REGIO Reporter: episode 1
The road of the wool, from Piatra Neamț to America, via REGIO
Success stories, possible with the support of Regio Nord-Est 2014-2020
Oana and Cătălin Tatu built a family business in which they raised wool products to the level of art with a lot of passion, dedication and … European funds. The idea of entrepreneurship has been around for a long time, but they have not been able to agree on a project. On the principle „everything happens for a reason”, they discovered wool, its benefits and its untapped potential exactly when they needed it. It is the kind of success story of some people who started from the bottom and managed, together, to build a sustainable business, with 100% natural materials, locally manufactured, in Piatra Neamț and with great prospects for the future.
How did it all start?
Cătălin and Oana were at that point in their lives without too many financial possibilities, with a small child and a recent bank loan for an apartment. Their little girl was sleeping on a mattress they were not very happy with, so they decided to put a woolen „grandmother’s” blanket on top. The inconvenience was that the blanket was very slippery. So, they decided to take it to a local tailor shop to put cotton on it. It turned out so good and the baby was sleeping so well that they decided to make another blanket. In the meantime, the local tailor shop had closed due to a lack of orders. Then, Cătălin decided to make one himself, what could be so difficult?
It turned out to be difficult. Because there was no … wool, a product that is so traditional in Romania and used by generations for years. He began to search, to study, to learn as much as he could about wool. This is how he discovered a very competitive and growing market abroad. In Romania … not at all. That’s when they both said, „That’s it!”. Until then, they were both looking for ideas to do something on their own, but neither of them was embracing the other’s idea. „We bought wool that filled our pantry with moth. It wasn’t good, we realized that not all kind of wool is good. And we started studying. We kept reading and reading and when we found out about the American market, we said that we can do it too”, says Oana. Cătălin saw the potential and went to the closed companies due to the crisis of 2009-2010 and bought a second-hand sewing machine and a cutting table. It was happening somewhere around 2011.
``We shaped the wool in a modern way``
Both entrepreneurs grew up with grandparents who raised sheep, who scolded wool, who had a loom in the house. Cătălin, a textile engineer and Oana, with a marketing history, complemented each other very well in the rebirth of a culture. Somehow, all bonded, because not only did they know how to sew, but they knew how to create a story behind the wool. Until the Revolution, the Romanians used wool, but everything was thrown away when the imported products arrived on the market. „It’s like an axiom that you don’t have to prove, that wool is good compared to synthetic materials. Synthetic products develop allergies. Children who used to sleep in a kneading-trough, in lambskin, with woven socks did not have allergies. We believed in ourselves that we could, and we realized that we would succeed if we revived the need for wool. Why did the world run away from the old woolen blankets? Because are heavy, it stings, it smells, so we had to reinvent the wool, to dress it up in a modern way. My dream was that there would not be a difference between a light, steamy quilt and a wool quilt. We have developed a product that has wool, but is modern. And it could only be made with merino wool, which is soft and fine „, says Cătălin.
With the second-hand sewing machine and the cutting table on the ground floor of the block where they lived, Cătălin started sewing, after his main job. At the beginning, they made a PFA, an online store and a Facebook page, Confort Merino, which brought them around 7-8 orders per month.
He found an UK entrepreneur online who wanted to start a business, but didn’t want much volume and needed flexibility. He asked for some samples, he liked it and offered them a collaboration. When they saw that the partnership was materializing, Oana and Cătălin looked for a stable wool supplier and took care of all the necessary documents for export. They set up SANODOR SRL, they entered the list of exporters, so that when they sent the first order, on Good Friday in 2014, all the documents were ready. „Together with our collaborator from Great Britain, we have developed our products a lot in a year, we have brought them to a quality level so that there was no difference between our products and those on the UK market. In the UK the world is very open to wool products, there are many NGOs, there is a wool culture. Even Prince Charles has an NGO called The Campaign for Wool, which has grown worldwide. The wool market is encouraged from sheep breeding to the store that sells the final product, blankets, clothing, quilts „, says Oana.
