The clothing entrepreneur who supplies the US market from Africa

US-born entrepreneur Sam Meeks describes himself as a “factory doctor”. For a large part of his career, Meeks has worked with denim jeans manufacturers across the world, helping turn around struggling businesses.

He got started in the jeans business with Levi Strauss & Co in the US back in 1968. His first job entailed sweeping floors and cleaning toilets. He learned from the ground up and was moved around in different departments at Levi Strauss.

In 1999 Meeks took up an operations manager job at another company who had a struggling jeans factory in Nairobi, Kenya. His New York based employer had one instruction: “If you don’t fix it, close it.”

“They brought me here telling me they had this factory in Kenya that they were sick and tired of. [They said] Kenyans were lazy, they couldn’t do fashion, they were slow, they were hard to work with. I was sitting in the interview thinking ‘something doesn’t sound right’,” Meeks explained.

Although he had never been to Africa, Meeks did not buy his employer’s complaints. When he arrived at the factory in Kenya, Meeks immediately saw the problem.

“I said ‘these Kenyans have not been trained’. I knew immediately what needed to be done; we train these people, teach them, treat them properly, treat them with the respect and dignity that they deserve just like every human being.”

The business had 1,100 employees and was doing 45,000 pairs of jeans per week. In 18 months, Meeks and his team turned around the business, doubling the number of employees to 2,200 [and] manufacturing 25,000 pairs of jeans per day.

“Denim is my ball game. It’s what I am good at,” he noted.

But after decades of building his employers’ factories, Meeks was ready to fulfil his childhood dream of running his own denim jeans business. He decided to set up Tailormade Jeanswear (TJ’s), a company that manufactures and exports custom made jeans to the US.

He told How we made it in Africa that the business model was inspired by a newspaper article he read about two US companies that were producing custom made denim jeans.

TJ’s targets buyers who want to order a particular fit and size or replace their favourite pair.

“There are some challenging body shapes out there and some fit preferences. Some of us are more particular about our clothing than others. I thought [this] was a good idea [because] you don’t make stuff in advance and hope you can sell it,” Meeks explained.

But by the time Meeks was ready to begin trading, the two US businesses he read about in the newspaper had collapsed. He found this disturbing and had doubts about the custom made jeans model, but decided to stay put.

“It has been the driving force of my life since then,” he said. “I am a textile guy. It’s in my blood. It’s what I do.”

Today TJ’s sells about 70% of its apparel to the US and Canada through its website.

Lessons learnt

Meeks has had several ups and downs throughout his entrepreneurial journey. In 2007 he had to close down the business because he was running out of funds. Meeks wanted to relocate the company to Mexico, which is closer to his primary market, but for 18 months he faced difficulties setting up the business. He eventually decided to come back to Kenya.

“You know you talk about the bureaucracy here; they want bribes over there too. I wasn’t paying [bribes] which I don’t pay here either, and it makes it tougher, but it is the right thing to do,” said Meeks.

Other challenges he has faced include difficulty dealing with government agencies, power interruptions and poor infrastructure.

“The challenges are innumerable, [but] it is important to stay in the game,” he said.

Meeks has no plans of going back to the US and intends to continue running his business from Kenya.

“Let’s face it; Kenya is going to boom. This is the only country I have ever been to in the world that is booming. You could look everywhere around you; you will see cranes on top of buildings that are being constructed,” said Meeks.

The Texas-born entrepreneur said he would like to see more US companies investing in Africa. “I don’t think they are investing enough [in Africa]. I believe Americans hear too much propaganda from politicians about the problems and issues [in Africa]. They are not as bad on the ground. It may be challenging but it is not as dangerous as long as you know your way around,” he explained.

Meeks advises entrepreneurs to find out as much as possible about the type of business they want to pursue before making an investment. They should also try to find solutions to the challenges they face as opposed to giving up. Entrepreneurs, he added, should not be afraid to pursue their dreams.

“I am a big dreamer. They say it costs no more effort to dream big as it costs to dream small. You might as well dream big.”