As Sharon Lee celebrates its 70th anniversary, Images visits the septuagenarian headwear company to find out where it’s come from – and where it’s headed

Managing director Toby Pache with his mother Sharon Lee and father Graham

This year was always going to be an auspicious one for Sharon Lee: it marks the headwear company’s 70th year in business. It’s also taken delivery of the very first 12-head Tajima TMAR – V1512C model off the production line, has invested in an innovative rhinestone machine, and expects growth to more than double to 37%, up from 18% for each of the three years before.

It’s a far cry from the company’s origins in 1946, when founder Woolf Davis was selling ‘kiss me quick’ hats to tourists in Southend-on-Sea. The following year he bought some blocks, started creating cowboys hats out of felt and named the company after his newly born daughter. “My father was hoping I’d be a boy, because he’d call me Jeremy Edward – that was what he wanted to use as a trade name, Jed. And then I was a girl,” laughs Sharon Lee Pache, nee Davis.

Sharon’s husband, Graham, bought the company from Woolf in 1980, having joined its sales department in 1973 after his marriage to Sharon (“He was shanghaied to take the place of the non-existent Jeremy!”)

The company stopped manufacturing and started importing instead, closing the factory in Southend and opening a warehouse 20 miles north in Witham. “We were the first company to import baseball caps in any sort of volume from Taiwan, China, Korea and Hong Kong,” says Graham.

Initially the company sold only one style – the trucker, which is still being sold in its thousands today. The caps were sold mainly for rock and roll concerts, as well as sporting events and general promowear. “After about three or four years, people wanted cotton hats so we began to bring them in,” comments Graham. “Then we started printing them and then eventually, when we moved here, in 1990, we started embroidering them too.”

Woolf Davies, founder of Sharon Lee

Sharon Lee’s in-house embroidery department reopened three years ago and now operates 69 heads

In the school holidays Sharon and Graham’s son Toby would work in the warehouse and help print hats, moving on to deliveries when he received his driver’s licence.

In 1997, when he was 21, he joined the sales department, moving upwards until he became managing director in 2009.

The banking crisis in 2008 had, inevitably, a big impact on the company. Also, explains Toby, the company had lost its way. “I don’t think it had a real focus on where it was going and where the opportunities were with things like the internet. We were a very traditional supplier then – we’re not a traditional supplier now, we’re very custom, we’re very bespoke, we’re very consultative. It was very much ‘here’s your stock range, you can have a transfer or an embroidery on it’, and that was it, which was fine. Don’t get me wrong, it worked, it worked for many years, and it was successful, but the economy suffered enormously in 2009, and we had to do a lot of pedalling. I’m happy to say that it was worth it.”

A return to in-house embroidery

The embroidery department at Sharon Lee had grown to around 54 heads under Graham, but increasing competition from China put paid to that. The department was closed and any time-sensitive jobs that couldn’t be done in China were sent out to a local embroiderer.

Three years ago, Toby made the decision to start up the embroidery department again. “When I was looking at bringing the embroidery back in here I looked at reliability, service, build of the machine, build quality and so on,” says Toby. “I spoke to a few people about it as well, and Tajima just seemed the best for what we needed. And the guys at AJS have been so, so supportive.

“The Tajima TMAR – V1512C 12-head is really helping: it’s very fast, so for your mid-size orders with mid-size stitch counts that are needed quickly, it really churns through those and hits tight delivery dates.”

China had become less cost-effective on smaller quantities, which helped prompt the move, but the real driver was the internet and the increasing expectation of short delivery times. “People want stuff – need stuff – more quickly. They don’t necessarily want to wait for 10 to 14 weeks for a black hat that they can have in two to three weeks. We started to move a lot more stock, and we thought, let’s bring the embroidery back in-house, which we did.”

Three Tajima eight-head machines were brought in; they now have seven eight-heads and a sampling machine, and the first ever 12-head Tajima TMAR – V1512C, bringing the total number of heads to 69.

