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“UK manufacturing must be part of the solution”: Hunter Apparel Solutions

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Simon Hunter Esq, M.B.E., CEO of Hunter, says his company is actively recruiting in response to the Coronavirus outbreak and explains why he believes this is an opportunity to reverse decades of decline in the UK manufacturing sector.

Hunter Apparel Solutions Limited (Hunter) is a family business, now in its third generation, specialising in the design, manufacture and aftercare of protective equipment and branded professional clothing. We’re based in Derry-Londonderry and have 45 employees. I’m also one of the founding directors of the Professional Clothing Industry Association Worldwide (PCIAW®) – one of UKFT’s Federated members.

We’re are a leading UK supplier of professional clothing and PPE to many blue light clients, such as the London Fire Brigade. Our edge is in the creation of technology-led solutions for specialist niche markets.

Since the Coronavirus outbreak, we have paused the corporate clothing side of our business to become a seven-day per week operation in order to maximise the help we can provide to the front line. We have a broad range of PPE products and scrubs, as well as specialist items like our FireHunter® Particulate Blocking Hood, that we’re supplying to the front line.

I’m currently working 16-18 hour days, seven days a week and have been for weeks but I feel incredibly proud to be leading this company through these challenging times. It is genuinely rewarding to see our employees rising up to meet the challenge ahead of us with positive attitudes, flexible working and sheer hard work. People in our business get our purpose – to keep people safe and healthy – more than they ever did before, which is amazing, and they understand that their job matters in a big way.

In order to be able to work in this situation, we have gone over and above the government requirements on social distancing, decontamination and hygiene to create a really safe working environment. We’ve also had to reprioritise our workload and decommission departments to stop making anything that isn’t for the front line.

We’re doing more rapid UK R&D prototyping for new products that suit the new market Covid-19 has created and ramping up our decontamination centres in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

We’re actively recruiting more stitchers to be able to respond to the demand and buying more machinery for the manufacture of PPE and scrubs.

Londonderry, where we are based has a history of Irish linen and was the first city in the world to make a shirt in a factory so we have a long heritage of garment manufacturing in this area. I am confident I will be able to recruit new skilled workers locally. At the moment I have an open mind on how many people we will need but demand is growing by the day.

As things develop and change, some of the demand will die off but I actually think enough of it will stay to let us sustainably grow our manufacturing.

Aside from whatever happens in the UK, there is supply chain disruption globally, which I believe will favour manufacturing closer to home. I am also hopeful that this crisis and the focus on PPE shortages will lead to a change in public procurement, requiring at least some to be made in the UK.

This is not going to be the first pandemic that we will live with and we need to have domestic resilience by producing more of our own PPE products.

This in turn, will help the wider UK fashion and textile industry as our manufacturing sector has been decimated over the past few decades. If our country has more stitchers, pattern cutters and tailors, then this will benefit the fashion industry as people will move around to other parts of our sector. Remember recruiting and developing stitching capability in the UK means we create jobs for engineers to fix machines, pattern cutters, tailors, CAD operators, designers and managers. All of which in turn creates, not just national resilience in PPE supply, but also revenue, a wider tax base, meaningful employment and skills. It will eventually create export opportunity of greater scale too.

I believe there has never been a greater opportunity for our whole sector to be pulled up and elevated by this, so that it is recognised for what it is: a sector of real national importance. For the first time in the 25 years of my working life, I honestly think this could be our moment to reverse the decline of our UK manufacturing capabilities but we must act quickly.

Many of the stitchers in the UK will soon be reaching retirement age and won’t be there to train younger people to enter the industry. We must come together to engage with government in a positive way to show that as our country tries to recover and find our feet on the other side of this nightmare, our industry can be part of the solution.

UKFT is in constant dialogue with the government and is outlining the latest support available for businesses on our website. We will update the details as and when the situation changes. 

Visit www.pciaw.org for more information regarding the professional clothing industry.