Last year marked Beechfield’s 20th anniversary. P&P editor MELANIE ATTLESEY held a question and answer session with founder and managing director ROGER McHUGH to find out more about the supplier.
Q. Starting from the beginning, how was Beechfield formed?
A. I started out in IT, developing software for the local Manchester clothing industry nearly 30 years ago. I subsequently joined Rocket Sportswear, one of the original industry garment wholesalers, as a software developer, before being appointed as the company’s general manager. After Rocket I was appointed as the sales manager of another well-known wholesaler and it was from there that Beechfield was born. In 1994, a director of the company spotted the opportunity to launch a professional headwear brand and I took up the challenge. The timing was spot-on and Beechfield was an instant success, selling more than two million caps in its first year. This encouraged us to move straight into Europe, and just a year after launch our product brochure was translated into five European languages. The rest as they say is history and this year the Beechfield headwear brand celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Q. Did you form Beechfield with the intention of entering into the printwear market?
A. Yes. Beechfield was established specifically to service the hitherto untapped demand for high quality headwear made for decoration. Interestingly, Beechfield’s headwear has become ever more fashion-oriented in recent years and our Retail Ready products are now increasingly sold blank on the high street and through other retail channels.
Q. Describe Beechfield’s ethos, what it stands for and what it brings to the market.
A. Beechfield supplies on-trend and relevant, good quality, ethically manufactured and sourced, affordable, Retail Ready headwear that’s specially designed for embellishment. Every product we bring to market has been thoroughly researched, designed and manufactured to ensure that it will add real value to our customers’ headwear offerings.
Q. How would you describe how business has been during the past 12 months for Beechfield? How buoyant have you found the printwear market in recent years?
A. Beechfield has enjoyed a record-breaking past 12 months. The market is buoyant and we have precisely the products that our customers need to profit from the current high level of demand for brandable headwear and accessories. The industry has responded positively to the new styles we launched at the beginning of 2014 and to our mid-year product launch in the summer. Our very latest A/W collection, only just launched, has already caused quite a stir and is giving resellers something brand new to sell as we enter the crucial Christmas selling season.
Q. Have you noticed any changes in what retailers, decorators or customers require or demand from their headwear during the 20 years Beechfield has been around?
A. People want more variety, a greater choice of colours, styles and fabrics, and well-designed products that can be worn or used again and again.
We still offer traditional promo products, but we now offer an increasingly diverse range of Retail Ready designs. Brandable headwear used to lag two years behind cap and hat fashions in retail – that’s no longer the case. These days we’re in-step with fashion, we’re right on the curve and our customers value that.
There’s also a greater emphasis on accountability. People didn’t used to think about where their products came from. Now there’s much closer scrutiny of ethical sourcing, responsible manufacturing, supply chain transparency etc. The big brands demand it, and all customers desire it.
Q. Have you noticed any changes in trends/fashion during the 20 years?
A. The printwear business is nothing if not cyclical and we see trends come, go and return quite regularly. For example, Beechfield’s original product catalogue included two caps in Melton Wool – a popular headwear fabric at the time, but one that gradually fell out of favour. We eventually phased it out of the Beechfield collection, yet now, in our 20th year, Melton Wool has returned with the launch of the B675 Melton Wool Snapback. This is a direct descendent of the B75 6-Panel Melton Cap with Suede Peak that we were offering 20 years ago.
The B10 Original 5-Panel Cap, (and B10b children’s equivalent), was also included in the first ever Beechfield catalogue and has remained one of the brand’s best-selling styles ever since. It’s an iconic promotional headwear product.
Q. Have you ever been tempted to expand into other clothing areas?
A. Beechfield Brands is focused on the brandable accessories market. To complement our Beechfield headwear collection we have launched and developed the highly successful and complementary BagBase, Quadra and Westford Mill bags brands. These brands offer a vast range of carrying solutions and cover an equally broad range of customer requirements – from jute shoppers to highly sophisticated corporate carrying solutions and travel luggage and sports and school bags. All of our BagBase, Quadra and Westford Mill products are designed for decoration and are made to the same high standards as Beechfield headwear.
Q. What have you done to enable Beechfield to grow into the company it is today?
A. We’ve worked hard to ensure the synchronicity of product styling, colours and so on across our four brands, and also with the product ranges of the major promotional clothing labels. We sell only through our wholesalers and it allows them to offer complementary caps, bags, hats and other accessories that synchronise perfectly with the apparel they are stocking. It allows the wholesaler to offer a complete, one-stop-shop solution and, in turn, increases their customers’ add-on sales opportunities.
We’ve also invested heavily in IT, developing a bespoke Enterprise Requirement Planning system (ERP) that does everything for us: purchase and sales projections, sample management, product line management, spreadsheets, line listings, pricing, automatic spec sheets etc. Our customers benefit through the ease of integration with their own systems, and the quality of information they receive – we were one of the early pioneers of live stock information availability for our customers.
We take market research and trend forecasting seriously, which helps us to bring the latest retail styles to the imprint market at a price our customers can afford.
Q. Describe any momentous occasions or turning points for the company during the 20 years.
A. In the early days some of the brand’s products were still manufactured in the UK, but that ceased 10 years ago. The move offshore coincided with huge advances in terms of Beechfield’s product quality and the quality expectations of our customers.
