Uneek is one of the biggest direct to garment brands in Europe and is on target to grow considerably bigger in 2016. Images met with the company’s managing director, Raza Khan to find out more about the business behind the name

The 100% polyester UC316 Ladies Ultra Cool T Shirt with the new Uneek logo

Uneek likes to do things differently. Over the past two decades the company has grown into a flourishing, medium-sized business, with its own fully vertically integrated manufacturing operations in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and a 150,000 square foot UK distribution centre. Yet throughout this time it has maintained a low profile, relying on its products and customer service to do the talking. As a result, for many in the industry Uneek remains a bit of an enigma.
That’s set to change in 2016 – a year that will see the brand throw off its cloak of anonymity as its celebrates its 20th anniversary with a total rebrand, new product lines, a massive expansion of its UK stock holding capacity and a determination to show the industry just what it is that makes Uneek unique.

But first, some background: Uneek was founded by Nasser Khan who previously ran a successful CTM (cut-manufacture-trim) business in west London servicing many of the leading high street retailers. As the bulk of this work moved to offshore suppliers in the early 90s, Nasser spotted an opportunity to source smaller quantities of garments on customers’ behalf using his manufacturing contacts in Pakistan. This model quickly developed into a stock garment service and in 1996 Uneek was born.

Raza Khan, Nasser’s brother and Uneek’s managing director, joined the company in 2000. Raza brought with him expertise in CRM software development having previously steered the first UK software company to be listed on the Nasdaq. His brief was to increase sales and to take over the marketing of the Uneek brand, leaving Nasser free to focus on manufacturing and logistics.

Uneek enjoyed rapid early success, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. Raza explains that the company experienced some “nightmare issues” in its early dealings with the overseas factories, including whole containers of garments disappearing. Ironically, these setbacks prompted Nasser to establish the company’s own fully vertically integrated overseas factories – among the earliest of such facilities in the industry – which gave Uneek total control over all aspects of its supply chain and set it on the path to its current standing in the market.

Five million stock items

Raza describes Uneek’s manufacturing facilities in Bangladesh and Pakistan as the “heartbeat” of its operations. The factories currently produce over 3 million garments a month for the company’s retail customers and its own stock garment requirements, with the latter supported by a 150,000 square foot distribution centre (DC) located in Upton on the Wirral (with the head office and customer services team still based in London). The DC holds 5 million pieces in stock at any given time, and employs 50 warehouse staff that handle 2,000 orders a day with a 99% picking accuracy. And if that sounds impressive, the company’s ambitious plans for 2016 include a doubling in size of its distribution centre to a gargantuan 300,000 square feet to accommodate its projected expansion over the next two to three years.

Whilst infrastructure is central to Uneek’s operations, Raza sees the company’s employees as the crucial driver of future growth. “We’ve made a big investment in staff: high calibre people are expensive but they are essential to our success. Our target is to grow to two to three times our current size over the next three years and we need highly skilled people to progress all aspects of our business – from quality assurance to new product development, stock control and supply chain management,” he comments. Speaking of which, Uneek recently recruited a new manager with a Masters Degree in supply chain management from a leading French university to oversee this area of the business – a move that’s indicative of its investment in a highly trained, highly skilled workforce.

As well as identifying the right people, Uneek has also radically overhauled its processes to create a thoroughly modern, flat and lean structure that relies on a smaller, better trained, multi-skilled, and highly incentivised workforce in which each member takes on wider personal responsibilities and is encouraged to develop their own ideas. Whereas in the past individual members of staff were assigned specific roles, the new system requires all staff to be trained to handle all tasks, with all information transparent and presented together on-screen for all to see. In tandem with this, the company has outsourced those services that are not central to its fundamental business activities, including finances, emails and faxes. “Efficiency is the key factor; you have to be lean to survive,” says Raza. “If you assign dedicated roles it makes you vulnerable; we’re decentralising everything, simplifying everything; it reduces errors and improves service – it’s a modern way of working. We monitor and measure everything – from calls taken to the number of returns – and we can see that with a smaller staff we are offering a better service. The bottom line is customer service and the new systems allow us to maintain the highest levels of customer service at all times.”

