The original idea for Bluebird Press may have been cooked up in a bakery, but just a few years later, Craig Longman is proving it was far from half-baked
Craig Longman was destined for a career in garment decoration from a young age. At 16 he was already selling beanies and badges to his skater mates, as well as persuading a local shop to sell products he’d sourced from China. However, it was while working at a bakery a few years later that he got his first real break.
“The boss Rob wanted some staffwear and I said, ‘Look, I’m thinking about doing some printing, can I do it?’ He lent me the money for the press, taking it out of my PAYE each month, and I set it up at home and starting printing. The first ones were awful, but finally I got there.”
This starter kit from Wicked Printing Stuff may now be history, but Craig’s enthusiasm for creating printed T-shirts is still instantly apparent to anyone who visits Bluebird Press, his printshop near Canterbury, Kent. Just before Christmas it invested in a Brother GT3 DTG printer – Craig calls it “a Christmas present for the company” – which he happily demonstrates before bouncing across to another section of the shop, always chatting, always energetic.
The business underwent a big restructuring at the end of last year. The number of staff was cut from 10 to 5, the sections were reorganised to create a more efficient workflow, and new monitors linked to a bespoke production software system were installed. A new operations manager has also been employed, Michelle Parrish, who just happens to be the former owner of the very same shop that the 16-year-old Craig sweet-talked into selling his stock.
The changes look to be working out. Last year turnover was £500,000; this year it’s projected to be £750,000, with half the staff. “It felt like we were carrying too much weight – we’ve managed to cut back and become more efficient,” explains Craig. The staff themselves seem a well-knit team with everyone’s ideas listened to. At one point Craig discusses targeting more bands, and immediately the others working in the packing and embroidery sections join in with their ideas – Michelle adding her input from the office. It is, she says, a more agile team now, with extra staff to call on when bigger jobs come in.
After the bakery, Craig set up Bluebird from home in 2011. He took a brief six-month break from Kent after a failed relationship, moving to London where he worked for Keep Me Promotions in Greenhithe. Throughout his time in London he continued running Bluebird in the background, then in 2012 he moved back to Whitstable and put the business on a more professional footing by moving into the current unit.
Obtaining finance for a new business can be notoriously difficult; not so for Craig who found arranging the finance for Bluebird easier than he could ever have imagined or hoped for. “I went to the bank and they just gave it to me, with hardly any effort,” he says, still sounding slightly surprised now. “They gave me the break. I had a trading history through my personal bank and they could see through the statements that there was something there, so they gave me a small loan.”
With this money he set up the unit, buying a manual press, a dryer and a washout unit. The dryer has since been replaced by an Adelco JetForce, and the manual press has also gone and in its place there is now an MHM six-colour auto, which Will and Adam – the screen print team – vote as being the best piece of equipment in the company.
The original washout unit is still in use, as is an M&R Chameleon manual press. This year, Craig is hoping they’ll be able to move into a bigger unit where the two Tajima single-head embroidery machines, the new Brother printer, the packing section and the screen printing set-up can all be located on one floor, along with the office.
John Potter, managing director at MHM Direct GB, has been a great source of help to the business, and it was because of his support both during and after installing the auto that Craig decided to stick with MHM Direct GB when purchasing the Brother DTG. The Brother is, reports Craig, fairly straightforward, especially given that MHM’s DTG expert, Luke Mitford, spent a day with the team training them how to use it.
They’ve also recently changed over to Magna Colours inks following the launch of its formaldehyde-discharge bases: again they bought them from MHM Direct GB, and again the new purchase included a day’s training – this time from the company’s screen print specialist Tony Palmer. Craig explains the reasons for the switch: “The ink leaves no odour, which is better for the operator, is very easy to work with and creates a soft print, which we need because a lot of our jobs are for the fashion industry – customers such as River Island.”
The two Tajima single-head embroidery machines, from AJS, are currently the biggest profit makers for Bluebird, and Craig says they have been the best investment so far. He’s hoping to add a four- or six-head embroidery machine soon. As for the second best capital investment he’s made? The stereo, he grins, and turns the volume up.
The year ahead is looking to be a busy one with a new website being developed to offer a drop shipping and on-demand service, which will make full use of the new DTG machine. It will be a separate enterprise to the current Bluebird Press business, says Craig. “The manual labour side, we’ve got that down, we’ve got all those processes sorted. The next phase is how we supplement the current business and diversify by applying more technology to obtaining the orders.”
They’ve already applied technology to streamlining their workflow: previously they had whiteboards with the jobs scribbled on for staff to work from, which Craig didn’t find to be a very reliable or efficient system. “I got a guy to write a back-end platform for a standalone system where we can input the jobs and update them throughout production, with monitors throughout the unit showing what needs to be done,” explains Craig. “We add the customer name in and the sales order number that relates to our paperwork, then the date that the job is needed by and what is involved – embroidery, screen print etcetera. I can add in the product, the number and details of the design, and then that is shown across all the production monitors.”
When a section acknowledges or completes a job this is also shown. Eventually the order is ready to be dispatched, at which point the number of boxes sent, T-shirts spoiled and any comments are added, which completes the job and removes it from everyone’s production screens. It’s clever, clear and has already made a big difference: “Everyone knows where they’re at now, all the time,” says Craig.
The same could be said for the company itself: A lot has happened at Bluebird Press over the past few months, yet the team is already examining new plans and further avenues to explore in 2017. What’s more they clearly have the energy, drive and commitment to take those plans and new ideas and make them fly.