Julian Davies talks to Mark Ludmon about the growth of his threads and film distribution business, Marathon Threads

Julian Davies entered the world of embroidery and textiles as a fresh-faced 18-year-old straight out of college. He was hooked and now owns and runs Marathon Threads UK, a leading supplier of threads, Cad-cut vinyl and printable films for garment decorators. There has been the odd setback along the way; ironically, however, it was one such setback that ended up propelling him to his current position of success. 

Born and bred in Nottingham, Julian started his career as ‘office boy’ at local company Geoffrey E Macpherson, (better known within the industry simply as ‘Macphersons’). At that time the company was a major supplier of textile machinery, yarn and consumables. “It was a great company,” he recalls. “There are hundreds of people in our trade who either bought equipment and were guided by Macphersons staff, or who worked at Macphersons.” After spells of employment elsewhere, Julian eventually rose to the position of managing director, leading Macphersons during a period of sustained growth. 

In 2006, he was negotiating for the company to buy a small business called Marathon Threads from its founder Geoff Wheatcroft, who was looking to retire. “Marathon was a well-established brand but it was just selling Marathon Threads and a couple of backing fabrics. We were considering buying his [Geoff’s] business as he had a better brand of viscose rayon.” But then trouble hit. Like a lot of British companies at the time, changes in the rules for final-salary pension schemes led to a substantial pension deficit for Macphersons which meant that, while the business was still profitable with annual turnover of £3 million, it unexpectedly had to go into administration, putting up to 18 people out of work.

Seizing the opportunity

Julian did not waste any time. Instead of buying Marathon Threads for Macphersons, he quickly raised sufficient finance to buy it for himself. “If you are positive, you can find an opportunity,” he says. “Within three weeks of Macphersons closing, I had my feet under this desk.” Starting off with just one other member of staff, he set about developing Marathon Threads into what it is today. Geoff founded Marathon in 1994, as a UK distributorship for South Korea’s Dong-Il Industrial – a 64-year-old company that continues to own the Marathon Threads brand.

As the South Korean company has developed, so has the UK business. “Over the past 14 years, Marathon Threads has grown four-fold,” Julian says. “It hasn’t been massively dramatic but it’s growing every year.” For the first four years, the company continued to stick to embroidery products. “We grew initially just by going out and selling more and taking on more embroidery backing fabrics. The offering became bigger to the trade.” Marathon’s polyester threads range now offers more than 300 colours, while 60 shades have been added to the viscose rayon selection, which now totals more than 360 colours, including metallic and multi-coloured varieties.

The company currently occupies 7,000 sq ft of space
There is the possibility of adding a 1,500 sq ft extension next year

In 2010, Marathon Threads became exclusive distributor for one of the few digital and Cad-cut film suppliers in Europe, Plotterfilms of Milan, including its Flex and Plotter Flock heat transfer vinyl films and a range of digital now stretches from solid colours to special effects such as glitter, metallic, sparkle, foil, mirror, shine, flock and glow in the dark. “We are now one of the few businesses, if not the only business, in the UK that supplies Cad-cut film, digital film and embroidery direct to decorators,” Julian says.

Innovation from Italy has allowed Marathon to constantly introduce new vinyl and transfer films options to its UK customers. “The owner of Plotterfilms is a mad professor who sits there in a lab and develops new products all the time,” Julian says. “We had 45 colours of film when we started. We now have over 100. The product range is expanding all the time.” This summer saw the arrival of digital film for UV printers and a reformulation of film for full-colour transfer for nylon and waterproof fabrics. “A lot of our customers sell rainwear and outer gear but couldn’t find a film that sticks,” Julian explains.

Market fragmentation

As well as offering different kinds of consumables in one place, Marathon Threads’ other point of difference is its consistency, Julian points out. “We are not a commodity supplier. Some distributors in the UK, one year they will be buying one kind of film, next year someone else’s. It ends up being a bit of a mish-mash. We don’t chop and change. On vinyl film, we could sell different manufacturers’ but that’s not our business.” Growth has come from steadily adding customers, who are mainly a mix of decorators and sewing machine retailers, plus a small market for craft kits with brands such as Iris.

“It’s just scaled up,” Julian says. “We’ve never had so many customers.” However, he says the industry has “fragmented massively”, with large-volume garment decorators competing more than ever with “thousands of micro-businesses and lifestyle businesses that work from home. A lot of people are doing it while bringing up kids as they can work flexible hours and be there when the kids come home from school, or some people do it as a part-time job or for a second income. I think some of the larger, more established people say these micro-businesses suppress the pricing because they don’t have the overheads, but what they can’t do is the volume.”
Marathon Threads UK distributes a wide range of threads, vinyls and films
Despite a four-fold growth over the past 14 years, Marathon Threads remains at the same warehouse in Ripley in Derbyshire, a few miles north-west of Nottingham. After buying the freehold shortly after acquiring the business, Marathon Threads has now expanded to take over the whole of the two-storey 7,000 sq ft building, with the possibility of adding an extension of up to 1,500 square feet next year. “We are now at breaking point,” Julian notes. Although the amount of space used in the warehouse has doubled, the workforce is not that much bigger, with just six full-time and part-time staff. “Investment is in your building, your stock and the sales process,” Julian explains. “You can shift good volume with a few good people.” As well as sales management consultant Pete Wildrianne, these good people include Julian’s wife Alma, who looks after online marketing, and his son, Alex, who is a sales account manager.

Environmental credentials

Some of the company’s growth is thanks to its commitment to environmental credentials, according to Julian. Its thread ranges and garment films are Oeko-Tex Standard 100 for environmental compliance in production and have ISO 9001 certification for quality management including meeting regulatory requirements. Julian has seen concern about environmental impact becoming more important in the industry. “I can think of two big processors who have kicked out somebody’s thread because they didn’t provide Oeko- Tex accreditation. It’s inevitable.” He also notes that viscose rayon thread, made from naturally occurring wood pulp, remains the market leader over synthetic polyester, although both remain in big demand. But he adds: “There aren’t many good brands of viscose rayon that are ISO and Oeko-Tex approved.”

Despite Brexit uncertainty affecting some of the company’s garment decorator customers, especially those specialising in corporatewear, Julian says there is still a lot of potential for Marathon Threads to continue to grow. “From our perspective as a distributor, we see the film and thread industry growing and, even if the market wasn’t growing at all, we expect to grow within that market because our offering is bigger. If I think of the size of our business, there’s lots of room for growth. It’s a great market to be in.” Part of Marathon’s strategy, says Julian, is to make sure more decorators know about the company’s broad range of products including films. “The strength of our business is quality product and we beat our guts out to get the goods out of the door. Our biggest weakness – which we have been working hard on over the past year and getting better at going forward – is talking about what we do.”