Managing director Daniel Turner tells Mark Ludmon how tie and accessories manufacturer William Turner is still innovating after 50 years in business
Only one in 10 Britons still wear a suit to work, with nearly half of people believing the tie is dead, according to a poll last year by hotel group Travelodge. But it is a very different story in schools. For children, ties are still very much in demand, both in the UK and abroad. That’s good news for the team at William Turner, a leading manufacturer of schoolwear. “At a fashion level, ties have diminished in terms of people wearing them at work generally, but that hasn’t affected our business as we are selling ties as part of a uniform,” explains managing director Daniel Turner. “It has been a growing area for the past few years, partly due to the growing school population, but also because of the academy programme.”
The growth of state-funded academies has contributed to more than 90% of British schools now using some kind of uniform, according to the Schoolwear Association. “Where there’s lots of investment in developing standards, a lot of heads and governors are choosing uniform as a signal to illustrate that they mean business,” Daniel adds. “The tie is a very cost-effective way of introducing a more formal element.”
Fifty years in business
This year marks 50 years since Stockport-based William Turner started supplying retailers with school ties. The business has thrived and grown over that half-century by expanding its range within schoolwear and accessories and diversifying into corporatewear. It now employs 125 people and occupies a brand new, purpose-built factory in Lancashire. At the start, however, it was just Bill Turner who, in 1969, began providing school ties to the trade in the north-west of England, fulfilling the orders of his employer, which had suddenly folded ahead of the start of the school year. After a year, he was joined by his son, Keith, who gave up his job as a schoolteacher to run the office, operating out of the back bedroom of a council house in Wythenshawe in south Manchester. Working with factories in Yorkshire, the father and son team was able to provide retailers with smaller minimum orders of ties than other suppliers. It proved a successful recipe, allowing them to move to premises in Reddish in Stockport, with Bill’s wife, Hilda, brought in to work in the warehouse. “Each year, they were fortunate that the business was able to grow just through word of mouth, keeping customers happy and having strong relationships with suppliers,” Daniel says. “My grandfather said it was a good time in the early 1970s when school uniform was becoming a little bit smarter so there was a growing market for ties.”
A significant development for William Turner was the switch to jacquard weaving machines that made it easier for the factories to manufacture textiles with more complex patterns. “This enabled the business to offer motif ties, or logo ties,” Daniel explains. “Prior to that, they had just been plain or striped.” Bill and Keith now also extended the range to other woven textile products such as scarves, badges and hats.
In the late 1990s, the company bought both of its main factories in Skipton in North Yorkshire and Colne in Lancashire. A few years later, it extended its range to offer schoolbags, either plain for decorators or bespoke. For this, it entered into a partnership with a factory in China – a relationship that continues to this day, with the six- storey unit manufacturing exclusively for William Turner. “We have a very strong relationship with the factory and we’re over there three or four times a year,” Daniel points out. “We are trying to give our customers confidence so they can tell their customers that they know everything about how the bags are produced. We are confident that it is an ethical alternative to using factories in the back end of beyond where you’ve never been. We are buying from a factory that knows about schoolbags. These are different from promotional bags that might be a lower price but are not built as a schoolbag, used as goal posts, kicked and dragged about.”
With its two factories and partner in China, William Turner can reassure retailers that its uniforms will maintain a consistent appearance over time. “For schoolwear, it is important to have consistency every year: they [the schools] need the same navy next year and the year after that. We have factories that understand that,” Daniel says. The company has, however, always moved with the times. Innovations have included offering a hi-vis trim on schoolbags for road safety, while the range has continued to expand with the addition of accessories, such as scrunchies and ponios. Four years ago, after noting that schools were increasingly asking for children to bring in water, William Turner added clear water bottles that can be customised with the school’s motif and colours.
To overcome the seasonality of supplying most schoolwear garments at the start of the academic year, the range also features winterwear, such as hats and gloves, as well as summer hats – again, plain or decorated. However, this does not mean the business is a slave to fashion. “We try to keep the range fresh, but we feel we don’t want it to be following the fashions too much,” Daniel points out. “By definition, the schools want it to be consistent year after year, but we are innovative within that.” For schools that want to resist rebellion and improve safety, clip-on ties have become more popular than traditional ties, he notes. “No more big knots or long tails. Heads like that as everybody looks the same.”
