Not many women can claim they raised five children while at the same time running a successful sportswear manufacturing operation in one of the world’s most challenging environments for almost 30 years. Sara Hanna is one of those. She shares her story with The London Economic’s Noy Shani in an exclusive interview.
Sara Hanna has long been a fitness fan. It all started in 1982 while living in Cairo. She attended exercise classes where the women were much older than her. There was no music, no fitness shoes and all were in tracksuits.
One of the ladies requested Sara takes over the class while she was away and within three days she grew it from seven people to 90+ strong. This was the start of her business adventure in Cairo.
Sara’s company, TLC Sport, has been manufacturing women’s sportswear for the UK market since 1991 when Egypt produced its first cotton/lycra fabrics. Prior to this it was all basic cotton tracksuits, so she based her operations in Cairo in order to cater for variety. Although Egypt is the hub of the Middle-East for cotton it isn’t the most obvious choice for business, according to Sara.
“I own and run my own manufacturing operation in Cairo. Working in a country where nothing is a straightforward transaction due to corruption and where women are not yet fully respected nor valued has definitely been one of my biggest challenges. There were plenty more to come.”
“I am well known and respected within the textile industry in Cairo, as I am called ‘The British woman who does it by The Ruler’ – It’s an Arabic saying that means I go by the book, no messing about. I am not a natural conformist, actually, quite the opposite,” she says.
Sara acquired her Fitness Training in the US in the mid 1980s, she has a rich experience which included designing lines for fitness giant Les Mills and Virgin Active to currently supplying high street shops and creating Sweat Union’s uniforms, a new budget chain of gyms currently opening across the UK.
Her company is currently undergoing further rebranding, headed by her daughter, Charlotte, 25, who has been working to bring in a fresh new look to the TLC brand.
Charlotte introduced new sales platforms within the business framework and added a young new approach to the online operations, as they both seek to convey a message of strength and empowerment to women around the world.
As a mother of five, Sara lives nowadays in Earls Barton, Northamptonshire and travels to her Middle East operation once every month or so. She is seen and acts as much more than just a business owner.
“Our moto is all about women feeling confident and staying active. Within my operation in Cairo, I mentor many women as well as fathers, it can be on anything from diet to parenting skills. It still amazes me what they don’t understand and what we take for granted,” she says enthusiastically.
Her company employs around 50-60 local staff, most have been working for Sara for over ten years, many for 25 years. She does not discriminate against the sexes, which of course is still prevalent in Egypt. Sara believes her staff turnover is low only because she is a woman, and sympathetic to the needs of her workforce.
TLC Sport manufacture sportswear and specializes in Figure Firming bottoms in an extremely challenging environment where promoting equality within the work place doesn’t always go down well.
“My staff are advised to leave all discussions, arguments, enforcements, ideas or any political debate or divide on religion or government issues at home. We are here to work. In my factory, we are all equal. It’s simple.”
“We greatly respect that 98 per cent of our work force are Muslim and rarely encountered a problem, if we do, it’s managed fairly and openly as we encourage discussion, if it is a relevant work issue.”
“When I feel it is necessary to stop production, I allocate the time and bring them all to the large cutting table for this discussion, however it’s usually about another pay rise or changing their bus routes as I supply 2 buses that bring staff to and from work.”
“Incidentally wages have more than doubled in the last 5 years and my staff have a yearly annual wage increase of ten per cent, due to current inflation in Egypt, and have had for the last 25 years, anything less would cause a riot!”
Cairo, according to Sara is not always renowned for excellence. “It has taken me years to train up my staff to manufacture to the standard of the Western World, none speak English so learning Arabic well was key.”
Cairo presented a number of issues with the revolutions and unrest. However, TLC Sport continued to fulfil orders and supply stock, despite working in the middle of a warzone.
“That was quite an experience to say the least, but I am happy to report that the new President rather thinks like me. President El-Sisi just gets it done, he is quite a guy, so we are feeling a slight economic rise in Egypt again, along with the safety and security of the armed forces on all corners.
“It’s a far cry from how we have worked during the last 5 years, when our cars were attacked, there was rioting and fires within the Free Zone area, where the army and police ran in different directions and generally we feared for our lives if we ventured out and about, not to mention the economic downturn we were experiencing here in the UK.
It would have been easy for Sara to pack up her operation in Egypt in light of the Arab Spring and no one would have blamed her. In spite of it all, she continues to grow her business and impact the lives of women who may otherwise not have the opportunity to work.