Alan Bainbridge tells Mark Ludmon how T-Print emerged from a donkey shed to become a pioneering UK garment decorator

Alan Bainbridge, founder and owner of T-Print

T-Print has come a long way from its beginnings above a stable for the donkeys that gave rides on Blackpool beach. After starting out printing T-shirts in the tiny lock-up in the early 1970s, Alan Bainbridge went on to develop a leading business in the garment printing sector – his company now employs 67 staff at its 4,180sqm (45,000sqft) base and has production capacity of more than 100,000 pieces per week. “People have always said that we were one of the first to take textile printing out of the back streets and the old mills,” Alan says. “We have done it by being innovative. We always strive to do better.”

Sitting in T-Print’s stylish first-floor showroom, surrounded by fashion garments, Alan recalls the excitement of building up a business in the embryonic garment decorating industry. Still heading the business at 66, he recalls having “a lot of fun”. He came to textile printing in his 20s, during the early 1970s, after seeing transfer printing in action in the US. At that time there was very little T-shirt printing around, especially up north.

He soon moved out of the cobbled donkey shed to a shop on Blackpool’s Promenade, armed with a transfer press for printing T-shirts on-demand, from a selection of black and white and one-colour artwork. It was then that he discovered screen printing: laboriously, he would print one colour at a time on long wooden tables and then hang up the shirts to dry before hand-ironing them to cure the prints.

With T-Print established as a screen printer from 1979, sales grew swiftly, as local hotels and other businesses embraced the novelty of having T-shirts with their names on them. Alan recognised that his strengths lay in sales and business development, so David Hargreaves handled the artwork: 38 years later, David is still with the company. “I can do sales; I have never been a ‘printer’,” Alan adds. “I enjoy sales, meeting people, developing the business.”

T-Print was established as a screen printer in 1979

T-Print also offers embroidery, transfers and artwork creation

Tizer and Irn-Bru

A major turning point came in 1986 when Alan approached AG Barr, the Scottish-based drinks group that also had a site in Manchester, offering an idea for a sales promotion. He fondly recalls how easy it was to access decision-makers in those days, from big brewers like Bass and Greenalls to major football clubs. It paid off with AG Barr, which launched a promotion across millions of bottles and cans of Tizer and Irn-Bru, offering a branded T-shirt for £1, sent with a leaflet on how to order more. “We hadn’t realised they were going to put it on so many bottles and cans,” Alan says. “We were getting two sacks of mail a day. We had to recruit temporary staff. We were still printing on tables in a long narrow building so we realised very quickly that we needed an automatic machine.”

He can’t remember much about that first machine although he thinks it could print only four colours. But the dryer was from Adelco, which T-Print has remained loyal to ever since – the company’s print shop currently houses five Adelcos. As business soared, T-Print invested in a second four-colour machine and moved to larger premises within Blackpool, supported by a bank loan. In 1989, Chris Bonin joined to help with sales and, 30 years later, he also remains at T-Print, now as sales manager.

“We were knocking on doors all over the country by then,” Alan says. “Anyone who could use clothing, we were there. Whether I knew it or not, I was going into the promotional market.” He also took on his first employees which was a new challenge for the entrepreneur. “Some of the temps joined us permanently and some ended up working for us for over 20 years. People are your biggest asset, but also your biggest cost.”

T-Print operates eight MHM automatics and five Adelco dryers in its print shop
The embroidery department houses seven Happy and Barudan machines

Moving into embroidery

After moving to its own purpose-built site in Fleetwood north of Blackpool in 1991, T-Print brought its embroidery production in-house rather than outsourcing it. It acquired two 12-head Barudan machines by taking over a local embroidery firm, also bringing on board the expertise of its workforce. “Before then, embroiderers and printers were always separate,” Alan says. “This was all new. That is when we really got motoring.” T-Print now has seven Happy and Barudan embroidery machines: a 12-head, an eight-head, four six-heads and one four-head.

Fourteen years of expansion led T-Print to move to its current site in Bispham, halfway between Fleetwood and central Blackpool. Here, it has eight automatic screen printing presses – all MHMs – as well as transfer printers, an Epson SureColor SC-F6200 dye sublimation printer and a Mimaki CJV150-75 cutter/ printer. “We are always updating our machines,” Alan adds. “It is better to do that slowly but surely rather than having to update them all at the same time.”

Noticeable by their absence, however, are DTG printers. “DTG has a great future but I can’t get my head round it,” Alan admits. “If we were starting a business now from scratch, we would be doing DTG. But we are in screen printing and it would be a hard transition. It would be a lot of money to produce what we can do now. Our machines are not as expensive and we can print more. I think digital has a long way to go to have the speed of screen printing.” He says T-Print currently has no plans to invest in DTG although it can outsource if required. “Digital machines are brilliant for the one-off but you can always use transfer for one or two pieces. Transfer machines are a lot cheaper. We stick to what we know.”

T-Print’s stylish showroom

The company’s 45,000 sqft premises in Bispham

Back to basics

Digital printing is not the only change that Alan remains sceptical about. In the early days, the industry was made up of smaller businesses but “the independents have been disappearing and conglomerates coming in”. He also worries about the huge choice of products – T-Print’s own paper catalogue stretches to 972 pages, with nearly 100 brands from Adidas to Yoko. “The choice of products is vast and you can’t get your head round it. There’s a lot to be said for going back to basics.”

Alan regrets that, after starting out developing sales and business, he now spends so much time looking at ways to save money. “Today there is so much pressure on margins: national minimum wage, business rates, fuel. Costs are rising so quickly. Customers won’t pay these extra costs. If a manufacturer tells us their prices have gone up 12%, we can’t get that 12% off the customer. We’re on the frontline with the customers. You have to keep watching your overheads constantly. We have to sell more just to stay the same.” Alongside LED lighting, investment in solar panels five years ago is now starting to pay off financially as well as environmentally. But ultimately, Alan says, “we just have to keep beavering away”.

Last year’s 972-page T-Print directory 

The reception at T-Print

Most of T-Print’s business is supplying promotional companies as well as charities and other business-to-business customers. While it does not specialise in uniforms, it sells a lot of customised workwear. The company’s potential capacity of more than 100,000 pieces per week is based on the eight automatic machines working eight hours a day but in peak times over the summer, with overtime, it can achieve even more. 

However, being a garment printer is no longer just about screen printing. As well as embroidery, transfers and artwork creation (T-Print has three full-time artists) it now offers services such as label changing, swing tags, barcodes, logistics and distribution. “Customers never even ask you if you can do distribution now, as they want you to do it all without a handling house,” Alan adds. “It was simpler when you just got the order, printed it, packed it and sent it. Now you have to do a lot more.”

Having most processes under one roof is one of T-Print’s strengths, he says, with innovation across the board that has led to the company winning around 75 awards for printing, embroidery, transfers and artwork over the years. T-Print has overcome challenges from recessions through to the current Brexit uncertainty, which Alan notes has been “difficult”, and continues to look to the future, with his sons, Paul and Dan – both in their 30s – part of the team. “They’ve known the business their whole lives,” Alan says. “They have been working in it for a long time. They will hopefully carry on. For us, it’s all about the long term. Not a quick win. Nothing happens overnight.”