MEDELLIN, Colombia – Colombian businessman Marlon Baena began his career at age 15 as a garment worker in his native Medellin, and 23 years later is a big clothing manufacturer who found success by uplifting his workers both socially and on the job.
Baena is owner and manager of CRJ Moda, a company that makes sports clothing and underwear for major Colombian brands and which, after years of work, looks toward expanding abroad to do business with foreign clients who already “have their eye on the company,” he told EFE.
“It has been 12 years of suffering and three of transformation,” he said with reference to his record as a businessman who started out at home in the working-class Enciso neighborhood with two borrowed sewing machines.
CRJ Moda was recently honored by the business incubator Corporacion Interactuar in the Company Growth category, having gone from a garage with 14 sewing machines to a warehouse with 50 specialized machines.
In this new space, besides turning out an average of 3,000 articles of clothing per day, a radical turnaround of the company occurred as it left behind the period of 14 informal workers to begin an operation with 42 legally contracted employees.
“I had to break the cycle,” the businessman said in acknowledging that at the beginning he had “a business where we were all slaves,” working up to 18 hours a day.
The company at that stage was far from profitable, to an extent he only truly realized through his training by the experts at Interactuar, since there he discovered his mistakes and the reasons for his meager profits and why at one point he even went broke.
Baena initially “had no training,” but studying “opened my mind” and he was able to go from being a garment worker to a manager.
“I brought my 14 employees together and told them ‘I admit we’re exploiting you on the job,’” the entrepreneur said, adding that he “wasn’t going to continue doing that,” since he now understood his errors and had decided to formalize their employment status.
Baena came from a poor family in Medellin and while working for others, he never had a formal contract – his monthly earnings were roughly 98,000 pesos ($30).
In the wake of a bankruptcy and other setbacks in his own operation, Baena in 2015 applied for a loan with Interactuar, but instead it offered him training, which he took because “it was the only option I had. It was either that or shut down my company.”
The decision changed his life and that of his employees. He not only shortened their hours and put them under contract, but also trained them in productivity, gave them status in the garment industry and benefited their families.
“We’ve been socially transformed,” Baena said.