In his 'naive' younger days, former market trader Andrew Ward found himself living in a rundown caravan with a collapsed business. Today the gleaming black Porsche 911 Carrera parked outside his factory, where his present business has recently been growing at a rate of 35%, indicates the turnaround in fortunes for a still young man, now a wealthy entrepreneur on two fronts.
Ward, whose Workwear Express is a leading supplier of workwear, uniforms and promotional clothing to top firms at home and abroad, is complementing these activities with a property development firm about to build a business park in Durham City.
And unlike those early, chancy days in business, he has ridden crisis successfully. More than that, Workwear's turnover is climbing from £5m last year to an expected £8m this and £20m three years hence. To meet a customer list growing by 2,000 a month, staffing is being stepped up from 83 to 100 by Christmas, and another £250,000 has just been invested in additional machinery.
Yet, says Ward, when recession took hold in 2008 the firm suffered 'a double whammy'. The nightmare scenario... "We lost a major client accounting for 35% of our business and effects of the recession meant companies stopped buying workwear and uniforms.
Staffing had to be cut back temporarily. But also: "I re-invented how we do business and invested heavily in online. So we've basically changed how we do a lot of business now. We're not beholden to any single customer any more. Our biggest customer now, and it is a big customer, accounts for little more than 5% of our business.
"However, we have more than 40,000 smaller businesses we deal with. People like what we do and how we do it. We've obviously broadened our appeal and it's not just the website. A lot of work we get is through word of mouth. Now we're attracting so much business we're holding back on promoting ourselves.
"We've grown very quickly again and have to be careful because we can't get enough staff in. We're recruiting like mad at the moment." The need lies across the business: sales staff, production staff, and personnel for the
He's opening a showroom at the factory and planning similar openings in London and Manchester to give customers there a touch and feel access. He's losing count but the factory in Cathedral Park on Belmont Industrial Estate that he moved into 18 months ago is the third or fourth site he's worked from to get more space.
Ward expects the present building to cope for perhaps two years more. But as a property developer also, he has just acquired a six acre site nearby which will become a business park, and Express Workwear may either relocate totally again, or run a split operation between the existing site and another on his own park.
"I rely on cash," he says. "Ours is a very price competitive industry. We like to think we compete well on service. That's where we score. A lot of the competition doesn't have the capacity to cope with normal production if they get one big order in. We've been in that situation, whereas we're geared up now to cope.
"We've put extra headroom in, extras shifts on, plus the new machinery, new staff. We try to stay ahead on capacity. We've recently turned out 20,000 polo shirts for a client. We have contract customers also who may have up to 20,000 staff, and every so often you get a rollout with 20,000 staff to kit out. That's a lot. But we even do single orders for any one man band who just wants a uniform for himself. Smaller orders are a speciality of ours. We can turn around more than 1,000 smaller orders a week."
Online orders are coming from Australia, the Middle East, France, Spain, and Scandinavia. Workwear designs and contracts out the manufacture of bespoke clothing to factories in Europe, China and elsewhere in Asia. It then embroiders and prints logos as required.
"We're one of the UK's biggest tee shirt printers," Ward claims. "Our machines can print 1,000 t-shirts an hour. We also do bags, baseball caps, scarves, umbrellas, football kits. We meet needs of universities and schools."
For more than 18 months the firm has been operating round the clock, two shifts of 12 hours on a four day week, with two truckloads of deliveries going out daily. "It's going very well," he says. "The IT system we've also invested is one of the things making us very efficient."
Turning out more than 30,000 garments a week now, Workwear Express provides more than 6,000 off-the-shelf products, and through its bespoke manufactured service, enjoys a lot of repeat business.
Clients present and past include: Aston Martin, 3 Mobile, Tesco, Rolls Royce, Greggs, Little Chef, webuyanycar.com, Sage, Durham County and South Tyneside Councils, Wimpey, Mitie, Scottish Hydro Electricity, Asda and Black & Decker. Also Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted Airports, Barclays, the Prince Bishops Shopping Centre in Durham, health trusts, educational institutions, the motor trade, sports organisations, and Cardiff University.
The firm also supplies uniforms to securitystaff on the X Factor television show as it goes around the country, and recently received an order on behalf of the TV programme Emmerdale.
Really, though, Workwear Express is beginning to look a star in its own right.
What he never learned at school
Andrew Ward, a Weardale lad born in Wolsingham 41 years ago, has been kitting workers out since he was 10. He helped his father, a wagon driver, to sell the workwear at truck shows in his spare time.
He’d attended junior school at Wolsingham then Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, but left at 16 unable to abide school. He also dropped out of Durham Sixth Form Centre during mock A levels. When his father lost interest in retailing, Andrew thought he could continue and make a few quid.
