Direct Print & Promotions is thriving since moving to larger premises and investing in more equipment and staff

James Smith came across Direct Print & Promotions’s current premises five years ago. At the time they were too big for the company’s needs, but by February this year the business had grown so much that the 372sqm unit in Sheffield’s Sheaf Bank Business Park was perfect.

“It was so tight at the old unit,” James recalls. “After we moved here, we had a bit of spare room – we even put table football in – but we’re taking quite sizeable orders and it’s already getting stretched. There is space we can make more use of, but we’re filling it quite nicely.”

With a workforce of 10, Direct Print offers a range of garment decoration in-house, from screen printing and embroidery to dye sublimation. It’s a far cry from the spare bedroom where the company started out. James was still at college, taking a foundation degree in performing arts, when he and his dad, Alex, set up the business in 2014, providing a variety of print services before focusing more on garments.

“We did a bit of paper print, flyers, leaflets, business cards – anything just to get our feet off the ground,” James recalls.

The company grew, evolving into a workwear and promotional clothing specialist. James never finished his degree as he became more involved in Direct Print, eventually moving operations to the business’s previous 158sqm unit.

“We’re not really doing the paper print and those sorts of things anymore. I’ve a mind to revisit the name at some stage, but we’ve been trading as Direct Print for so many years and that’s how people know you so it’s a scary task to start thinking about changing the name or the brand.”

In-house production

Following the move to its new premises, all garment decoration is now in-house along with some dye-sublimated merchandise, such as coasters, while other promotional products, including pens, are outsourced to an established partner.

“We have a good rapport with them and they give a good service,” James adds. Direct Print relocated with its existing Riley-Hopkins four-colour manual screen print press, supplied by Screen Print World, along with a blast dryer, tunnel dryer and exposure unit, plus a vinyl cutter and Mimaki digital printer.

“The Riley-Hopkins is in a back room downstairs now so it’s nicely segregated away from garments that might get ink on them or smell from chemicals,” James points out.

The set-up already included a Stahls’ Clam open heat press, from Target Transfers, and two Adkins swing-away heat presses. These have been joined by a Fuchs dual heat press, from Global Print Solutions.

“It’s a pneumatic press that takes all the user strain out of having to close the press down. You just press two buttons at the side and the pneumatics press it down. It also means that while you’re pressing one garment, to the side you can be loading your next garment on or off so there’s a continual print motion. I’d seen them on the market and thought I really wanted one of those to increase our output of print.”

Embroidered gilet for laser cutting and fabrication company Yorkshire Profiles

Embroidered gilet for laser cutting and fabrication company Yorkshire Profiles

Direct Print now has five Melco embroidery machines

Direct Print now has five Melco embroidery machines

Rapid growth

The extra space has also allowed for more embroidery machines. Direct Print had three single-head machines – two from Melco, one from Happy – but, to become “more streamlined”, it has sold the Happy and bought three more Melcos, supplied by Amaya Sales UK.

“It’s good because we can now do five garments at a time the same or five with individual logos, which is great for the nature of our business, which is predominantly workwear.” James would like to add direct-to-film (DTF) printing, but is yet to decide on the right machine.

The investments have quickly begun to pay off. “It’s definitely helped us grow. Some of the orders we’re taking we wouldn’t have even been able to consider at the old unit. We would have had to fully outsource the work. But now we’re bringing more work in-house, which is providing more jobs, more security and sustainability for the business.”

Split over two floors, it has offices, a meeting room and a kitchen upstairs and production on the ground floor. “There was a bit of umming and aahing about whether we do it, what’s round the corner, but you can sit on the fence and do that forever. It was definitely the right choice to make. We were confident with the way things were going. I just wanted to grow the business and grow it quite quickly.”

The move itself was relatively easy – the two units were less than 100 metres apart. “We literally picked everything up and started carrying it across.”

Softshell decoration for events company VeeDub Camper Bar

Softshell decoration for events company VeeDub Camper Bar

The new Fuchs pneumatic heat press

The new Fuchs pneumatic heat press

A lean team

Direct Print took on two more members of staff – one in sales and customer service, the other in production – with no immediate plans for more. “We have a great team round us now,” James says. “We need to keep it lean as we don’t know what’s around the corner. It gives me more time to focus on growing the business rather than being bogged down in the business.

“To provide customised workwear and promotional clothing, Direct Print offers brands such as Regatta Professional, Russell Europe, Stormtech, Gildan, Portwest, Stanley/Stella and Result. The latest addition is Ørn workwear. “We really like their range,” James says. “It’s heavy-duty and longer-lasting. It’s good-quality stuff, and our customers like it.”

Direct Print has also invested heavily in a new website, which went live in December, adding ecommerce functionality for the first time through the Magento platform. “Now people can go online and order clothing, plain or customised, and we receive that order and we get cracking.”

There were the usual teething problems at the start, but James says it is bringing huge benefits, boosted by search-engine optimisation and Google Ads. “In the past, all our business was organically grown through word of mouth and referrals, but now people are finding us online.” It remains nearly all business-to-business, but the website has brought in new customers, from fish and chip shops to construction companies.

Web shops

It also allowed Direct Print to introduce web shops, within the Club Store section, which has been embraced by businesses, schools and sports clubs as well as theatre companies and dance schools – a reflection of James’s links with the performing arts. He still performs with Manor Operatic Society, which stages the annual pantomime at Sheffield City Hall in front of around 30,000 people over two weeks.

Driving more business online is the “main goal” at the moment, he adds. “We’ve set ourselves a target to do a certain amount through the website which we’ve not quite got to yet, but I think we can achieve it. But we don’t want to become a faceless business that’s just online so we’re just trying to find our feet with the website a bit and find a middle ground where orders are going through online but still provide a personal service.”

Direct Print exceeded overall targets for the 2021/22 financial year, with turnover reaching nearly £600,000, and is on course to hit its target of £1 million turnover in 2022/23. While promotional and events-related work took a nosedive during Covid lockdowns, Direct Print survived through the resilience of workwear. Now, warnings of recession, inflation and rising energy costs are unsettling, James admits. 

“There is concern that the promotional merchandise sector might take a hit if there is a recession, but workwear will always be a requirement for businesses. I think people will be more cautious with spending and looking for more of a better deal and looking for more budget items. We’ll adapt where we have to and innovate where we can. We have the foundations to get stuck in. It may be a bumpy ride, but I think we’ll be fine.”