A bespoke cotton trucker cap with screen printed logo

Sharon Lee has a number of retail clients, as well as working with gift distributors, promotional agencies and workwear uniform management companies. A few years ago, it used to be that 75% of the headwear Sharon Lee sold was customised in China and then sent to the UK ready to go, with the remaining 25% either sold blank to decorators or decorated in the UK for customers. The split now is 50% fully customised from China, 40% customised in-house at Sharon Lee, and 10% sold as blanks.

The change is down to demand and speed of service, believes Toby. Sales director Danny Butterfield notes that while the company has always had a good range of headwear items that are quite flexible in whether they’re used for promowear, workwear or sportswear, last year the company began adding more fashion-focused styles. “What’s opened our eyes a little bit is that we’ve got a couple of really big retail customers, and their entire world is what’s going to be in vogue this spring/summer or autumn/ winter. They buy a lot of our bespoke items and that alerts us to what’s going to be in fashion. The blank sales have been steady, but with more fashion-orientated hats coming in we expect to see a spike, because they’re not really available anywhere else.” SL Black Label, its custom headwear line aimed at retailers and independent labels, has also been very successful.

“We sell plain stock to printers, but we also have some printers that like us to decorate the product,” explains Danny. “Caps are notoriously hard to decorate because they’re a pre-curved surface. On a made-to-order cap you flatten those panels out and it’s like embroidering anything else. Once it’s made into a cap it’s a lot more difficult. But because we’re used to it, it’s not hard for us.”

This was created using a high build, 3D embossed rubber badge

3D embroidery with infill

Another new equipment gem

Another recent purchase that is bound to attract attention is the GemFix rhinestone machine, which uses high frequency welding rather than the more usual process of transfers.

Sharon Lee now sells 40 different styles of headwear, including the new wicking poly-bamboo cap, a shoo-in for the sports market, along with old timers such as the dad cap, which unexpectedly become headline news last year (in the fashion world at least) when celebs everywhere suddenly began wearing them. “We can’t get them in quickly enough to meet demand, it’s literally gone insane. Anything fashion company-wise, anything music merchandise-wise, any promo opportunity where it needs an element of fashion to it, the dad cap is always one of the ones that’s requested,” reports Danny.

The company’s stock colour palette now encompasses a wide range of pastels and vibrant colours along with the more traditional shades. “We’re no longer just selling black, red, navy, yellow cotton caps – there are so many different fabrics, shapes and sizes,” says Toby. “We hold a lot of stock because when our customers do get that big opportunity or that big order, we want to be there for them.”

This oiled cotton six-panel cap is finished with a faux suede peak

Toby and his team at Sharon Lee have maintained the collaborative atmosphere of a family business where all staff are involved in its development and successes, yet they have still managed to transform it into an agile, modern company that has its sights sharply focused on the future. Hats off to all of them.

Apprenticeship success

The government apprenticeship scheme has proved very worthwhile for Sharon Lee, with three employees having started their career at the company as apprentices. “David started as a warehouse assistant on the scheme, then he ran an embroidery machine, and now he’s working in the marketing department,” says Toby. “Then there is Liam, who started as an office junior and is now an account manager who looks after a key set of accounts. Then there’s Carina, who started as receptionist, then became an administrator and is also now an account manager. They’re real success stories, and it’s all down to their hard work.”

Celebrating 70 years by supporting the Funding Neuro charity

To celebrate Sharon Lee’s 70th anniversary, the company will be donating £1 from each order in 2017 to its chosen charity, Funding Neuro.

“It’s a charity that is very close to me because it affected a child of a friend of mine, who sadly passed away a few years ago,” says Toby. The charity funds research that focuses on solving the common problems that hinder progress towards cures and effective treatments for all conditions that affect the brain and spinal column.

vToby will also be taking part in his first ever triathlon this September to help raise more funds for the charity, along with David from the company’s marketing department.