Slip off your Birkenstocks. If there is one pair of shoes for this summer, it surely has to be a pair of Gandys flip flops. Dressing the feet of everyone from Boris and Richard Branson to Jessica Alba and Made in Chelsea’s Binky Felstead, London-based social enterprise brand Gandys flip flops is the conscientious shopper’s shoe of choice. With cool designs and sell-out lines with Liberty of London, Accessorize and Serge de Nimes (better known as Made in Chelsea’s Proudlock) Gandys is about to go global.
Brothers Paul and Rob Forkan — along with their four siblings — were orphaned by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The tale of their survival turned the heads of the UK’s top politicians and entrepreneurs.
In 2001 the brothers’ parents, Kevin and Sandra, took their four youngest children out of school, left behind their life in Croydon and began working on humanitarian projects across the Indian sub-continent. On Boxing Day morning, 2004, a massive tsunami hit the coastline of Sri Lanka where they had been celebrating Christmas and swept away Kevin and Sandra. Aged just 17 and 15 at the time, Rob and Paul first struggled to find their two younger siblings in the chaos and then, with no money or passports, the four had to find their way back home to London. Through the support of family and friends they began to rebuild their lives, determined to create something positive out of the tragedy, specifically focusing on children.
The business plan was born one morning after a particularly heavy festival when Rob woke up with “a mouth like Gandhi’s flip flop”. A quick change of spelling to avoid any legal issues and the brothers quit their day jobs. Working from a one- bedroom apartment in Brixton they set about creating a company with aims to rival global mega brand Havaianas. Gandys now sends 10 per cent of its profits directly into the Gandys Foundation and the Orphans for Orphans mission which funds children’s homes in India and Sri Lanka.
They are plucky: “We’ve always aimed for the top, we went to Rupert Murdoch’s office and managed to get past security and stood in Philip Green’s reception demanding to see him,” says Rob, now 27. But they’re never cocky: “We could do a PowerPoint presentation on the mistakes we’ve made. We’ve been naive and we’ve been too trusting. The biggest obstacle we faced in the early days was paying our rent. We sacrificed a lot and a huge amount of energy is required but you have to remember that ‘no’ today doesn’t mean ‘no’ tomorrow.” A chance meeting with some buyers was the turning point in their fortunes that led to a pop-up launch event at Selfridges. “A major retailer like that builds momentum,” they say.
Bright, curious and fearless, they are model graduates of the university of life. “We needed some seed investment. We could have gone on Dragons’ Den but instead we invited some of the people from Channel 4’s Secret Millionaire to the pub, asked them to pitch to us and called it Brothers’ Den,” says Rob, making it sound very simple. “We wanted investors who shared our values. We met IT entrepreneur Dominic List and it was a perfect fit, he’s also a philanthropist.”
They do seem to attract a certain type of businessman. “Richard Branson is not your typical suit so we approached him for support. We offered to rename our Tokyo Red flip flop Necker Red for him … and it worked.” It was a savvy move. Branson found their story so inspiring that the Necker Red is now officially part of the staff uniform on the island. “Actually, we accidentally sent 3,000 pairs to his house in Oxford,” Paul laughs. “But once we had a picture of him wearing them, people really took notice.”
The momentum continues to build. After meeting at the British Summer Time Festival, Boris Johnson agreed to open their new offices where they now employ 15 members of staff. No 10 has also taken note. When the boys returned to Sri Lanka for the first time last year, nine years after the tsunami, David Cameron visited one of their projects. Branson’s support too has continued and he recently flew the brothers to Jamaica, inviting them to address the students of his respected Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Montego Bay.
Mirieme Hill, responsible business manager at Virgin Holidays, pays tribute to the brothers’ contribution: “They’re at such an incredibly busy point in their professional lives, the demand on their time is huge and unprecedented, so for them to give up five days to come to speak to our graduates and to encourage them is wonderful. They really do want to give back.”
Detouring from the hectic schedule of meet and greets in Montego Bay and Kingston the Brothers Forkan pay a special visit to Alpha Boys’ School, whose pupils have been orphaned or removed full-time from their family.
They have an easy rapport with everyone they meet. Self-deprecating and observant Rob is the more reflective of the two and Paul is inquisitive and outgoing. An impromptu game of football is played with the children and they spend the evening gifting flip flops to the inhabitants of a misty Rastafarian village on the edge of the blue mountains and dancing with the locals. They make it all look easy.
The demands on their time are unlikely to wane: “We’ve had meetings with major retailers in America and we’re launching in Australia at the end of the summer,” says Paul. “We have big plans for the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami… watch this space.” Whatever kind of alchemy it is that an entrepreneur requires to drive a company to success the Forkan brothers have it. They are on the cusp of something very, very positive.
Source: London Evening Standard