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If the Hat Fits

As promotional headwear specialist Sharon Lee reaches its 70th year, Gordon Glenister finds out how the business is staying relevant today.

Trade supplier Sharon Lee, has just reached its milestone birthday of 70 years. I went down to meet the team in March and was really impressed by the dedication they all have to support the company.

The company originally started selling novelty hats to tourists in a Southend-on-Sea shop which was started by present managing director, Toby Pache’s grandfather Woolf Davis. The name, Sharon Lee, originated from Woolf’s daughter, Toby’s mother. Toby’s father Graham took over the business in 1973 until 2009.

There have been many challenges along the way and the recession of 2009 nearly sunk the business.

“In the early days, there were just six people working here,” says Toby.“Two in sales, two in the warehouse, and two in accounts and all the embroidery was outsourced. Now there are 29 including three apprentices, two of whom have been promoted.”

Many of the current team have been there for some time – some as long as 25 years. The business now has two production shifts 7am-1pm and 1pm-7pm and works to a three-week production.

When Toby took over, he had to reset the business model and decided to bring production in house, focus on marketing, and working with key customers. Over the past five years he has invested heavily in this which has paid dividends.

Sharon Lee now has seven 8-head Tajima embroidery machines and a 12-head is on order, as well as a rhinestone direct to garment. Toby is expecting to see turnover grow by 27% this year.

“Most of the growth has come from bespoke ranges which now account for more than 50% of the business, 40% embroidered stock, and just 10% plain. We’ve seen a real trend in High Street quality and fashion,” he says.

“In the sports arena, fabrics like bamboo have grown in interest. We’ve also supported our customers with accessory kits like gloves and scarves too,” he adds. “Baseball caps account for around 75% and knitted around 25%.”

Sharon Lee has also developed some sizeable business in the licensed sector and brands like Disney have given factory quality inspections.

Toby sees education of his customers as critical. Sharon Lee welcomes distributors and embroiderers to the Essex factory and provides engaging videos on the manufacturing and branding processes.

Asked why he does what he does, he answers, “I love it! I absolutely love it! The team are so different, it’s not a chore in any way.”

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