With turnover last year at £11million, the business started exporting two years ago – another potential growth area. “Smart school uniforms is a look that is becoming more popular in other parts of the world as they copy the British look. We are hoping that within a few years we will have a good export side to the business,” Daniel adds.
While William Turner is best known for its schoolwear and manufactures around 40,000 ties a week, it has also operated a corporatewear division for the past 20 years, supplying directly to sports clubs, regimental associations, hotel groups, promotional companies, universities and other large organisations. As well as offering bags and accessories, it focuses on ties made of silk or polyester that can have designs printed or woven in, and scarves made of merino wool with the option of a polyester fleece backing. Clubs can opt for jacquard scarves, made of ringspun acrylic yarn, which are completed on circular and Cad/Cam flat knitting machines that allow text and images to be knitted into the fabric. Targeting customers large and small, the club and corporatewear division is earmarked for growth under head of sales Mike Humble who joined last summer. “We do think there’s a great potential for that side of the business,” Daniel adds. The future will also see the business as a whole become more environmentally sustainable, building on the introduction of its ‘eco ties‘, which are mostly made from recycled polyester. “Over the next year, we want to move more of the range onto eco fabrics,” Daniel says.
William Turner has embraced international markets and manufacturing facilities, while remaining loyal to its UK workforce and rooted in its local community. Last year, it invested nearly £1million in relocating its factory in Colne to a new 10,000 sq ft building just over two miles away in Nelson after the lease came to an end. “We turned what could have been an issue for the business into an opportunity,” Daniel says. “When we couldn’t find anywhere very local, we decided to build and invest in a factory. It is more ecient, brighter, warmer and more modern and has enabled us to take on more people.”
The company’s head office, meanwhile, has remained in Reddish for nearly 50 years. “We have moved a few times but always within a mile or so,” Daniel notes. “We have always been part of the local community.” Bill, the company’s founder, died in 1984, and Daniel’s dad, Keith retired after 42 years service in 2011, having originally intended to join the business for just one year to help out. William Turner is still very much a family business, however, with Daniel taking over from his dad as managing director, and younger brother, John, beside him as production director. Sales director Andy Smith may not be directly related but he has been with the business for 40 years and is “like family”.
Daniel and John have seven children between them. “Without putting any pressure on them, we are hoping that in due course we can hand over the reins to the next generation,” Daniel adds. “We try to espouse the family values of reliability and trust and dedication to what we are doing. A lot of our customers are family-based so we hope that there’s that connection too. My father was obsessed with customer service as part of building a business and it’s something that over the years we have been known for. We understand the privilege it is to be of service to our customers and we want to make sure we are going above and beyond.”
Two years ago, the company dropped the brand name, Unicol, which had been used as a trade name for its uniforms since the start, switching to William Turner. “We want to make sure that our name is on every product and every box, showing that we are proud of our company.” To mark the company’s 50th anniversary, Daniel and John plan to get staff and customers together for a celebration in the summer, although details are still being planned. “We’ve got a fantastic team of hard-working and dedicated staff, enjoy strong relationships with our customers and we’re all very much looking forward to writing the next chapter of the William Turner business story and adapting to the ever-changing needs of our customers,” Daniel comments. “We are not frightened of change but will always stick to the core values of the business. I’m confident my grandfather would have been proud of what we’ve achieved.”
A collective voice
William Turner is a co-founder and patron of The Schoolwear Show, which celebrated its 21st anniversary last year. The company also helped to set up the Schoolwear Association in 2006, providing a collective voice for everyone involved in uniforms from manufacturers and decorators through to retailers and schools. Daniel, who is vice-chair, explains: “It’s very important that a positive story about school uniform is presented by the media and that the government has good advice on the school uniform trade.” The association has played an important role in putting the industry’s case across when the Office for Fair Trading and the Competition and Markets Authority have looked into competition and pricing in school uniform retailing.