Much More Than A Stitch In Time In The Borders
BE Uniforms, formerly known as Border Embroideries, was founded by Billy and Shirley Anne Smillie in 1989 using a single head embroidery machine purchased with the help of the Prince's Trust. With around 30 years of experience supplying schools, businesses and clubs across the UK and beyond, BE Uniforms have become one of the UK's leading specialist uniform suppliers from their purpose-built factory based in the Scottish Borders. Paul Andrews went to meet William and Ross Smillie, the second generation, to find out more.
BE is a family business with family values at their core, a business that quite literally started in the bedroom of the family home on day one and has grown very much as a result of the hard work, determination and endeavour of the founders, Billy and Shirley Anne.
As Ross explains, “Mum and Dad have always worked hard and clearly led by example with their work ethic which is second to none. Like many starting out on their new venture, they worked incredibly hard, starting out supplying some products to the local golf course. The business began to grow, growing further as a result of Scotland winning the rugby Grand Slam in 1990, and at that point bigger machines and larger premises were needed. These were found in an old workshop in Greenlaw belonging to Billy's father Archie in which 3 new multihead machines were introduced to cope with demand.”
As the business grew, partnerships began with a number of local schools and embroidery for their uniforms and the supply of other items such as ties too. This growth saw them outgrow their premises and in 2000 the business moved to a purpose built factory in Greenlaw just outside Duns which the family constructed and saw a further 3 multihead machines added and more staff employed to meet demand.
As William continues, “Dad was growing a successful business and the reputation for our service was gaining momentum and he saw the potential to expand further. Not content with supplying direct to schools and clubs, he moved the business into retail with the opening of our first store in Glasgow in 2005 through a National Schoolwear Franchise.”
“With continued growth the factory was extended for the first time providing a larger office and dispatch area. At roughly the same time the franchise became available in Wishaw so BE took on a second store. Our sister, Aynsley joined the business and now can be found managing the school accounts in the office.”
Over the years the business continued to grow with more retail stores added and further extension of the factory, not to mention continuing investment in machinery, staff, retail outlets and staff.
“It has been a great journey, “continues Ross. “In 2020 we rebranded from Border Embroideries to BE Uniforms. We're still the same company but have now combined the 3 sub brands - schoolwear, workwear and teamwear - as a testament to our 30 years in business providing uniforms across the UK.”
“In late 2020 all stores underwent a transformation and now proudly display the new brand name above every door. The rebrand also opened us up to focus more on the workwear and teamwear markets."
"So now, as well as our extensive range of school uniform, you’ll now find an unrivalled selection of workwear and teamwear in store, from industry leading brands such as Helly Hansen, Mascot, Snickers, Portwest, Canterbury, Adidas, Joma and Kappa.”
In March 2021, Billy took a step back from the business and son’s Ross and William took over as the Managing Directors of BE Uniforms.
"This was a very proud moment for Shirley-Anne and I as it has always been our wish that the children will take on the mantle of the business and hopefully progress it to the next level,” adds Billy.
Like many next generation family members, life in the family business may not have been planned but that is where both William and Ross have found themselves, and now lead the business very successfully.
For William, the route to the business was via a stint at university. “I had no real intention of working in the family business and after school took a gap year, working a little in the business and then heading off to Edinburgh to study geology. Every day I got a call from my Dad asking me when I was going to be back working in the business and after six months and realising that university was not for me I returned to the business."
"To be honest, returning to the business was the best thing I could have done. I started our managing the stores, spent time in sales and production and over the years have gained experience in all aspects of the business, something that I did from the bottom up and this has really helped me move through the ranks and continues to really help me in my role today.”
Ross entered the business straight from school. “I joined at a time when we had just launched our first website for schools to enable online uniform ordering and my first role was to oversee the web generated business from printing the emails as they came in and picking and packing the final orders. The website continues to grow to this day and we now service over 1700 schools.”
Ross and William's take over has injected some new ideas into the business, allowing BE Uniforms to drive on further, with Billy not too far away now acting as Chairman. Daughter Aynsley is also still actively involved in the business, although as of August 2021 she is on maternity leave after having her third child.
William and Ross are now joint Managing Directors and whilst this may not work for some businesses, it works really well at BE. “We get on really well and share an office but what makes it work is the fact that we have very complimentary skills,” continues William.
