Images travelled to Bognor Regis to talk to Mark Ponsford, managing director of Krowmark and serial entrepreneur, about his business strategy, the importance of ‘trust’ and how digital printing is moving his company forward

Mark Ponsford‘s route into the garment decoration business is relatively unorthodox. In 1992, after training in electronic engineering, he decided to set up an industrial computer business with a colleague. They started with no orders, “a bit of a plan“ and an ambition to sell the company within five years. They quickly grew to be one of the biggest operations in the industry, reaching a turnover of £5.5 million before getting an offer for the business five years after setting it up. Mark then moved to San Diego, US, and worked as a VP of worldwide sales and marketing before moving back to the UK where he got into buying and selling endowment policies.

The recession hit hard, as did Standard Life when it cut the surrender value of its endowment policies. “I went into that and came out of that with pretty much the same amount of money, but I learned more about marketing, so it helped,“ he says. He set up Blast Off Marketing with the aim of selling people monthly marketing packages, but found that people, when hearing about his experiences, wanted him to consult for them instead.

“I class business as my hobby, I have an intuition for it. I like the business of business.” Consulting was, he admits, good for the ego, but not the basis of a scalable company.

He then met Kevin Byrne, founder of Checkatrade, an online directory of tradespeople. “I saw an opportunity to work with them, because they had, at that point, about 1,500 members. They‘ve got tens of thousands nowadays; this was back in 2004. I said, ‘Why don‘t we set up a company that sells to your members? Stationery, business cards, telephones, that sort of stuff .‘ Pretty much everything that wasn‘t tools of the trade, we sold to them. It was a joint venture for about a year, but it just didn‘t work out selling purely to tradesmen because as difficult as they are to get hold of to do a job, they‘re even more difficult to get hold of if you‘re trying to get them to spend money.”

The business operates 30 single-head Melcos and four eight-head Tajima embroidery machines

It was clear after a year that Trade Service Direct, as it was known, required a new approach. They agreed that Mark would take control of the company, and move it in a different direction. In April 2006, he transformed it into a workwear company, which he eventually renamed Krowmark.

Fax marketing

“We had no orders. Literally nothing. We started marketing and just grew it from there, and it‘s grown each year.” His approach to acquiring clients involved a surprising, yet very successful, method: fax marketing. “We only stopped about two years ago – it was so unbelievably successful, and so cheap. We were sending out 25,000 faxes a day for a couple of hundred quid. A lot of them would tell us to stop sending them faxes because we were wasting their ink, but we also got people saying ‘Just got your fax. I hate getting these, but since I‘m talking to you…’ We grew it from there, and have gradually taken on expertise as we‘ve gone along.” Krowmark is currently turning over around £5 million.

Machinery matters

Mark outsourced all the decorating initially, then one day he had to pick up an order from a local embroidery company. ‘I saw the Melco embroidery machines and thought, ‘I like those.’ I found out where they came from, phoned up Peter [Wright] at Amaya and said, “I‘m thinking about getting a machine.“ That was a massive investment at the time: eight grand.”

More embroidery heads followed – in 2017, there were 35 single-head Melco machines at Krowmark. Then late last year, Mark changed the layout of the unit, creating a kitchen and staff room upstairs for the 55 employees. The old kitchen on the ground floor of the unit now houses the company’s vinyl printers and cutters, which freed up some space in the embroidery section.

“I’m looking at this gap thinking, ‘What can I get in there?’,” explains Mark. “An eight-head Tajima is about thirty-seven and a half thousand pounds, which is not that expensive, so I bought two. We almost instantly saved money because we weren’t having to do overtime anymore. They eat the work, it’s like putting it through a shredder.” There are now four eight-head Tajimas and 30 single-head Melcos.

Mark classes business as his hobby

Krowmark’s French operation currently accounts for 12-15% of its turnover; Mark’s aim is to get it up to 20%

The company also had one six-head M&R carousel, but Mark says the company was never very busy with screen printing. “I‘d been toying for ages with getting a DTG printer instead, but they were just never economical enough. One day I phoned Julian [Wright] at Amaya and he said ‘We‘ve got this new machine, the Kornit Avalanche HD6. The print cost is down to 30p a shirt.’ I asked him how much it was and my jaw hit the fl oor because I thought he might say £50,000. I genuinely had no idea, not an inkling, of how much the Kornits were being sold for. He said ‘£330,000‘, and I said, ‘Oh my god’.

“I sat down and did the maths. I worked out how many people we could lose by replacing screen printing with the Kornit – it would save £50,000 a year. Even with all the leasing costs and everything else, it saves me £50,000 a year.”

Mark drove five hours to see Alex Cunliffe at Inkthreadable, who already had an Avalanche HD6, spent half an hour there, and decided to buy it. He‘s since bought a second, and no longer has a screen printing department. He expects the vinyl department to be reduced as well once the Kornits have bedded in – they only arrived in July – as the only thing they won‘t be able to print on are waterproof garments.

Up until now, Krowmark hasn‘t been able to offer a fast turnaround on orders. The Kornits will allow them to dramatically increase their turnaround speed, charged at a higher cost of course.

Data crunching

The company has around 25,000 customers across the UK and France: Mark employs two French-speaking account managers and has a toll-free number for French customers to call. He set up the number after having a conversation during a skiing holiday about how staff costs are higher in France than in the UK. “I thought, ‘Well, if that‘s expensive, then they‘re going to be expensive on their running costs as well‘, so I set up a French operation.“ It accounts for about 12-15% of the turnover; Mark’s aim is to get it up to 20%.

Krowmark produces around 2,000 garments a day, but the figure Mark is really proud of is the company‘s Trustpilot score of 9.7. “Our USP is our service levels. We are the UK number one in terms of service. It‘s tough to get a 9.7. People come to us because of our Trustpilot rating.

“I‘ve instructed our team that if someone phones up and says, ‘My blue shirt isn‘t as blue as I thought it was going to be‘, we say we‘ll replace it; if it’s small, we replace it – it’s not worth the social proof. It’s become the cornerstone of what makes us different. Our motto is ‘We won‘t let you down’.”

Krowmark now has two Kornit Avalanche HD6 printers, which have replaced its screen printing operation

Krowmark is, he says, a fair company that treats its staff well (and pays above the Living Wage Foundation‘s living wage). It treats its customers fairly as well. He‘s not interested in being “busy fools“ that quote unrealistically low prices just to win a job, and has walked away from reverse auctions, only to have the companies return to him at a later date because the service they received from the winning decorator hasn‘t been good enough.

Mark admits that his company does charge a bit more than some of its competitors, but its customer retention rate is formidable. Last October, 87% of the work Krowmark did was repeat business. Mark has just enlisted the help of ‘data crunchers‘, an agency that will have a feed of all of Krowmark‘s data and advise them on what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong, and what customer bases they should be targeting. The agency has already told Mark that they‘ve never seen customer retention that matches Krowmark’s.

Mark is equally forthcoming, however, about areas of the business that need improvement: “What we‘re not doing is a great job of acquiring new customers,” he comments.

Mark believes the new, data-driven approach combined with the positive social proof and new machinery will allow him to acquire new customers and hit his turnover target of £8 million in three years (although he‘s hopeful that he‘ll hit that within a year), and £25 million within five years. “That‘s my goal, and I think we can do it. We didn‘t have the capacity before. We do now.”

Krowmark is, he says, his pension. Going by the current figures and plans, it looks as though Mark can look forward to a comfortable and stress-free retirement.