A Saving Private Ryan story forms part of the background of a successful family-owned fabric and household goods enterprise in the Eastern Cape.
Cowie Trading, an East London-based company that has a fascinating history, has carved a niche for itself in southern Africa through its specialisation strategy – amid the gloom in a textile industry hit hard by cheap imports.
The 77-year-old business was formed after founder Frank Hamilton Cowie bought an outfit called Myers Brothers, which traded mainly in jewellery.
Cowie Trading is one of the oldest members of the Border Kei Chamber of Commerce, having joined what was then the East London Chamber in 1935.
The present chamber’s executive director, Les Holbrook, says the secret to Cowie Trading’s success is its mix of imported and South African-made products that are in high demand. He is lavish in his praise for the business: “It’s an outstanding company. First of all it’s a real icon as a family-owned business. It has done incredibly well from a generational and succession point of view. It has stayed on top because it has specialised.
“It has very shrewd business management. If you’re looking for a model family-owned business to copy, this is the one.”
Frank Hamilton Cowie could be called Scotland’s own Private Ryan after the film, Saving Private Ryan, starring Tom Hanks. Cowie, the youngest of five brothers, was exempted from battle at the front line in 1917 during World War I.
Three of his brothers were killed in action in the trenches in France in 1915. His fourth brother was gassed on the Western Front and lost the use of a lung. Frank Cowie’s heartbroken mother pleaded for him to serve at home.
Her wish was granted by an appeal tribunal on the grounds of “hardship” and Cowie was removed – apparently from behind the apocalyptic frontline in France – and sent back to Britain, where he served the rest of the war as an instructor in a signals corps in Bedfordshire.
In November 2009, the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) revealed for the first time the details of thousands of Scots who had appealed against conscription. In a press release, the NAS stated that Cowie’s case was one of the most extraordinary heard. It appealed for help in finding out what became of him.
By chance the Cowie family in South Africa spotted the story on the NAS website and were able to fill in the details. Cowie’s youngest daughter, Judy Barrett, is quoted by the NAS as saying: “After the film, Saving Private Ryan, came out, we as a family remarked on the similarity in the story. We felt very privileged and had a strong sense that we might not be here if it were not for that decision (to rescue Cowie from France during World War I).”
When one escapes death, as Cowie did, it must heighten one’s gratitude for life and lead one to make the most of that precious life. Cowie’s determination and mettle led him to start a lucrative business that – so far – has survived for three generations.
He also served as chairman of the Technical Colleges of South Africa and as chairman of the East London Harbour Advisory Board.
Before being conscripted, Cowie had worked in the warehouse of a wholesale clothing company in Glasgow. After the war he worked in London, then joined a British firm in northern Nigeria, trading with Arab camel trains coming from the desert. Thereafter, he traded in Livingstone, Zambia.
Cowie moved to East London in 1929. He had been headhunted to manage the East London division of a nationwide trading company called Mosenthalls. The entrepreneur’s next step was to buy Myers Brothers.
Changing the renamed company’s focus from jewellery to fabrics turned out to be a wise decision, because Cowie Trading’s core business for the past 50 years has been supplying original shweshwe, which is South Africa’s top-selling fabric.
Shweshwe is manufactured by Da Gama Textiles at its factory in Zwelitsha outside King William’s Town. The fabric, which has a calico-like texture, and comes in myriad designs, is manufactured using a unique discharge printing method that creates the characteristic white patterns on the coloured material.
Before Da Gama Textiles obtained the licence to manufacture shweshwe in 1992, Cowie Trading used to buy the cloth from Spruce Manufacturing in Manchester in the UK.
Cowie’s son, John, took over the business and later John’s sons, Neil and Ian, ran it. Two years ago, Neil bought out Ian.
What makes this family business even more remarkable is that it has survived the dreadful pinch the South African textiles industry has undergone in the past two decades.
“There used to be 23 fabric wholesalers in East London,” Neil muses. “Now there are only two.”
Neil joined the family business in 1983 after completing a Bachelor of Commerce degree. The firm, a wholesaler and a retailer, supplies fabric shops throughout southern Africa.
Cowie Trading also owns 14 Jacksons fabric stores across the country and 10 Chippy’s stores in the Eastern Cape and Namibia. The Chippy’s stores stock household goods as well as fabrics.
Cowie Trading also distributes its wares in neighbouring countries, with Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland being its main markets.
The business has just opened a new Jacksons store in Nahoon in East London – there are now three in the city. Women can buy a dress imported from China for only about R250 at a retail store, but Neil has confidence in the South African woman who wants to wear something original for that special occasion, and who is prepared to pay slightly more for the fabric and for the seamstress to make the dress. Jacksons stores sell shweshwe as well as other dressmaking fabrics.
Bolts and bolts of shweshwe line the shelves of the company’s warehouse in Fort Jackson, East London. One cannot believe the variety of designs. The beauty of the fabrics is an eye-opener.
Neil says matter-of-factly: “The warehouse is too small. We’re moving soon. We need more space.”
This is highly evident. Almost every inch of shelving is packed with fabric and the passages between the shelves are narrow.
“There is big capital outlay in this business,” Neil continues. “This (he embraces one bolt of shweshwe fabric) costs R1 500 alone.”
It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that the stock in the chock-a-block warehouse is worth a lot.
Chinese and South African fabric manufacturers try to copy shweshwe. But despite these imitations being cheaper, Neil’s customers remain loyal. “They want the real thing. They love the starchy feel of original shweshwe.”
Besides the texture of the fabric, original shweshwe is narrower than the copies. It is 90cm wide as opposed to 150cm. Its colours are more vibrant and jewel-like and the white markings more distinct than in the fakes, because of the discharge printing method used by Da Gama.
Also, original shweshwe is 100 percent cotton, while the copies are polycottons.
Da Gama Textiles joint managing director Kelvyn Breetzke says: “Cowie Trading is our largest customer and the biggest distributor of original shweshwe. It has been buying our product for 60 years. The company has and still does play a key role in helping to uphold the tradition of shweshwe as the fabric of choice of the southern African woman.”
Neil says: “Do you know what our busiest trading day is? A Monday. That’s when the hawkers buy all their shweshwe. Then they make up their outfits during the week and sell them to people for their functions that they attend during the weekend. Monday comes again and they’re back to buy more fabric.”
And so the cycle and tradition has continued throughout generations and seems certain to continue for more. “We’ve had a steady demand for shweshwe over the years. In 2010 there was a slight dip because of the economy, but in 2011 we were back to normal,” Neil says.