With three awards in the bag from the Professional Clothing Awards, all eyes are on Hunter Apparel. director-e takes a visit to their HQ in Londonderry, Northern Ireland to find out more about the company which got the industry buzzing this April.
At a time which they themselves quote as ‘the most exciting & interesting in our entire history’ – now more than ever is a great time to check in with the team at Hunter Apparel.
The past few years have seen the company really step into their own stride, tackling the challenges of large scale contracts, whilst growing their internal infrastructure and in-house technology to develop, grow and really push the business forward. With a new chairman at the helm, and a string of wins at the recent Professional Clothing Awards this April, now is the time for Hunter Apparel to shine.
Established in 1936, the company now stand as one of the most long-standing in the industry with a long and solid reputation in designing and manufacturing apparel. With a manufacturing base in the UK and over 50 years history in offshore sourcing, Hunter can pull on its facilities across the world to deliver bespoke uniform requirements to order. Today, supported by their unique web software (HunterPac and HunterCARE), Hunter Apparel offers a full managed contract service to some of the most well known companies in the UK.
It is rare to find a supplier who can apply their skills to include corporate wear, workwear and PPE, offering a unique overview of the professional clothing industry. This breadth, managing director Simon Hunter CDir. says, is the result of a natural progression in their pursuit of what they saw as the ‘right’ customer: “Over time we have built the expertise and knowledge to know we can make any style of garment. Piece by piece we learnt the skills in design and fabric selection across all garment categories in corporate wear and PPE.
“Our customers have always been people who appreciate good design, are service orientated, and appreciate the use of innovative technology. This knowledge and expertise in manufacturing, fabrics, and design make us confident in our abilities and what we can achieve for our clients.”
A fresh view at the top
To understand where Hunter is making key strides currently, it is most interesting to get into the mind of new company chairman Padraig Canavan. Appointed just earlier this year, Mr Canavan brings his expertise in software and technology to Hunter Apparel. A known businessman in Northern Ireland, Mr Canavan (OBE) was founder and CEO of the international software vendor Singularity, acquired by Kofax in 2011. Whilst being completely new to the apparel industry, he sees an exciting future in the application of technology in clothing to benefit image, safety comfort and service.
Brought together with MD Simon for an ‘InvestNI’ mentoring programme, Padraig and Simon developed a business synergy with an enthusiasm for technology which made joining company board a natural progression. He told director-e: “The technology I feel Hunter is really excelling in takes in three main facets; Software technology, which enables the business to flow better such as the web-based management systems. Fabric and fibre technology which needs to be the best it can be. Finally, we also need to put the structures in place with the view and ability to scale up and grow further.”
He adds: “The ability to be able to understand how clothes are to be designed and used is a skill in itself. Being able to do that in a cost effective way is a great asset, and rare to find. I feel Simon and his team have that in abundance – it’s born out of their history, the factory, the hands on approach – it’s hard to recreate. For me, it’s about bringing in my experience and expertise to explore the ways technology can further support and grow the fantastic foundations they already have in place.”
The backing of a strong team
Since his inception as managing director just over four years ago, one of Simon’s first moves was to ‘flatten’ the business and give a greater level of power to his senior management team. Although family remains at the core, with his brother Jeff on hand for customer management services and wife Roisin keeping control of the company’s finances, each member of the team brings a credible and impressive skillset in their given field. This consistency in personnel, in presenting a ‘solid’ client facing team has enabled Hunter to focus on their business in hand. Contracts such as the recent Border Force rollout for over 11,000 wearers earlier this year is a testament to the strong skills held by all members of Hunter’s team.
Simon adds: “We are very proud to be a family business. But every single person on the senior management team is an asset and has special skills, experience and credentials to bring to the table. We are a tight team and in this for the long haul with a shared goal to see the business evolve. With so many companies within the industry experiencing top-level change, we see our continuity as a huge advantage.” Currently, Simon as Managing Director works with the senior management team alongside Warren Young, Christine Hutton, Jeff Hunter and Roisin Hunter and of course, new company Chairman Padraig Canavan.
Warehouse, procurement and supply chain manager Christine Hutton comes from a background in strategic sourcing at M&S; a role within supply chain management, handling budgets of between £20 and £30 million in her previous roles. Technical services manager Warren Young has an extensive background with the company of 16 years and also a background in tailored production management for M&S. M&S being one of the key training organisations in the UK he brings with him with a deep understanding of the apparel and textiles market. Customer services manager Jeff Hunter has utilised his IT and business training to manage the bespoke in house systems, and financial services manager Roisin Hunter now leads an incredibly skilled team in handling the company’s finances and accounts.
Simon himself has also stepped up his skillset in his role by pushing himself into becoming a Chartered Director. He says: “To be at the head of this company, I believe I needed to be professionally qualified firstly to do the job well, but also to allow that as the company did grow and achieve the scale we planned for, to be able to cope, and manage the business increasingly more effectively, and really make that valid contribution.”
