Settling down to ‘sleep’ in his new firm’s storage lock-up – one eye open, clutching an iron bar for protection in case thieves broke in again – Andrew Ward must have wondered what on earth the future held for his business.
But going to such lengths to protect his venture was testament to the then 18-year-old’s determination to make Ward’s Workwear succeed.
Leap forward to today and the firm – now known as Workwear Express – has been manufacturing uniforms ever since 1989, dressing the staff of a host of big-name companies and since 2009 turnover has almost trebled to £10m and now employs 100 staff.
But after enduring tough times there was never much doubt that Andrew, now 42, would not make it in business, having started out as a keen young salesman, working alongside his father John, selling work clothes and boots out the back of his van from the age of 10.
“My old man started out selling workwear out the back of his van, going round all the open cast sites, garages, factories and agricultural marts and I went with him during the holidays and at weekends,” he said.
“I used to enjoy it – doing sales, dealing with money and people. You pick up all sorts when you’re a young, impressionable boy, including a lot you probably shouldn’t hear. It makes you grow up quickly.”
At 13 Andrew was entrusted with a round of his own during the holidays, his father employing a driver to take him round workplaces, selling gear on his own.
“I got a tenner a day. The driver got more than me and that didn’t go down well.”
Andrew’s teen-year pocket money put other full-time worker pay packets to shame.
Unfortunately but predictably, that did not make continuing in education much of an exciting and rewarding prospect.
He recalled: “I was doing really well at school, although by the time I was doing my GCSEs in 1988 I was bunking off a lot to go out selling. I still got 10 good results, mind. But I dropped out of A Levels while doing my mock exams.
“I literally fell asleep in my Geography exam. I wrote my name at the top, fell asleep, woke up at the end and walked out.
“My dad had pretty much given up on selling by then – he’d lost his drive because the business hadn’t got far, so I’d taken over the contacts and suppliers myself, while I was at school.
“I had friends doing the rounds for me and we’d meet on a Monday night in the library when they’d give me cash they’d made. On a good weekend I was making £2,000.
“So when I was 17 I properly set up, calling the firm Ward’s Workwear.”
He bought an old Mercedes van and travelled to all corners of the region and beyond, visiting suppliers to buy stock such as Rigger boots, jeans, overalls and padded checked shirts, then selling them to workmen who had to pay for all of their own work clothes.
Taking up his first unit to store stock proved problematic, however.
“It was just a little lock-up in Dragonville full of jeans, boots and overalls and it was rough back then. I had to pay a protection racket guy to look after it and when I stopped paying him it got broken into.
“So after that I used to sleep in there, with an iron bar next to me.”
Thankfully, he rode out the tough times and from a team of three he soon expanded, buying a 7.5-tonne truck and a box van, enlisting a small team of staff to help him cover all five postcodes of the North East – a customer base of thousands.
But no sooner was he on the up, than his own spending habits brought him crashing back down and, at just 21, he went bankrupt.
“I was a typical 21-year-old – going out a lot at weekends with a lot of money in my back pocket, so I overspent.
“Ironically I had to pay £200 to declare myself bankrupt. It taught me a valuable business lesson, but because I knew how to start with nothing, I did it again.”
Andrew went to all of his suppliers, worked out terms and said they all supported him, offering him initially restricted credits limits to help him back on his feet. All debts to them have long since been paid back and they remain suppliers today.
Having become insolvent at such a young age in business Andrew then vowed never to borrow any money off anyone.
Launching Workwear Express as soon as the bankruptcy was discharged, he was starting from scratch at a time when things were changing in the working world, and the importance of brand identity was emerging strongly.
Workplaces across every sector imaginable wanted their name and logo emblazoned across garments. Andrew scraped together the cash to buy a single-headed embroidery machine and, working from the kitchen table of his small semi-datched house in Coxhoe, started producing new workwear.
He rented a unit in the village to store stock, building up a huge base of clients and the business swiftly grew, with Andrew drumming up more sales with a support staff of 20.
The company moved into its current, sizeable Belmont Industrial Estate base in 2004 – a huge step up – after Andrew put down a deposit and bought it, and from there it has steadily grown and grown.
