Ideas that are good for business and the community
“My parents started this business and when I came in as Managing Director around 20 years ago, leaders were predominantly male. I had to work really hard to try to prove that I could be just as good, if not better.” Vera Chute
Vera Chute is Managing Director of Value City with her staff.
As COVID-19 forced many families in Fiji to tighten their budgets and reconsider their shopping habits, Value City’s mission to provide affordable, sustainable and stylish secondhand options became more important than ever.
Vera Chute is Managing Director of Value City, a family-owned business with a chain of stores across Fiji, importing Australian secondhand clothing and more recently household goods.
Since opening its first store 32 years ago, demand has grown and today Value City has 15 branches across Fiji, three distribution warehouses and franchise operations in Tonga and Kiribati.
Vera Chute (center) at of Value City
“One of the biggest challenges was removing the stigma – 30 years ago, you might be looked down upon if you entered a secondhand shop or thrift store,” Vera says. “Now our strong quality control measures, affordability and upmarket presentation have helped Value City become a household name and our customers come from a cross-section of the community.”
Value City has 200 staff, 70 per cent of whom are women. The majority of the management are also women. Vera hopes Value City can expand to all major towns and cities across Fiji, as well as rural areas and outer islands, helping to reach more grassroots communities.
“We opened our first rural branch late last year. I see this as an important community service.”
Taking over the Pacific
She also believes Value City could be franchised into other Pacific markets by connecting with other female entrepreneurs.
“We met our Tonga and Kiribati franchisees at Pacific women’s networking events. I think Vanuatu, Tivalu and Timor Leste have good potential too and will help us to reach more outer islands across the region,” Vera says.
Good for business and good for the planet
Value City is a strong advocate of sustainability, which not only means recycling and reusing but also upcycling and reducing landfill.
“Long jeans that didn’t sell because they’re not suitable for the climate, have been reconstructed into three-quarter pants. We reconstruct long gowns into short cocktail dresses. They’re very popular,” Vera says. “Things we can’t sell because they’re not suitable for climate are stripped into cotton rags and sold to heavy industries like sugar mills and mines.”
New clothing is the leading contributor to pollution and the second-largest consumer of water worldwide. As shoppers increasingly consider the impact of their clothing footprint, they’re more likely than ever to shop thrift.
Jill Standish, Head of Accenture’s Global Retail Practice believes more consumers are shopping with their values.
“They care about climate change and the impact of apparel on the environment and that’s why they’re more attracted to pre-owned and pre-loved clothing.”
Working hard for gender equality
When Vera became Managing Director 20 years ago, leaders were predominantly male.
“I had to work really hard to try to prove I could be just as good, if not better. I had to earn respect. But as women, we wear many hats: we’re mothers, grandmothers, daughters, board of directors, members of church choir, PTA committee members – the list goes on.”
“We create outcomes and success. Juggling all of these roles, it helps us to be more empathetic in running our businesses, we manage our people and our situations well.”
Vera also brings her vast experience to a number of boards in Fiji, particularly dealing with women, who make up 70 per cent of her customer base.
“In our society, women tend to shy away in business, which is still male dominated. I try to encourage and empower women to step up, to build their confidence to take on more leadership and board positions.”
There is some good news on this front: a recent study by the Pacific Private Sector Development Initiative (PSDI) found women are increasingly holding senior leadership and decision-making roles in the Pacific business community.
“I mentor young female entrepreneurs in Fiji and the first thing I tell them is to believe in themselves. If I have a gut feeling something is going to be good, take the risk. If you don’t succeed, try again. Build up resilience in yourself and in your business,” she says.
These thoughts are echoed by Lala Sowane, whose tourism services business Tewaka was rocked by COVID-19. After working in New Zealand in the late 1990s, she and her husband retuned to Fiji to start their business.
“People thought we were not thinking right,” says Lala. “As I tell other women, it’s important to have confidence. We started as a small business with only four people, but we saw the potential.”
Lala Sowane (right), Director Finance & Operations, Tweaka
Despite offers from bigger organisations, the couple stayed committed and confident.
“Success doesn’t come overnight. We put in a lot of hours. We had to take our kids to the office a lot – they often ate and slept there – but we stayed true to our goals,” she says.
Their business came to a halt when Fiji’s international borders closed. Despite the financial setback, ANZ supported them to find a solution, which included bidding for a government tender to help manage hotel quarantine for COVID-19 patients.
Rethinking the business model
“Our tourism services business took on a new role,” Lala says. “COVID-19 actually gave us time to reflect on the business and with international travelers returning to Fiji, we have refocused on the segments with the greatest return.”
Lala is now taking her business experience to the boards of Fiji National University and Fiji Revenue and Customs – both chaired by women.
“It’s been very encouraging for me to have highly respected and accomplished leaders chairing the boards I sit on. Organisations need to look for opportunities for women to take on leadership roles and provide leadership training for young females in particular.”
“The public sector has higher representation of women on their boards and I think the private sector – tourism in particular – should look at this.”
Victoria Kanevsky is the communications manager for ANZ Pacific
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