Ready for multiple heads? Embroidered Growth

With over 35 years in the embroidery industry with particular emphasis on writing, education, and digitizing, Helen Hart Momsen is widely published in the trade press. Momsen founded and moderates the Embroidery Line (www.embroideryline.net), the longest continuously running internet forum for apparel decorators. A sought-after speaker for many years for THE NBM SHOW, Momsen has authored two ground-breaking books on professional embroidery, available at www.Helenhart.com.

Growing a business can be both an exciting and a scary process. But when your work is backed up and you are yearning for more embroidery heads to share the load, be careful in your considerations. Ask yourself some questions: Is this just a temporary spurt or will it last, justifying a multi-head machine? Could I make do with what I have by working longer, adding a shift or an employee? Another factor to consider is yourself. Do you have the desire and, more important, the management abilities and experience to train and direct employees? Do you have the temperament for that? What about the added bookwork it brings? Do you have the patience and experience to tackle it, or someone to whom you can delegate that job? With such questions in mind, let’s consider the stories of two embroiderers who opted to grow. . . .

A well-considered avenue

Jane Cibulskas and her associate Gino Ventresca of National Embroidery & Transfer Service, LTD (Berea, Ohio) are the proud owners of four twelve-heads and two single-head machines. The first purchase Cibulskas made was a home machine. “When my first stitched design took thirty-one minutes to complete, I knew I couldn’t tolerate that. So I looked on the Internet and by lunchtime decided to buy a commercial machine.”

She was working as office manager to an oral surgeon and wanted a machine for her retirement. The machine landed in a spare room at the surgeon’s office. “Talk about planning: I realized just four days before delivery that it wouldn’t fit in my laundry room.”

So the first piece of advice Cibulskas gives to those yearning to grow is to measure and be sure. One head quickly grew to two when Cibulskas decided that one machine wasn’t going to generate enough cash when she moved her fledgling business to an office warehouse and added another nine-needle machine. When her oral-surgeon boss retired, he joined her, and quickly put his prior business experience to work, writing a business plan.

“I believe that retirement means doing whatever you want, whenever you want,” explains Ventresca. “But once I know what that is, I also want controlled growth. I looked at the market and the learning curves and decided that there would be little profit yielded with two heads. So we started looking at four- and six-head machines.”

In August of 2007, the owner of an embroidery business in the same complex approached them about buying one of his twelve-heads. Before a decision to purchase was reached, the seller offered his entire business—four twelve-heads and a contract for stitching emblems into automobile carpets. Cibulskas was against the acquisition, Ventresca was for it and, when he ran the numbers, he decided that if they planned right and stitched the emblems themselves, they could handle the expansion themselves.

The machines were older, but well kept, so Cibulskas and Ventresca negotiated a reasonable buyout. The former owner would stay on (something they advise when buying used equipment or a whole business) for 12 months as maintenance supervisor, and 12 to 18 more months as a consultant to smooth the path with the automotive business as well as to help them make fewer mistakes. He comes in three days a week to work on the emblems, and helps with any machine problems. In the meantime, Ventresca has negotiated his way into a 50 percent contract increase with the auto-carpet business.

Cibulskas quickly recognized the main challenge. “The machines were a different brand than the singles and they were older. The age presented the greatest learning curve. A lot of my energy has been spent learning a machine that is not as automatic as the single heads. But,” she advises, “you need to spend that time learning—taking notes—hours of learning.” She admits to being very mechanically oriented so understanding the workings of the machines has been her forte. “But I am not a digitizer,” she says. “I understand how it works but we hire someone to do the digitizing and spend our time in production.”

Ventresca offers a three-point piece of advice to those looking to grow: Spend as much time as possible learning the machine before the acquisition, whether it is a new or used purchase. Have a good business plan and maintain a sustained focus on that plan with constant monitoring so there can be immediate intervention. If you are learning a certain niche, it is imperative to market and monitor carefully for optimum results. And when you see a problem, address it. Make changes when necessary—immediately.

Ventresca points out a mistake that many embroiderers make when looking to expand. “Most think that a six-head is six times faster than a single head. That’s faulty reasoning. In reality it ends up costing you money if you can’t utilize all six heads. There is downtime because, when one head stops, they all stop. If you don’t plan correctly you will lose money.”

