When the textiles industry collapsed in the UK, commission embroiderers were hit hard. Images discovers how Peter Keers, managing director of Scotcrest Uniforms, changed direction and hasn’t looked back since

Embroidered blazers for the first day at primary school

In 2002, Scotcrest was the largest commission embroiderer in Scotland, with 86 heads running three shifts a day, six days a week. The machines only paused once a week from their work on garments from companies such as Disney, Pringle, Reebok and Ralph Lauren to give them time to cool down, before being put straight back into action for another six days.

A year later, the knitwear and manufacturing industries were decimated as manufacturers began to shift their work to offshore companies. Peter comments: “We had maybe ten different knitwear companies in Scotland who we would do embroidery for and one by one they folded.” In order to avoid going under, a speedy change of direction was essential. With 22 primary schools in his local town of Coatbridge, schoolwear seemed a good place to start. Thirteen years later, the company has just opened its fourth shop in Scotland and is planning two more.

Despite his obvious flair for embroidery, Peter admits he fell into the industry. In 1994 he’d been working as a production planner for a knitwear manufacturer when his local golf team, of which he was a member, asked him to source some sweaters with a crest on them. When he received the invoices for the jumpers and the embroidery he saw the business potential, bought a twin-head machine and founded Original Emblems. Initially working in a unit the size of a single garage, with the machine against one wall and the stock up against another, he quickly moved into a larger premises, and within two years was working out of a 3,000 sq ft unit.

By 2002 he was operating 20 heads. “I was subbing out so much work to other embroiders at our busy times that I decided I was going to look for another embroidery company to buy,” explains Peter. “Scotcrest, which was the largest commission embroiderer in Scotland at the time, had just lost a big contract from Marks & Spencer. Overnight the company lost about 40% of its turnover and went into administration, so we bought it.”

The Coatbridge store in its new location at Mackinnon Mills shopping centre

It was soon clear that the industry was never going to recover from so many companies moving overseas, and Peter set about looking for a new direction in which to take the business. “We were in a town where there were 22 primary schools, and so we changed part of the building over to a small shop for schoolwear. We open up for six days of the week and keep stock all year round – like the old, traditional kind of school outfitters.”

Outperforming the supermarkets

The Scotcrest shops are big, all between 6,000 and 10,000 sq ft, which Peter admits is large for a schoolwear store, but it allows them to carry a large range of clothes for each school. “We always have a display of the stock,” he says. “We don’t keep one or two out just as samples. We stock everything. It costs me an absolute fortune in stock holding but it’s worked well for me because people come to me rather than supermarkets because they know nine times out of ten if they’re looking for a polo shirt – a gold polo shirt sized 26 – I’m going to have it. Whereas at supermarkets as soon as the school season’s over, everything’s whipped off the shelf and they’re back onto doing stuff for Halloween. With the supermarkets it’s just another item to them, the same as a can of beans – it’s just another mark up.”

Peter estimates that 90% of the blazers he sells are for primary school children, thanks to a Scottish tradition whereby all primary school children are dressed up smartly in blazers for their first day at school. These are embroidered using the 49 embroidery heads on his nine embroidery machines, which are split between his shops in Airdrie and Alva. Peter adds that as well as failing to carry a wide enough range of colours, supermarkets also leave the parents to sew the school badge on their children’s uniforms. “Because we do embroidery the logo goes straight onto the [blazer] pocket, which parents like. It gives a better finish and saves parents all that hassle.”

A full range of clothes is on display, and held in stock, for all the schools

The garments themselves are carefully chosen, with all of them having to undergo an unusual and demanding testing process: Peter’s two children, aged 11 and 14, try them out. “My kids wear them and we’ll wash them for two or three months to decide how they perform, and if a garment performs well then we’ll run with it. If it doesn’t perform well, then we just move it to the side – we only pick the best ones.”