“Ross runs the websites and marketing side of things and I am responsible for the day to day operational side of things."
"We balance each other out and it works well. If anything is a challenge it Is Dad!”
“Dad built the business and knows everything about it. It’s like another child to him,” continues William. “He had a handle on everything, although there were not many systems and automated processes and as the business has grown, this is something that we have introduced. The business is now supported by comprehensive systems and processes which gives us the information we need to run the business as it continues to grow but is a very different approach to the way that Dad ran the business in the early years. Like many of his generation, he sometimes struggles to appreciate the change, although knows it is needed but I guess that is how a family business evolves.”
As a second generation management team they are fully aware of their leadership responsibilities that come with taking on a growing business. “We have a trusted adviser who is like a mentor to us, giving us guidance and support and offering a good challenge too,” adds Ross. “We run the business by facts and figures, decisions are driven by the data and that helps us too. Dad always ran the business on the bank balance and had a full understanding of the figures in his head. He was amazing but over time, BE has grown and the systems and processes have been a necessary addition to the way we operate.”
BE continues to go places and has a strong management team in place, with Dad an integral part of the team too. “Dad wanted us to step up and take over and that is what we have done,” continues William, “and we understand what needs to be done and how to do it but he is full of knowledge and wisdom and that is really beneficial when it comes to our strategy and it is great to have his input too.”
Like plenty of other family business leaders, Ross and William do not find it easy to switch off. As Ross continues, “Even on holiday it is hard because you are always thinking about the business and what is going on and the holiday gives you some breathing space, which is great time to step back and think about the bigger picture so it is hard to switch off, and to be honest when it is your business I am not sure you fully want to either.”
Growth continues and whilst the pandemic was a challenge it also afforded BE some opportunities. “The pandemic didn't slow us down and we were extremely fortunate to have seen a huge growth in online sales. As businesses began to open back up again, 2021 saw us open 3 new retail stores - the first in Edinburgh, which opened in May 2021. The Edinburgh store, located on Dundee St. now stocks over 20 local school's uniform plus our wide range of plain schoolwear, workwear and teamwear.”
“In June 2021 we acquired The Uniform Shop on West Tower Street in Carlisle - our first store over the border! We rebranded the store to BE Uniforms and then reopened, offering the same great services as our other stores, plus many local schools uniforms and lastly. we also opened our first concession within Planet Sports & Trophies on Great Lime Road, Newcastle. This acts as a face-to-face service for our local customers, a Click & Collect point plus a drop off location for any online returns. They can also see sizing sets for schoolwear before they place an order online,” explains Ross.
The next generation of BE are like their predecessors, living the values that have clearly been embedded in the family – hard work, strong desire to succeed and doing business the right way. “Mum and Dad always worked hard, right from the start and it is important to both of us that we put in a good shift,” adds William.
“We work hard because we want to and are always looking for new opportunities. One of the biggest challenges for us in the seasonality because there is a significant peak in demand, especially for school uniforms before the start of each new school year. Workwear is an area that we are investing in and it continues to grow and this will certainly help remove some of the seasonal peaks that we have historically faced.”
Workwear is a great opportunity for the business and the second generation are making their mark on BE. “The business continues to evolve and grow which is really exciting,” continues William.
“We are based where we grew up and have strong allegiance to the Borders and the businesses that we support here and our loyal, long-serving staff, but we are growing further afield and that is really exciting. Mum and Dad worked incredibly hard and we plan to do the same, building on the business that they created an developed and we continue to grow and diversify."
"Dad loves the growth and is always looking for new retail spaces, even when we have no firm plans to open any more, but that is because he still sees opportunity.”
“Family is important to us and the family business enables us to work together and see each other on a regular basis. We have plenty of plans for the future and who knows what the future will hold but there will be plenty of hard work and continued evolution too,” concludes William.
As Ross Adds, “We are lucky that we love what we do and none of us shy away from hard work."
"The family values and ethos that we have lived and breathed growing up certainly stand us in good stead going forward but we are excited about the next stages in the BE journey."
"It’s incredible when we look back to where it all started with one machine in the bedroom to what we are doing today and it is important that we do celebrate where we have come from and all that the team continue to achieve too.”
We look forward to seeing the next stages in the BE journey.