Apparel’s Newest Contender

Polyconcept Fighting To Redefine Decorated Apparel Business

Apparel's Newest ContenderPolyconcept built itself into one of the industry’s largest suppliers. Now, the hard goods company is fighting to redefine the business of decorated apparel.

Was this the mountaintop? Over the span of two decades, Polyconcept North America had grown from a mid-size company to one of the top five largest suppliers in the industry. Loyal distributors lauded its trio of companies – Leed’s (asi/66887) and sister companies Bullet (asi/42424) and Journalbooks (asi/91340) – for their design prowess and pain-free customer service. The Leed’s SureShip model it launched 15 years ago accelerating service times everywhere into hyperdrive. Was there anything left to do?

In fact, there was one summit left to climb. Apparel is the industry’s number-one product category, the domain in which seven of the top 10 suppliers in Counselor’s Top 40 rankings primarily trade. Polyconcept searched for a partner – a company it hoped had more than me-too product, and one that shared Leed’s slavish devotion to design. It found what Leed’s COO Sharon Willochell calls “a kindred spirit” in the form of Canada-based Trimark Sportswear Group (asi/92122).

And so in 2011, Trimark became the latest addition to Polyconcept’s stable of companies. Over the span of two years, the new partnership was rolled out at a crawl to distributors, step by achingly measured step. Now, Polyconcept has removed its self-imposed restrictions, and Trimark Powered by Leed’s (asi/66888), as the U.S. entity is called, is poised to offer nationwide coverage. The company is promising and delivering entirely new approaches to everything from in-house decoration to turnaround times. It clearly has long-term designs of becoming a significant player in the apparel realm. But amid the building buzz and curiosity, an even bigger question hangs in the balance: Will Polyconcept forever change the business of promotional apparel?

Finding a Partner
In the fall of 2011, shortly after the acquisition, three Polyconcept executives met with the Trimark brain trust. Polyconcept’s initial intention, according to Willochell, was to round out its portfolio with a solid apparel company that happened to have a strong footprint in Canada. Entry into the U.S. market would come somewhere down the line. But as Polyconcept got to know more about Trimark, the company changed its mind about the U.S. The meeting confirmed what everyone had come to believe: they would enter the U.S. much sooner than originally planned. “That was a really exciting meeting, actually,” says Willochell, a PCNA veteran of 15 years and the newly-installed president of Trimark Powered by Leed’s. “We realized this could be a very powerful combination.”

Trimark was no mere cipher in the deal. The Ontario-based company thrived in the last decade as one of the leading suppliers in Canada, jousting with its down-the-block rival Ash City (asi/37143) for country supremacy. “If you are a distributor in Canada, you have an Ash City and Trimark account. That’s as simple as it can be said,” says Neil Piitz, a respected voice in the Canadian market who founded Top 40 distributor Accolade Promotion Group (asi/102905) and had previously worked at Ash City.

Even though Trimark laid its foundation in Canada, the U.S. is not foreign territory. In 2000, the supplier purchased a trio of companies and leapt into the American market. But four years later, presented with what President Will Andrew says was “an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Trimark divested its U.S. business to what is now River’s End Trading Company (asi/82588). It was a necessary move to reinvigorate its brand and seize market share in its home country as Ash City invested in its own U.S. push. “We really had an opportunity to take a very bold approach with the product development and be a bit more fashion forward,” says Andrew, who has been with Trimark since 2005.

The company reimagined itself as a mid- to high-end private label that excelled in design. A deal to create licensed apparel for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver and an agreement with popular Canadian retailer Roots raised its standing in the Canadian market. All the while, the apparel company trained its eye across the border and imagined the scenario in which it would return to the U.S. Discussions with Polyconcept began in 2008, but the struggling economy dampened initial enthusiasm. Once the Olympics concluded and Trimark moved into its new facility in the early part of 2010, dialog between the two companies began in earnest.

Through its relationship with Polyconcept, Trimark won an instant reputation boost with the backing to grow its inventory and cash flow. “Polyconcept gives them instant credibility,” says Piitz, who now works with Add Impact (asi/106606) in Woodbridge, Ontario. “Trimark goes into the heavyweight division instantly. Being able to leverage the relationships that Polyconcept has with its distributor base just opens so many doors for them.”

