Mark Ludmon visits Dan Blake at EasyPrint and discovers a rapidly expanding business whose future growth is in the bag

After a year of change and investment, EasyPrint has entered the new decade ready for a roaring twenties. With new staff, new machines, new branding, a new website and a new textile supplier, the 14-year-old Essex-based print shop has ambitious plans for the future. “It takes money to make money,” says founder Dan Blake. “We have put it all together, from the price to the product to the service. If you have all three of those, what else does a company need to succeed?”

After starting out in 2006 specialising in screen printing for T-shirts, EasyPrint has a new focus for the future: bags. This follows its acquisition of the bag business of leading promotional merchandise group KeepMe at the end of 2018, taking on its clients and equipment. Although the deal did not include the name, KeepMe’s founders Kevin and Steve Anderson continue to provide support and business. “We are putting our expertise in printing T-shirts on to bags,” Dan explains.

“We are still a T-shirt company and we’re not going to alienate our existing business, but our main focus this year is to really look to grow the bag side of the business. Our aim is to be as big as the industry leader, if not bigger. We hold as much stock with the same amount of equipment but with a more personal service. If we took 20% to 25% of our competitor’s market, we would be in dreamland. There is a hell of a lot of work out there. We have only just started.”

EasyPrint acquired KeepMe’s bag business in 2018

EasyPrint’s new MHM S-Type Xtreme [left] and two MHM E-Type presses

All around the world

To support this, Dan travelled to different countries last year to find a supplier that fulfilled EasyPrint’s criteria for quality, ethical trading and sustainability. “I have been all round the world multiple times. We have found a genuine company that gives us genuine product with everything backed up behind it. It shows the industry that we are serious.”

Established in 1976, the factory in Rajapalayam in southern India specialises in cotton canvas bags, with a capacity to produce a million per month. Accreditations include the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which provides environmental and social guarantees throughout production and distribution, and the Oeko-Tex standard to ensure that products contain no substances that are harmful to human health and ecology. The partnership also means that a penny from the sale of every bag helps fund an initiative to free women from sex tracking and slavery – EasyPrint donated a cool £25,000 in the first few months of the new business relationship. “Anyone in the industry should be embarrassed not to be using our bags,” Dan adds. “They come with a story and a provenance, but are at a competitive price at no additional cost.”

Back at EasyPrint’s base in Wickford, new equipment is filling up nearly every bit of the available space. One highlight is a 14-colour MHM S-Type Xtreme, which was installed just before Christmas and which is capable of printing up to 1,000 bags per hour. It replaced two other presses and now works alongside a 14-colour Tas and two MHM Synchroprint E-Type machines: one eight-colour, one six- colour. “MHM is a fantastic company to work with,” Dan adds. “Fantastic machinery, the technicians are second to none, and the service is impeccable.”

The new Galaxy Columbia Transfer heat press carousel

The company’s Tas auto

A departure into digital print

EasyPrint also has four Roland print- and-cut vinyl machines, a Lotus Holland automatic screen cleaning system, a new Ricoh C7200 transfer printer, and a new Galaxy Columbia Transfer 6-2 heat press carousel. The company moved into digital printing nearly four years ago when it acquired a Roland VersaCamm SP-300i printer/cutter from ST Graphics. With a background in screen printing, Dan decided that the best way to expand his company’s expertise in this area was to buy ST Graphics: the acquisition took place nearly three years ago, with ST Graphics’s owner Scott Parry subsequently becoming EasyPrint’s head of sales. The digital set-up has now grown, supported by four more printer/cutters: a Roland VersaCamm SP-300V, a Roland SoIJet Pro III XC- 540, a Graphtec CE6000-60 and, as of January, a new Roland VersaCamm SP-540V. “We are already looking at additional machines,” Dan says.

A year ago, EasyPrint also introduced a new, bespoke content management system with software that allows customers to track their orders online. As well as recruiting more people in 2020 including a night shift manager, the company is on the look-out for new (freehold) premises to accommodate its growing production facilities and the extra business on its order books. Another addition to the business is Kelly Tullett, who has joined as business development manager. With 18 years’ experience in the industry, she was most recently at leading promotional bag supplier DTB Europe, having previously worked at Parker Pens, Crazy Bags and Ram Branding. She will be out on the road building EasyPrint’s client base and working with Scott to boost the company’s marketing activities, including the new website.

“We’re going to hit the industry hard,” Kelly adds. Last September, new branding was launched featuring the new tagline of ‘We do it better’. Targeted at only the trade, EasyPrint has been focused on product and service, but not so much on promoting itself, Dan points out. “Our suppliers used to say we were the best-kept secret in the industry, but we are changing that.”

With a 26-strong workforce, EasyPrint has come a long way since Dan – now 41 – started out with a second-hand Hopkins carousel printer 10 miles away in Rochford, near Southend-on-Sea. “We’ve gone from just me with one machine to where we are now,” he says. One of his first employees was Steve Willis who, 13 years later, is production manager, with Dan focusing more on growing the business. However, Dan remains hands-on. “When reps come in, they say there aren’t many people left in the industry that spend time on the shop floor like I do. There are not many screen printers out there of our size with someone who did it on their own in terms of being a 100% shareholder. It’s been a hard slog to get here.”

[L-R] Terry Willis, Scott Parry, Dan Blake, Lewis Blake and Kelly Tullett

EasyPrint started out in 2006 specialising in T-shirt printing

A screen printing dynasty

However, Dan would not be where he is today without the support of his late father, Vince Blake, who headed Screen Print City until his death seven years ago. “My dad was one of the pioneers back in the 70s,” Dan says. “He built his business from nothing. He was an amazing man, not just to me but to the industry in terms of how he changed how the industry worked.” Dan started out working at Screen Print City at 13 but he was not given an easy ride, with is father assigning him basic tasks.

Although Dan later set up EasyPrint on his own, Vince was on hand with his expertise. “My dad was supposed to retire at 65, but he changed his mind. He agreed to assist me, like an apprenticeship. Every question I needed answering, he answered. Every mistake he’d made, he made sure I didn’t make. We allowed his company to make the errors and I learned from them. One day, he told me I already knew the answer, and then less than six weeks later, he died.” A large photo of Vince still watches over Dan in his office.

In the early days, EasyPrint boosted revenue with overflow work from Screen Print City, especially urgent orders of T-shirts for big-name rock concerts, which would be ordered on a Friday for delivery Sunday. The business grew and diversified, with a boost from work linked to the 2012 Olympics in east London, and then seven years ago, EasyPrint moved to its current unit in Wickford. Dan says this steady expansion has been thanks to careful recruitment.

“You can have the shiniest machines but, if they’re not run by the right people, they are worthless. I couldn’t have got to where we are today without the people round me.” Those people now include his 21-year-old son Lewis who joined last year, specialising in the digital machines. Much like his dad, Lewis was helping out at the business from the age of eight, again in basic jobs, although he gained experience by working outside of the business in engineering. Dan’s 24-year old daughter Paige has also worked at EasyPrint, while his other son, Logan, aged 15, helps out in the vinyl room.

As he looks ahead to the 2020s, Dan is committed to maintaining the values that the company is known for. “We give our clients peace of mind. They need to know that once we say yes to them, their life is easy. We don’t let people down. We have old-school methodology with modern technology – an old-school touch in a modern world. Not many people have all that.”