Laura Turner speaks to Michelle Cohen (left), head of accounts and export at Innovation Schoolwear, to discover how the business has moved on since a large fire destroyed its warehouse, and all of the contents, in 2015.
Laura Turner: What’s the history behind Innovation Schoolwear?
Michelle Cohen: The company was founded nearly 50 years ago by our grandfather, Raphael Cohen. He started the business selling men’s, ladies’ and children’s fashionwear and a small amount of schoolwear – namely, knitwear and trousers. When his son, Jack Cohen, joined the company, he saw the potential in the market; especially with school uniforms taking precedence in government at the time. Additionally, there weren’t many companies wholesaling school uniforms then, so he decided that would be our future business.
LT: How has the company evolved since?
MC: Each generation has brought new blood and ideas into Innovation Schoolwear – we now have the third generation of family working in the business. Previously, we used to solely stock knitwear and trousers, however, nearly 50 years later, we have a comprehensive range of schoolwear that we are now looking to expand, both in terms of colour and lines available.
LT: Who are the key people running the company today?
MC: As we are a partnership, the two directors of the company are Jack Cohen, who is the buyer, stock controller and organiser of the warehouse and workforce, alongside Ben Cohen, who does the purchase ledger and payroll, is head of IT systems and new customer development. I am head of accounts and export and, over the last year, I’ve been working on media and advertising. Sam Cohen is the company’s CEO, as well as looking after product development and running the embroidery and printing section of the business.
LT: What would you say are Innovation Schoolwear’s key strengths and capabilities?
MC: Customer service, unquestionably. Being a family-run business, we realise the importance of building close relationships with both our customers and suppliers. We are fully committed to providing a personal service to all our customers and we’re always happy to go the extra mile to make things work, be it on pricing or customer satisfaction.
LT: You sadly experienced a warehouse fire in November 2015 – what happened and what damage was caused?
MC: On Friday 6th November 2015, at around 9.53pm, our warehouse and its contents were completely destroyed due to a firework entering the building through a skylight. By the Monday, we had started working from of one of the partner’s houses. With the support of our insurers and suppliers, we managed to get our business up and running again very quickly. We secured a premises in Potters Bar in December and had resumed business by the end of January 2016.
LT: How has the company bounced back?
MC: It wasn’t easy. Thankfully, most customers stuck with us, but sadly, some believed the lies that a certain wholesaler spread that we would not open again, so we lost that business. The whole of 2016 was slow, but we worked on marketing and advertising in the hope that 2017 would be much better. Thank God it has paid off – this year has been even better for us than 2015.
LT: In terms of your schoolwear range, what does Innovation Schoolwear offer?
MC: We supply smart, comfortable and durable garments covering everything needed from general schoolwear to sportswear. This also includes accessories – book bags, P.E bags, document cases and so on – through to belts, braces and our popular Hi-Vis vests.
LT: What would you pinpoint as your best-sellers?
MC: Our junior and senior trousers, because we have all sizes and fits available; the polo shirts, which are heavyweight quality and stocked in 16 colours; our UK-made sweatshirts, which do not fade; and all of the bags, from both our schoolwear and Phoenix ranges.
LT: You mention UK-made sweatshirts as one of your best-sellers – do you manufacture any of your other lines in the UK?
MC: Yes, four of our main lines are actually UK-manufactured: sweatshirts, boys’ trousers, girls’ skirts and pinafores. We believe it’s important to keep skilled workers employed, help keep the UK factories in business, reduce our carbon footprint and, perhaps most importantly, get any gaps in our stocks replenished faster. Imported goods take three months, while UK goods take two weeks.
LT: Will you increase your UK-manufactured lines?
MC: We are always looking for opportunities to increase our manufacturing in the UK, but price-point and quality are key. Sourcing a factory that has a balance between the two is difficult, especially because we have to sell it on at wholesale price. It’s a trade-off between cost, speed, flexibility and quality.
LT: What does Innovation Schoolwear offer in regards to embroidery and printing services?
MC: We quote within 24 hours, sample within 48 hours, and post first class to the customer for their approval. Plus, no set-up fees apply on school embroidery if an order is placed. Turnaround is seven days on embroidery orders and 14 days on printed orders – completed. We embroider our own garments and third-party garments, and do not have a minimum order at any time of year.
LT: As a business, what is your stance on social, ethical and environmental responsibility?
MC: All of the factories we use are long-running businesses we have dealt with for a number of years. Our purchasing agent visits all the factories we use abroad and has reported to us that no child labour and no (obvious) mistreatment of employees takes place. We have further instructed him to only deal with factories that he knows have a good track record. We thrive on repeat business and that repeat business only comes about through consistency of supplying good-quality products. Using the cheapest factories doesn’t always turn out to be the most economic choice.
LT: You’re exhibiting at the Schoolwear Show for BTS 2018?
MC: Yes, we are really excited to be exhibiting at the Schoolwear Show this year: all orders over £2,500 placed by the end of November 2017 will be held at 2017 prices and delivered by 1 st June 2018, with 60 days’ credit.
LT: How many stockists do you currently have?
MC: The majority of our stockists are in the UK, Ireland or Channel Islands, and we have just over 1,000 active customers. We do export to Europe and Africa and, in most cases, sort the logistics too. Our export customers appreciate the quality and workmanship of our garments as they know standards in the UK are high, albeit more expensive than using a local tailor or a cheap import.
LT: Where are you looking to next for growth and development?
MC: UK school uniform shops and outfitters. Since March 2017, one of our directors, Ben Cohen, along with sales representative, Hanif Tanveer, have been visiting new and existing customers, showcasing our product range. There are retailers up and down the country who are aware of us, but haven’t approached us or had a reason – for instance, a supply issue with current supplier – to contact us. Those new customers who have started using our services and selling our products have been pleasantly surprised by how easy and efficient we are to work with.
LT: What are the overall plans for the business?
MC: We are really excited to be moving into a new, vast, purpose-built warehouse in December. We want to get bigger and better at what we do by listening to customer feedback and bringing in new lines to accommodate popular requests. For example, from February 2018, we are stocking poly/cotton sweatshirts, water bottles and a new colour (turquoise) in polo shirts. Customers really do value “quality”, “service” and “reliability”, which are the three key values we direct our family-run business on.