I’ve met hundreds of business owners from all corners of the world since I started out. One that really made a lasting impression on me was Kevin Ackermann, co-founder and CEO of BACA Jewellery Ltd based in London, UK. In this week’s article we introduced you to the importance of branding when importing products from China, something that Kevin Ackermann has managed exceptionally well. In this interview he tells us about his journey that started with a flight to Shanghai and brought him all the way to the United Nations.
Kevin, please tell us a bit about what you do, how you got started and how it involves China.
I am a Social Entrepreneur running and advising several startups based in London and San Francisco, CA. I am very passionate about retail hence my interactions with factories in China.
At BACA Jewellery, where I am currently acting as CEO, we import pearls and other components from China. Even though 98% of cultured freshwater pearls come from China and the region has built up a great reputation for its quality pearl jewellery, I wanted to check out every step of the supply chain myself to make sure that we do not exploit anybody.
It was in 2010 when I first flew to Shanghai and experienced the magnetic-levitation (Maglev) train ride from the international airport to the city, which is the perfect metaphor for the fast-paced city. I made sure to meet and talk to designers, factories as well as the workers who are responsible for harvesting the pearls. I returned with full confidence that our imports will make both our customers and partners happy.
Could you please explain what Social Compliance is and the role it has in your business?
I strongly suggest that, importing businesses take into consideration that each individual involved in the process has the right of personal transformation, whether that is of material or intellectual nature and to develop moral capabilities encompassing, values, attitudes, and skills that enable the person to make appropriate moral choices and to promote creative and cooperative patterns of human interaction.
It is crucial for me to know that my suppliers pay fair wages and have safety regulations in place to ensure that factory workers have decent working conditions and an appropriate work-life balance.
Social Compliance when sourcing products in Asia have proven to be more important than ever. Especially after last years factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed well over 1000 people. However, social compliance has been a major component of your business strategy since well before the issue started to gain the current levels of international media attention, how come?
I guess the “sense of community feeling on a local and global level” is a common numerator among people from Generation Y. We could even speak of Generation G (Giving) nowadays where G also stands for “Generosity” rather than “Greed”. Giving becomes the new taking. It’s pretty much an entire generation that emerges, which doesn’t accept exploitation any longer. Today, everyone can, should they choose to, stay connected and informed through mediums such as the web and tools like Facebook or Skype.
This really fostered a sense of solidarity among young professionals. It will continue to play a significant role until the gap between the poor and wealthy will be closed. It’s a matter of time until what I described will affect processes and structures in society and becomes a dominant model within the industry for trade. As little as I like to say it, it will probably need a few more events such as the one of the Rana Plaza that you referred to in your question until masses stop purchasing from Retailers that do not employ fair working conditions.
The reason why I focused on a social business approach when designing my business model before the recent international media attention simply came from a personal experience I had during a factory visit in 2008 in Thailand. I saw the conditions and state of the many young girls and women who worked there and made the decision that if I start my company, that’s not how I am going to run the show.
How do you go about to source qualified and social compliant suppliers in China?
We either visit the factory ourselves or we employ our local agents whom we have built up a relationship with over several years now. We trust them, as they know exactly what we are looking for in terms of quality and standards.
When you visit a supplier in China, on what factors do you decide whether or not a supplier reaches your social compliance standards?
It is impossible to make your decisions whether or not to work with a supplier based on only facts or images of their factories and operations that they provide. We try to build up long-term relationships based on trust, but also do inspections on site that help getting a clear overview of what is happening during production. This has worked for us so far and we are grateful for the quality partners we have had the privilege to work with so far.
Can a small business like your own really make a difference for the workers in countries such as China, Bangladesh and Cambodia?
Our direct impact in terms of numbers is very limited. However, BACA as a social enterprise has enabled us to get the dialogue going and inspire industry leaders in the retail sector. We had many meaningful conversations with consumers and very positive reactions resulting from it. My recent milestones include acknowledgments from the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights Navi Pillay and Mary Robinson, as well as from meetings with some major corporations and their foundations.
What about the future, does BACA have any plans to branch out into other product areas?
At this point, BACA will continue its focus on Jewellery and add the production in our own London workshop. However, with the company based in San Francisco, USA, Getupandup.com, which is based on the same concept, we focus on a more diverse product portfolio in particular athletic wear and winter sports gear.
Want to follow or connect with Kevin Ackermann? You can reach him on the following Social Media pages:
Co-founder of Asiaimportal (HK) Limited and based in Hong Kong. He has been quoted in and contributed to Bloomberg, SCMP, Alibaba Insights, Globalsources.com, China Chief Executive, Quartz Magazine and more.
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