From uniforms to raincoats - why you don’t have to dress up the success of these clothes companies
Lisa Smyth talks to two firms in the customised clothing business about how their ideas are adding a new dimension to the rag trade
Chris Leitch started his company in a shed in his back garden. He was just 21 when he gave up his job as a screen printer, where he earned £115 a week, to start up Reach EPS — a printing and embroidery firm based in Lisburn, Co Antrim.
He used a loan of £2,000 and sold his car for £500 to help cover the cost of setting up the business.
“I was young and stupid and I had to give it a go,” said 44-year-old Chris.
“It was scary, but in fairness probably the best advice I got was from my father-in-law.
“I was just recently married to my wife, Sandra, and I was talking about going out on my own, but we had a mortgage and two cars to run.
“I sat my father-in-law down and told him what I was planning and I expected him to tell me to wise up and look after his daughter.
“I thought if anyone was going to tell me not to do it, it would be him, but he didn’t, he told me to go for it.”
Reach EPS has been in business for 22 years now and supplies products across Northern Ireland, the Republic, Great Britain, Europe and the United States, counting the likes of Coca Cola and Amazon as customers.
While the business had humble beginnings, it grew quickly, with a turnover of £100,000 in the first year.
“I had to do out a business plan when I started and I estimated I would employ five people in the first year, but was told it would probably be closer to three,” said Chris.
“It turned out to be 12 and we were employing 15 people by the second year.
“Now we have 25 full-time and 25 part-time employees.
“It’s a big responsibility to have on your shoulders; basically these people rely on you for their wages, you have to make sure they get paid.”
Financially, Reach EPS is doing well — turnover this year was £1.5m and this is expected to rise to £2m next year.
But the path to success has not been easy, according to Chris.
“Looking back to the start it was difficult because we started out in a garden shed and the house was full of stuff as well,” he said.
“There were weeks where you had to eat a carry out because you couldn’t get near the kitchen.
“It was like that for the first six months.
“I don’t know how my poor wife put up with it, but we’re married 25 years this year.
“She’s stuck with me and I’m amazed.”
Chris added: “The last 10 years in the business have been an absolute nightmare, to be honest.
“We lost a lot of larger contracts and then we were hit by the recession, but we’ve been doing a lot of good things and I think that’s been important in our success.”
They have developed a number of programmes which make it easier for customers to purchase goods.
Among these, Reach EPS is developing software for retail customers to place orders and it also works with about 100 schools, fulfilling orders for uniforms.
“In the beginning, the schools would take the orders from the parents and pass them on to us.
“We would then deliver the uniforms to the schools and the secretaries would distribute them out and work out the payments.
“Over the years, there just isn’t the time for the secretaries to do that, so the contracts went to shops, so we came up with an initiative whereby parents can come directly to us and 10% of everything we make goes back to the school.
“The parents have a choice of where they get the uniform, but the fact that the schools benefit when they come to us is great for everyone.”
Building on the success of www.ourschooluniform.com, Reach EPS has recently opened its first high street shop in Lisburn, stocking uniforms and sporting equipment.
Chris, a dad of three, was assisted by his daughter, 21-year-old Jodie, to develop the premises.
“I tried to talk her out of it, but she wants to take over the business one day,” he said.
“I told her to get a good education and a proper job, but she was determined to come on board and she is doing absolutely fabulously.
“I suppose in a way, she is the third generation, because my mum, Charlotte, who was known as Sophie, was an embroidery stitcher all her life.
“There were eight of us and people would bring things to be embroidered. All my life she’d make a few extra pounds doing that and she even worked in the business with me for a few years.
“I would tell anyone starting out in business to do the right thing, don’t cheat or cut corners,” Chris added.
“No-one is perfect, but you have to keep pushing.
“Do the thing right and look after people; everyone in your staff has a job to do and they are human beings and are every bit as important as you.
“Also, be prepared to work hard.
“I’m in 20 minutes before everyone else and I’m the last one out the door.
“But you have to be prepared to do that to succeed.”