Despite nearly losing everything, Alex Greig of Supreme Screen is firmly back on track to living his screen printing dream
Eighteen-hour days are not unheard of for 30-year-old Alex Greig since he sold his auto. Using a manual press to fulfil his many orders is, he admits, tough going, but it won’t be for long. A series of building problems might have temporarily financially crippled his business, but he says he’ll get the auto back in a year or two. Such is his relentless optimism and drive, it’s impossible to imagine anything other than him succeeding in his plans.
Alex started off ten years ago in a band called MaLoKai. Based in Manchester for ease of touring, the band needed some merch for fans, but Alex thought the prices were quite expensive. “I thought I’d look on YouTube, see how the T-shirts were made, because I’m interested in how things are made and learning different things. I said to the guys, ‘Look, how about I take fifteen hundred quid from the band funds, buy a little table top press and learn how to print?'” He quickly convinced them, pointing out it would only take two or three runs of T-shirts before it had paid for itself, bought some equipment and got learning.
“I set up in my basement and started printing T-shirts for the band. Then, over the next six to 12 months a lot of people were getting wind of the fact that I was printing shirts and just started asking if I could print some for them.” His business, Unbroken Print, was born.
After six months, realising he needed better equipment, he found Dave Roper and bought a secondhand six-colour Rototex manual press. He moved into an old shed and spent the next 18 months printing by hand, until he became so busy that an automatic screen printing press was the next obvious step.
Talking the talk
After Dave Roper had been through the various options, Alex gave the bank a call. “Amazingly, after an hour and a half phone call, they gave me the credit for it. No business plan or anything, just one phone call. The guy said, ‘How do you plan on paying this back?’ so I just talked. At the end of the call he said, “Well, you seem to have a real idea of where you want to go, and you’re very passionate – we’ll give you the money.’ The next day, the money was in the bank so I ordered my auto.”
The M&R Diamondback and M&R Radicure conveyor dryer were delivered and he moved into new premises, and Unbroken Print continued to grow each month. The equipment was, he says, great. “We never had a problem with them. And Dave Roper is amazing, he’s been with us since day one.”
When customers started asking about business cards and flyers, Alex decided to start offering digital paper printing services. “This is where things started to get a bitmessy,” he admits. He was 25, business was going well and he wanted more equipment. “I took out a bunch of leases, which were very expensive – for some reason the banks just kept giving me credit.” His wife was pregnant with their fifth child, the band had come to an end and so they decided to move back to Wales from Manchester.
They found a building in the centre of Bridgend, but just as they were about to move in, the landlord found some issues with it that would take a couple of months to fix. The more work that was done on the building, however, the more problems came up. After 18 months, they pulled the plug on it. But they had £100,000 worth of machinery doing nothing. Another building was offered by the landlord, they moved in, spent £10,000 sorting the electrics and getting it ready. They opened, people started coming through the door, the digital equipment started paying for itself – and then the scaffolding went up as problems were found with this building as well.
Back to the manual
After six months, and with no roof on the building, Alex went back to the landlord and said he was about to go bankrupt. The landlord offered to release him from the lease, but also offered him a smaller shop nearby. Alex took it and sold the automatic press and the dryer – all the equipment that made the money, he explains, because the digital equipment was all on lease. “There was no way out of it,” he says. “I had to bite the bullet and say, ‘We’re going to have to go back to printing by hand.'” People had suggested he go bankrupt, but that wasn’t an option for him. “I’m a big believer in doing things with integrity. I’d rather sell as much as I can, pay off as much as I can and make sure I’m able to make my repayments on everything else. I sold the stuff to a company called JSA Print, a bunch of good guys up in Manchester. I took it up, installed it for them, spent the weekend there teaching them how to use it. It was a sad day, obviously, for me.”
He still had a small M&R Sidewinder that he’d had as back-up for the auto, and it’s on this that he’s printing T-shirts at the moment, starting at 7am every morning. “We moved into this little shop, did a bit of refurbishing and went back to printing by hand. It’s tough going, because we still have the same customer base but we’re trying to get the work out by hand… I’m sore every night when I go home.”
He’s now split the company into two. Unbroken Print offers digital services only and is run by his brother-in-law, who owns an equal share of the business with Alex. The screen printing side he’s called Supreme Screen, which he and his sister work on, with the plan that Supreme Screen will eventually move to its own unit on an industrial estate out of town, and replace the sold automatic and big dryer. “Because that’s the part that I’m really passionate about, I don’t love the digital side. I’m a big believer in loving what you do. I’d rather be skint and love what I do, than rich and hate what I do.”
Separating the two businesses has been “a bit of a ball-ache”, he admits, as it’s twice the work, but it’s the right move. His brother-in-law is quickly learning to do the accounts and deal with the business side of Unbroken Print, and Alex says they’ve been busier in the past two months than they have been in the past two years.
As he talks about colour separation, Alex’s passion is immediately evident. “It has always been quite a challenge, especially with lots of multicolour images, to bring it down to six colour. But I love the colour separation – I know a lot of guys just farm it out, but for me that’s a huge part of the fun of it.”
His main clients are independent clothing brands, drawn to him thanks to his colour separation expertise, which ensures prints are spot on each time. He has his own women’s clothing line, Unbroken Clothing, so he understands the need for high quality when printing for retail.
It’s this drive for retail perfection that has led to him using Wilfex ink from Colenso Screen Services. “It’s great, it prints really easily, you don’t get any build-up on the bottom of your screen and the Pantone matching is bang on every time.”
The smaller runs that come with printing for independent brands is also manageable with a manual, plus it fits in with Alex’s philosophy. “Although it’d be great to be popping out fififive or ten thousand shirts a day, at the same time I don’t want to have people work for me slogging their guts out for very little. I want people to be rewarded well for being loyal and working for me.”
He continues: “And for me, as long as I can put food on the table for my kids and take the wife out for a meal every now and again it’s good enough. I’ve got no ambitions to be amillionaire, or take on the world – I just want to bring my kids up, and I want people who work for me and around me to enjoy the fruits of their hard work.”