Simon says that it is the rich tapestry of experience of both his key management team and the wider workforce, which provides real strength to their company structure. He adds: “Some people will know us for our success in workwear or PPE, and maybe not traditionally as a corporatewear supplier. However, our staff have the experience, background and expertise to tackle each of these sectors. We are successful across all three sectors, and are proud of our offering in each’.”
Today, Hunter stands as one of the longest established companies in the industry. The business currently employs 44 staff, growing from 33 in the last year alone. Continued technology and staff investments are due in the coming year across all departments in line with forecasted growth.
The company is targeting £8m in sales in 2014, nearly doubling the £4.6m target of the previous year. The company has been awarded the Dunn & Bradstreet “2A1” company status – placing them in the top ten percent of all UK businesses across all sectors in regards to financial stability – a fantastic claim for any business, let alone anyone within professional clothing.
A UK base with global support
With interest in corporate social responsibility and environmental impacts at a high, the business is also incredibly proud to remain manufacturing on UK shores. Although sourcing from international factories is also used, keeping the UK manufacturing facility operational has been crucial for not only its resonance, but also for the benefit of customer service. Simon explains: “As long as the business overall was in profit, it was critical to me that our factory always remained open. There is great benefit in manufacturing in the UK. It’s great for client service – I can come straight from a client meeting, phone back to the factory immediately with a design concept and get them working on samples, which can land on the client’s desk by 9am the following day. That is unheard of, and I am incredibly proud we can deliver that level of service to our customers.”
Having been in the unique position of sourcing globally from as far back as 1960 – offshore sourcing is also noted as one of the company’s real strengths. Long term relationships with offshore factories and a structure of in-house audits give buyer assurance. Simon adds: “The main variant between our different facilities will be time. Production in the Far East is the best pricing by far, but it does take time. Eastern Europe is quicker, but costs more and of course producing in the UK will be more costly, but offers an incredibly tight turnaround.”
Keeping all of these key elements such as design and some manufacture under one roof enables Hunter to offer a much more ‘rounded’ offering for their clients. Technical services manager Warren explains: “We can mix the flair of design, affordability, combining with our knowledge and skill in fabric and manufacture to see what is workable. We can do that across a table, in one room. It sounds simple, but that is a huge advantage for the business.” Pushing forward with technology
Hunter prides themselves on their USP’s – service innovation and technical design innovation to do things differently. Their web-based managed service system has been invested in year on year, and remains a core asset in terms of offered services within tenders.
First to be launched was ‘HunterPac’, the fully bespoke web-managed service system managing ordering and delivery of garments. Led by customer feedback, the system is customer focused and simple, designed in such a way to be adaptable for different ‘levels’ of order maintenance – from a single administrator approach, right down to individual users managing their own allocations. The system is designed as such to enable restrictions on individual users and put fallbacks for approval in place if required to authenticate orders before processing.
The latest extension to the website is ‘HunterCARE’ – a brand new module within the website operating on the same principle but specifically driven for the track and trace requirements of high value PPE garments. Under this new system, strategic allegiances have been built with laundry facilities across the country, creating an electronic link to monitor the life, repairs and retirement stages of any PPE garment supplied. This system serves three key purposes – to maximise the life of the item in question, to maximise the health and safety of the wearer and to provide the employer with an audit trail.
Logging essential information, laundering and repair logs, and also retirement policies, both the client and Hunter’s are notified when items are to be replaced. The consistent monitoring gives assurance the garments are fit for purpose – in the PPE sector specifically, this is crucially important due to the duty of care legislation.
Simon explains further: “Some skills are great to have in house, and some are simply better off being sub-contracted. Things like design and development and the bespoke technology are key for us to keep in house, but delivery and laundering, can be subcontracted in an extremely effective way. For us it’s about whatever works to deliver the best service to our clients.”
Taking pride of place in the company boardroom are the three crystal trophies, from their three recent wins at the Professional Clothing Awards.
The team were recognised by a panel of expert judges for their work on the Home Office/ Border Force contract happening at the beginning of 2014. The rollout, which saw 11,000 users kitted out in the mere space of five months, saw the company take home trophies in the categories of Best Managed Major Contract, Best Bespoke Uniform for Workwear, and also for the highly acclaimed Business Manager of the Year award 2014, which specifically celebrates the great working relationship between buyer and supplier in meeting key orders.
As the business stands today, Hunter Apparel is in full momentum for a year that is set to be one step ahead of the last. With further big contracts on the horizon, a solid management team and years of experience, Hunter Apparel appears well equipped to tackle whatever this industry throws at them. Padraig concludes: “Personally, I like good technology put to good use. What I saw in Simon was that same desire, to embrace technology and adapt it for his business. He’s open and ready, and that’s an exciting place to be. I would like Hunter to be a strongly differentiated brand globally as well as the UK, and I think there has never been such an opportunity as now.”