The need for more
For more than 4 years, the two moved near Târgu Neamț, in a village named Vânători, to a clothing company to use their quilting machine. They started this collaboration because they did not own such a machine and the orders were increasing. If the company had many orders, they had to wait. Sometimes they asked employees to stay after schedule to do their quilts as well. Because the quilting machine was an old, second-hand machine, it made mistakes, sewed wrong, and they had to unpack the whole product. It happened quite often to stain with oil, so they had become specialists in cleaning the edges of the quilts. One of three was stained with black from the fastening system, no matter how carefully it was done. But that’s how they grew up and learned, with the company from Târgu Neamț. „It was a beautiful collaboration, but I knew that if we want more, we have to do something„, says Oana.
In 2016, they went for the first time at an expo fair abroad as exhibitors. That was their chance, they say, looking back. Although it was very expensive to attend such a fair, it was necessary to be present in order for the suppliers to take them seriously and to meet new customers. There, they acquired knowledge, exchanged know-how and learned how to make their products better. They came from fairs with their eyes wide open. So, after attending a fair in Germany, Cătălin returned home thinking that their business had a fantastic potential and could grow. But they needed their own quilting machine. This is where European funds came into discussions and how much the company will develop with these funds. They found out that there was an open call on the Regional Operational Programme. “I said this is our chance! A machine like those costs, in Europe, around 100 thousand euros, and those in China around 20 thousand. I thought that if it works, is fine, if not, with our contribution which was supposed to be 20 thousand euros, we would buy the machine from China and that’s it. At least let’s try! At that time, I was pregnant and I had to stop working and stay home, in bed. I put my laptop on my pregnant belly and started making the business plan. I received the outline of the business plan from the consultant and put all our thoughts on paper, from development to customers and competition. 80% of what I wrote there then is still valid. I will never forget how I wrote that business plan, with the laptop table on my growing belly. And I kept writing, until May, until I gave birth „, Oana remembers, with joy in her eyes. In November 2016, the project was submitted, in November 2017 the contract was signed and in August 2018 they had the quilting equipment. These are data that they both remember with great precision because they lived each stage with emotion until the end of the project. „When the experts from the North-East Regional Development Agency started to visit, we realized that it was being approved and we felt we were getting closer. I will never forget the astonishment of the expert who first came to visit. I had arranged all the space, calculated, according to the quilting machine. I put the rest of the sewing machines around, but that space was empty. „And what’s here?” „The quilting machine that is to come„, we were that confident „, says Oana.
The two entrepreneurs say that European funds have helped them a lot to develop, it has given them wings. That quilting machine was vital to them, and although many friends discouraged them, they applied for funding. The total value of the project was 144.000 euro and the non-reimbursable financial assistance was 100.000 euro. They took their desired quilting machine and another high-performance sewing machine. „The information we received from outside about European funding was discouraging. But it went very well. We had to make a bunch of files, but as long as you respect what is written there and you do everything right, everything goes smoothly. Everything was ok and correct. The people from North-East RDA helped us a lot with advice, we had a very good communication with them and we had constructive discussions. They were patient and understanding and explained to us when we needed it. They always wanted to help. All the teams that came in control were nice „, says Oana.
From Romania to America, via Piatra Neamț
They have recently moved to a new, much larger and more spacious production space. They went from „one-man show” to 12 employees and they say it`s a complete team. The exports have materialized in America, the United Kingdom, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, they are negotiating with a large Canadian company and they dream the Arab areas, Asia and Japan market. The revenues are constantly growing, from 260.000 euro in 2019 to 800.000 euro in 2021. The Romanian market is doing surprisingly well. They have created a beautiful community on Confort Merino and every year it has exceeded expectations on the sales side. In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, they created a new brand, Valeria Home, an online store available worldwide. Confort Merino targets directly merino wool products, under the Valeria Home brand there are bedding products made of natural materials, linen, hemp, silk. On Valeria Home orders come from Greece, Germany, France and America.
Thanks to the quilting machine, they have everything „in house”, from the concept to the creative workshop. They have so much confidence in the quality of their products that they offer a 30-day period in which the products can be tested, and if they are not as expected, they are replaced or refunded.
The Tatu couple says they would apply again to a European-funded project. „European funds are extremely useful. Whoever gave up or did not apply was either afraid or unprepared. There is a bunch of paper to be made, indeed, but the final goal matters. We really needed that equipment, it was our only chance and we could only get it with European funds „, confesses Oana. Cătălin says that “many good businesses do not have the ability and capacity to think a project with EU funding. They could scale the business very easily by accessing the funds. They are very good family business, with very good quality products, but which are in a latent state of development. These businesses need to be identified and attracted to European funds„.
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