From left: The UC126 Ladies Ultra Cool Poloshirt is enzyme washed for extra soft hand-feel and reduced shrinkage, the 50% cotton/50% polyester UC101 Classic Poloshirt, the new UC127 Men’s Super Cool Workwear Poloshirt, Uneek is renowned for its hi-viz and workwear styles, which include the UC 802 Long Sleeve Safety Waist Coat

Long-term relationships

This is a topic that pops up repeatedly during conversation with Raza. He becomes passionate when he talks about Uneek’s policy of treating all customers the same. “We use the same processes and offer every customer the same excellent level of service, whether they are buying one piece or 1,000 pieces,” he explains. “We are honest with our customers and are interested in building long-term relationships with all of them and helping them to grow: we’ve taken between 20 and 30 companies from no turnover start-ups to £3m to £4m turnover businesses. Today’s acorns are tomorrow’s oaks.”

It’s also worth adding that every Uneek customer has direct access to its own dedicated account manager, and that the UK sales team’s average experience in this industry is in excess of 10 years per individual.

Given Raza’s background in the IT industry, it’s not surprising to learn that this lean, ‘management-light’ model is supported by an equally significant investment in technology. According to Raza, the latest communications and business technology goes hand in hand with employing the high calibre of staff required to maximise its potential. “Technology underpins every element of our business and we rely on the data it gives us to analyse our operations and make the right decisions,” says Raza.

Impressive as they are, even the best trained staff, largest stock warehouse, latest communications systems, flattest management structures and most detailed data analyses are rendered redundant unless customers want to buy your products. Uneek’s upward sales curve is proof that its customers are happy with the brand’s product quality, value and choice. “We’ve always worked directly from customer feedback and this has been really successful; there has to be a good reason for every new product we launch and by giving customers what they ask for we tick all their boxes,” he explains. The fact that three of the original styles from 1996 – the UC 102 Premium Poloshirt, UC 201 Premium Sweatshirt, and UC 301 Classic T-Shirt – are all still integral to the current collection speaks volumes. Raza is adamant, however, that there is always room for further development and the company is currently working on new products for launch in 2017, looking at trends both inside and outside this market. “We plan to introduce a lot more products,” says Raza.

Trendy workwear

This year, the focus is very much on trendy workwear – “European customers are less likely to be satisfied with a bog standard work polo and we’re looking to add workwear products that are more fashion-oriented” – and 100% polyester performance garments in particular. “We’ve noticed the trend for polyester staff polos within the larger retail companies, and we’ve also started to receive more requests for this type of garment from our bespoke customers,” Raza reports. The brand has introduced the UC127 Mens Super Cool Workwear Poloshirt and matching women’s UC128 version in 200 gsm 100% polyester pique breathable fabric with wicking properties. The shirts are enzyme washed for extra soft hand-feel and reduced shrinkage, and use a different knit to the more sports-oriented Ultra Cool Poloshirts in 100% polyester birdseye knit that were launched last year.

Its bespoke service is another area that Uneek will be developing over the coming months. The company has set up a separate bespoke unit for the imprint market, which is housed on its own floor in a seven-storey factory in Bangladesh. It is connected via the latest IT systems to the sales team in the UK, giving real-time pricing and so on. The operation is highly automated and technology-focused with the aim of providing imprint customers with a fast, efficient service on minimum order quantities as low as 100 pieces by the latter part of 2016. “We’re proud of our bespoke manufacturing capacity – owning our own factories makes our service even more integrated than other providers,” says Raza. “Our highly skilled bespoke team is able to advise and guide you on the design as well as other aspects of our bespoke capabilities – in effect, we’re a factory in London,” he adds, neatly bringing the Uneek story back to its origins in early 90s London.

In addition to developing its bespoke service, Uneek opened its first European office last year, in Germany, and plans are underway for further expansion into France. It’s a brand that is going places in more senses than one, and a brand that’s intent on doing it its own way.

“You have to be customer focused and do things differently, and do them better, if you want to grow,” Raza concludes. “Our ethos is to achieve excellence in everything we do.”