While some people view challenges as deterrents, others latch on and turn them into opportunities. Sweet-Orr, a leading protective workwear company, is a case in point. During the Great Depression, this New York-founded company decided to branch out into South Africa.

It was a bold decision: expanding into South Africa, a mere two years after the disastrous Wall Street Crash of 1929. The US was, after all, in the throes of the worst recession to date. 

However, the South African gold industry was booming, driven by a rapidly rising gold price. The result was a sky-rocketing demand for quality protective work clothing, a demand that South Africa could not meet locally. 

Ninety years have passed since Sweet-Orr took that courageous step, and 150 years since its founding in 1871. During that time, the business, now 100% South Africa-based and owned, has grown from strength to strength. 

Variety is the spice of life

Over the next nine decades, Sweet-Orr – founded in Wappingers Falls, New York, by Irish immigrant James Orr and his nephews Clayton and Clinton Sweet – steadily expanded beyond mining. Other sectors, such as the petrochemical, engineering, automotive and hospitality industries as well as the medical fields and the military, also needed quality apparel. 

“From its earliest days, the company knew that diversification was key to its long-term survival. Getting too comfortable and relying on just a few off-takers has never been sustainable, not in the 1930s and definitely not now,” says executive director Denver Berman-Jacob. 

More, improved products

This diversification strategy has also translated into an ever-expanding product range, thanks to strategic partnerships with leading personal protective equipment specialists. 

Currently, Sweet-Orr’s head-to-toe offering encompasses anything from head, eye, ear, and hand to foot protection. There is also an extensive range of essential workwear, utility workwear, denim and specialised workwear, including flame retardant, acid-repellent, arc flash and flame-acid workwear for high-risk environments. 

While continuously expanding its client base and product range, the company has moved from being a traditional single-channel sales business towards a multi-channel sales business with a robust e-commerce presence. 

“Our products are now for sale on our website and via outlets such as Takealot. We have opened our first showroom in Boksburg, too. This has made it easier for potential clients to access our workwear,” says Berman-Jacob. 

Beyond South Africa

In the meantime, Sweet-Orr has extended its reach beyond South Africa, and is currently distributing into the SADC region and the United Arab Emirates. “We are also in conversation with various distributors in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. This region is full of opportunities!” 

There are plans to go back to Sweet-Orr’s roots. “As South Africa’s oldest manufacturer of protective work clothes, the thought of once again serving the very country where we once originated is incredibly exciting. Making the circle full would be a tremendous feat.” 

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