Direct Textiles has jumped from small start-up to a group with a £9 million turnover in just 12 years. Images travelled to the company’s main plant in Lincoln to discover the secret of its success

The first impression at Direct Textiles is one of order and calm. Account managers look at screens and talk quietly on the phone, the art and design department studies close-ups of artworks, orders are constantly being updated on a big screen overlooking them all, and through a door the first of a huge programme of Star Wars T-shirts are being printed.

It’s a slick operation and one that managing director Mark Somerfield takes obvious pride in. He set up the company 12 years ago as a small print shop servicing local businesses, having had enough of the travel involved with his job as a national sales manager for ink manufacturers, Sericol (now Fujifilm Sericol). “We managed to grow the business fairly quickly when we were smaller, but I don’t think anyone could have seen it was going to where it is now,” says Mark. “I always had a vision of it maybe making £5 million turnover, but it seems to have snowballed.” The latest figures, reports Mark, show a combined group turnover of £9.4 million.

The company moved into its current premises in Lincoln six years ago and gradually increased the number of units it occupies on the site over the years until it reached the maximum possible size of 20,000 square feet. The facility houses one of Direct Textile’s embroidery units, a warehouse, the office area and a print room containing the latest MHM S-Type Plus screen printers, huge state of the art Tesoma dryers and the big new purchase – the Aeoon Kyo DTG printer. This vast, lime-green machine, which sits in its own special room, cost £300,000 to buy and set up, and is claimed to have the capability to print up to 800 white T-shirts or 400 black tees an hour.

The new Aeoon direct-to-garment digital printer cost £300,000 to buy and set up and is housed in its own special room

The Aeoon had been in residence for eight weeks when Images visited, with six of those weeks set aside for training staff how to use the machine. It is, Mark says, a proper production digital printer. “The print quality is just out of this world and it is so fast,” he points out, as a complex Star Wars graphic is printed on a black T-shirt. “It’s a game-changer. It’s digital quality but at production speeds. We’ve watched the progression of digital closely and at FESPA this year we felt it was time to make the leap. We felt that the Aeoon machine was the best one for us because of its print quality and speed.”

The difference in production costs between digital and screen printing is minimal for many jobs, he says. “What you lose at the back end in a bit of speed from screen printing, you lose at the front end by not having to make any screens, not mixing any inks, not setting the machine. It’s swings and roundabouts.”

Mark doesn’t think that digital will entirely take over from screen printing, but believes the effect of digital technology will eventually have a big impact on the industry: “When you’ve got a single colour print, like this order from a client for 2,500 T-shirts, it’s quick to make the screen and mix the ink, and then the machine will print 867 shirts an hour. Simple designs with big volume will remain with screen printing, while complicated, multicolour designs where the volumes are not sky high will go to digital – it will make a big hole in screen printing.”

The company currently operates more than 220 embroidery heads and has around 140 staff on the payroll. Constant expansion has helped it to secure a £100,000 Regional Growth Fund grant

Multiple acquisitions

Two years ago Direct Textiles bought a company situated in Goldthorpe, South Yorkshire, which houses the bulk of the company’s embroidery machines. “If it’s a big volume job, we tend to produce it in Goldthorpe because they have more fire power.”It bought the company because it needed additional capacity, and kept it at its original location because of the local workforce, explains Mark. “It was a longstanding company that had a very good skill base in terms of machinists.” There have been two more acquisitions since then – Castle Embroidery and Embroidery Styles in Nottingham – bringing the number of embroidery heads to over 220. Again Direct Textiles chose not to relocate these companies, preferring to run them from their existing locations where a skilled workforce was already in place. “We run inter-company transport so it’s easy to work out where a job is best suited and to get the garments there,” Mark explains. The group also contains Direct Trade Bags, which Mark says is one of Europe’s largest suppliers and decorators of reusable bags to the promotional and retail markets.

The emphasis on local workforce and the ever-expanding staff numbers – there are now around 140 employees on the payroll – played a part in Direct Textiles recently being awarded a £100,000 Regional Growth Fund grant. “We’ve managed to show that we’ve consistently employed more and more local people over a long period of time,” comments Mark. “It’s related to future employment – we’ve shown a history of steady growth.” As for future acquisitions, he says, cryptically, “We’ve got a couple of things bubbling away which may or may not come to fruition – it just depends how they pan out.”

He is, however, willing to be drawn slightly more on the company’s next big investment: a quality, automated packing line that is capable of packing and bagging all types of different garments from towels to T-shirts. “Gone are the days of printing 5,000 white T-shirts, shoving them back in a box and sending them off. We now need labels, barcoding, tagging, labelling, etcetera etcetera. It’s become more complicated and very labour intensive, but we’re buying into a machine that will save quite a lot of our labour content.” The company has selected the machine it wants and Mark says it is very ‘retail-minded’ – although he is keeping quiet on the name for the moment, adding only that it would be the first of these machines to be installed in the UK.

Running a business the size of Direct Textiles is an entirely different prospect to running a two-man band, and Mark says one of the best investments the company has made was hiring Kelwin Heighton as joint managing director. “His input has really helped the progression of the company, particularly in getting our accreditations in place. We’ve achieved the ISO 9001 quality standard, the ISO environmental standard as well as having Sedex and Smeta accreditations, and we’re also accredited to supply the high street retailer Next. Achieving the standards and accreditations is a result of the hard work and dedication from the whole team here.”

Mark Somerfield, left, and Kelwin Heighton have steered Direct Textiles to an annual group turnover of £9.4 million, and are on track to add a further £1 million plus to this year’s turnover figures

Increased optimism

Kelwin also pushed for the implementation of the latest edition of the software system the company uses, OrderWise. “It enables you to track jobs: we know when it’s being dispatched and if it’s going to be late,” comments Mark. “All these things are crucial because we are in a business that is often quite event-specific. It’s made a big difference to us in terms of production flow and just the general day-to-day management of the business. Any customer can phone now and say ‘Job number X – is it still on course to be despatched on Thursday?’ And we can immediately check and say ‘Yes, it is.’ We’ve had other systems, but this is a smoother system and one that we can grow with as well because there’s more to it than we’re actually using. And Order Wise are a local company so they can support us easily, which helps.”

The strongest markets for Direct Textiles at the moment are retail and promotion. Mark says: “Our promotional market work is growing so rapidly at the moment – there is confidence in the market. I think spending budgets are coming back a bit for some of the bigger companies. We’re certainly seeing an upturn and I think as people get more confidence the value is growing as well: whereas they may have had 500 T-shirts before, they’re now ordering 1,000 because they are that bit more optimistic.”

The company still does a mix of small, quick response orders as well as the big orders such as the Star Wars job, which is being carried out on both the digital and screen printers. “We wouldn’t have been in a position to do the Star Wars order a few years ago,” says Mark. “Over the last three years we have experienced quite considerable growth; we added a further million pounds on turnover last year and we’ll do the same plus some this year; and we’ve made significant investment to allow us to be able to cope with these large orders as well as the fast-turnaround ones.”

Mark says that when they set up Direct Textiles they were lucky to have picked up work quickly. But one gets the feeling that there is far more to Direct Textile’s success than mere luck. As Obi-Wan Kenobi, star of many millions of T-shirts, and a film or six, wisely states: “In my experience, there is no such thing as luck!”

A major investment in MHM presses and Tesoma dryers in recent years, along with the purchase of the Aeoon D2G machine, allows Direct Textiles to easily handle big print orders such as the Star Wars job

Prints from the Aeoon direct-to-garment machine: the print quality is out of this world, according to Mark Somerfield