The first time we ever exhibited – at Printwear & Promotion LIVE! in January 1995 – was an important event for the brand, as it announced Beechfield to the industry. As was FESPA 96 – the first time Beechfield exhibited in Europe. Our first foreign photo shoot, in 2000, was memorable, but it was the trip to South Africa in 2004 to photograph our 2005 brochure that was pivotal: it felt as though Beechfield had really arrived.
Q. Over the 20 years how has Beechfield grown in terms of staff, products and warehouse space?
A. We started out with three employees, 15 headwear styles and 102 SKUs. Now, Beechfield employs almost 30 members of staff, offers 100 brandable Beechfield headwear styles and over 600 SKUs. Our products are distributed through 32 wholesalers, and a total of 50 satellite branches, in 22 countries.
Q. Where is Beechfield based? Where do you manufacture your products?
A. Beechfield is based in Bury, Greater Manchester. Our products are made in our partner factories in the Far East – predominantly China. We work very closely with the factories that manufacture our products to ensure that they uphold our strict quality and ethical standards. We also operate our own in-house Quality Control lab, which boasts an array of testing equipment, including a spectrophotometer: this facility helps us to ensure that our product colours are the most accurate and consistent in the industry.
Q. How important is ethical and environmental policies/production to Beechfield?
A. Ethical and environmental policies and production are central to everything we do and we’re committed to upholding the highest ethical and environmental standards throughout our entire supply chain. These standards protect and reward every individual involved in the manufacture and supply of our products, and both reference and respect local laws with regard to workers’ wages, health, safety, welfare and human rights. Our field based staff carry out full audits on all our manufacturing partners to ensure that our standards are always maintained, and we commission regular component and fabric testing to guarantee that we are always up to date on the latest REACH legislation.
Q. During the 20 years have there been any products/styles that Beechfield pioneered that are now firm favourites?
A. We’ve pioneered many innovations over the years; however, the one that stands out is our 5-panel cap design, which has no centre seam. These are easier to decorate than traditional 6-panel designs with a central seam on the front panel and allow greater scope for creative embellishment, whilst retaining the integrity of the original Pro Style cap. Our original 5-panel design has been imitated, but never bettered. This same template is used in our B15, B15c, B159 and B171. While outwardly quite different looking, these models are all made using the same pattern, which means the product decorators are dealing with a very uniform product, which is great for them to optimise decoration.
Q. To celebrate your 20th anniversary have you released any new products, styles or features? Describe what’s new about these products and how they have been received by the market.
A. The B658 Suede Peak 5 Panel Cap is the perfect illustration of the convergence of imprint and retail fashion. The cap’s 5-panel design, faux suede peak and leather size adjuster are closely aligned with what is happening in retail. We spared no expense in developing this Retail Ready product, yet we’re still able to offer it at a great price.
Knitted hats are another important area for Beechfield. We introduced a further nine knitted styles as part of our 20th anniversary mid-year product launch this summer and now offer 30 knitted headwear styles in total. The B403 Bardot Shimmer Beret in moondust grey and stardust black, is an especially chic and highly fashionable new style, while the B435 Chamonix Combi Beanie, with its chunky knit, three-colour stripe design and removable pom pom, is an on-trend unisex winter sports hat that takes the Retail Ready concept to the next level.
Q. How would you sum up the past 20 years?
A. ‘Interesting’, ‘varied’, ‘challenging’, ‘enlightening’ and above all ‘fast!’ Also, very rewarding: getting to meet many fantastic customers along the way, many of which we have helped to prosper by supplying them blanks that they have gone to decorate and profit from.
I was only reflecting this morning how I had to learn bookkeeping way back in the early days… Once a month an accountant friend used to come in in the evening to tidy my books while showing me how to do it myself at the same time. Next thing I’m unloading a lorry, a few days after that I’m flying to China. I guess it’s the same in all start-ups – the founder gets involved in just about everything!
Q. What plans do you have for the next 12 months? Can you predict what headwear trends/styles/colours will be big in 2015 for both the spring/summer season and the autumn/winter season?
A. We’ll see brandable products taking even more of a cue from retail fashion and we may even see a gradual return to UK manufacturing to help speed up the response to fast changing fashion trends. There’s also a lot happening in PPE at present and there’s a renewed interest in ethical and eco products. I can envisage a revival of ‘green’ headwear styles and more emphasis on CSR. Now that budgets are being relaxed people are beginning to refocus on their ethical and environmental credentials.
Q. Where do you see Beechfield in 20 years’ time?
A. In new custom-built premises with modern handling systems to make our operations even more efficient. The expansion of the Beechfield, BagBase, Quadra and Westford Mill brands has prompted us to look at constructing a new warehouse and offices to accommodate our continued growth. I recently visited a possible location and couldn’t believe it when the property consultant who was showing me the site pulled on one of our old B97s (All Weather Cap, which has since been discontinued and replaced by the current B355 Mountain Cap), which he’s owned since 2000 and still wears regularly during inclement weather! The hat still looked great, although the satin label was a bit faded. We haven’t used satin labels in years!
Q. Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers about the 20 years of Beechfield?
A. We have many very talented, loyal staff at Beechfield, each making a significant contribution to the cause. Among our staff of almost 30, there are seven members of my family!
For more information visit www.beechfield.com