They use a variety of brands, including Blue Max Banner, Innovations, Trutex, Beechfield, Fruit of the Loom, Regatta, Russell, Result, Papini, Jerzees, CKL, Turners and Just Cool. Once the garments have passed the kids’ test, Peter also makes sure the brand can keep Scotcrest supplied at all times: “I’m happy to pay a bit more for a good supply and good quality,” he notes.

Peter also ensures every school is treated fairly: “We do 109 schools and nurseries now, and we charge the same price for every school no matter what the size of embroidery or what the garment it is. We just try to make it fair for every parent so that they don’t come in and see their sweatshirt’s £8.50 and the one next to it is £8. We make more money on some, we make less money on others, but we find it’s the fairest way to put it out.”

He also gives out 400 bespoke catalogues to each school, designed by Scotcrest’s in-house graphic designer, with the children in the catalogue wearing garments displaying the school’s logo. “I don’t make any money on it, but the way I look at it is if they look at the catalogue and there’s nice pictures, then they may well buy more garments from me than they would if it was just ticking a box. So we’re hoping that we get the revenue back that way. We always try to make ourselves slightly different from what everybody else does.”

It’s a strategy that’s clearly working, as Peter reveals: “I would say my proudest achievement is that we’ve been doing schoolwear for 13 years now and we have never lost a school contract to another supplier.”

Peter Keers, managing director of Scotcrest Uniforms. Colour catalogues are given to each school

Parent power

The Scotcrest shops aren’t on high streets because rents and rates tend to be too high, but the lack of footfall hasn’t been a problem. “If you open up in a town and you’re the only schoolwear shop you don’t have to be prominent. As soon as people get to know where you are, then whether you’re driving to the high street or driving to an industrial estate – it makes no difference.” Indeed, the parking that comes with being on an industrial estate works in the company’s favour: “Most of our customers have either got toddlers or small children.”

Before Scotcrest began its schoolwear shops, schools in the area were used to ordering stock once or twice a year, with parents only seeing the items a few days before school started and children not able to try the clothes on. “The parents really didn’t like that,” reports Peter. “Our growth is all down to the fact that we did everything to suit the parents because then the parents would go back and say to the school, ‘Well, we like what Scotcrest are doing. Can we not give them the contract?’ It has all been word of mouth. We’ve never really pushed ourselves.”

Peter adds that the decision to open shops rather than sticking to the more usual method employed by schoolwear companies to send out catalogues all over Scotland followed the realisation that by doing the same as everyone else, the company could only compete on price. By offering schoolwear in shops along with embroidery, workwear and clubwear, the business had more revenue streams to rely on and a strong point of difference to its competitors.

The first shop in Coatbridge proved popular and in 2006, with people starting to come from Airdrie, the next town along – a place with 38,000 people and 20 primary schools – Peter decided it was time to open another shop. A further shop followed in Alva in 2007. He reveals that any town he targets must have a population of at least 35,000, and he expects to spend £30,000 to stock a smaller shop, and around £45,000 to stock a larger store.

Scotcrest currently operates nine embroidery machines, with 49 heads in total

This year Scotcrest has opened its fourth shop, this time in Cumbernauld, and has moved the Coatbridge shop to a nearby shopping centre, Mackinnon Mills. Peter has definite ideas as to where the next two shops will be, and has just started offering dancewear, football strips and personalised hoodies as well as traditional school uniforms. Schoolwear continues to make up about 80% of his business, however, and while it’s a family business – his wife does the accounts, his sister is the production manager and his nephew works on one of the embroidery machines – he’s always on the look out to expand that bit further.

A number of the other schoolwear companies’ owners are in their 60s, he notes, adding that if an opportunity came up to acquire one then that would be preferable to opening up in a town already serviced by a schoolwear supplier and fighting for the business. “We’re an ethical company,” he says. “I don’t want to stand on anyone’s toes. We’ve got a bank balance that allows us to expand so if acquisitions come along we would certainly be happy to do it.”

The company still does a lot of commission embroidery for smaller workwear companies, but Peter admits: “I would imagine if we hadn’t have fallen into schoolwear then we would have struggled. We try to be different from everybody else and it’s working well for us.”