George and Louis Georgiou talk to Mark Ludmon about how innovation continues to drive growth at Essential Embroidery Design
Essential Embroidery Design has always embraced the new.
This passion for constant innovation defines the company, and has seen it grow and diversify from embroidery into screen print, digital print, heat transfer, embossing, laser etching and, most recently, ecommerce.
“It highlights our ethos as a company that we are always chasing something new and different that will differentiate ourselves and benefit our partners,” explains co-founder and managing director George Georgiou.
“Our partners rely on us to be sourcing new products and new technologies that keep them at the forefront of their industry.”
When George and his wife Nicki started out 23 years ago – buying the assets of a small company that had gone under – the textile trade was entirely new to them. “I knew nothing,” George freely admits. “When I bought the company, I didn’t even know how to switch a machine on!”.
Operating out of a unit in Luton Bedfordshire, with a 10-head embroidery machine for company, George worked all hours, often sleeping in the office (there is still a sleeping bag in the showroom as a legacy of this time), as he began building Essential into the business it is today. Nicki joined full-time after taking voluntary redundancy from Barclays Bank, using her redundancy money to invest in new machinery to accelerate the company’s continued growth.
Thirteen years ago it moved to its current site in nearby Dunstable, where it now operates from a modern, fully equipped and recently extended 20,000 sq ft factory staffed by a dedicated, 60-strong workforce.
Working closely with creative agencies and focusing on high-end blue-chip companies, Essential always aimed to establish itself as a “one-stop shop”, which prompted an early diversification into print.
With little room to spare in the original premises, George found himself excited by the possibilities of digital print technology after seeing a Kornit DTG printer in action at an exhibition in Amsterdam 16 years ago. “I thought the Kornit would replace screen print and we invested in that,” he recalls.
Essential became only the sixth company in the world, and the first in Europe, to take delivery of the original Kornit 930. However, things didn’t pan out as expected. “The technology wasn’t ready at that time,” George explains. “But on the plus side, as soon as our customers learned that we were printing, albeit digitally, they started asking us to handle their print work. That’s when it became very apparent that it was screen print we needed to bring into the mix.”
Having introduced screen printing alongside its embroidery operation 13 years ago, Essential is now established as a major player within the UK garment printing industry and is equipped to handle even the largest print orders. George and Nicki’s son, Louis, heads up the print operations after joining the company two years ago – originally, to look after marketing. Over the past year, he has recruited his own print team while also looking at ways to further automate production processes.
“It’s a younger set of people who are really engaging with moving and growing together,” George explains. “They have very much the same ethos as us as a company: pushing the boundaries, doing things that other people are not prepared to do, just finding the right ways to make them work and do it efficiently.”
Part of that ‘right way’ is to adopt a more sustainable approach to textile printing by putting a heavy focus on water-based inks, and setting the target of becoming a 100% water-based print shop within two years. “Water-based inks are much more environmentally friendly being PVC-free and needing no solvents during their clean-up,” Louis explains.
“The final print is a lot nicer, being much softer to the touch, giving a real retail-quality finish. However, water-based inks are much harder to work with, having a much smaller margin of error. Despite this, we don’t shy away [from using them] just because it is harder.”
Louis adds that Essential’s customers are also starting to embrace Essential’s commitment to more sustainable production methods. “Clients are catching on and we have just completed a two-position water-based job for 23,000 pieces,” he reports.
In line with its urge to innovate, Essential also offers an embossing service, having added a bespoke embossing machine, developed with a manufacturer in China, three years ago. After a year of testing and trying out different workflows, the company launched the service for customers in 2018, producing embossed polos and sweatshirts, in both cotton and mixes.
Yet another innovation was the introduction of a Proel Twiga laser engraving machine. It can be called upon for cutting out shapes for appliqué embroidery and adding designs to fabrics such as softshell as a more permanent form of branding. “It’s part of us embracing new things and bringing them into the market,” George adds.
Essential hasn’t forgotten its roots either: it continues to push the possibilities of embroidery, both with appliqué and 3D techniques – sometimes combining the two with especially impressive results.
“Despite these jobs often taking a lot longer and needing a lot of R&D time, we always put a lot of effort into them as we know it is these specialities that help us secure contracts supplying garments for high-end blue-chip corporate companies,” George points out.
When Essential Embroidery Design expanded into screen printing 13 years ago, it started with an automatic MHM 12-pallet 10-colour S-Type which has since been replaced. In 2019, it acquired two MHM 12/10 S-Types and an MHM 8/6 S-Type Xtreme. A second Tesoma dryer was added in March last year, while a manual M&R Chameleon carousel is used for occasional specialist work.
In the screen room are a Spyder II direct-to-screen system, a Zentner autocoater, a Zentner autodeveloper and a Lotus Holland automatic screen reclaimer. There are four Hotronix and Pressnet heat presses, including a double press, while the embroidery area features 10 eight-head machines and a single-head wide-format machine, all Barudan. For digital work, Essential uses two Brother GTX printers and a Roland cutter/printer in a temperature-controlled room.
“We replace our machines every five years to ensure we have the latest and the best in the market,” says George.
PPE and SMEs
The company has traditionally serviced corporates through creative agencies, but three years ago it diversified into workwear and PPE, setting up a new division, Essential Workwear. This allowed it to expand without competing with its existing client base.
“From the outset, it was our intention to focus on targeting SMEs,” George adds. “However, I think as a testament to our service and capability, we have already secured a contract offering a fully managed workwear solution to a company employing over 4,000 staff.”
From the start, Essential was an accredited PPE supplier and this helped enormously when Covid-19 came along: the pandemic initially decimated demand for workwear, but it quickly boosted the demand for items such as face masks and shields, scrubs and hand sanitiser.
“We were a registered supplier into the NHS and to others,” George recalls. “We went through a period of three months of doing some pretty hefty business selling PPE. That really sustained us for a few months. We are still doing PPE and occasionally supplying into the NHS, but not as much as it was back in the earlier days.”
The move into workwear also took Essential into ecommerce, with customers able to set up accounts and order customised garments online. Louis has spearheaded this over the past year and says it is now “gathering pace”, adding: “It’s attracting a different type of customer. People come onto our site having never spoken to us before and place orders. That’s a completely new way of selling for us and is really exciting and gives a great buzz.”
He is steering the business towards being completely paperless, supported by a bespoke production management system that allows everyone to track every job, networked to PDAs on machines across the factory floor. Essential’s catalogue is also now entirely online, presenting a wide selection of brands from Kustom Kit and Gildan to Stanley/Stella and Neutral, supported by its ongoing partnerships with suppliers BTC Activewear, PenCarrie and Ralawise.
In spite of the increasing automation and online customisation, however, the personal touch remains important, George insists. “Customers will speak to us, give us a brief, and rely on us to put products forward and come up with the best solution.”
Despite its growth and success, Essential remains at heart a family business, with George and Nicki’s daughter Elizabeth, who joined the company over 10 years ago, running the artwork team. And that’s not forgetting the family’s nine-year-old pug, Jimmy – a familiar face around the office, he is listed as ‘chairman’ on the company’s website.
The long-term plan is for Louis to take over at Essential, but for now the Georgiou family and its staff are focused on continuing to drive the business forward irrespective of any disruption caused by Brexit and Covid-19.
“It’s just a case of knuckling down,” George says. “We are all working harder than we were; everyone is pitching in and helping and getting done whatever needs to be done. We know that our own long-term future is very bright.”