Before his “epiphany” in 1978, Oswald Loewy had been studying chemical engineering. “One day, I suddenly realised that it was time to return home and work in the family business. My father was unwell and, although I’m one of seven, I was the eldest – the others were too young to help.”
Now middle-aged, the second-generation entrepreneur is president and chief executive of Sempetex, the third-largest latex balloon manufacturer in the world. In one day, his factory makes 5m balloons; that’s 900m a year. Watching that in real-time (Loewy quickly gets his phone out to demonstrate) makes you blink.
It took the twenty-something year old Loewy “a couple of years to really understand the business. Our product – balloons – isn’t that complicated. But producing the highest quality balloons at scale is.” When Loewy began at Sempertex, it wasn’t a balloon maker at all – it made all sorts of latex products, from surgical gloves to condoms.
But he knew the business needed to change. “Globalisation had begun, but the average Colombian manufacturer still thought the world started and ended in Colombia. I started benchmarking our company’s globalisation level, and quickly found that we were 20 years behind the parts of the world where our competitors were. With my siblings too young and my father sick, I went to my mother with a plan.”
The plan was to reinvest 100 per cent of the firm’s profits for eight years – which is how long Loewy thought it’d take to turn the business around. And Sempertex would become a balloons-only business, enabling it to get very good at doing one thing.
A steep climb
Even with his mum behind him, change wasn’t easy. Loewy wanted to replace all the machinery and update systems. He found a firm in Sheffield that provided what he needed, but he couldn’t afford to buy even one of its machines. Instead, he turned to his wholly local workforce with a plan to target selling and tailor to a specific market.
“I said we should start selling to the UK, that that would be extraordinary for our business. One girl immediately jumped up and said, ‘oh, we’ll be packaging balloons for the Queen of England!’ Then she looked at me like she’d said something wrong. I replied: ‘exactly. I couldn’t have put it better myself.’”
Britain was just the start for the company. “The vision was to make the highest quality balloons we could – and to expand worldwide.” Now, Sempertex is the number one balloon brand in China and a global business – thanks to three decades of solid distribution and consistently improving manufacturing processes.
“People call our balloons the Colombia balloons,” laughs Loewy. Go on Alibaba’s website, and you can buy a Sempertex giant snail balloon (although it’s wholesale, so the minimum order is 50), among numerous others. Loewy is proud to have provided the balloons for the 2008 Olympics in Shanghai, along with the licenses he has with Disney and the tens of international brands he supplies – like Victoria’s Secret. Sempertex’s quiet success is now being globally recognised: I met Loewy at EY World Entrepreneur of the Year, where he was finalist.
I ask what kind of culture he’s built at his company. “That we are a socially responsible company should never need to be written anywhere: it’s just fundamental to what we do – our essence.” And Loewy puts his money where his mouth is. All his balloons are biodegradable. “We have total control of the plantations we use, and we don’t use any kind of fillers – it’s latex only and that’s 100 per cent natural.”
To prove the point, Sempertex has just completed a research paper on degradation periods for balloons. “I can now prove to customers that our balloons take one year to break down. Compare that to a helium flying balloon which will explode when it reaches a certain height and fall – usually into the ocean – as tiny little pieces. It was important to produce a formal document; we’ve always felt a duty to contribute and ease environmental concerns people might have.”
Above the clouds
We move onto Loewy’s workforce, which is 80 per cent women, and 85 per cent at management level. In 1981, he “realised men were running the floor and the women were becoming increasingly angry, so I called a meeting with them.”
It was then that Loewy promised to automate the entire production line, asking in return for his female workers’ help. “I told them they could do management jobs if they helped me build the business. They didn’t let me down. Women are more effective, they’re more committed. Their attention to detail is fantastic.”
This attitude, says Loewy, is in-keeping with wider Colombian society. “Women play a very important role; they deserve all our respect. Today, the general gender parity in our country is becoming increasingly manifest. Participation is higher than it ever has been, and that’s great.”
Loewy has also worked hard to ensure the maternity package he has in place works for his staff, too. In Colombia, women get three months’ maternity leave, with paternity leave options for fathers. “In the factory we permanently have 15 to 25 pregnant women. All this means is we move them into more comfortable roles during their pregnancy.” It’s worth noting that Sempertex also offers siesta rooms for its workers – just so nobody is inclined to take a nap while on the factory floor.
Now, Loewy is thinking about what’s next for the business, and his own future. “There are two of us, out of my siblings, working for the business. My sister is leaving at the end of this year and we are looking at succession. I’ll stay until I’m 65, maybe a little less. My family loves the business – and some of them have been able to benefit from profits and have started their own businesses.”
With the company fully automated, Loewy’s focus is on doing what he does better. People ask him about revisiting other latex products, but “you have to be realistic. As balloons have moved on in the last 40 years, so have gloves. I think it’s too late to think like that.”
But even if he’s missed the innovation in other subsectors, it’s quite obvious that cooking up new ideas when you’re in Loewy’s line of work is pretty good fun. “We’re making balloons quite hi-tech now. We can do full colour pictures, put LED lights inside.”
He launches into the tale of the Medici family consulting Leonardo da Vinci on ways to spice up a party they were holding. Da Vinci, so the story goes, inflated animal bladders and decorated them. “Initially, people were afraid. They didn’t know what these objects were. But as the balloons mixed with the music, with the candle light, they began to play with them. People always ask me ‘what is a balloon?’, and I always say the same thing: ‘a balloon is nothing’”.