Close Up: Picking Up The Mantle
Kathy Cheng looks at textiles and sees history, family and love. After all, it was through textiles that her parents first met. “I swear, growing up, I said I’m never going to be in it and here I am,” says Cheng. “But as you grow up and as you mature, there’s a lot of reflection, and you realize we are who we are because of where we come from.” As president of Ontario-based supplier Redwood Classics Apparel, Cheng has watched her family’s business change over the years, adapting as the marketplace continues to evolve.
Although history and legacy follow her, Cheng was able to find something new in her family’s business—her voice. “I didn’t realize I had a voice,” she says. “And I didn’t discover my voice until about six years ago. I realized that I’ve always had a point of view, but I was afraid to use my voice.”
In 1988, Cheng’s father, along with his brother and sister, started the family business in Canada. “We were a small sewing contractor,” says Cheng. “Your typical immigrant family; we came from very humble beginnings.” Cheng says her dad started the factory because he was entrepreneurial and wanted to do more for his family. “My dad’s side of the family has always been in textiles. That’s why we say at Redwood Classics Apparel ‘three generations of textiles’ because my parents actually met at my grand-uncle’s textile factory in Hong Kong. So, textiles are in my blood,” she says.
The business began with five employees and 10 machines. But by the 1990s, the factory, soon-to-be Redwood Classics Apparel, directly employed close to 500 people and had 200,000-plus square feet of space across three locations, all local to each other. The business became a vertical manufacturer, making products for major retail brand names as private label manufacturers. “We are kind of like the tire-maker for Goodyear and Michelin, but we do it for apparel,” says Cheng.
It was also during the 1990s that Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China. Because of this, a huge influx of people from Hong Kong, fearful of communism, immigrated to Canada. “I, myself, was born in Hong Kong; I am a Hong Kong emmigrant” says Cheng. “Hong Kong, at one point, was a textile hub. There is a lot of that knowledge, expertise and skillset that came to Canada. As we were scaling and growing, we were able to onboard several immigrants with the skillset to help us. As we settled into North America, we were able to help new immigrants start their new [lives]. Looking back, that is so impactful. That is something I am so ridiculously proud of when I look back on the history of our company.”
In December 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization, and businesses begin going offshore for textile suppliers. By 2008, amidst the recession, the factory had scaled back to 150 employees. When Cheng’s aunt and uncle retired, it was just her dad running the business, and one day, he asked Cheng to join him in a business meeting. “In this meeting, I learned the business landscape just could not support the infrastructure that we scaled to,” says Cheng. “The family decision was, do we retire like most textile families have or do we continue this fight?”
After that meeting, Cheng’s father asked her to be his business partner. “When he asked me to be his business partner, I initially didn’t want to do it; I wasn’t sure,” says Cheng. “But I remember going back to the factory, and I am in the middle of the sewing machines and there’s lots of humming. Several of our makers have been with us 10, 15 or 20 years, and they have literally watched me grow up. When I got married, I had three receptions, and the third one was for our makers. I think it was those memories, while I am standing on the production floor, that just hit me like a ton of bricks. I realized that I have to do this; it’s not about me, but it’s about our makers who have been with us for so long.”
In January 2009, Redwood Classics Apparel “humbly restructured” to 40 employees and moved into one main facility, and Cheng became president four years later. “We just kept our head down and focused on our quality,” says Cheng. “And that’s when I discovered this industry called promotional products. I didn’t even know there was such an industry.” Through their work with high-end retail brands, Cheng discovered an untapped niche in the promotional products industry. “Our industry, and the products in our industry, tend to focus on price, and therefore the marketplace tends to put out products that are price-driven at the expense of the product,” says Cheng.
By focusing on craftmanship, quality and transparency, Cheng says Redwood Classics Apparel has carved out a spot for itself as a niche player in the promotional products industry. “By staying true to our ethos, which is made in Canada, support local, really high quality and quick to market, I realized that what we are able to bring to the table, as a manufacturer, something that is very different than other suppliers in our industry.”
Although her father is still very active in the business, Cheng is ensuring the success of the family business for future generations. “Every time I speak of my dad, I get choked up because of how proud and grateful I am. I look up to him because of the courage he had to do this,” she says.
PPB spoke with Cheng to learn more about why supplier diversity is so important.
PPB Why is supplier diversity important?
Cheng For our industry to thrive, we need to have different perspectives. Looking back and self-reflecting, if I was already immersed in this industry, Redwood Classics Apparel wouldn’t be what it is today because I wouldn’t have that different perspective. When I look at this industry, my perspective was very different from other people, so therefore I was able to identify a niche. Also, in this industry, there are not a lot of women at the C level, especially women of color. I have experienced firsthand terrible situations at industry trade shows where people say racist or sexist things to me, and that is why I am so passionate about driving diversity in our industry. I’ve worked really hard to have a voice and I am going to use it. That’s why if I am very uncomfortable when I am speaking, I force myself to do it, because I feel like I am finally at a place where I have a platform to use my voice, and it’s so important that we all use it. Muster up enough courage as you have because we have to fight for the future.
PPB How did you find your voice six years ago?
Cheng In 2014, I was inducted into The EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program where they selected 12 high-growth-potential women-owned businesses. In my class, I had Sarah Kauss, who is the founder of S’well. I remember being inducted and going to orientation, and I felt like such an imposter. All these women were so well-spoken, and we had to do elevator pitches. I consider myself blue collar—I have an education, but I’ve never given an elevator pitch or anything like that. I would tell people I make t-shirts, sweatshirts and trackpants, all in Canada. If you asked me six years ago what I did, that would be my answer. In a room full of 30 to 40 people, I got in front of them, but by my seventh time trying, I was crying from utter embarrassment. Later that night, Phyllis Newhouse, one of my dear friends and mentors, took me by the shoulders and shook me. She said, “You look at me, girlfriend. I know how you feel. You walk into a room and no one looks like you, but you belong, you earned it; you belong here.” And that was the beginning of me finding my voice.
Kristina Valdez is associate editor of PPB.