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Forbes Bulgaria x KWIAT

On Sunday, mid-July 2022, Pawel Cwetkow was sitting at the big table in his elegant office in the Lozenets neighborhood, reviewing the sketches of several sunglasses models from the new 2023 KWIAT collection. He wears a pair of designer prescription glasses without a frame at the top so that he can also see well above the rim. Few people know about this convenience, which he is familiar with after 30 years of selling and manufacturing glasses.

Three more designers are going through the models before confirming the order to the Hong Kong factory that will assemble them. Final tests are always done on days off or after office hours when it’s quiet and peaceful. The rest of the time, the office is pretty lively. The company has representatives and distributors in all countries in Eastern Europe and Greece and over 2000 points of sale, and phones are constantly ringing.

2022 is expected to mark a record with a 30% growth in revenues that may pass BGN 2.5 million, and Mr. Cwetkow is obsessed with the ambition to achieve the maximum. “We’ve made a very successful collection, we’ve released more models than other companies, we’ve shown them long before everyone else, and it’s brought us success,” he says.

In his words, KWIAT has been producing high-end glasses, as the most popular brands do, but at significantly more affordable prices. He believes that big brands that have declining sales in recent years have started using cheaper materials because shareholders want results and managers decrease production costs.

Some time ago, amid the financial crisis, KWIAT also launched a collection in a lower price class, impacted by customers who want a more affordable product. Afterwards, Mr. Cwetkow told himself that he would never do it again: “We made money, selling cheap earns a lot of money, but we had a lot of complaints. However, we are a family company with values and I want our glasses to be worn by my parents and my children, relatives, and friends.”

Crises for him are a guide and a driving force. In 2020, when all the world’s international exhibitions were canceled because of the pandemic and the hunt for new customers became impossible, he completely rethought the market concepts. So far, KWIAT has randomly participated in a number of exhibitions, which took up a lot of costs for the organization and expensive stands. In its desire to cover more markets, the company has invested in large collections, sometimes with entirely designer eccentric models, which resulted in needless waste of funds and human resources without proven results.

Instead of getting distracted in search of scale, Mr. Cwetkow decided to focus on clients by offering them a larger portfolio of classic stylish models tailored to market tastes. At the same time, he noticed that major brands have supply difficulties and make much smaller collections, and believed that KWIAT, as a small company with 20 people, can show a larger and more fascinating collection, which will help it expand its position. In addition, he encouraged traders with a bonus percentage of growth and invested in training on how to better offer new models.

Pawel Cwetkow started his business as an eyewear salesman in 1991. He was a foreign trade student in Poznań, Poland, when a friend of his gave him the idea to import glasses from Poland.

He had $1,000 in his bank account, made by intermediation in the export of watermelons from Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece to Poland, and invested all the money in goods. Meanwhile, his father registered a company in Bulgaria under the name KWIAT, which means ‘flower’ in Polish. Pawel’s mother was Polish, and when translated, the family name Cwetkowi is Kwiatkowski. The son took his father’s Jiguli and traveled across the country selling glasses to optics stores that otherwise shop from the central warehouse. Then he kept on supplying them. His business grew and he started attending exhibitions in Italy and Spain for new goods. As soon as other importers appeared on the market, in 1998, Mr. Cwetkow took over the representation of several global brands – Roccobarocco, Carolina Herrera, Paco Rabanne, and Lamborghini, for special clients. Models are selected according to the taste of the Bulgarian clients – in black and brown for men and classic large glasses in several colors for women. However, this selection is never easy because fashion brands offer mostly colored glasses, as they wear in Italy. Bulgarian men usually have bigger heads, and glasses made for Italians and Spaniards with smaller heads, make them look funny.

If there are no suitable models for the regional market, then we can produce them, he told his wife Edyta, who is Polish, and together they decide to create their own brand of glasses. Some other reasons made the family act boldly and decisively, without fearing the big brands with 70 years of history that have hundreds of millions of dollars for marketing.

Some Italian partners, with whom KWIAT has had exclusive contracts for the new collections, were selling to another Bulgarian company the old models at a lower price, thus undercutting the market. “They could sell their old models in Africa and be honest, but they didn’t,” says Pawel Cwetkow, annoyed by the unscrupulous attitude. – Our outlets go to Nigeria and Togo, where they look for cheaper glasses, no matter the brand. We do not spoil the distributors’ market.”

Moreover, “Italians like to switch distributors” if someone promises them more turnover, whether it’s a company in the industry or just someone who has more money. “It turns out that we give our heart to this business, promote the foreign brand at our expense, and at some point, it is taken away from us,” he added. The family believes that among the stars you can always find a place for a small and flexible Bulgarian company.

