For some, the idea of manufacturing in China conjures fears of cut corners, questionable quality and copy cats.
Coming up on a decade of operating its own factory in the country, Atlanta-based Anisa International has seen just the opposite.
The makeup brush manufacturer’s 600-employee factory in Tianjin, China, has become much more than a way to keep costs down. It’s a key ingredient to staying ahead of the design curve in an industry that can turn faster than a model on the catwalk.
“I tell people up front I’m not a low-cost Chinese factory. That’s not who we are. We’re about compliance, quality and creative design, and that’s how we separate ourselves,” said Anisa Telwar, the company’s founder and CEO.
It may seem a strange time to be singing the praises of Chinese manufacturing. Stories of food scandals and technology transfer are all too common, and rising wages have many companies looking inland or at other countries like Vietnam, India and Cambodia.
Ms. Telwar hasn’t ruled out moving, but she is really only considering outsourcing packaging and bags – products outside her core business. China has turned a corner, and brush manufacturing is likely to stay there for the foreseeable future.
“I really want to stay in China. I feel that so much has changed,” she told Global Atlanta by phone from London, where her husband lives. “Yes, costs are increasing, but it’s improving. It’s becoming more efficient. I think we can absorb some of these cost increases by the way the people are elevating in their ability to improve process. It’s a slow go, but it is happening.”
Up the Value Chain
Videos of the China plant on Anisa’s website show hundreds of workers in a clean, well-lit building. Women sitting at long tables assemble brushes by hand. Other workers operate machines that extrude fibers or dip brush handles into vats of paint. Technicians make sure everything is working properly.
In a country where many factories jettison environmental concerns and use unskilled labor to reduce costs, Anisa relies on intense training and systems for efficiency.
It also takes care of its communities, near and far. Along with its own workers, Anisa’s plant supports an army of supplier factories enabling the company to assemble millions of brushes per year.
“Our legs are pretty long,” Ms. Telwar said, noting that the company also provides scholarships to children in nearby villages.
This attitude isn’t just about meeting order quotas. It’s about making the plant predictably positive for customers like Target, L’Oreal, Estee Lauder, Laura Mercier, Sephora and others.
“They trust us, and when I built my own factory they felt really good about the fact that we were transparent and that we were willing to meet compliance,” Ms. Telwar said.
The plant has also become essential to innovation and competitiveness. In the U.S., Anisa holds six patents and keeps its finger on the fashion pulse. The company employs its own makeup artists and in 2011 launched its own house brand for professionals, adesign.
The China team, meanwhile, has the manufacturing experience to help turn ideas into reality – and quickly.
“We definitely feed and support each other. If we didn’t have both of them, it wouldn’t be working. It’s another reason I don’t want to leave China,” Ms. Telwar said.
Ms. Telwar didn’t set out to become an entrepreneur; she founded her company more out of necessity than forward thinking.
In the late 1980s, Ms. Telwar worked with her mother, a Turkey native, who had grown her trading firm from a garage operation to $100 million in orders, mostly selling food, furniture and consumer products in the Middle East. But when the Gulf War came, exports dried up, and she had no backup plan.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Anisa began started her own makeup brush company in 1992, emboldened by courage instilled while watching her mother succeed in male-dominated business cultures.
“I thought, if she could do what she did, I’m sure I could sell some brushes in the United States,” Ms. Telwar said.
She sold products sourced from a Korean partner until he decided to tackle the U.S. market directly in 2002.
In 2003, nine years after her first visit to Asia, Ms. Telwar set up a brand new factory in China.
Creating a Culture
Success didn’t come automatically. Quality problems cropped up often in the early days, but systems, training and people have been key to turning things around, she said.
The indirect Chinese communication style has proven difficult. Ms. Telwar doesn’t believe she’ll ever fully grasp it, but she has learned to respect differences and manage expectations even as she introduces more traditionally Western management tactics.
This November, Ms. Telwar will travel to Tianjin for the factory’s 10th anniversary. The annual celebration is always a big affair, with a trip to Hong Kong given away to employees chosen by their peers for exhibiting excellence.
“When we created our own facility, we got to drive the culture, and that made all the difference,” Ms. Telwar said. “It’s about pride. We get to do something every day we feel good about.”