BTC activewear recharged: Images visited the company’s Wednesbury headquarters to meet the team that has returned the distributor to a smooth, upwards trajectory following its bumpy ride in 2015

In March, BTC activewear switched over from its old warehouse computer management system to a new random stock system. It was a big moment for the company and its staff. The new intelligent system would allow products to be stocked randomly within the warehouse, yet have the capability of knowing where every individual box was located; it would be able to calculate the optimum picking sequence for every item on every customer order. It would revolutionise BTC activewear’s pick and pack process, making it faster and quicker, and propelling the company’s growth over the coming years.

Only it didn’t. Unfortunately, as is now well-known, there were teething problems. “Fairly big teething problems,” admits Neil Pitcher, head of sales. Boxes couldn’t be found, orders couldn’t be fulfilled and teams of stock controllers had to be deployed to find, rescan and relocate the boxes in the cavernous warehouse.

The warehouse in Wednesbury, West Midlands, is huge: including the offices, the building occupies 107,000 sq feet, and the warehouse itself stretches up to 12 metres high. There were 11.2 million pieces in stock on the day Images visited. It’s difficult to imagine quickly tracking down a person in amongst the regimented rows of floor-to-ceiling shelving, let alone a box of white cotton tees in size 5XL.

A smooth transfer from the old system to the new with no disruption to customers’ deliveries was paramount. For this reason, the switchover had been planned for Christmas 2014 to take advantage of the downtime over the holiday period. However, December arrived and the company wasn’t quite ready for the new system and so postponed the switchover until Easter, again to take advantage of the bank holidays. “As we headed through January and February it became obvious to us that the old system wasn’t strong enough – we were letting customers down and so decided to switch over,” explains Neil.

Hindsight is 20/20 and there are always lessons to be learned from the past. Nevertheless, having addressed the challenges it faced, grappled with the complex issues involved, implemented the necessary action, and solved the problems, BTC activewear is now focused on the present and an increasingly rosy looking future. “As we stand here now, eight months later, we have a phenomenal stock management system and warehouse facility,” Neil adds, looking in equal parts relieved and proud to be standing in a fully functioning, state-of-the-art warehouse facility that appears to be running like clockwork.

A bird’s eye view of the BTC Open House in the company’s warehouse

A bird’s eye view of the BTC Open House in the company’s warehouse

Team work

Neil is justifiably proud of the BTC activewear team which is responsible for seeing the company through what he describes as “a very tough time”. “People really got together,” comments Andy Neale, head of product and purchasing. “It was like being in a rugby scrum: ‘Come on guys, let’s move this ball forward.’ It’s made us such a strong team – it’s good to feel that, it really is. We’re very proud of that.”

The warehouse system is impressive to watch in action. Products arrive at the goods-in area and are located randomly within the warehouse, albeit with faster moving goods positioned closer to the despatch area to minimise picking time for the majority of orders. The picking team uses hi-tech trolleys that hold up to 13 boxes ready to be filled with customers’ orders, and which are fitted with a touchscreen that links to the main system wirelessly. The system itself is remarkably sophisticated: it assesses the products that will be packed into each of the 13 boxes on an individual trolley and then calculates the most efficient route for the picker to follow around the warehouse, showing them the precise order in which each item should be picked and packed in each box. It even knows the folded sizes of each item, so if an order calls for seven fleeces, it can calculate which is the best box to use. The despatch operation is equally slick and efficient with each consignment being meticulously checked and transported along a system of rollers to the waiting DPD lorries that are backed up into the multiple despatch bays.

Once you’ve witnessed the warehouse operation in full swing it leaves little doubt that BTC’s gain outweighs all the pain.

In addition to its now fully functioning warehouse management system, the company continues to benefit from its central location, a few minutes from the M6 motorway and close to DPD’s national depot. This allows it to offer a free, premium service, next-day-before-noon delivery on orders placed as late as 9pm: it can even organise a final delivery to leave the warehouse at 11.30pm and still guarantee that those orders will leave the DPD depot in the early hours for delivery that morning. The later cut-off times for next-day and next-day-by-noon delivery represent a clear point of difference for BTC – one that makes a real difference to the company’s customers.

For those customers who don’t want to wait until the following morning to receive their orders, the company also operates a same-day collection service: customers place an order and, as soon as the packing has been completed, they’ll automatically receive a text telling them their order is waiting to be picked up. Again, the central location of the warehouse makes this a popular choice for customers based in the Midlands area.

Open House visitors get a first glimpse of the new Russell HD Ts

Open House visitors get a first glimpse of the new Russell HD Ts

Future proof

It will come as no surprise to learn that the IT department at BTC has mushroomed in recent times, growing from a two-person team a few years ago whose main duties were to make sure that the office PCs were working, to nine people today who undertake tech support, social media and project development for the entire business.

“It’s our world now, everything is digital,” says Neil. “There are screens giving us live updates of what’s happening in the business, the warehouse system is constantly monitored, and 80% of our orders come in through the web now, so that has to work perfectly. And it’s not just the orders – customers manage their accounts online. They can do everything: copy invoices, see their order history… We’ve got to keep developing that because it’s not good enough saying ‘Here’s our web story, it’s pretty good’, because in six months time it won’t be good enough. You’ve got to keep getting better all the time, and so we’re constantly developing.”

One area that hasn’t changed is the company’s strategy of having a number of regional sales offices. It’s another of BTC’s USPs, and one that the team is also proud of, as Neil explains: “We have regional offices in London, the north-west and the south-west as well as business development managers in Scotland and Ireland. We’re everyone’s local supplier – all of our teams have local knowledge, and we think you can’t beat that. We’re there to help customers build their businesses, to get them thinking about different approaches. It’s about helping everyone to get a bit more whether it’s through upselling or a different way of working.”


The BTC staff hard at work fulfilling customers’ orders during the two-day event

On track

The day that Images visited BTC activewear’s premises coincided with the final day of the company’s Open House tour: 17 brands had travelled around the country meeting customers at a series of BTC activewear events that kicked off in September. For the final two days of the tour, the 17 brands set up stall in the Wednesbury warehouse, allowing customers not only to get the first glimpse of new styles for 2016, but also to see in person that BTC’s warehouse issues are long behind them. Tee Jays had its fashion-forward range on display, including its best-seller, the Luxury Stretch Polo, while Kustom Kit had a large number of new knitwear and corporatewear garments on show, with new colours, non-gaping shirts for women and new contrast Poplin shirts fitting in with the more retail look that people increasingly expect from their workwear. Russell’s new HD Ts were attracting a lot of attention, as were GS UK’s embroidery and direct-to-garment demonstrations, while constantly in the background was the quiet hum of the warehouse staff and their futuristic trolleys fulfilling orders.

What became immediately evident during our visit to the BTC Open House is the scale of the company’s achievement in turning a major difficulty into a resounding success. Equally evident is the company’s constant drive to improve its service by building stronger relationships with customers and the brands, by fostering a close-knit, motivated workforce, and, of course, by investing in a high-tech and fully functioning stock management system. It would appear that BTC is headed for a happy new year after all.