Prior to 2002, when Claire Evans, Founder and President of amaZulu Inc., started her company, she worked in South Africa as a computer programmer with Intel. When she set off for a new adventure in the States, little did she know she would end up selling building materials to one of the largest and most recognizable theme parks in the world.
"I applied for a programming position and flew to Miami for the interview," explained Evans. "The interview went well and they offered me a position to start in either Toronto or Seattle. I'm from South Africa where the climate is much warmer. I wasn't ready to make that move. I ended up declining the offer and instead accepted a sales position working for the people I was staying with in Ft. Lauderdale. They had a company that imported natural materials. I worked for them for about a year and fell in love with natural materials. After a year, I saw an opportunity to take things in a different direction and asked for their blessing to head north to Orlando to start my own company. They gave it and off I went."
Evans was an accomplished computer programmer, but she had little to no real business experience. What she did have was persistence. "In the early days, I would bring warm donuts to construction sites at Disney's Animal Kingdom as a way to speak with the contractors," she said. "I would tell them that there had to be something I could do for them. One day, one of the contractors gave me a Eucalyptus pole and told me to go find him more of them. I was so excited that I called my dad to tell him about the opportunity. He said, ‘kid you won’t believe this but I am playing golf with a man that owns a Eucalyptus farm’! That's how it started."
For the first two to three years, Evans worked out of her garage. She put up a website and spent $1,000 on supplies. She had small orders coming through. Initially she would buy materials from the company in Ft. Lauderdale she used to work for, but then eventually started sourcing her own materials. Over time, her persistence and hard-work ethic paid off as business continued to grow. She moved into a dedicated warehouse space, started to make relationships with vendors from around the world and identified certain areas, such as accounting, sales and warehousing, where she needed some assistance. Over time she would move into an even bigger warehouse in Winter Garden and then finally settled on her current location in Clermont. "The rent was cheaper in Clermont," she said. "I also love the area with all the lakes and hills."
Since 2002, amaZulu has provided a variety of thatched roof products and turnkey services to zoos, theme parks, hotels and restaurants, including some of the more popular attractions in Central Florida such as Volcano Bay, The World of Avatar, the Central Florida Zoo, Mangos Night Club and various other projects throughout the States. Through a careful selection of manufacturers who produce their eco-friendly, high quality, building materials, they import sustainable materials from all around the world. Their high profile projects and commitment to sourcing only the finest materials caught the attention of popular TV shows such as Extreme Makeover and Trading Spaces. "We were so fortunate to be part of an Extreme Makeover for a police officer that was blinded while on duty," Evans said. "The only way for him to know which room he was in was to feel the texture of the walls. We installed different types of materials like bamboo and decorative boards, so he knew his location in the house.”
With the economic recession of 2008 and 2009, Evans learned to diversify her product offerings. Business certainly slowed down but there was enough to keep the doors open. She partially credits that to her ability to recognize the changing needs of the market and to take action. For example, synthetic materials became more popular due to their longevity. She responded by sourcing and ordering more synthetic materials that imitated the natural. She also credits her persistence as a key ingredient to her success. "It's everything to an entrepreneur," she said. "Especially if it doesn't cost money and it's just hard work." Evans also believes in the importance of having a mentor, reaching out to others for help and surrounding yourself with a good team. Evans has a "do whatever it takes" type attitude. She once flew to Vietnam to find a new supplier immediately after discovering that a container full of bamboo had been reduced to dust due to Powder Post Beetles. "You can't make your customers wait," she said. "Your business is your baby. You do whatever it takes."