The duo has also added promotional products to their mix. They are great believers in a strategic marketing plan, part of, but separate from, the business plan. They have plans for a website and Ventresca believes that more money is—and should be—spent on marketing than anything else. “You have to know your area’s demographics, you have to understand your niche and work on it. It is more than just selling.”

As with all aspects of the business, Ventresca measures the results and then moves forward. “One thing is certain,” he adds. “You have to have a passion. When the planning and the money are set aside, you have to enjoy what you do and want to do it.”

A different road

Christine Mantz of Identity Elements in Jackson, Missouri, admits that once in a while she asks herself, “What was I thinking?” She moved from a single head to five—adding a four-head almost overnight—when she got a good deal on a machine. “It was too good to pass up,” Mantz says. “I happened to hear about it and I was working out of my home at the time. I never thought I could generate enough income with a single head—that was really the deciding factor—plus, I didn’t really like working from home.”

Mantz sees it as a choice between continuing to do what you can “on the side” or making a decision to grow and be full-time. There doesn’t seem to be much in the middle.

You can make a middle if you subcontract out your larger jobs but Mantz, an admitted control freak, doesn’t ascribe to that philosophy. “I know that some people build their business through contracting and then buy the machine when the purchase is justified, but I don’t want to be at the mercy of sub-contractors. I don’t want to open the box and see mistakes or inferior embroidery. I want to buy the machine and then get the business. If I can’t handle the job myself, I will turn the order away.”

The decision to grow is a tough one and Mantz admits to moments of regret. “I didn’t do my homework. I called a good tech for advice, but in the end I paid a price for my decision. One head was down when I bought it and it has never really been right. I guess sometimes if it seems too good to be true, it is.”

She too bought a brand of machine different from her single-head and, although many of her hoops are interchangeable, the larger ones are proprietary. She was faced with learning a different console and admits that she still doesn’t really understand the menus on her four-head. “Get training,” Mantz warns. “Even if you have been in embroidery a while, if the machine is different there will be a learning curve.”

She advises anyone thinking of growing to look at the same machine brand as they already have. “Don’t get rid of the single head. Mine is an older model, not really worth selling but worth a lot to have. But if I had it to do over again I would look at the same brand.”

She knows things could be better if she invested some time in learning, but now that time is invested in larger orders and the other add-on services she offers. She added screen-printing, laser cutting, cad cutting, and sandblasting.

“The business is always evolving. Where do you want to be, what services do your customers want or need. The end result is that you often can do everything but no one thing as good as you would like. We are always asking ourselves what we can add that the customers are asking for. We know they like one-stop shopping and we don’t want to take the chance that they will find that elsewhere and not with us.”

For all the trials and second thoughts, Mantz says that embroiderers shouldn’t be afraid to take the step. “A multi-head might be big, but it’s not hard to run; it’s not overwhelming.” But she also warns about buying too big. “A four-head is perfect for me. I wouldn’t want a twelve. Maybe a six. But a four-head or two is perfect.”

Mantz sees her company as middle ground. “It’s hard to operate in the middle. We aren’t small enough anymore to pass this off as a part-time extra-income thing,” Mantz admits, “but we really can’t take on the huge jobs without a commitment to more heads—and that means employees.”

Ah, there’s the rub

That’s a headache in itself, dealing with the rules and regulations that surround the world of employees. Without prior experience, it can be a daunting task but, when the commitment has been made to grow, employees are not far behind.

It’s a whole different level and, unless and until you are ready for that commitment, the growth of your company will be controlled by something other than your own desires.

If growth is really your end plan, learning to manage employees is just another part of the education equation—and a trip to the local community college or small business center might make it an easier task. Check with the local Chamber of Commerce or on line for a SCORE unit in your area (retired executives who make it their mission to steer fledgling entrepreneurs in the right direction). Find yourself a mentor and open yourself up to the challenge and all its ramifications. Then, with a business plan in hand to control and monitor the voyage, you will be better equipped to not only decide when, but if.

