Fortune Favours the Brave

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-By Andrew Kade

Courage is a concept that holds a special place in the human condition. If life is a kaleidoscope filled with moral shades of grey, courage is one of the few lodestones that bring contrast to humanity’s vision.

Courage, the word, evokes images of soldiers dragging fallen comrades to safety under enemy fire, firemen charging into burning buildings to save children, a random stranger saving another person from a criminal act – all tales which have been rehashed and reconstituted by Hollywood time and again, the general populace eating them up with gusto.

In this writer’s own experience though, single acts of bravery, in a business sense, do not always amount to success, nor do they constitute a hero. To be courageous consistently in all facets of life is a harder and less travelled path, but the results endure. One needs to look no further than a well-known company whose name and logo is a certain orchard-grown fruit to see the inherent benefits of courage and integrity in a modern business setting. This iconic company does not walk this path alone however, as I discovered in my recent interview with the CEO of Sunshades Eyewear, Rodney Grunseit.

Sunshades is the premier manufacturer of fashion eyewear in Australia, specialising in licensed designer brands such as Karen Walker, Oroton, Fiorelli and Ksubi. Sunshades is a family owned and operated business; born out of the drive and courage of one woman, the enigmatic and inspirational Betty Lasse, it has grown to become a powerhouse of its industry.

“My mother started the company about 42 years ago and she dealt with unbranded sunglasses, very affordable; she was an importer who sold to wholesalers, who then sold to the retailers. A step got cut out of the industry – the wholesalers and importers became one and the same – and so she had to change the business to become an importer/wholesaler,” says Rodney.

Betty Lasse started Sunshades whilst simultaneously working at the Ramsgate Avenue pharmacy in the heart of the famous Bondi Beach shopping strip. From a nearby shop front in Curlewis Street, Betty’s business grew gradually until she was eventually able to graduate completely away from the pharmacy and devote herself to Sunshades. In the mid 70’s, Betty travelled to Taiwan to negotiate a supply chain deal with local sunglass manufacturers and by the early 80’s, Sunshades employed three staff and was turning over 400,000 sunglasses a year.

Sunshades may have had humble beginnings, but the statement on the company website speaks volumes of its bold intentions, “The Swiss are known for their watches, Italians are known for their handbags, Australia will be known for its sunglasses.”

Rodney’s inherited passion for both business and fashion, combined with a visionary attitude, has put Sunshades on a steady trajectory towards the stratosphere of its industry. “About 17 years ago, I joined the company at a time when we had a modest turnover, just under three million. We are now a 30 million dollar company,” says Rodney.

Sunshades’ success was clearly not made overnight, but there was a clear turning point that helped shape the company into the dynamo that it is today. “16 years ago, Disney actually came to us and said that they needed to make children’s sunglasses, but the global license holder could not seem to make them affordable. They would cost around one hundred dollars, which back then was absurd, so Disney had no business in Australia in eyewear.”

Rodney vividly remembers the day his mother came to him about the approach from Disney and said, “I am good with sunglasses, and good with general fashion, but I know nothing about licensing. If you want to take on this Disney deal as an experimental project, by all means do it.”

So by teaming up with Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse, Sunshades was soon in discussion with OPSM, David Jones, and other major retailers. The success of this “experiment” led to Sunshades being approached by fashion accessory frontrunners, Fiorelli. The opportunity to work with such a strong fashion brand was too good to pass up. “We took on Fiorelli when it was [doing] about $200,000 worth of wholesale sales per annum and took it up to $2,000,000 in the first year,” says Rodney.

This learning experience, and the associated successes, had Sunshades rolling with the punches and evolving into a new business beast. “We had a good feel for fashion and sunglasses, but then it started to get into brand management and brand building. It snowballed from there and we started working with Orotos and Karen Walker, then came brands like Ksubi.”

Sunshades now boasts an impressive stable of brands that also includes Le Specs, Flint, Morrissey, Glarefoil, Fish, Cancer Council, Base and Polaroid. “We have the best portfolio of brands in Australia and we hope that we are solidifying our relationship with the brands that have longevity. This platform has enabled us to grow into new areas. Our new big area, that has no glass ceiling, is international business.” The company’s primary spearhead into the global market has come through the success of its flagship brand, Karen Walker. “We have been working with Karen Walker for about seven years. Karen is quite hands-on with our team; we design together, and we market together. Karen Walker, as a brand, has become enormously successful internationally and we trade in over 30 countries.”

The brand has garnered especial prestige in America where it has become the “must have” boutique label of those living on the cusp of the fashion frontier. Other players in the Sunshades portfolio have started to gain momentum as well, such as Oroton, who has recently opened stores overseas.

As well as trying to raise the reach and profile of its current brands, Sunshades has exciting new prospects on the horizon. “We have signed up a couple of big international brands that will be launching soon. It is really exciting for us as it is a new chapter for Sunshades. We are leading the way with unique high fashion designs and making a name for ourselves as a fearless designer. As a result, we are making our way into the inspiration books of the biggest players on the scene.”

It is not hard to see what all the fuss is about. The designs coming out of the Sunshades consortium are playful, edgy and relevant. They speak to the current generations who are not afraid to wear their characters on the outside. Through the awareness created by the internet and social media the world has begun to reward genuine expression and charisma, which Sunshades is providing in spades. “If you are a newcomer you have to have a unique proposition to make a path through the mass of brands and fashions out there. Our unique proposition is that we are fearless and willing to take risks. Other global brands have retreated and become quite fake – they are not taking risks.”

The drive to push the artistic boundaries comes from Rodney’s infectious passion for life and fashion, and is no doubt the reason why designers are eager to team up with Sunshades to grow their brands. Tempering the risk is a healthy respect for sound business principles and well calculated planning. This side of the equation encompasses such practices as strong consideration of prospective business partners, and Sunshades; track record in this area appears to be speaking for itself.

“We are launching the House of Holland range toward the end of this year in Australia. Henry Holland, the designer, takes risks and he has a bit of fun with his apparel. His range contains a lot of styles that I like to call ‘window dressing.’ Of course it’s functional, but it’s risky and fun.”

The mystique that surrounds the heady fast paced world of high fashion has always intrigued the masses, and it is certainly not a place for the faint of heart. To be at the vanguard in any field or industry is by its nature a lonely place fraught with danger. I get the distinct feeling from my conversation with Rodney that there is no place he would rather be.

“We are throwing caution to the wind because we are in a strong position. It’s good timing and the world needs this right now because of the homogenising of the fashion industry. We are being bold because we can.”

I hope for the sake of Sunshades, Australia, and the fashion world in general, that the old adage applies and, “Fortune favours the brave.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:32 PM AEDT