Business Interview: Julie Price, founder and director of the AMA Group

"When you lose your purpose, it tells you why you are here.” Retirement wasn't for Julie Price as she tells Coreena Ford

Julie Price, from the AMA Group, in Peterlee
Julie Price, from the AMA Group, in Peterlee

Settling into her new life in sunny Mallorca with her husband, Julie Price was ready for a life of relaxation, her early retirement a reward for a fast-paced career climbing to the top of the clothing industry.

At least she thought she was ready to retire.

Within three years, Julie and husband David were glad to leave the sunny skies of the Balearic Islands behind to return to the North East and strategically map their way back into business.

But it wouldn’t be easy.

Vastly experienced in the textile industry, Julie had been at Claremont Garments during its heady days as a major supplier to Marks and Spencer.

Yet she had also witnessed the industry’s decimation in the region as virtually all the large employers – including Claremont, Dewhirsts and Pringle – shut their factories, some having transferred production work to the Far East, leaving more than 4,000 out of work.

With thorough research, an ethical production strategy and a bulging contacts book, however, Julie and a team of partners achieved their mission last year when The AMA Group was formed, sparking a North East rag trade revival.

Julie Price, from the AMA Group, in Peterlee
Julie Price, from the AMA Group, in Peterlee

Now, less than 10 months after trading began, the Peterlee-based firm employs 44 machinists and is taking on teams of at least six every month as production of garments ramps up for key clients, including Tesco’s Florence and Fred.

For Julie, now 56, it’s evident that retirement in a traditional sense may never come. Both she and her husband, also a director at AMA Group, are too impassioned and determined to grow and maintain clothing manufacturing within the region to slow down.

That passion began when she moved to Sunderland as a young girl, when her father Ernest was vice chair of Bonas Machine Company.

In the 1960s the engineering firm was one of only a handful around the globe which had sewn up the market in narrow fibre weaving looms.

Demand swiftly grew for the machines from overseas markets, and this would take Ernest and his daughter to a string of exotic locations as he sought to sign up new customers.

“My father Ernest introduced me to the textile industry. My mum died when I was quite young so it was just the two of us,” said Julie.

“Most of my school holidays, from when I was about 13, were spent travelling for weeks on end on business with him. I’d listen to his meetings with businessmen and socialise with their wives, and it exposed me to the world of business from a very young age, and I loved it.

“He was selling to new markets in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore and we would stay in these great hotels. It wasn’t such a small world back then either, so it was all very exotic – and I would be told to listen, learn and behave!

Julie Price, from the AMA Group, in Peterlee
Julie Price, from the AMA Group, in Peterlee

“It was the formation of my career and gave me my ambition, making me realise this is the life I want, to be in textiles.”

Watching her father at work also gave Julie a good grounding for the management positions which lay ahead.

After graduating from Leeds University with a second class degree in textile management, Julie was offered jobs in the ‘milk rounds’ in London but, preferring to stay closer to home, became a fabric technologist with Charnos Garments, which would later become Claremont Garments, a major employer with 11 North East factories employing several thousand workers.

Working in a completely new role, her task was to help the firm, and one of its major clients Marks and Spencer, become more responsible within its raw material sourcing.

Acting as an interface between the design and manufacturing divisions, Julie had to select the most suitable fabrics needed to bring out the best in clothing designs, ensuring all technical aspects were met.

It may have been a new role but by the time she left – before the well documented closure of Claremont Garments – she had become fabric technical director and purchasing director, aiding the firm’s sales rise from £90m on arrival to £180m in the late 1980s.

A similar position at Next followed, after which she and husband David spent a year as directors at JPS in Washington – a venture they regretted leaving.

Soon after, however, the business went into administration as one of the many struggling to compete against cheaper production costs overseas.

Working between divisions, and also learning to “get into the psyche” of the sometimes “slightly wayward” fashion designers has also proved invaluable in giving her broad knowledge of all aspects of the industry, from initial concept to order to retail display.

So when others attempted to headhunt her into new positions, Julie knew the time was ripe to create her own business.

Julie Price, from the AMA Group, in Peterlee
Julie Price, from the AMA Group, in Peterlee

After investing £60,000 Essensual was formed in 2000, in Skipton, North Yorkshire, a specialist lingerie manufacturer with a team of 20 in the UK, a further 20 in Bangkok with some manufacturing carried out in Thailand and China.

A great working relationship Matt Hudson, the then trading director of Marks and Spencer who left to become MD of Monsoon, led to Essensual designing and manufacturing lingerie for its Ceriso, Per Una and Autograph ranges, as well as other blue chip clients.

These were exciting times, and popularity for the brands saw sales reach a pinnacle of £11m a year, until one supplier’s delay triggered a domino effect of disasters.