The problem was that they had no idea how to make glasses. In this case, they trusted friends who referred them to designers from the Belluno eyewear cluster near Venice. (Italy holds one-third of the world market and is the first in the production of high-end glasses.). Mr. Cwetkow told them that he wanted models of a larger size, and the reaction was: “Pawel, no one will wear this.” He had to explain that he himself has a wider face and nothing fits him but sports models. With the blueprints, he went to the factories in Italy to make his models.

The first KWIAT collection came out in 2003 with 45 positions – sunglasses and prescription glasses. There are over 1,000 of them now. Mr. Cwetkow was eager to present it to his best client and remained numb when hearing: “Is that all? When you’ve done more, come back.” He is usually offering 300 positions. The short series was also liked in other places, but they took the models and sold them quickly. KWIAT ranks in the middle-class glasses for BGN 90, between originals for BGN 150 and fakes for BGN 50 each, and has models for bigger heads. Mr. Cwetkow remained satisfied when a huge man entered the optics store in Haskovo and asked for glasses like Bruce Willis from the Police ad. Bruce Willis has a small head, and obviously, the model would not suit that man. Then he tried a similar model of KWIAT larger size, and he bought it.

Having gained experience and knowledge in creating fashion brand glasses, Mr. Cwetkow decided to put up a team of designers in Sofia with whom to make whatever models he wants and when he wants. So he wouldn’t have to wait half a year to meet the designers in Italy and would be free to order materials without them. As a result, the percentage of unsuccessful models fell. The explanation was that when working with foreign teams, they used to force their vision of things without taking into account regional specificities, which led to more unsuccessful models, while designers in Sofia use statistics about which color from which model is sold better, in which country and by which trader and adjust themselves according to demand.

Meanwhile, as he entered the business, he faced a bunch of problems with factories in Italy, which often delay orders and have many organizational problems. He used to order one color but another one came instead. Efforts to work with producers in Spain were even more unsuccessful. They even forgot to place the order there. As a small client from Eastern Europe, KWIAT has been always at the end of the line. Mr. Cwetkow researched where the most expensive brands are being assembled and this brought him to seven factories within 100 km of Hong Kong, with whom he is currently working.

Gradually over the years, KWIAT’s collections have become better and started replacing imported models in the company’s portfolio. One day a merchant from Hungary arrived at the office to sell glasses. Seeing the Bulgarian models, he decided to buy stuff for EUR 45 thousand, which for a small company in 2006 was a lot of money. “We hadn’t thought about selling glasses abroad, but he opened up a new opportunity for us,” Mr. Cwetkow said. In the years to come, the company specialized in collections for Eastern Europe countries and created a distribution network. Only Poland was not on the list because of the family’s prejudices that it was not good to become a competitor of the company with which Mr. Cwetkow had started the business in Bulgaria and learned a lot from them. After all, “not everything is money”. Ten years later, the Cwetkows got invited by their former partners to participate in the local market. “Poland is a big country, there is room for everyone, and we know it won’t do anything wrong,” they told them.

As a company in the fashion industry, KWIAT has attended local exhibitions in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Greece, and Moscow, but its real debut on the world stage was made in 2015 at the largest MIDO forum in Milan. The rent for a stand of 15 square meters cost them as much as an apartment in Sofia. Nearby were the large stands of the world’s Italian brands, managed by experienced managers who know how to communicate with large distributors. Mostly small clients from Italy, France, and England stopped by at KWIAT, but few dared to place an order with a small Bulgarian company. It was an actual hit that they made a deal with a trader from Italy, whose grandfather was a Bulgarian Jew. At the next exhibitions in SILMO in Paris and OPTI in Munich, they shoot in the dark to see where they can break the market. A French company placed an order, but as soon as it received the invoice with the address in Sofia, it canceled it. “I understood them. We have no traditions in the eyewear industry,” Mr. Cwetkow explained.

The French advised him to have the company registered in another country, but he had no intentions to pretend to be American or English. KWIAT is the only Bulgarian eyewear company, and he had no desire to present it as a company from San Diego with a Bulgarian office in Europe, even if this stops its progress. He was thinking that if someone’s prejudiced, it’s their problem.

In 2017, KWIAT first went to Vision Expo East in New York, where it made deals with several local distributors. “For the US, we are Europe, but the people there are not interested in fashion and are looking for cheap goods,” Mr. Cwetkow explained. In the search for clients, he even reached Australia, where “everyone wears round glasses, transparent, and uniform or like Jack Nicholson and Johnny Depp – super-crazy and colorful.” However, the pandemic crisis cooled his enthusiasm to stay up at night talking to clients from distant continents. At that stage, it was impossible to pursue a long-range scale. It was more reasonable to focus on what brings success to KWIAT – the ability to produce small batches of glasses that combine new technologies and traditional handmade techniques. In the new collections, the company uses top-grade A glass, lightweight German steel materials with anti-allergic and antibacterial coatings, and biodegradable plastic made of cotton. All this is a big advantage when the aim is to expand the distribution network in Europe and earn more space on the shelves in the optics stores.

Source: Forbes Bulgaria

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