A new cut-and-sew workwear business, expanded workspace, screen print company acquisition… It’s all systems go at rapidly expanding Vektor
Jimi Hendrix greets me as I walk into the courtyard looking for Vektor’s front door. Well, not the man himself, but his music, along with Sammy, who is cheerfully setting up the multi-colour automatic screen printing press with the printshop’s doors wide open to welcome in an unexpected bit of spring sunshine.
In 2003, graphic designer Pete Andrews bought a vinyl cutter and heat press and created an online Christian clothing line called 7wear. The range of garments featured subtle evangelical messages designed to make people ask questions and provoke conversations about Christianity. He was then approached by a church group to print some T-shirts for them, and so Vektor began.
Burgess Hill-based Vektor has an unusual but complementary mix of services: it offers digital skills, such as web development; company branding, with a talented staff member able to hand draw designs for customers if required; and printing and embroidery. Pete runs the digital and design part of the business while his younger brother Chris, who joined Pete in 2005, runs the embroidery and print facilities.
Room for expansion
Vektor had shared the aforementioned courtyard and its surrounding buildings in the past; however, from April this year the company became the sole owner of the site. With the expansion still to be finalised, the print rooms are packed with machinery, boxes of garments and rolls of brightly coloured vinyls. The extra space will be extremely welcome, explains Chris: “We’re absolutely full to the rafters and it’s not even our busiest time of year yet. Taking on the whole site lets us double our footprint, which means we can take on more machinery. We’ll probably get another screen printing carousel and more direct-to-garment printers.”
Already on the list is a Tajima eight-head embroidery machine that will soon be joining the Tajima kit already in place. Chris admits that he had initially approached another company about their machines, but the sales person never got back to him. “I thought, if that’s what the sales support is like then what is the customer support going to be like if the machine goes down?” They bought the Tajima from AJS Embroidery, who Chris says are “awesome”.
Another plan – there are lots of plans at Vektor, because there is an awful lot going on at this rapidly growing company – is to separate the print and embroidery rooms into wet and dry areas, a sensible solution to the increased need for streamlined working once Pete and Chris have completed the purchase of a local graphic screen printing company.
Eventually, Chris expects to have a much larger number of direct-to-garment (DTG) printers to accompany their existing Brother printer, which they bought from GS UK. The Brother was a new addition last year, explains Chris, and is already being put to good use printing one-offs and larger runs for both trade and consumer customers. “I want to see three, four, five, ten DTG printers in here because I think digital is where the market is going,” he explains. “When I looked at DTG a few years ago it was – no disrespect to the manufacturers – just awful. The level of print quality just wasn’t that great whereas the Brother I’m really pleased with. We have DTG printing customers from Not On The High Street to people who’ve got huge followings on YouTube. One eight-year-old boy has got 600,000 YouTube followers and his dad came up with the idea of selling T-shirts. We get orders every day for his T-shirts and ship them around the world!”
The growth in print-to-order has been matched by an increase in the variety of garment styles, says Chris, adding: “I like what Ralawise and PenCarrie are doing, how they’re adding new brands all the time. Ten years ago the options for garments was nothing like it is today. As they diversify their products, it means we can diversify what we do as a business as well.”
Pete and Chris graduated from the vinyl cutter and heat press in 2005 when they bought a secondhand manual screen printing press. As with the vinyl cutter, they taught themselves how to use the press. “The thing with screen printing is the amount of variables that exist,” comments Chris. “We’ve got that locked down now. If anyone says that they know exactly what they’re doing though, then I think they’re lying because there is always another ink that comes out or a T-shirt that prints differently… For us, it’s about trying to push boundaries and create cool stuff.”
It’s this desire to push the boundaries that saw the very experienced Graeme Richardson-Locke join the company in February as sales and operations director. Graeme, who sits on the board of Fespa UK, explains: “My role is to complement Pete and Chris’s skills to grow the company and to help us to be able to take on more unusual projects and broaden our print portfolio.” His knowledge of techniques such as ‘scratch and sniff’ and thermochromic printing is something Chris is particularly excited about.
Graeme is also working with the brothers to introduce a bespoke cut-and-sew workwear line that will be UK-manufactured and decorated using screen print and dye sublimation. “We’ll be doing some of it here and some of it in the Midlands – by being able to manage it here, we can retain more of the overall quality control than if we were off-shoring. We think there is a good opportunity for us to expand into bespoke uniforms as a lot of the workwear market is quite conservative and I think we can offer something more fashion-conscious. I’ve been really fussy about my work clothing because I don’t want to wear a standard polo shirt, it’s not my kind of thing.”
The digital team is squirreled away in a room on the first floor, working on website and T-shirt designs. The team’s extensive skills have been put to work in creating a bespoke system called Simple Workwear that Vektor’s clients with multi-sites and high workwear needs, such as a large leisure centre operator, can use. The system allows the individual leisure centres owned by the company to choose their uniforms from a pre-arranged list of garments suitable for each particular centre. As Vektor has already agreed terms with the business and it’s payment on account, the centre manager can simply choose the garments, enter a purchase order and Vektor gets on with the job. “As soon as the order gets placed its hits our back-office CRM (customer relationship management) system in the cloud and we go from there,” explains Pete. “The benefit of it for us is that there is no issue with orders being taken down incorrectly because the client enters the order. It’s 100% satisfaction guaranteed. Everything is automated in the business as much as possible; we don’t really use paper.”
This is the third version of the system and, because it’s mobile-ready, orders can be placed on smartphones when customers are out and about. “If you’re a building site manager and you realise when you’re on site that you need more hi-vis vests, you can create a new order, select the product and then it’s ready to go. It doesn’t matter if it’s for five garments or 500, it’s all the same.”
The company also has a website called www.tshirtmonstr.com, where Vektor’s customers can sell branded, printed T-shirts. Each customer has their own ‘shop’ on the site, with Vektor fulfilling the orders and taking the payments, while Vektor’s customers receive a set price from Vektor for each one sold.
The emphasis on digital has allowed Pete and Chris to offer their print and embroidery customers a smooth, high-tech service that has been developed with exactly their needs in mind. It’s a stand-out approach from an exciting company that has an eventful 12 months ahead of it.