In July this year, Klasix in Nottingham hit the headlines when a devastating fire engulfed the neighbouring unit. The Klasix factory hasn’t been in use since, but the company’s customers are still receiving their orders. Owner David Johal explains how his family, their dedicated staff and industry colleagues all pulled together to keep the business printing
Just after 7am on Friday 8th July, David Johal was on his way to work at his screen printing company, Klasix when he got a call from his son Haman. “Dad, there’s a fire.”
“I thought one of the flash dryers had overheated or something like that,” explains David, “so I said to him, ‘Look, just get the nearest fire extinguisher to you. It’s outside the office, get the CO2 fire extinguisher, spray it and then I’ll be there in 15 or 20 minutes and we’ll sort it out.’
“He said, ‘No Dad, I mean there’s a big fire. There’s banging and smashing outside.’ He then opened the window and said, ‘There’s a gush of heat coming straight on to my face.’
“I told him to get out of the building, and then it went silent as he dropped the phone and ran.”
By now David was four miles from Klasix. The whole sky was full of smoke. Safely outside, Haman called back. “He told me: ‘Dad, don’t rush. Everything’s gone.’”
From wholesaling to printing
David joined the family business in 1978. His dad used to work on the markets selling clothes, and when David joined he used to go to London to buy clothing samples from factories, load up his small van and go round the shops to show the samples, get the orders then return the following week with the stock.
As the smaller shops started to fade away as bigger chain stores and multinationals came on the scene in the early 90s, the company, called Sharon of Nottingham, opened a warehouse and started manufacturing. “If you wanted to get into the big stores, you needed to be a manufacturer, not a wholesaler,” explains David.
He quickly realised that the women’s and teenage markets were flooded and so moved into childrenswear instead, supplying multiple discounters such as Ethyl Austin, Morrisons and TJ Hughes. “We found that because of the bulk orders, we needed to have control of the printing, so in 1997 we started our own printing facility.”
As the new business, called Klasix, quickly grew, Sharon’s wholesaling business started to wind down, followed by the manufacturing side as companies started looking to Turkey, Morocco, India and Bangladesh with their much lower prices.
By July 2016, the company had five MHM machines – “the best machines out there,” according to David – and was printing around 50-60,000 prints a week. Profit increased each year thanks to the hard work put in by the family over nearly 40 years.
David’s voice breaks as he recounts how on the morning of 8th July, his son Haman watched the fire engulf the next door building and said: “Everything we’ve worked for has gone.”
“We built that building from nothing,” explains David. “We put in the floor, we put in the suspended ceiling, we plastered all the walls and created offices… It was a very personal building. We called it Balham House, because my eldest son, we call him Bobby, but his Indian name is Baldeep, and my other son is called Haman, so we used the first three letters of their names and made the word Balham. We had a lot of memories and a lot of good things going on there.”
What they didn’t realise that Friday morning was that while the fire had completely destroyed the building adjoining theirs, the fire wall between the two warehouses had held up, protecting Klasix from the worst of the fire, and the steel girders in the neighbouring building also meant its roof and walls collapsed inwards rather than onto the Klasix building. The fire officers, who David praises for how well they protected his warehouse, had to smash the suspended ceiling to put out any fires coming in through the flame-licked roof, as well as breaking down the gates and windows when first getting into the building. The water and smoke caused some damage as well, but miraculously, the machines and a lot of the stock survived.
Getting back up and running
As the horrified staff started to turn up to work and customers began to ring to commiserate having seen the fire on the BBC news, it became apparent that there was no chance of the company printing T-shirts in the building anytime soon. On Saturday morning, when David returned to the site, this was confirmed by the fire officers. “They told us, ‘It’s going to be closed for some time. It might be arson, some lads have been arrested, and we’re not quite sure how safe the structure of your building is.’
“I had to make a decision about what we were going to do, because at the end of the day there’s 27 of us working here including myself, my wife Jenny and Haman. That’s 24 actual wages that we pay out: they’ve got mortgages, they’ve got kids going to school, these guys need their wages. Also, we’ve got orders – we have five machines pumping out 60,000 garments a week; what about the customers? The customers rely on us.
“I rang three or four factories that I contract work out to when we are busy. I said, ‘Look, we’re in a fix. Can I rent machines from you and bring my staff?’ By Monday, I’d got two factories running and 10 staff working. By Friday, we had four machines running in Leicester, Alfreton and Pinxton and 19 staff working.”
Klasix has a separate warehouse, located down the road from the print factory, where the bulk of its stock is held, and a friend offered to rent them another unit in Nottingham to act as a distribution centre for the new stock that was arriving daily from customers. Each night, Haman, David and Jenny would sit in the lounge at home that they’d converted into an office and work until late, sorting out where the stock needed to go the next day, which orders needed to be printed where, and where the two vans shuttling everything around needed to be, as well as the other admin work generated each day. It was exhausting, but it was, says David, “a family working together to make it work”.
The rent of the machines was covered by the insurance company, who David says have been great. Klasix could have decided to close down – the insurance would have covered that – but David points out: “What about our customers? What would they do? They’ve grown through us and we’ve grown though them. We’ve got to work with them and we’ve got to make it work for them.”
After two weeks they were told it would be months before the building could be properly assessed and made safe and so the hunt began for a temporary home. David struck lucky with a Nottingham landlord who had a 20,000 sq ft building and was willing to offer a one-year lease with a six-month opt out clause on a tenancy at will, which meant Klasix could move in immediately. It was now 22nd July, and the building was a shell.
The next person to call was John Potter at MHM Direct GB to get the machines out of the old building and into the new warehouse. “It was obviously a very traumatic time for Dave,” says John. “We understood his predicament and worked weekends and evenings because we knew there were jobs at stake. We craned the five machines and three dryers out and then reassembled them. The whole plant needed assembling – I don’t think you get that service anywhere else in the industry.”
Electrics, gas, ducting and air facilities all had to be installed, and yet somehow, on Friday 12th August, just one month after the fire, all the staff were back working together in the new factory. “It’s beautiful,” says David. “The workers love it, there’s so much space. We’re back to 50-60,000 prints a week. The customers are over the moon, they’ve been very loyal.”
Despite everything David is still upbeat, saying: “Maybe it’s a story to tell to show other people, ‘Don’t go down, don’t abandon ship. Be positive, be strong’.
“Would I do anything differently? No, I don’t think so. I think we’re very happy and pleased with how everything has gone, especially with the support and the love and the friendship and the care that the staff and customers have shown. Also, the support from the insurance company, as well as all of our suppliers – Premier Screen, MHM, TGS Ltd – everyone’s been fantastic, they really have.”