“There was nothing to take over. So I started buying rental garments from laundries, picking out those that could be resold - overalls, jackets and trousers - and that’s what we used to sell on the markets. I was already running that towards the end of my schooling.”
He was also selling schoolmates goods he’d bought at Newcastle Quayside’s Sunday market, like tool boxes he’d converted into pencil cases. “I had four or five friends going to different markets each week. Each Monday in the school library I’d get all the cash from them, less what they might have pocketed themselves” - a gleam of humour in his eye here - “and I was happy because I knew I was getting a good return on it anyway.
“Sitting in A level sociology one day and looking at the teacher I thought ‘God, I’m probably earning four times what you’re earning. Why am I here?’ During my mock geography A level exam I fell asleep - so tired from working so much. I never went back.”
By 17 he was working the markets, selling work clothing at likes of Catterick (where he was one of the first ever to trade), Newcastle Quayside, Chester le Street and the old Haswell Mart and other auction venues. He toured steam rallies and shows at weekends. Midweek, he hawked boots and jeans door-to-door, and on building and opencast sites. “It was a hard life. I don’t see anyone doing it now.”
He’d bought with £800 of savings a Mercedes Van that he nicknamed Hitler’s Revenge. “It used to break down so much.” Worst was en route to Manchester to buy stock on a snow laden M62. He languished there getting colder and colder, a 17-year-old ignorant about vehicle mechanics, until a good Samaritan of a motorist towed him to a
By then he’d acquired a garage-like workplace 400sq ft. He got himself a seven and a half ton box truck, then another vehicle for a second participant. He racked up overheads with a better unit at Spennymoor and also got himself a ‘fancy car’ on hire purchase. Shortly after, he learned his most valuable lesson in business, for - ‘young and naive’ he found his business had failed.
Ward today enjoys life cycling roads and mountains, sailing and ski-ing. But then he lived for six pretty miserable months in the caravan he’d bought for £300. It stood on rough land beside the little hut he’d traded from. “I don’t mind talking about all this because in a strange way I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,”he says philosophically, though not wishing it on anyone else.
“I’ll put in a disclaimer here and say I still deal now with every supplier I dealt with then.” The taxman was owed most. “But he’s more than had his money back since - probably a hundred times over.” There were personal repercussions he regretted though, like a fallout within his family.
“I fell out with everybody really. I hadn’t a penny. Somehow - I don’t know how - I got going again. Strangely, a lot of suppliers helped me. They’d seen something persuading them to give me credit again to
“Experience like that teaches you many things - stuff you’ll never learn at school. I buy all my machines with cash now. I don’t take out any finance and I don’t have any overdrafts. Our cash in the bank served us very well during the recession. I’d learned my lesson and was on the up when everyone else was down, bust or struggling. I had the cash to invest in equipment when no-one else did.”
He’s not crowing, simply reflecting on how he came through. “I’ll only buy something now if I’ve got something that will pay for it. I’ve learned only to buy assets, never liabilities. And I especially don’t borrow money to buy liabilities. I just wish I’d had someone around to tell me that when I was 21.”
A quick check via a credit rating firm finds Workwear Express described as a “financially solid” company with consistent year on year growth, and no borrowings.” That’s quite a satisfying way to be seen, really.
Role of the Angel
During the recession Andrew Ward started buying property in his own name - a lot he couldn’t have afforded in good times.
“I’ve got some big stuff going on at the moment, a mixture,” he says. “It started as a hobby providing a few student lets around Durham. I also bought six pubs in five years in the city centre, all renovated and leased out now. Pubs and property are an enjoyable two-in-one hobby,” he laughs. A lot of property remains in his own name but he also owns Angel Homes and Angel Developments, named after the Angel, the first pub he bought, and where he had spent many hours in his youth. “We went there all the time - loved it. Probably that’s one reason I went bankrupt in the first place,” he quips.
There was romantic sentiment behind the purchase too. It’s where he and Angie, the girl later to become his wife, regularly met in Durham City - she living in Brandon, he in Crook. That purchase has paid handsomely and it seemed natural to buy the Elm Tree across the road from the Angel also. “Both are real good old fashioned and excellent pubs,” he says.
“We’ve just finished also a £4m mixed residential/commercial block in the centre of Durham with students and Yates’s Wine Lodge and Corals the bookmaker in there. We’ve another £2.5m student block starting in January and the £10m trade park round the corner from here starting next year also. We own this factory lock, stock and barrel. He and Angie, living now in Durham City, have been together 20 years.
They have three children - India Angel, 16, Charlie, nine, and Ruby, seven, and Angie also handles the financial side of Workwear Express. She has been in the business throughout. “She helped me get back on my feet,” he says. “She did all sorts from unpacking boxes to selling and helping with office work.” Well, they do say ‘behind every successful man...’