Gandys Flip Flops: Footwear with soul
- 15 June 2014
- From the section Business
If you want to know what motivates the founders of sandal-making firm Gandys Flip Flops, try standing in their shoes.
Brothers Rob and Paul Forkan are only 26 and 24 respectively, but they've already seen more tragedies and triumphs than most people manage in a lifetime.
Nearly a decade after losing their parents in the Asian tsunami of 2004 and almost getting killed themselves, the pair are preparing to open a children's home in India, saying they want to help their fellow orphans.
In the meantime, their London-based brand of ethically sourced footwear, established in 2011, has begun to make tracks, with 150,000 pairs manufactured so far.
UK stores already selling their sandals include Selfridges, Liberty and Accessorize, as well as stockists in Germany and a number of other European markets.
"We give 10% of our profits back to charity and we've got our own foundation on the side as well, " says Paul. "We're all about making profit, but a profit with a purpose."
The Forkan brothers had an unconventional childhood, which they reckon has done much to fuel their current success. They were just 11 and 13 when their parents, Kevin and Sandra, took them out of the UK education system and moved the family to Goa in India.
Paul, who was hampered by dyslexia at school, welcomed the change. He remembers "living like hippies", with little formal learning but lots of voluntary work.
"We'd go to children's homes, play sports with the kids, help them out with cooking, teach them stuff, which was really cool," he says.
"We helped with fund-raising for the local charities as well. We learned some really good life skills. Our parents gave us this confidence that we could do anything, that nothing was hard to achieve."
The family were on holiday in Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck. The Forkans' parents died saving Rob and Paul's younger siblings, Matt and Rosie.
Although the disaster was a tough blow for the children, Paul says the way they were brought up made them strong enough to cope.
"Our parents gave us the attitude that if you get knocked off your bike, just get back on it. There's always people worse off than you," he says.
Fortunately, the children were then adopted by an older sister, Marie, who lives in Farnborough in Hampshire. Rob and Paul spent a couple of years living there before embarking on separate travels round the world.
By 2011, they were sharing living quarters in Brixton, south London, where they started their footwear business.
Paul says their inspiration came from the father of India's independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi.
"He was in all our schoolbooks as kids, he's on all the money over in India, he's famous for wearing his flip flops," he says.
"[And] there's a slang term in London. After a night out, you say that you've got a mouth as dry as Gandhi's flip flops. Rob was at a festival and woke up the next morning with a dry mouth.
"He told me about it and said, 'We're going to look to do a lot of social projects in India, Sri Lanka and then, eventually, open a children's home for the 10th anniversary of the tsunami.'
"That was what made me think, actually, this is a great business, doing good."
The brothers began the business with less than £10,000 in start-up capital, mainly from savings.
"We thought, 'That'll be enough to get us going,' not realising that you just burn through money straight away," says Paul. "It lasted six months."
To secure further funding, they decided to turn the Dragons' Den concept on its head, inviting several wealthy potential investors to a Brixton pub and asking them to compete for the chance to invest.
"We did this thing called Brothers' Den," Paul recalls. "These guys came down in their suits. We were in our shorts and flip flops."
Fortunately, it worked, and the pair were able to obtain the investment they needed.
But that wasn't the only setback the firm faced in the early days. Initial batches of Gandys flip flops were hand-made in India using jute, but Paul and Rob were unhappy with the results.
"If you brought in 100, you could only sell 10 of them, because of poor quality control," says Paul.
The sandals are now factory-made in China, and Rob visits the premises regularly to monitor production.
Gandys now has a full-time staff of 14, including a designer and a brand manager, as well as marketing, sales and press personnel. Its headquarters is in Southfields in south London, near Wimbledon, with a further office in Stoke.
About 70% of the firm's sales so far have been in the UK, but later this year, the brothers will launch the brand in Australia and the US.
"In five years' time, I'd like our flip flops to be seen in all the top shops in America," says Paul. "On the other side of the business, giving back, I'd like to have projects all over the world.
"In the long term, we'd like to have children's homes in every continent in the world."