A life-threatening injury at the age of 18 while playing rugby, led Warrington Wolves prop Mike Cooper to secure his future outside of the sport by forming his own customised clothing business. Now at the age of 31, Mike is lending a helping hand during a time of national crisis when others need it most. P&P editor Melanie Attlesey speaks to the man himself to find out more.
Mike made his professional rugby league debut at the age of 16, fresh from school. Yet, just two short years later, he suffered a life-threatening injury playing the sport he loved.
“I had a really nasty accident and nearly lost my life. While playing rugby I broke my tibia and fibula in one blow,” says Mike.
Complications in surgery led to Mike contracting pneumonia. Medics then placed him in an induced coma for 10 days to try and rid him of the lung illness. On the third day of the induced coma, Mike’s condition worsened to the point that his parents were told that he wasn’t going to survive and to say goodbye.
Despite the odds, Mike did pull through. But this injury, the time in hospital and the rehabilitation required both physically and mentally afterwards, proved to be a turning point in his life. And as such Mike set about securing his future outside of rugby league.
Mike teamed up with one of his oldest and closest friends, Sam Wareing, to open and run a sports clothing shop in the centre of Warrington.
“We said to each other let’s do something. Let’s do it ourselves. We are both very independent and not particularly good at taking orders. We both like to be the boss. So, we said let’s both be the boss and do it ourselves. And that’s what we did,” says Mike.
An evolving business
Although the shop primarily sold sports clothing and equipment, over time the business evolved as customers began to ask for more bespoke options. Mike continues: “So, we began to deal with suppliers and manufacturers and all of the headache associated with this. Bringing in product, holding stock, that kind of thing. So, we said why not deal directly with the manufacturers ourselves.”
After a few years, the area where the shop was situated in Warrington town centre got redeveloped and this provided the guys with the perfect the opportunity to use their knowledge and industry connections to form a bespoke sportswear clothing business called 1895 Sports. Initially the business focused on manufacturing rugby league kits, forging relationships with clubs across the North West. Over time 1895 Sports branched out to producing sublimated running vests and football kits, among other teamwear.
In 2017, the pair struck out again and created Bubble Customised Clothing, doing everything from embroidery, screen printing and transfer printing for local companies, as well as larger national businesses such as John Lewis and O2.
“It was a pretty quick transition to be honest. Neither of us had any experience with printing or embroidery and now we’re up to 14 heads,” says Mike.
In just three short years, Bubble has even managed to secure FAMA accreditation to produce merchandise for Disney, something which Mike describes as the golden stamp of approval. One of the business’ most recent projects for Disney involved individually personalising 20,000 tote bags for the Lion King movie which were then sent to Germany.
“Personalisation of licensed products really is the future. And that’s where we see ourselves as a business,” says Mike.
Fast-forward to March 2020 and with much of the UK in lockdown due to the outbreak of COVID-19, Mike and Sam saw an opportunity to help during the crisis. Coronavirus can lead to some sufferers contracting pneumonia and having previously had this illness, Mike knows and understands the pain these victims are going through.
Utilising contacts overseas in China, Mike set about importing personalised protective equipment into the UK. This included FFP2 certified facemasks, hand sanitiser, goggles and coveralls in the thousands. These products were then purchased by local councils, care homes, building firms, and the NHS.
“I can’t honestly explain how busy we have been. It’s frightening really,” says Mike.
After giving various interviews in local and national media, the requests for PPE have sky rocketed. Mike says that as well as requests from large organisations, he has also been contacted by individuals who need PPE and have their own story to tell, including one mum who wanted a facemask for her son who had cerebral palsy. “It really is heart-breaking. And I’m just sorry that I can’t source PPE for everyone.”
The sourcing of the PPE is made possible through Bubble’s sister company Imagin8. The two businesses share a unit in Warrington. In a nutshell, Imagin8 sources products for customers and Bubble customises and personalises them. The team at Imagin8 have worked in licensing for over 20 years and so naturally over time have built up a wealth of experience and contacts across the world.
Mike explains further: “The sourcing of the PPE is basically linking all of those overseas contacts who are now busy producing PPE due to COVID-19. We have people working on the ground for us in China, who we are in contact with every day to make the whole process easier.”
As well as the aforementioned products, one of the more popular requests for Bubble to source has been for disposable facemasks. At the time of writing, the company had so far imported 300,000 units. Disposable gowns is another recurring request and so far 400,000 of these have been ordered. “Unfortunately, you don’t need many staff to get through 100,000 gowns. People who have ordered in quantities of 100,000 have already come back to us and ask if they can order more, which is just crazy.”
With the government’s recent advice that the public should wear face masks in crowded spaces, Mike says that requests from the print and promotional industry for cotton masks has increased. He believes these are being branded and sees this as a growing market.
If you have watched the news on the TV or read a newspaper recently you will be more than aware that there is a national shortage of PPE. Mike explains the reasons for this: “If I put in an order for 500,000 pieces, that will take a factory a day, maybe a day and a half to make. And I’m just one person. The area of China where I’m sourcing my products from is pretty much supplying the world right now. They are going to be pretty busy. There’s no wonder there is such a shortage, when there is such demand.”
Depending on whether an order is shipped or flown to the UK, it can take anywhere up to six weeks for items to arrive, which of course doesn’t solve the immediate shortage, but Mike is doing everything he can to help.
Bubble itself is still up and running, for the company is fortunate enough to count key workers such as care staff and security personnel among its customer base who still need workwear. “The difficulty we have faced is knowing what to do in order to keep our staff safe so they can produce these garments,” says Mike. “It’s difficult and unusual, but what I can say is that I am extremely proud of everyone.”
It’s in unprecedented times such as this, that Mike can call upon his experience on the rugby pitch and use this in the business world. “You have to adapt and evolve and ultimately you have to find a solution,” he says. “My team at Bubble are my team outside of the rugby team. What has been great for us is to take some of those philosophies from professional sport and translate them into business, such as being organised and time efficient. When you do need to do something focus on that 100% and then move onto the next thing. We review everything that we do, same as I review a game after I’ve played. We plan for the future constantly.”
Bubble Customised Clothing really has changed Mike’s life. Having the business to focus on has actually improved his game on the pitch. Two years ago, he was crowned Warrington Wolves’ Player of the Year, and in March he signed another two-year contract to continue playing for his hometown club. He has also been picked to be part of the England squad again. “It has allowed me to enjoy the sport like I did as a kid all those years ago, compared to it just being your job.”
Finding time to run two businesses, play professional rugby league and be a dad to two young boys is difficult, but somehow Mike manages to wear all three hats with success.