“London called, we answered. Fieldbar now available in a little store you might have heard of. Harrods.” This Instagram post by South African cooler box maker Fieldbar in July of last year announced the company’s expansion to the renowned British department store.
Founded in 2018, Fieldbar has reinvented the traditional cooler box, leading to an investment from Invenfin, the venture capital arm of South African group Remgro. Jaco Maritz interviewed founder and CEO Lee Hartman to learn about the company’s early days, manufacturing challenges, and its branding and design strategy.
South African serial entrepreneur Lee Hartman first got the idea for Fieldbar subpar quality of the cooler boxes in use – they lacked adequate compartments to organise items and were aesthetically unappealing. “I just looked at them and thought, ‘These manufacturers aren’t even trying anymore.’ I thought it was such a pity because it’s a really sociable product. When we did our research for Fieldbar, somebody said, ‘You’re never in a bad mood when you pack a cooler box.’ It has this kind of built in emotion that nobody has thought of building a brand around.”
Hartman started his career as a chartered accountant before transitioning to banking, working in London and later joining Investec in South Africa. He entered the start-up world when he became CFO of South African online bank 20twenty in 2004. After leaving banking, Hartman founded Strika Entertainment, a media business that Naspers eventually acquired. He then delved into software development, creating mobile apps, before selling that company to Telkom.
A few years ago Hartman read a book on luxury brand strategy and became interested in exploring the luxury stories from South Africa. While diamonds and precious gems were obvious choices, he also recognised the significance of the country’s safari heritage. South Africa was a pioneer in luxury safari experiences, which Hartman believed could be a good positioning strategy for Fieldbar internationally. “If you ask the question, ‘Why would someone care about a cooler box that’s made in Cape Town?’, the answer would be, ‘Because these guys come from a safari heritage where they understand going into remote places where it is hot and dusty, but still having a well-designed and well-thought-out experience’.”
He was further encouraged by advancements in e-commerce, such as the emergence of third-party warehousing integrated with platforms such as Shopify, which allows customers to order products online and have them fulfilled by a remote warehouse without the need for physical involvement from the company. With these developments and having just sold his software business, Hartman felt it was the opportune moment to launch Fieldbar.
Designing a high-end cooler box
To bring Fieldbar to life, Hartman embarked on a search for an industrial designer and discovered Corban Warrington through Google. Together, they met weekly at Hartman’s house to brainstorm ideas. Eventually they ran a survey on Facebook where respondents could select their favourite design. “Around 800 people participated in the survey and many were asking, ‘Where can we get it?’ Once we received that feedback, we knew we had to move forward with production.”
Overcoming manufacturing challenges
Next, Hartman had to find companies capable of producing the equipment necessary to manufacture Fieldbar cooler boxes. These boxes are made by injecting plastic into large steel moulds under high pressure. However, due to their particularly complex design – with straight sides and precise parts – finding companies able to produce the equipment was difficult. In comparison, cheaper cooler boxes are easier to produce and more forgiving of manufacturing imperfections.
Hartman reached out to several equipment manufacturers in China, but most were unable to produce the required equipment. It ultimately took the company about two years to obtain the first samples and then transport the custom-made steel moulds to South Africa.
However, when the equipment arrived in South Africa, the company encountered difficulties in replicating the cooler boxes exactly as they were made in China. The locally available plastic material was different, posing a challenge to Fieldbar’s manufacturing process. This setback caused pressure as many customers had already paid deposits for the cooler boxes, but the company was unable to produce them as promised. “That was a very stressful situation,” remembers Hartman, “but fortunately, we were able to overcome those problems.”
Hartman acknowledges the risk involved in investing millions in custom-made machinery before knowing the exact demand for the product, but he emphasises that the initial customer survey instilled a great deal of confidence in the company. Additionally, he asserts that the substantial upfront capital outlay acts as a competitive advantage for the business, creating a barrier to entry.
Design and branding considerations
Fieldbar’s cooler boxes are made from 58 parts that can be removed, repaired or replaced. The company claims that when packed full of ice and left in the shade, the ice can last for 50 hours. The cooler’s unique shape, airtight lid, foam insulation, reflective paint, and raised floor all contribute to its cooling capability.
According to Hartman, the design of the cooler boxes is crucial to the success of the product. The boxes come in six different colours and are designed to be visually appealing, which often leads to word-of-mouth marketing. “If you take a Fieldbar to a beach, very often somebody will come to you and ask where you got it. People buy it for its looks but they also want it to perform. It’s like an Apple product or a sports car. You buy it on emotion and justify it on performance,” he explains.
Fieldbar owes much of its traction so far to a strong focus on branding, encompassing everything from the name and packaging to the marketing strategy. “We’ve put a lot of thought into the brand. There are a lot of good products out there, but many haven’t thought out the branding thoroughly enough. The brand is almost as important as the product itself. We understand precisely the emotions that our product should evoke, and this informs all our decisions.”
Hartman credits Instagram for much of Fieldbar’s retail expansion. By leveraging the platform to showcase its products, the company generated significant interest among retail buyers. Consequently, Fieldbar managed to forge retail partnerships without any active solicitation, one of which was with YuppieChef, a prominent South African kitchen and homeware retailer. In addition, Fieldbar’s products have been available at Harrods in the UK since last year, following a chance encounter with buyers from the department store at the Maison&Objet trade show in Paris.
Currently, the distribution of Fieldbar’s products are roughly split 50-50 between online and brick-and-mortar retail channels. While the product was inspired by South Africa’s safari heritage, Hartman says the cooler boxes are mainly used in an urban setting. “We call ourselves an urban-outdoor company.”
Sales are currently dominated by South Africa, accounting for around 90%, but the company has its sights set on global expansion. This year, it aims to enter several new international markets, including the Netherlands and the US. However, Hartman emphasises the need to balance factory expansion with sales growth. “If you spend too much on expanding manufacturing capacity and then the demand is not there, it could be disastrous for the business,” he says.
Although shipping bulky products globally can be expensive, Hartman affirms that he has no plans to relocate Fieldbar’s manufacturing away from South Africa, as it is integral to the brand’s identity. He notes that South Africa benefits from favourable trade agreements with the US and EU, which enable the company to export duty-free. Hartman cites Le Creuset, the French cookware company, as a similar example of prioritising manufacturing location over cost savings. Despite the availability of cheaper manufacturing options in China, Le Creuset still produces all of its cast iron pots in France.
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