One thing that might ease the financial transition is the addition of profit centers such as heat pressing and CAD-cutting which allow the introduction of appliqué, mixed media and less expensive transfer offerings in order to generate income by making many minutes count twice. If you are stitching jacket backs, why not have a heat press at your right hand ready to press some shirts to turn those waiting minutes into profit? Easy enough to cut those appliqué pieces for the shirt job waiting behind the jacket backs. This is money that can be banked against the acquisition of more embroidery heads. Whether you make the decision to contract out and generate future business for the anticipated machine or just buy it and start accepting those larger jobs, extra profit earned in what might have been lost moments will ease you down the road, making the moment of growth less scary and more manageable.

Don’t overwhelm yourself with add-ons, though. Keep them manageable and stay on top of the learning curves so your reputation for quality is not compromised. And remember to concentrate on not losing your business identity as you grow.

Production tips for your new business model

Simple tips are often the best tips, and there are new things to think about when you add that multi-head to your business family. Devise an order process that lets you know where everything is in the production cycle, when it is due and who is accountable. The value of a work board is priceless. It tells you at a glance where you are in your production day or week.

Don’t forget that you are going to have to buy multiple cones of thread—my bill was a reality shock when I moved from single- to multi-head. A way to make thread more affordable and still have a nice selection is to purchase the colors used least often in spools, not cones. Invest in a cone-breaker, a gadget that allows you to break one cone into as many as you need. (And save those empties!) You can even use the built-in bobbin winder and the metal bobbins that come with your machine to wind any amounts needed for small details. If you don’t have a cone breaker, borrow a drill from the workshop and fit it with a spade bit that will fit nicely into an empty cone. Shim the bit with leftover backing to ensure a snug fit. Manually wrap the thread around the cone to get it started. Then put the spool on the floor and wind the thread onto the cone with the drill, guiding the thread with your other hand to keep it straight.

Watch your stitch count when scheduling jobs for any given machine. You might have an order for 36 shirts, but if the stitch count is really low, the most efficient choice might not be the 12-head even though you are enticed into thinking you can get the work done in three runs. If the second and third runs are delayed because you can’t hoop fast enough to keep up with the machine, time—and profit with it—will be lost. Consider the machine choice carefully and choose a four-head or even a two-head if the work can be done more efficiently and the machine can run productively.

Keep an extra bobbin case loaded with thread next to each head and consider changing the bobbins all at one time even if some are not completely empty yet. It will save time in the long run and time is more costly than bobbin thread. Time will also be lost if a bobbin runs dry and you have to back up the machine. When you put the new, clean bobbin case and thread in the machine, take a moment, when the next run is stitching, to clean the bobbin cases you have removed and load them for the next change. Production can be slowed—and valuable time wasted—trying to fix poor stitching that results from tensions compromised by dust and debris in the bobbin case. Many times, when a shirt falls behind for any reason, I’ll remove it and let the other heads finish, loading the partially stitched shirt into the next run and turning on the head at the right time. Sometimes it is more time effective to go forward with one head down than backwards on all heads.

If you have multiple multi-heads, plan your workspace carefully so you can work efficiently. Two machines facing each other with a hooping table in between with backing at the operator’s fingertips can be a real timesaver. Rack your thread where you can get to it for quick thread changes. For me that means behind the machine as that is where I stand to change the cones or spools.

Consider turning off the automatic trimmers when manual trimming will be faster and perhaps more cost friendly. Slowing the machine down for color changes and trims eats up valuable production time. Tell your digitizer to plan the designs with these things in mind for the jobs that would benefit. When planning lettering, closest point connection keeps the machine running. Furthest point connection allows the manual trimming to be done more easily.

Stop your last shift in time to clean for the next day—and try to keep up with clutter and debris between and during jobs. Nothing is more uplifting than starting the day with a clean workspace.

Mapping the journey

You must always be ready to put your oar in the water, whether as a brake or to speed things up. If you are already on the road to expansion and you don’t have a business plan, slow down and take the time to prepare one. If your business plan is in place, use that oar for momentum—as Ventresca and Cibulskas are doing—with focus and monitoring and timely changes. Whatever your goals, you can learn through networking with others who have found themselves where you might be heading. It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it can be much more dangerous if you find yourself in over your head with little protection and less navigation savvy. “Grow or die” can seem like a harsh choice, but if your intention is to turn your small venture into a sustaining lifestyle, it’s good to lift your head and pay attention, whether to the long-term plan or simply ways to speed up the work flow. Paying attention may be the best payment you ever make.