Leo Stickley shares his Covid success story in which he made the successful switch from training lorry drivers to setting up Cosmic Monkey – a fast-expanding supplier of school uniforms and workwear
Three years ago, Leo Stickley was running a thriving training business that he had built up after leaving the police force. But then the Covid-19 lockdowns came along and he was forced to rethink. Although he had never touched an embroidery needle or printed a T-shirt in his life, he spotted a gap in the market and now also heads a thriving garment decoration business, Cosmic Monkey.
“I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial mind, I’m always looking for opportunities,” Leo says. “It might give me headaches and sleepless nights sometimes, but it’s worth it.”
The business, based in an industrial estate in the suburbs of Frome in Somerset, has been going for only two years, but already supplies nearly every school in the area and is seeing demand for its workwear grow throughout the wider region.
When it started out, it had the less funky name of LGS Printing & Embroidery, because banks were not opening new business accounts during lockdown, which meant that it was it was sensible to set up the new business as an extension of Leo’s existing company. He founded LGS Transport Training more than 10 years ago, providing training for lorry and forklift drivers across the UK, but this work dried up when the pandemic hit just six months after he had taken on his current two-storey premises in Commerce Park.
“For me, taking on these premises for training was a big risk because it was massive rent and overheads,” Leo says. “Then Covid struck. We got some support from the government, but I knew it was never going to be enough to fund this place. Had I not sorted something out, we would have gone bust as just a training company.”
A gap in the market
At the end of 2019, the main print and embroidery business in Frome, a Recognition Express franchise, had been sold and relocated to the Midlands. “We needed another revenue stream for the business and I saw there was a gap in the market,” Leo recalls. Having grown up in the area, he also knew there were no schoolwear retailers in Frome, with uniforms generally coming from Trowbridge about eight miles away.
Using a government loan through the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (Cbils), he bought a single-head Tajima TMBP-S1501C embroidery machine, with 15 colours, and got going in autumn 2020 in a workshop that he built by hand with the help of his dad, Graham Stickley.
“It just grew organically from there,” Leo says. He has since added two smaller single-head Tajima SAI machines, each with eight needles, supplied through AJS agent MD Sewing Machines, headed by managing director Mark Robinson. “They are really good machines,” Leo adds. “If you have a multiple-head and one breaks, the whole machine is down so for me it was reducing the risk.” Then in October last year, he moved into printing with the installation of a Brother GTX Pro, Chiossi e Cavazzuti six-drawer dryer and an Adkins heat press.
Although the GTX Pro was bought for direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, it is now mostly used for direct-to-film (DTF) as the machine needs only a switch in the programme and it can print straight onto film for heat transfer. “It is so versatile,” Leo adds. “We have such demand for garments other than cotton that DTF is actually busier than DTG. It’s not as quick as printing film on a feed, but it works for our needs.”
The GTX Pro was supplied by MHM Direct GB, which has helped Leo and his team to plug their skills gaps. He also received advice from a contact with experience in garment decoration, which proved invaluable as at the time Leo was handling all the print and embroidery himself. “It has been a learning curve…” he notes. MHM provided training on-site in the early days, and in October this year the current team also had a day of training at MHM’s base in Derbyshire.
Cosmic Monkey – which adopted its “more memorable” name in October last year – now has a team of three including Leo. Carl Bowditch took over print and embroidery duties and then, this summer, Abbie Fry joined to look after marketing.
Deciding exactly when to invest in staff and equipment has been a challenge, Leo says. “The hard bit is gauging what you need. It’s trying to find the balance between affordability and being able to supply. I’m hoping that we can get our printer running to capacity and then add to it. I bought a six-drawer dryer so it had room to upscale. The challenge before was that I never had the staff or the cashflow to promote the print whereas I now have Abbie and Carl and work is increasing.” The team has also included Leo’s parents, Jude and Graham, and his father-in-law, Jeff Brookes, making it a family affair.
In the beginning, the business supplied uniforms for one school but, for this summer, it had 13 schools on its books, requiring it to take on four extra temporary staff. “It was our first big back-to-school,” Leo says. “Two schools came over to us late in the year and another decided to change the PE kit for the whole school. It was stressful, but we survived.”
Cosmic Monkey now sources schoolwear mostly from Banner, William Turner and One+All, with sportswear coming from Falcon. Demand for eco-friendly schoolwear is growing, such as One+All’s Performa Eco Jackets made out of recycled plastic bottles.
Initially, uniforms were delivered to schools, but now Cosmic Monkey deals mostly direct with parents, who can order online through individual webshops on its website. Leo plans to build on this by converting part of the ground floor into an actual shop for collecting orders and displaying uniforms. The shop will also showcase Cosmic Monkey’s workwear, which has been a core part of the business since the start, sourcing from distributors PenCarrie and Ralawise.
It now supplies all kinds of customers from colleges, the NHS and transport companies to sports clubs and dance studios. It also benefited from workwear brand Dickies shutting its large shop at its headquarters, which was about 15 minutes’ drive from Frome.
Peaks and troughs
Leo wants to expand the workwear business further, not least because it helps balance the “peaks and troughs” of schoolwear. This planned expansion is likely to require more print machines. “The GTX Pro is fantastic – I’m amazed at the quality it will do and it’s modular in that you get one running flat out and you can then get another. Ultimately, I’d like to be in a position where Cosmic Monkey is big enough to take on the whole building and we find somewhere else for the training.”
As the whole industry braces itself for recession, rising energy costs and the continuing cost-of-living crisis, Leo believes Cosmic Monkey is “future-proofed”, adding: “I feel that, if you get it right and stick to quality, you’re probably going to be all right.”
With a large warehouse space and room to grow, he and the team are already exploring other opportunities. “We have lots of ideas,” Leo adds. “Prior to this summer, I didn’t have the team around me to do what I want to do. We now have a really good team and a foundation for something that has lots of routes that we can take the business down.”