Down but never out

Down but never out

In a small studio on Consett’s outskirts, Juliette Middlesbrough and her team of six print banners for multinationals and major theme parks. But it’s been quite a rollercoaster ride on the way, the butcher’s daughter from Staffordshire tells Ruth Lognonne

The story behind Juliette Middlesbrough’s large format printing business, Design Xpress, isn’t as smooth as the PVC banners she prints upon. She started her business as a point of sale material producer in 1995, after she relocated to the North East. Her father ran a large butchery business in the Midlands, one of a number of large independent retailers operating out of the now defunct Kwik Save chain of superstores. While studying for an accountancy qualification, Middlesbrough designed marketing material for her father’s shops and was quickly leaning towards a career in graphic design.

She recalls: “My father was the second largest independent butcher in the UK. He regularly required marketing material to be designed and printed. I realised there was a niche in the market for the food industry. So when I moved to the region to be with my then partner, I set up my own company operating out of Stanley. “There was just me and a junior girl working at the time and through connections with my father, our customer base was largely the independent food retailers within Kwik Save.” However, her fortunes faded when supermarket group Somerfield acquired Kwik Save in a £473m deal in 1998. Ostensibly a merger, Somerfield investors owned 62.5% of the enlarged group and Somerfield’s intention was to rebrand the 350 Kwik Save stores under its Somerfield fascia. But the management at Somerfield quickly decided the look and feel of the Kwik Save stores – featuring warehouse-style wooden shelving, space-saving small checkouts and narrow aisles – would not fit well with the Somerfield brand. So Somerfield decided to retain and fully refurbish the 102 best stores, lining the remaining 248 up for closure.

Middlesbrough, who's 45, says: “As Somerfield closed the sites down the number of independent traders in Kwik Save – who were my clients - slowly diminished. By 2006, Somerfield decided to get rid of all the retail partners in Kwik Save. At that point, my business was potentially in a lot of danger. “Kwik Save was my bread and butter. My turnover went from £1m to losing £600,000 worth of business overnight. In the throes of all the Kwik Save work we had 14 staff. We’d slowly cut back on staff numbers so, fortunately, I only had to make one redundancy towards the end. “But it was really challenging, not just for me, but for my staff. My accountant told me to let go of the business. But I refused to see its name dragged through the dirt. I decided to buy my partner out and take the company forward on my own.” To free up capital necessary to buy out her business partner, she had to sell her holiday home in Portugal. She had to thoroughly squeeze her budgets and re-invent her business away from the food industry, and with a fresh approach. “I soon realised there was a market outside Kwik Save,” she says.“We did a lot of retail shows and trade fairs and made a lot of important contacts along the way. I’ve never had a full-time sales person. The business development side of things had largely been down to me. I would often – and still do – come into work early or stay late wearing scruffy jeans and a t-shirt to ensure all the banners are printed, packed and away on time.”

During a short-lived period of recovery, Design Xpress managed to win business with blue chip clients such as Thorntons and a number of Co-op stores. To this day, the company produces all of the large scale print material for Midcounties Co-op. In her bid to transfer work away from the food industry, the company also won a contract to supply to mobile phone specialist, Fonehouse. In 2010, filled with a new-found confidence, Middlesbrough approached a much larger print management company, whose name then was DSR. But so ill-fated was the company, that within just six months of working with it, Design Xpress was dumped with a £20,000 debt when DSR went under. “When they went under so did we, nearly,” she says. “Twice my business had almost been pulled from underneath me, and twice I faced a choice – either give up or battle on. “My father eventually lost his business after Kwik Save was sold to Somerfield, and it was heartbreaking for him. “He had to bounce back so many times, first of all when BSE struck and then Foot and Mouth disease. He’s another reason why I’m so determined to make this business work. I have one other shareholder who used to work in the business with me, and she is my step mother. She and my father are now retired as my father suffered a stroke a few years ago and they decided to locate back to Staffordshire, where I grew up. I owe it to them to make this work.”

Despite the series of potentially devastating setbacks, Design Xpress is not only still in business but, through the hard work and determination of its small team, has started to grow and become profitable again. It is now collaborating with several smaller print management firms and going from strength to strength. It now supplies, both directly and through print management companies and design agencies, to many large corporate firms. These include Merlin Entertainment, which looks after Alton Towers, London Eye, Thorpe Park and Madame Tussauds. It also works with Hotel Du Vin, De Vere, Rugby Football Union, Thorntons, Mercedes and Allianz to name a few. And in 2011, Design Xpress secured a two-year contract with Durham County Council, and is now part of the council’s large current print network. Middlesbrough can finally revel in her company’s success and reward her loyal staff for their efforts and perseverance. She says: “It makes me proud to think we have our work on the walls in the changing rooms at Twickenham’s hallowed rugby ground. It’s a huge achievement for a tiny company like us, and I’m extremely proud of my staff for producing such high-quality work against the odds. “Against adversity we’ve fought and battled on. I’ve cut back, sacrificed a lot and put in ridiculous hours because this company’s success means a lot to me.

Out of Design Xpress’s six-strong workforce now, three employees left straight from school and are still working for the company in their 30s. “We’re a very close-knit team,” says the boss. “There’s not a massive management structure. We all just muck in and work together.” Until recently, Middlesbrough was the only director in the business. However, she has just offered her production manager a position as director of operations, and he has been responsible for helping in the firm’s ISO accreditations, and helping also in improving production work flow and business development. “It’s quite difficult to develop the business, especially when you work in the business, not on it,” Middlesbrough admits. “We launched a full e-commerce website in January. It’s early days and progress is still slow. But now with a director of operations I’m in a position to drive the website forward.” The company is profitable, but not hugely yet, Middlesbrough says. She aims to get the existing turnover of nearly £500,000 a year up to £650,000 soon. Besides upping her firm's revenue and taking on one or two apprentices in the future, Middlesbrough also aims to relocate to bigger factory space as business continues to grow. She says: “We’ve outgrown these premises, so bigger space will allow the flow of work to be a little smoother. It will also create a nicer environment for my workforce and customers visiting us. We're a very small team but we’ve achieved so much in recent years. We were particularly proud to win a small business of the year award for Durham this year.”

Like many companies of all sizes in the region, to stay ahead of the competition both in the UK and overseas requires innovation, she says. The region’s reputation for rolling up its sleeves and getting the job done goes a long way too. “We were the first company in the North East to have a latex printer in 2009,” she says. “We’ve always tried to stay on the cutting edge of technology. Our unique selling point is the service we offer - how we respond to our customers and how quickly we respond to enquiries. “We get few complaints and any there are relate to couriers, not what we’ve done ourselves. We look after our clients because lots of what we produce is very time sensitive. We don’t often say no to anything. We work weekends or late evenings if we need to get the job done. All these factors have helped us develop further in what, for many small businesses, are difficult times.”