From stationery and site boards to T-shirts and vehicle wraps, Signal UK supplies the lot. Images talks to Paul Chapman and Gary Rose about their successful full-service set-up

“We do some wonderful one-offs. We’ve just done a one-off jacket for 50 Cent,” says Gary Rose. “Justin Bieber has seen it and he wants one,” adds Paul Chapman, “Lots of music shirts too – we’ve just done Blondie…” “And Two Door Cinema Club – we do loads of American rock bands,” finishes Gary.

Paul and Gary, joint managing directors of Signal UK in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, make a great double act, rattling off the many plans they have for their fast developing business and frequently finishing each other’s sentences. Their easy partnership makes for a relaxed and appealing workplace.

Gary and Paul started Signal in 2005, having met a few years previously whilst working at another print company. They’ve both run their own companies in the past and are equally at home screen printing T-shirts as wrapping a car for Le Mans. According to the pair, this ability to offer a wide range of printed goods underpins Signal’s success.

“The business has got stronger and stronger because we offer such a variety [of services],” Paul confirms. He adds that, for example, while demand for flatbed screen printing has dipped thanks to the introduction of flatbed digital machines, it hasn’t affected Signal’s profits in the slightest. “That’s the beauty of the way that we set the company up: we’re not reliant on just T-shirt printing or printing binders, because we’ve got large format digital, we do signage, we do vehicle wrap, heat transfers, DTG and we do embroidery,” says Gary. “We can print and supply work clothing, hi-vis vests, site boards, vehicle graphics, banners, posters, printed stationery and business cards.”

Paul (left) and Gary set up Signal UK in 2005

Signal’s success means that the company is rapidly outgrowing its current print shop, with plans in place to double, if not treble, its footprint by the end of the year. The increased workspace is essential if Gary and Paul are to continue with their programme of investment in new, state of the art machinery – they’ve already spent more than £200,000 on printers, cutters and dryers over the past few years, which they use to supply a growing customer base that includes prestigious clients such as Balfour Beatty, Aston Martin, Furniture Village, Fuji and Panini, to name but a few.

The current print shop layout comprises a large, main print area that houses, amongst other equipment, an MHM automatic carousel, an Adelco dryer, a flatbed printer, washout booth, and a Roland DG cutter. Next to this is a room housing the company’s wide format digital printing operation; and then there’s the company’s DTG workspace where the new Brother GT-381 printer lives alongside the Schulze PretreatMaker and twin-head heat press.

As well as providing room for further expansion, the new premises will also include a special vehicle wrapping bay, which will be heated to allow for easy vinyl application all year round, with a large meeting room yet another welcome addition.

By 2018, Signal will have at least doubled the size of its print shop

The wide format room contains what Paul describes as the “best thing we’ve every bought” – namely, the company’s first Mutoh ValueJet printer. “It’s a great machine – it just keeps going and nothing’s gone wrong with it since we bought it nine years ago. We bought another Mutoh ValueJet five years ago: it’s a bit quicker, but it’s also a bit smaller – it’s only 54” wide whereas the first one is a 64”.

Signal’s most recent purchase is the Brother GT-381 DTG printer. This is housed in a specially built workspace that enables the company to maintain strict control over the production environment to guarantee top quality prints. “You have to keep the room just right: the right humidity, the right temperature,” explains Paul. He and Gary are in total agreement that the GT-381 – which, like the MHM auto, was supplied by John Potter at MHM Direct GB – is “a brilliant machine”. “The Brother inks are a little more expensive, but they work,” says Gary. “One pass and it’s done, amazing quality.”

For all their friendly banter, the two directors are fiercely ambitious and have a very clear idea of how they will continue to grow their business. For instance, they are currently building two websites from scratch – an online designer site where customers can upload their own designs, which Signal will then print, and a retail site where they will sell their own clothing line. The aim is to get them up and running in time to capture the Christmas market. The online designer and retail websites will be their first step on the road to building a successful, online retail business along side the existing trade business, with pop-up shops and even a bricks-and-mortar shop also part of their ambitious expansion plans.

The Brother GT-318 was bought from MHM Direct UK six months ago

All this talk of technology provides a timely reminder of just how far Signal has come since Gary and Paul started out armed only with a manual carousel and a determination to build a flourishing print business. “One of the biggest contracts when we had the four-colour hand carousel was 12,500 pillowcases for Bensons for Beds,” Gary reminisces. “Two colours, split over four designs and we had ten days to do it. We were in all day, all night, shift work, and we had the family come in to help pack them up. It was just the two of us printing them by hand for ten days though and we managed to get it done a day early. And it was at that point we said, ‘We’ve got to get an auto!’” he adds.

“We don’t have any hand-printing machines now,” continues Gary. “Even if we do ten T-shirts we’ll set them up on the auto, it’s just as quick – the auto registration on the MHM means you just bolt the screen in and go.”

The Mutoh ValueJet has been the company’s best purchase, says Paul

Despite the wide variety of print techniques available and reports of a lack of skilled printers in the industry, Signal UK has developed a production team whose members have the knowledge and expertise to move between the different machines and processes. Having said that, each person does tend to focus on one particular area where possible: Newest recruit Sophie is the chief DTG printer, Declan (Gary’s son) focuses on signage and graphics, and Callum tends to specialise on the textiles side. The team functions more as a collective rather than as the usual bosses and employees scenario, explains Gary. “I think half the battle [in building a skilled and reliable team] is giving a person a bit of responsibility because it gives them a sense of achievement at the end of the day – they know they’ve contributed; they’ve done something worthwhile and they’re in control of it.”

Once the new building works are finished, Paul and Gary plan to push the vehicle graphics side more, along with the DTG and other textiles-related areas, and hope to increase their workforce as well. However, the ethos will remain the same, says Gary: “We always make sure that everything that goes out is the best we can do. At the end of the day, we want the client to say ‘Thank you very much.’ And they do. That’s why the work keeps coming in.”