark says that the first thing they should do is learn all they can about the manufacturing cycle and supply chain.
“Fashion is not like getting Fair Trade coffee where you have a grower and a buyer and a very simple supply chain,” he says. “Do your research, go and meet with the people you want to work with, and see if what they’re telling you is what is actually happening. Because in this global market people will say anything to get the business.”
Also be aware and informed about the segment of the fashion business you want to get into, he adds. “Understand the fit and the size and the price points. You can’t be everything to everybody so you have to pick your spot (in the market), have success in a segment and then start branching out if that’s what you want.”
Favourite business book:
“When I first started working internationally one of the books I really liked was called Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison (Adams Media Corporation). It told me how other people work, what’s the expectation, what’s offensive, and it reinforced that even within your own country you have cultural differences, and you need to be sensitive to that.”
“If you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
“I have an iPhone and my calendar is a very important tool. But at the end of the day it’s writing it down and prioritising what needs to be done and ticking it off the list. I like a piece of paper that I can hold in my hand.”
I really hope enjoyed the interview with Mark, whether you just read it here or listened to the whole thing on the podcast. If you have any thoughts or comments about this episode, please do share them with us on Twitter or Facebook – we’d love to hear from you!
And finally, if you get a chance I would be hugely grateful if you could leave an honest review for The Mission Driven Entrepreneurs Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and greatly appreciated! They're so important to the ranking of the show and I do read every one. If you've left one already, thank you so much!
Thanks again to Mark for sharing his story with us.