Leading UK schoolwear manufacturer Rowlinson is due to celebrate its 80th anniversary this year. Around six months ago, the Stockport-based business decided to expand its horizons and move into the world of corporatewear. P&P editor MELANIE ATTLESEY visited the team in September to find out more.
Rowlinson has been in business in the UK since 1935. It started life as a small family-run knitwear manufacturer, before moving into manufacturing schoolwear around 50 years ago. The firm has one remaining family member still at the helm, Chris Rowlinson, production director, who manages the warehouse and embroidery.
Managing director Donald Moore explains that during the 50 years the company has manufactured schoolwear, the products haven’t changed all that much. “And just to prove it, the jumper that I wore at school is still sold now,” he laughs. “The material may be slightly different, but the style hasn’t changed, because what can you do with a v-neck jumper? Navy, black and grey jumpers take about two-thirds of our sales. You would hope that after 50 years we would have learnt some stuff and what we have learnt is that schoolwear doesn’t change that much.”
Care, trust and values
At the heart of the company’s ethos is care. The company cares equally about its staff, its customers and its suppliers. To ensure the company does the best it can it surveys its customers and staff on an annual basis. Customers are asked to rate Rowlinson on a number of points from how timely their delivery was to overall performance on a sliding scale of excellent, good, ok and poor. “For us receiving an ok from a customer is a negative. There is no middle ground. If we get rated ok that is rubbish,” explains Donald. Customers get sent a questionnaire postcard at the end of the busy schoolwear season and as Donald adds: “Let’s say we send 10,000 garments to one customer. If we send one wrong item, at the wrong time of year and it goes to the wrong customer for the retailer and they kick off about it, then that’s the one the retailer remembers, because it’s emotive. If we carried out the survey in Easter, everyone will have forgotten about that kind of trouble, so we want to capture it at its worst really, so we can improve and get better.”
As a direct result of the customer satisfaction survey Rowlinson now offers a smaller minimum order for its customers, reducing the order size from 36 to 12 with three garments per size per style. Sales director Andrew McConnell explains: “One of the questions on the customer satisfaction survey last year was what irritates you the most about dealing with Rowlinson. We all thought we knew the answer – that prices are too high. But 80% of people said our minimum order was too high. We didn’t see that coming. Reducing our minimums was a direct result of the customer satisfaction survey and the response has been fantastic. It’s won us business.” Last year Rowlinson scored a plus 98% customer satisfaction rating and customers will soon be asked their views again as the schoolwear season comes to a close for another year.
Employees are asked their views at the beginning of the year when everyone is suffering from the January blues. They are quizzed on all kinds of things, from what’s the worst thing about working for Rowlinson to what they would do if they became managing director. Donald adds: “The first year we did it employee satisfaction was 43%. What that told me was that a) the score was rubbish, but b) they will tell the truth. It’s now in its 90s.”
This care and attention extends to Rowlinson’s factories in Bangladesh and Egypt. After the Rana Plaza disaster in April 2013 shockwaves rippled through the garment manufacturing industry. The staff at Rowlinson were saddened by the factory collapse which killed over 1,100 people and so, in a bid to instil a sense of trust and care among the staff at the New Horizon factory in Bangladesh, offshore director Ken Edgar took the next available plane to the country to reassure the workers. “Many thought this was the end of garment making in Bangladesh,” explains Donald. “Ken reassured the workers that we weren’t leaving. He told them not to worry and that we were really sad about what happened in the country, but the factory was structurally safe and they were so well-looked after. People had tears in their eyes. They could not believe that a buyer, and buyers have got such a bad name everywhere in the world because they will move at the drop of a hat to save two cents, was saying these things.”
Clean water means a healthier workforce
Access to clean filtered tap water in Bangladesh is limited. Donald estimates that approximately only 10% of the workforce in the Bangladesh factory has access to clean water. He says: “Rowlinson has committed to donating filtered water machines for everyone that has more than two years’ service, which is around half the workforce. It’s not our factory, but we are the only buyer who uses the factory which employs over 400 people, so we have a responsibility to the workforce. It’s got to have a really positive impact for the business in terms of health of the workers.
“But the main thing is their children. They are becoming more educated with health, clean water and sanitation. In this factory, the men have got to be clean shaven, everyone has got to wear clean clothes and everyone has got to be smartly dressed. We are trying to install the benefits of being tidy and having some pride in themselves and the effects this can have. These filtered machines are only about £30, is that such a lot of money to improve the future of generations to come?”
Rowlinson has forged a strong relationship with the New Horizon factory over the last five years. It recognises the quality of the garments produced by the workers. “I hate it when people ask us where we make our clothes, and when we reply with Bangladesh their response is oh because it’s cheaper. It is the lowest paid country in the world, and that is one of the attractions, but the other is that they are fantastic at knitting. That’s their big strength. It’s not always the positive side of Bangladesh that’s put across,” says Donald.
To maximise the skill of the workforce and the quality of the garments produced in the factory, 18 months ago Rowlinson took the decision to expand its offering and move into the world of corporatewear. Andrew explains: “The schoolwear industry is quite small and what we are learning about the corporatewear industry is it is just as small. As 60% of our sales come in two months, the seasonality of schoolwear is financially very challenging. So there was a strategic reason for the move. Corporatewear, although it sells all year round it does sell more during the winter months when schoolwear dies. We also wanted to help the factory, because of the relationship we have with them and sell their production for them.”
At only 18 months into the venture Rowlinson has already secured some big names in the finance, energy and transport sectors. “Doors are opening as we up our profile and learn more. It has not been easy for us. Because we are so well-known as a schoolwear manufacturer we have been tarred with that brush. We have had difficulty breaking that mould, but I think we are cracking it,” says Andrew.
Linda Painter, responsible for marketing and PR, adds: “We are relaunching the website shortly and once it is live customers will be able to enter the website into either schoolwear or corporatewear portals. Until now we have been focusing on schoolwear and just dabbling around the edges with corporatewear. But now we would regard ourselves as moving clearly into that market.”
Currently Rowlinson’s corporatewear range consists of four styles in 100% cotton, 50/50 cotton and acrylic and 100% Courtelle yarn. The company hopes to add a wool-mix product to its range by Christmas.
Not reinventing the wheel
“In school knitwear we dominate with 70% of the specialist market. We are just scratching the surface with corporatewear. The successes we have had in such a short space of time have filled us with confidence,” says Andrew. “We want to eventually be seen as the number one corporatewear knitter in the UK. We are aiming for corporatewear to make up 10% of our turnover within three years, at the moment it makes up around 1%, but we believe our target is achievable.”
While Linda adds: “It’s so rational for a seasonal business to fill the quiet periods with something else; it can only strengthen the business. It takes away a little bit of risk for us. I think everybody gets that and understands that it’s such a smooth fit – bespoke school, bespoke corporatewear. We aren’t reinventing the wheel to service that market; we are just using products and a service level that we have already got.”
Proving that leopards can change their spots, Rowlinson looks set to take the corporatewear market by storm – with a little help from the skilled workforce in Bangladesh of course.