Stuart Maclaren: Flying the flag for UK manufacturing

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What’s the secret to steering one of the fastest growing and in-demand printing firms in the UK from the heart of Lincolnshire?

For 26-year-old Stuart Maclaren it’s a mixture of chasing down evolving targets, building a reputation and staying ahead of the game — and his career story is one which is as fast-paced as his passion for high-octane water sports.

Recognised for his achievements in becoming the youngest managing director of a fabric printing company in the UK, Stuart already has plenty of reasons to be proud of his four-year-old business Your Print Partner, based in Lincoln (not least because of its staggeringly quick growth).

If his infectious enthusiasm for new heights is anything to go by however, he’ll not be resting on his laurels anytime soon. In fact, in his eyes, the journey to success is only just beginning.

Growing up on a council estate on Roman Pavement in Lincoln, Stuart’s leap into the world of entrepreneurship was somewhat unconventional. “I don’t think many people realise that I’m from a council estate,” he said.

“My parents were working parents, my dad was in the RAF, my mum was a bar manager and worked at supermarkets. Lots of people assume that my mum and dad gave me the business, but it was far from that.”

When he talks of his school years, Stuart jokes that he didn’t do particularly well, and seems to have always had itchy feet for the working world. “I didn’t really like primary school. Secondary school I was better at. I was a little bit cheeky, but I was mainly into computers and maths, they were really my strong subjects. Then I went to Lincoln College to do business management.”

He says he always wanted to work and never relied on his parents, and earned his pocket money from age 13 by working in a local fish and chips shop. Unsurprisingly, his idol growing up was Richard Branson.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

The road to YPP

At age 18 Stuart took on his first role at a Lincoln sporting events supplier packing boxes in the warehouse before working his way up to junior sales; but he had far bigger ambitions than a junior role.

“I started off as the cocky young lad in the warehouse and when I came up to sales I was an office junior in effect. One day though I told the MD that I wasn’t making them a cup of coffee, I wanted to do sales.”

Stuart climbed the ladder to become head of sales and marketing, but there was a bigger target niggling away. “My experience there shaped me as a person and I had a key role in increasing the turnover by 20% in one year.

“It also grew my passion to work for myself, I was starting to realise I didn’t want to work for anyone else, making them the money. I knew from a young age that I wasn’t going to always be working for someone else.

“We had an appraisal form every year at my previous employers and it was quite funny because one of the questions was ‘where do you see yourself in three years?’ and I put ‘Having more fun and being your boss’ and handing it to the director, who was the general manager at the time. I don’t think it went down very well.”

He briefly moved on to Northern Flags, a printing company in Leeds when he was 21 to drive sales and redesign the company website. It wasn’t long however before the effects of the recession hit sales hard and Stuart began to question their method of printing outside of the UK.

“I decided enough was enough and I left. I got straight on the train back and I rang my mum when I got to the train station in Lincoln and I said ‘can you pick me up please?’ She said, ‘where is your car?’ and I said, “It’s in Leeds because I’ve quit.’ Of course mum’s response was ‘get straight back on that train and ask for your job back!’ and she refused to pick me up.

“After that period Your Print Partner happened quite suddenly.” Jobless, carless and with enough money to see him through for around two months, Stuart did what he always wanted to do; he became his own boss, working from his kitchen table, armed with a laptop and a mobile phone.

“My plan first of all was to do event management. I love working in events. I did some work with Generate Events on major concerts with the likes of JLS, Rod Stewart and Tom Jones, as well as firework displays, and then my phone kept ringing and asking if we could get print, so Your Print Partner (YPP) was then created.

“After about three months I decided that we would go limited and a business partner was brought on. A friend of mine invested around £40,000 so we could move into an office on Gateway Park in North Hykeham, and put the deposit on our first printer. We got the finance agreed and the printer up and running and YPP was born.”

Stuart’s role in 2011 was a print broker of sorts, inspired by the recession to source better quality printer products for his clients at a cheaper price. The first milestone for him came when demand led to the investment in his own large-format digital printer, and printing soon moved in-house.