Today, the business has around 100 staff, including a dedicated sales team which takes in orders through its website from all over the world.
Like the suppliers, staff have remained faithful too. The first machinist he employed in 1999 remains with the business, and the main production man has been with him 25 years.
State-of-the-art machines imported from Japan, which stitch embroidered logos and brands eight at a time, are operated 24-hours a day to cover large and small print runs – some orders being turned around in 24 hours.
The machine room is a hive of activity and a second room sees all manner of other designs printed onto textiles, while a new high-tech piece of equipment has just arrived to print intricate designs in multi-colours simultaneously. The current £10m turnover is set to double by 2018.
However, it was only through Andrew’s reinvention of the business when the recession hit that has made such financial performance achievable.
“We had a double whammy in the recession,” he recalled. “First, the phones stopped ringing – people weren’t placing orders. And then we lost our biggest customer, which accounted for a third of sales. So we reinvented ourselves as an e-commerce company.”
Andrew said he had to let a sales rep go during the economic crunch, but he sold the rep’s company car for £10,000 and used the proceeds to set up the firm’s first website.
“We had no idea what we were doing really,” said Andrew. “I didn’t think people would buy our products over the internet – I thought only books and CDs were bought online back then.
“But despite doing no initial marketing, inquiries came in. So we started investing more into the site and it really took off. Even during the recession we managed to grow the company, and we’re still managing to keep growing.”
Other rival firms fell by the wayside, Andrew said, because they had no cash reserves and massive overheads to meet.
He said: “We are not flash, we don’t spend money on flash offices and everything is functional, but it’s all paid for. We’re not beholden to banks.
“Thinking back, it’s because I’ve learned in tough times that we managed to weather the storm.
“Losing that big client made me realise that these big customers will leave you just to save 20p a T-shirt, so we now look to get thousands and thousands of small orders, often from SMEs, and just give them a good service.”
While SMEs may make up a chunk of the clientele Workwear Express counts big names among their customers, including Xerox, Tesco and Greggs.
And work comes in from every sector imaginable, from construction firms and universities to children’s nurseries and hospitality businesses.
No single sector in particular is targeted but, instead, there’s a firm focus placed on getting the website absolutely spot-on, to ensure a smooth service for customers, with dedicated sales staff taking calls for more complex orders, from those might not want to place orders without talking to the firm first.
Live chat – a feature that many companies are only just adopting – has also been in operation for some time.
“We don’t target sectors in particular and I think we’re only just scratching the surface of the potential market here in the UK, let alone further afield, there’s huge potential for further growth,” he said.
“We’re focussing on driving down our lead times and offering a 24-hour service, printing t-shirts for as little as £1.25, that’s unheard of. I would not like to start up again and compete with us!”
New growth will potentially come from overseas, so to achieve this the website is being refreshed by experts who design and manage it in-house.
While orders currently come in all over the world, the large proportion of exports go to Europe, which is why large European companies are now being looked at, and dedicated French speakers will soon be taken on within customers services.
Having built up the business from a standing start, Andrew now takes a more strategic view, leaving day-to-day decisions for sales, marketing, operations and finance with his senior management team.
This leaves him free to focus the rest of his time on his other business – commercial property.
Having bought up cheap residential property for private renters and student accommodation at the start of the recession Andrew has slowly built up the capital to get involved in more commercial areas.
He now also owns six Durham pubs and is working on a mammoth project to create a £10m trade park in Belmont, with the potential to create 300 jobs, being progressed through his second venture, Angel Developments.
The park will be on the site of the former Kerry Foods factory – a business he once tried unsuccessfully to get as a workwear client.
He said: “Commercial property is what I really enjoy. It started off as a hobby but I now spend half my day on it. It’s just so interesting and you can do so much with it.”
Listening to Andrew, who now lives in Durham city centre, talk with so much enthusiasm about his Angel Developments venture it’s clear his concept of a work-life balance is very different to many others.
He said: “I love this business to bits. It’s the only thing I’ve ever really done aside from property and we’ve now got a formula for growth. And I’m not bothered about a typical work-life balance – this is what I enjoy.”