“It was in the late part of 2009 and we had just done all of the Christmas TV ads for M&S and basically a Chinese supplier which provided silk was running seven weeks behind. But we had to get it – we had orders and deadlines. So we had to airfreight the goods – £270,000.

“And the payment term agreement which had previously given us 60 days to pay forced us to pay up front. That took a total of £760,000 out of our cash flow, and we had to go into voluntary liquidation.

“It was horrendous. I went to Marks and Spencer where they had a new director who said ‘Julie, you are our only independent and we need our suppliers to have deep pockets.’”

M&S organised the approach of a Harrogate business, Quantum Clothing, who bought out the business in a pre-pack deal, saving all of the Essensual jobs.

However, working in a more corporate environment as the company’s commercial director didn’t sit well with Julie who was used to being at the forefront of decision making.

After a year, and having turned 50, she and David planned a permanent move to their holiday home, set in the mountains region of Mallorca.

“We had never stopped,” said Julie, “so we thought: ‘Is it time to get off the treadmill?’.

“But we hated it! We loved it for a couple of months, sitting by the pool and sunbathing, and we got time to recharge the batteries, but at the end of that you just think ‘what’s my purpose in life?’ I was used to making decisions, getting up at 4am because I had a meeting to fly to, or because I’d had some ideas I wanted to get down.”

Thankfully, the pair had not sold their Harrogate home so, having attempted retirement for three years, they returned home.

Finding work, however, was another issue and Julie struggled to even get interviewed, with prospective employers spinning excuses for not considering her application.

“Ageism is an issue. I think because I’d had a successful career before, some people don’t like strong professional women in certain employment positions, when all I wanted was to get on the career path,” she said.

The experience was the catalyst for Julie and David to forge a partnership with Paul Watts, Steven Price and Steven Lawson in a move to revive the industry once at the heart of the North East business community.

Spending several months on compiling detailed research into high street and production trends, Julie felt the time was right to reshore textile production, predominantly because of material costs, lead-in fashion times and seasons have compressed considerably since the late 1990s.

“In the old days everyone went off shore for pricing reasons, but that was when raw materials made up 60% of your costs,” she explained.

“Now they make up 80% of costs, so going overseas for cheaper labour costs is crazy.

“Also, the shorter the lead-in time the better you can sell. In Asia, progress in manufacturing means firms there are now producing huge volume orders, and those quantities and timings aren’t viable to test things.”

Maintaining contacts from her lengthy career led Julie to an informal chat with the technical director at Tesco, who agreed with her belief in an ethical trading firm, focussing on responsible sourcing of materials, creating new textile industry jobs and placing a firm flag in the hugely exportable Made in Britain camp.

And through support in capital expenditure from Tesco and the formation of a tentative three-year production plan with the retail giant, Julie and David ploughed their retirement funds into creating the AMA Group, now based at Peterlee Business Park.

Some £900,000 was invested in machinery, which is operated in cell production strategy.

Instead of having teams of 25 working on one machine, each cell of six to eight machinists works on eight to 10 machines, working together as a team to increase their skills.

As well as bringing the textile trade back, Julie is delighted to have re-employed machinists who were devastated to lose their jobs when the industry collapsed more than 15 years ago.

The workers are in the main aged over 40 – the youngest is 32 – but through talks with Northumbria University and other further education providers, Julie hopes to employ younger workers in the future, while also giving them new skills.

Within the 45,000sqft of the former call centre at Whitehouse Point the firm’s light and airy atmosphere, air conditioning and huge glass windows go a long way to dispel the image of “Coronation Street-style sweat shops”, a conscious location decision made to attract a new generation of workers.

Talks are being held with a string of major retailers, one of which could potentially bring in £3m over three years.

The team of machinists is constantly growing and the five directors say they are well on course to grow to employ 180 to 200 people by the end of 2015, and there is huge potential for further growth.

“The intention is once we fill this site, which will be full when we have 200 people, we will open a second site, and we’re already looking at other factories in various places.

“Within three years we’ll at least have a second factory, full equipped and with people in place, and I want us to offer a full portfolio of clothing, the full spectrum, and not just women’s clothing.

“However, what’s crucial to our industry is the reshoring of all the other ancillary elements needed within textiles – zips, threads, belts and so on.

“We can buy from Europe and that takes about a week, but all of these kinds of businesses once operated in the UK so their return would make the whole industry more sustainable, and fast.”

Working alongside your spouse could prove tricky, but this isn’t the case for Julie and David.

She said: “I’m a very, very driven person and I’m quite boring – we both are. We’re both so determined to make this succeed so it’s all we think about.

“I live and breathe work. And if I’m not waking up at 4am to do something work related I’m looking at opportunities for products, reading magazines, looking at what other people are doing. This is our passion, even though some think we are crazy.”

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