Since then, Your Print Partner has advanced into its current HQ in Millennium House off Lime Kiln Way, has gone from one printer to nine machines, and expanded its three initial members of staff to a team of 17.

“Lots of people know that we are a well established brand, but people forget that we’re only four years old as a company. We already produce over £1.5 million worth of print every year now. We are rapidly expanding and we are currently looking into another building. This isn’t big enough any more.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Lincolnshire through and through

The idea for Your Print Partner was largely influenced by Stuart’s experiences with other firms’ overseas sourcing. “My biggest aim with YPP was that if I was going to do it, we weren’t going to put work overseas. It was all going to stay in the UK. We really pushed that and we still push it today being members of the ‘Made in Britain campaign’. Everything leaves our factory with that guarantee.

“There are only about eight companies in the UK that do large scale format fabric printing. Anything that’s big enough they will send straight overseas to places like Poland and I never wanted to do that.”

The company quickly became renowned for its products and in-house design service, printed flags in particular, and Stuart never hesitated to add more and more products to the range: from gazebos to exhibition stands.

The notable entrance into the industry attracted the attention of a host of high-profile clients, a particular launchpad arriving in the form of a branding contract for the opening of St George’s Park, the FA’s national football centre. “When you’ve got Prince William stood in front of your lectern stand that you’ve branded up, and you’ve got all of team England in the hotels with you, it feels amazing.

“We are also lucky enough to look after brands including Brighton Marathon, Barratt Homes, Subway, David Willson, Powerboat GP, Cancer Research UK and Race for Life. There are companies that are a lot older than us who would love to have just some of our brands on their books. People are really wanting to be a part of our ethos, and we deliver results with a speedy turnaround. We don’t let people down and I think that’s how we’ve grown so quick. We get great feedback too on social media, on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.”

Stuart’s conglomerate of brands has expanded to include, Event Ts (a shirt printing service for the running market), the acquisition of bespoke flag producer Flag Wizard into YPP, and recent venture Santa Sacks. “The outdoors events side of trade has a major impact so literally as soon as October comes around our sales start dropping dramatically because the weather is rubbish.

The Santa Sacks division will hopefully cover that. So, in the middle of July, the hottest week of the year, we were designing Christmas sacks for that new website. Within a week or two we invested £100,000 into the brand and created the website, the products and the designs. It ‘snowballed’ really quickly.”

Going into next year, Stuart is looking to create a new website specifically for people who can’t design their own products, and he already has his sights set on rivaling some of the biggest players in the field.

“In the world at the minute we have Vistaprint, where you can go online and there are already pre-designed business cards and consumables. No one has done flags, banners and signage. So what we are going to do is put together the first online design suite in the world where you can design your own feather flag or banner online and upload images.

“We’re also looking at making a traders’ market space where you’ve got maybe 500 designers who can put in their own designs and then make a commission off it. The background for that is that I am constantly getting new designs. The scale is huge and we are probably looking at a £1 million investment at the minute.

“Every day we are hitting new milestones in all different aspects. Winning Young Business Person of the Year last year was a massive one and I couldn’t have done that without the team at the company.

“Every year we have doubled our turnover. This year is a little bit harder because the numbers are getting much bigger, but we could see £1.5/£1.6 million at the end of the year. I would quite like to make my group to £5 million, that’s quite a big goal for me with the group. In five years time I will probably have a lot more staff, a bigger building and be number one in print for flags and banners in the UK.

“One other thing I want to achieve is a better standing locally. Across the country we are really well known, but we need to shout more about what we do in Lincolnshire. One of the biggest things I would want to change is the fact that the Lincolnshire flag isn’t printed in Lincolnshire.”

Even at the end of play Stuart is not one for sitting still. Rather than chilling with a book, he can be found flying across the county’s lakes. “I’m one of those crazy people that when the office closes I have a jet ski that goes 78 mph and also jet packs, so I fly about 30 feet up in the air above the water. Basically anything that can kill me I quite like.

“My staff say quite a lot that I’m an adrenaline-junkie that brings that enthusiasm to the boardroom, so our board meetings aren’t boring. We go in and say ‘this needs doing, let’s get it done’, and that’s why we work as a company.”

This feature interview was first published in issue 44 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.