Oka-B, the Buford-based manufacturer and exporter of plastic shoes, doesn’t need sophisticated market research to plan its international growth. Its executives just look at the map.
“We are currently going into areas that are hot, humid and rainy–year round summer. That’s where we see our growth at the moment and in the immediate future,” said Jackie Barnett, international sales manager.
Launched in 2005, Oka-B manufactures four lines of shoes (spring, summer, fall and resort) made from a proprietary blend of plastics called Microplast. Each pair is made to order and assembled by hand at the 100,000-square-foot factory in Buford. The line of sandals, flip flops and ballet slippers are made from up to 30 percent recycled materials.
Oka-B originally targeted the upscale spa and resort markets such as Atlantis in the Bahamas, St. Regis, Mandarin Oriental and Wynn Las Vegas.
“We have utilized Oka-B sandals for our guests since opening our exhale location in Atlanta,” said Barbara Schultz, spa director at exhale Atlanta. “We love them for the durability, look and comfort.”
Having just finished its 2014 fiscal year, Oka-B’s international sales played a key role in tripling its revenue over the previous year. The shoes are now found in about 25 countries as opposed to less than 15 a year ago. Currently one-third of revenues are from exports; Ms. Barnett expects that in five years that figure will at least be half.
“We are creating new international markets and a foundation to grow upon,” she said.
Oka-B’s shoes are particularly favorable to tropical climates for the same reasons they do well in spas. The shoes are lightweight, flexible and slip-resistant, which provides stability on both wet and dry terrain. Their non-absorbent material has antimicrobial properties that resist the growth of bacteria, odor and mildew, allowing them to be easily washed and sanitized. They are machine washable and dishwasher safe.
“When I travel, I just wear a pair in the shower and they’re nice and clean again,” Ms. Barnett said.
She has been traveling more and more as the company’s sales overseas have grown. Oka-B found its first international market in 2007 in the Caribbean and later made its way into Asia, particularly Japan and the Philippines. Today, the company, which also has a sales office in Midtown, eyes countries such as Malaysia, where the weather fits, as well as warm, humid markets in Latin America and the Middle East.
Because of its cool climate, Europe isn’t high on the list, but oddly enough, Oka-Bs do very well in Poland.
“Poland is a very new market for us—we have only been ‘in stores’ for eight weeks there; however, it has proven to be a strong region for us so far, in that short amount of time,” Ms. Barnett said.
With a population of 38 million and a growing economy, Polish tourists are traveling more, and they’re taking Oka-Bs with them.
“While you wouldn’t normally associate Poland as being a top market for colorful sandals & ballets (due to their weather patterns), it has the potential to reach up to 20,000 pairs annually for Oka-B,” Ms. Barnett said.
While the weather is more suited for Oka-Bs in Brazil, the regulatory climate is not. Import tariffs are high, and shoes from one of the brand’s prime competitors, Mel Shoes, are made in the tropical country of 200 million people.
Oka-B, along with its sister company Okabashi, contribute tothe 2 percent of shoes globally made in the United States. Okabashi’s products are less upscale than Oka-B and are sold in stores such as Wal-Mart, while Oka-B is marketed in more than 5,000 spas, resorts and gifts shops. Oka-B, which has a higher price point, will soon be in retail shops such as DSW. The company also makes private label products for Disney, among other partners.
Since shoe exporting is not a large field in the U.S., Ms. Barnett said the company faces more challenges than a company in an industry sector with a large exporting blueprint.
“We face a lot of hurdles when exporting,” she said. “Every single country has their own set of rules, regulations, import duties, import VAT taxes, custom clearance laws, documentation requirements – the list goes on. Even in the EU, there are some things that vary per country like tax ID numbers. It’s difficult expanding, especially as quickly as we have.”
Ms. Barnett attributes the ability to enter new markets quickly to very heavy trade show participation as well as online research to locate several master distributors.
“That is a key component for pivotal growth in a company that wants to expand globally. It’s been very, very helpful in wanting to infiltrate those markets,” she said.
However, she is quick to point out that even with key partners with strong relationships overseas, it is important to conduct one’s own due diligence on customs, something Oka-B learned the hard way.
The company was all set to enter Turkey when executives learned that Turkey requires its own custom testing on every product sample imported in order to ensure there are no hazardous materials being brought into the county.
“We assumed our distributor knew all the laws and we wasted four to five months before we were put on the clearance list. We are now working with a new distributor and we will be in that market next year,” she said.
Ms. Barnett shared some of Oka-B’s hard-earned insights at the annual trade summit of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce in April. The chamber has applauded the company for its ambitions to seize more sales by boldly expanding internationally.
“We’re fortunate to have such a strong and pioneering company as Okabashi producing quality products right here in Gwinnett,” said Nick Masino, senior vice president of economic development and Partnership Gwinnett with the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. “From access to ports, a skilled workforce and global access, Georgia makes a compelling case as a leader in the growth and expansion of business into international markets.”
Read more: Gwinnett Firms Share Export Success Stories
To shop, visit www.oka-b.com.