For Anisa International, the coronavirus outbreak in China couldn’t have come at a worse — or better — time.
The Atlanta-based manufacturer of makeup brushes, one of the world’s leaders in the category, had just completed an 18-month renovation of a new building in Tianjin, the northeastern city where it has spent the last 16 years learning the ins and outs of Chinese manufacturing.
Just before the Chinese New Year holiday in late January, Anisa’s local team had put the finishing touches on its crosstown facility, which would retain most of its 500-strong local workforce.
But the virus began proliferating some 700 miles away in Wuhan, prompting provincial governments to order travel restrictions and extend the holiday through Feb. 10, in effect trapping many workers in their hometowns.
“Part of me thought, ‘This is awful, why did this happen?’ and part of me was like,’ Thank God I’m no longer in our old facility,’” said Anisa Telwar Kaicker, the founder and namesake of the company, as well as its longtime CEO.
The timing could actually be seen as serendipitous; while the ensuing ramp-up would take longer than expected, at least it came after a clean break with the former building, she thought.
Anisa’s exciting next step had been — like many business moves in China — precipitated in part by the government, which had notified Anisa of a pending re-zoning around its initial plant set among rural villages outside Tianjin. More stringent environmental directives were also coming to clean up manufacturing in the area.
That wasn’t a problem for Anisa, which had already gone above and beyond in this regard, installing its own water treatment plant at the old factory, even when that wasn’t required by law.
But moving offered a chance to start afresh with a factory that could more clearly reflect the values of a global company that prizes sustainability and accountability to its customers and workforce, which both in China and here is composed mostly of women.
The process started in 2018, when Anisa opened a separate facility in the Jinghai area outside Tianjin for anodizing aluminum ferrules, the parts that the bristles to the handle. The chemical process is essential, as it results in a protective coating that can also hold dyes of various colors, but it also happens to be the dirtiest and most water-intensive step in manufacturing.
“We built something that we really love that’s automated, and it’s really one of its kind when it comes to brush making,” Ms. Telwar told Global Atlanta in an interview.
Not only was the new factory outfitted with better and safer equipment, but it was organized with help from an employee who had previously worked with Foxconn, the contract manufacturer famous for making Apple Inc.’s iPhones and other electronics in China.
Click to see inside the anodization factory:
A Model Response
The official grand opening of the newest facility would have to wait, though. A lockdown during China’s biggest travel holiday meant about a quarter of the workforce was out of town; many wouldn’t be allowed back in until about a month after the first restrictions were announced.
Luckily, much of Anisa’s local leadership had stayed nearby, heeding early advisories.
Even with one key manager visiting his son in Vancouver, the team immediately got to work on WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese super-app, to locate workers and check on their status. That gave Anisa a sense for how plausible ramping up production would be.
Ms. Telwar Kaicker attributed the proactive response to Anisa’s “high-touch” approach to its China operation, which is owned directly and focuses on retention of well-trained managers and factory workers. The general manager has been with the company for seven years, and his closest deputies have spent twice that time with the company.
“This is their livelihood, their life, how they are financially secure. Not once did I threaten not to pay them. They weren’t working, and everybody got paid.”
Ms. Telwar Kaicker makes it a point to visit Tianjin herself nearly every year to celebrate key anniversaries, although she focuses more on the demand side of things.
“My value for the business for 27 years is to ensure that we have the right customers, that we are creating the right products for the visionaries in the industry,” she said. “When have a good supply chain partner, that’s the perfect marriage. We want to again show people there are right ways and wrong ways to manufacture in China.”
Soon, employees started trickling back into Tianjin. Masks and temperature checks were mandated. The government cleared the factory for a staged opening, and things ramped up, slowly at first. Now the plant is running at 90 percent capacity, and Anisa seen as a benchmark for others in the area.
“We were able to show them really strong protocols for sterilization,” Ms. Telwar Kaicker said, again emphasizing the cleanliness of the new plant. “A virus wasn’t going to hide in there.”
“A virus wasn’t going to hide in there.”
At a time when many government officials are calling for less reliance on the “world’s factory,” the experience has strengthened Anisa’s confidence in China, in part because of the skill that goes into each step of making “prestige products” that maximize the performance of luxury cosmetics.
“The intellectual property comes from our operations. This is an artisanal craft. This is made by a human being who has done it over and over and over. I can’t tell you this is the best business model in the world, but we cannot duplicate this by a machine, not yet.”
A New Reality
With the supply side situated, Ms. Telwar Kaicker’s attention has now turned to handling the shock to demand that has come with the U.S. economy now at a standstill. Brands already with strong brand loyalty and digital presence are weathering the downturn well; those in travel and physical retail have struggled. The key for all is managing inventory, which affects Anisa’s production across the Pacific.
A frequent flyer in normal times, Ms. Telwar Kaicker has had to deal with managing client relationships while grounded. She’s remotely shepherding workers in Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles through a period she likens to the five stages of grief, with the company in survival mode.
“They’re still afraid. My own people in the U.S. are looking at me like, ‘Do I have a job or not?'”
But this time of “digging in”on the day-to-day operations is one of many silver linings for an executive normally focused on the bigger picture.
“There is no room for mistakes right now. We have been stopped in our tracks. Since I cannot travel, I have to sit here, and all I’m doing is talking to my people. The only way we get through this is talk to our people.”
Anisa won’t meet its forecasts this year, but instead of abandoning hope, Ms. Telwar Kaicker is taking the time to work on internal structures and plan for the next two years. She sees a potential “rubber-band effect” as demand snaps back once the pandemic has been contained.
The new China facility — still under duress and refining its processes — should be ready when that time comes.
“Once this crisis subsidies, we are going to have to be ready to run.”