The expert in Ts

Two years in to her takeover of Huntingdon-based Expertees, Debra Stuart, is making waves and has big plans in store for the future. P&P editor Melanie Attlesey speaks to her and her team to find out more.

Towards the end of 2015 Debra was looking for a new career path and a small business to invest in. After spending years in the fast lane working as a CEO for large organisations, she was keen to try her hand at something new.

At the time Debra’s sister-in-law Tracy Collins and her husband David were looking at selling the garment decoration side of the business Sign Works & Expertees. Debra grasped this with both hands as she could see the potential to grow the business beyond its current capabilities

One of her first steps was to move the business away from its base in Hardwick, Cambridgeshire, and drop the sign and vehicle wrap side of the business to focus solely on printing and embroidering workwear. She moved the business to Huntingdon and opened a show room on a busy high street location so that the public could come in and try on products at their leisure.

Expertees’ very popular show room

Before getting stuck in, Debra carried out a lot of research on the sector and discovered that within the garment decoration industry there are a number of big players, but the bottom end of the market is quite fragmented. So Debra set about transforming the bottom end of the market, by focusing on selling to the local tradesmen in the area.

“We do not do any sales online. People want that face to face contact. They want to feel a polo shirt, they want to try it on. They want to look at colour swatches. We decided to focus on selling to your typical plumber or decorator that may only place an order once or twice a year, but values that personal service,” explains Debra.

Constant footfall

The footfall in Expertees’ showroom is constant, to the extent where the business has had to open on a Saturday to cater for tradesmen who work five days a week. And it’s this face-to-face service that customers are really appreciating, as Rebecca Douglas, Expertees’ marketing consultant, explains: “A few weeks ago a guy came in and he had some new apprentices with him and they all spent time trying on clothes and comparing the different look and feel of our garments to ensure they chose the right products. You can’t do that if you’re ordering your personalised workwear online. We keep all of our best sellers in the showroom for people to try on, along with a basic, middle and top end option.”

Over the last two years, Debra has invested in software that automates the whole ordering and production process, which has helped the business to run more efficiently. As well as offering printed and embroidered clothing, Expertees offers additional services such as branding, design concepts, creation of new logos and website design.

As a result of these changes Expertees has experienced year on year growth of 280% and it is predicted that year three will yield growth of 52%.

Now Debra has got a business plan in place that works, she is looking to expand through acquisition. She has already opened a second Expertees branch in Malvern, Gloucestershire and later this year will open in Leeds and Bristol.

“I have spoken to dozens of businesses during the last 12 months who have a got a lifestyle business that they have been running for the last 20-odd years, but now don’t know what to do with it. They can’t sell it, they can’t get out, they are doing all of the sales, all of the production, and can’t see a way out. It’s these kinds of businesses that we wish to support by centralising marketing, centralising production and freeing them up to enjoy life,” explains Debra.

The Expertees’ team pictured at the Hunts Business Awards. Debra is pictured third from left on the front row and Rebecca is pictured third from left on the back row

She continues to say that these businesses could potentially be rebranded as Expertees, but if they are a strong brand in a geographical area, then they will more than likely leave the business as it is. Debra is also finding that partnering with other local print businesses who do not offer printed or embroidered clothing is working well.

The eventual plan for Expertees is to operate a hub and spoke style business, with showrooms up and down the country and a centralised hub where production is carried out and orders are fulfilled.

“It’s about getting the economies of scale right, it gives us better buying power and bigger discounts with our suppliers. For me our focus should be taking other business’s negatives and converting them into our USPs, such as turnaround time and quality of service” explains Debra.

Last month, Expertees moved its production from where it was based in Huntingdon to a bigger unit, double the size, within the town, giving the company more scope for growth and investment in new machinery. The showroom remains on the current high street location.

Completely new view

Both Debra and Rebecca had no previous experience of working in garment decoration prior to investing in Expertees, but as Debra says: “Although I may not know the subject matter, it’s about understanding how business works. Rebecca has been working alongside me for years in marketing and PR. We have applied our skills to a completely different sector, but we believe we have a great opportunity here. In some ways I think it is good that we are not from the industry as we can look at the business with a completely new view.”

For the last two years, Debra has worked directly in the business learning all there is to know about embroidery and transfer printing, understanding where the labour pinch points were.

A selection of branded items produced by Expertees for a local personal trainer

“I remember asking someone to explain to me the process from when someone orders a product to the item going out the door and it was ‘we put it on this piece of paper and then this piece of paper and then it’s transferred down to production in this book, before the order is then put on another piece of paper’. I thought whoa we have to get rid of all this paper and have a centralised system,” explains Debra.

And that’s exactly what she decided to do and it has paid in dividends.

To conclude, Debra says: “What I have learnt is that you aren’t going to make money quick in this industry. It’s about playing the long game. It’s about nurturing your customers and making sure you give a good service.” Which is a lesson that more within the industry could take note of.

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