During one of the most tumultuous economic stretches in modern history, a new wave of entrepreneurs turned to Andrew McFall’s A.R.M. Bottles and Supplies to help buffer the impact of the crisis.
With COVID-19 disrupting industries and careers, eliminating some jobs while placing others in limbo, an increasing number of people needed McFall’s bottles and jars to package newly created products.
“Once people were allowed to move around, many persons were trying to figure out what they could do to earn extra cash. The pandemic accelerated entrepreneurship,” said McFall.
“Beginning in April 2020, the numbers kept climbing. People began selling coconut water and other juices. By the summer, we were in full swing. I had former hotel employees say they made more hustling and selling juices than when they worked 9 to 5.”
For the first time, after six years in business, McFall witnessed an influx of Bahamians squeeze cash from all-natural juice and bush tea beverages. Popular flavors of these home-made drinks include lemonade mixtures, carrot and sky juices.
Others saw windows of opportunity in the spices and hot sauce markets as well as hair care products, said McFall who watched containers fly off shelves almost as fast as he could stock them.
When a liquor manufacturer pivoted to produce hand sanitizers at the height of the pandemic, A.R.M. collaborated with the distillery on packaging, doing its part to combat the spread of the COVID-19 disease. The partnership provided a basic necessity in short supply at that time.
Building his business on the strength of relationships is not new for McFall. In fact, it’s a fuel for growth. Still, it takes a certain type of individual to withstand the huge personal and financial toll entrepreneurial pursuit demands.
Estimates suggest more than 70 percent of all small business ventures fail in The Bahamas – most, within their first five years. It’s often due to a mix of factors such as lack of funds, poor market knowledge, stiff competition or expanding too quickly.
As startling as that figure may be, it wasn’t a deterrent for the waves of people forced into self-employment by the pandemic. They realized old jobs either weren’t coming back, or they no longer wanted to continue along their current career path.
The latter was the case for McFall. He worked his way up the corporate ladder at a Canadian bank operating in The Bahamas. With an unshakeable work ethic and a drive to succeed, he progressed from a teller in 1983, to senior manager for receivables, in charge of The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos at the time of his early retirement in 2014.
“The question for me was what’s next? We have to begin thinking what’s next earlier rather than later.”
A case study in small business, McFall stumbled into manufacturing when a friend asked for help selling boxes upon boxes of imported five-gallon bottle caps. Shortly after he struck deals with a few water manufacturers to purchase the covers, a local bottle company burnt down leaving a void in the market. Now with covers and no new bottles, the water manufacturers suggested McFall step in.
A.R.M. secured its business license in November 2014. In January 2015, it officially launched with four employees, three business customers and two machines. Back then, McFall manufactured plastic bottles in four sizes, sold along with their accompanying covers.
“Nothing in my professional background prepared me for this. I did not know anything about the industry. I spent two weeks in China visiting factories, investigating machines and searching out suppliers to source materials.”
Originally located off East street, within a year, McFall realized the enterprise needed more space. He moved the business to new rental accommodations, a two-story building on Crooked Island Street, while he searched for a more permanent home.
When his landlord placed the building up for sale, McFall realized he needed to act quickly or face the possibility of losing his factory space. After leasing talks with representatives of another space fell through, McFall secured capital from the Bahamas Development Bank to purchase the premises he previously rented along with additional equipment.
During the first three years, one of his major challenges was understanding the demands of the business and its cash flow. Parts and equipment arriving from China had to be paid for immediately but took two to three months from order to delivery. His financial background proved a major asset in this area.
Meantime, everyday client interactions helped him build the business to what it is today.
“The location here, being so central, has been awesome. As walk-ins came in and told me what their needs were, I started to increase my product line.”
Money saved from the customs exemptions granted to manufacturers was reinvested into the business allowing McFall to purchase more machines to produce bottles ranging in size from 8 ounces up to five gallons. He also sells a variety of glass and cosmetic jars, two-ounce bottles, as well as mist and honey bottles with assorted covers and nozzles.
Access to tax concessions for the Over-the-Hill Zone would benefit the company greatly. However, the business operates just outside the current boundary.
Nevertheless, A.R.M. has successfully extended its reach from New Providence into the Family Islands with customers that hail from Andros, Exuma, mainland Eleuthera, Harbour Island, Grand Bahama, Bimini, Abaco, Long Island, Acklins and Inagua. Repeat clients make up 90 percent of the business, the majority of which are small business owners.
To keep pace with demand over the years, McFall increased staff to nine full-time employees and two to three seasonal workers. As the company grows, so, too, does his corporate goals. The manufacturer has set his sights on expansion while reducing plastic waste in the environment.
Reflecting on his years in business, McFall believes “the younger, the better,” when it comes to launching an enterprise of one’s own.
“Too many of us begin looking for something to do a year before we retire. Give yourself a good, solid 10 years to start a business prior to retirement. That way, your business would have already caught hold,” he recommended.
“As Bahamians, we watch to see what others are doing and we copy them. My advice, look for the void in the market and fill it.”