On the other side, Polyconcept wanted to avoid merely marrying its famed service model with an apparel company and calling it a day. “None of our customers really needed another apparel supplier,” says Willochell. “We didn’t want to just say, ‘Hooray it’s Leed’s and we’re into apparel.’ We wanted to be very careful about making sure we had a reason to be and it was something that made sense for our customers.”

Ultimately, customer buy-in began with Trimark’s approach to product design, which covers a range of corporate and performance options. That’s what first impressed Michael Snyder, vice president of merchandising for Trimark Powered by Leed’s and the company’s first U.S. sales rep. “I looked at this collection,” says Snyder, “and said, ‘If nothing else, when we come to the U.S. market, we have an outstanding apparel collection that will find its own way.’ ”

And as the company teased out its product offering in the U.S., it won over distributors even before they put in their first order. “I thought they might come out with what everybody else is doing, and that’s why I was skeptical,” says Jill Albers, business development for Shumsky (asi/326300), one of the early participants in the U.S. pilot program. “But that’s not what they did at all.”

Time to Change
Decoration is the raison d’etre for the wearables industry, but it’s also the most complicated element. Trimark Powered by Leed’s trained its sights early on in-house decoration – as opposed to being a blanks provider. The company is presenting four decoration techniques initially, three of which have elements that were developed exclusively by the company: deboss, laser and transfer with True Edge. The latter is something that Trimark Powered by Leed’s is especially bullish about – a new means of heat transfer that allows for free-standing text and can be placed in places an embroidery hoop can’t reach. Leed’s had already pioneered the process for its bags, but its potential for apparel wasn’t unearthed until the companies teamed up. “It’s the fastest growing decoration technique we have,” says Andrew. “That was truly a collaboration. I would say they were sitting on a diamond in the rough and didn’t realize it because they hadn’t worked on apparel.”

Currently, 65% of the apparel that Trimark Powered by Leed’s sells in the U.S. comes decorated. But that’s only part of the equation. The company is striving for simplicity with a one-price solution for decoration and sizing. Also, it is essentially bringing the Leed’s shipping model to decorated apparel. New orders go out in five business days, re-orders in three. SureShip one-day shipping is even available with certain requirements (one-location decoration and waiving the right to artwork approval).

It’s a major change from the typical decorated apparel order, which involves shipping to multiple locations and is often measured by the week rather than the day. And in an industry where rush service is quickly becoming standard, the potential is massive. InkHead Promotional Products (asi/231159), an online provider that is built for speed, works with Trimark Powered by Leed’s and embraces the pace. “The way apparel was ordered in our industry was so antiquated, clumsy and out-of-date,” says Jim Franklyn, InkHead’s vice president of sales and marketing. “From a productivity standpoint, it needed somebody to come in and do exactly what they did. You talk about low-hanging fruit.”

The ripple effects will be felt in the industry. Franklyn sees several apparel suppliers who could prepare similar decoration services in short order. “The ones that do not have the volume, who do not have too much of a risk, they’ll do it,” he says. “And the ones who do have too much volume with decorator sub-contractors, they’re the ones who will pause.” Meanwhile, Albers sees larger hard goods companies exploring the additions of decoration and apparel lines. “You already see lines starting to bring in hats,” she says. “Hats are the gateway drug to apparel.”

However, for now Polyconcept has admittedly slow played its hand. The company has erected several barriers in the U.S. over the last 18 months with Trimark Powered by Leed’s. Its apparel was only available in a handful of markets; its U.S. website was hidden behind password protection; and its wares were not available on industry search engines. Polyconcept says it was necessary to gauge interest, fine-tune its processes and build inventory while determining which of Trimark’s collection would sell best in the U.S. market. “It helped us to invest wisely in the proper equipment, personnel, everything,” says Snyder. “Looking back, it was the smartest thing that we’ve done.”

Not everything has been perfected yet. Trimark Powered by Leed’s has integrated apparel experts to work in tandem with distributors’ normal Leed’s customer service rep; distributor clients say the set-up is good but not completely fine-tuned. (Trimark Sportswear still handles all Canadian orders, while Leed’s handles the U.S.) The company has more in the offing, including at least two additional decoration techniques that it has yet to introduce. In addition, it will be proactive about adding brand names to its collection, as it has already done with Puma, which is only available in the U.S.

With all that said, Trimark Powered by Leed’s has been clear about its goal to stay focused and achieve its current objectives. “I think we have a place,” Willochell says. “We’re focused on where our product is differentiated, where our model can add value to people. But we’re never going to be all things to all people.”


Twitter: @CJ_Wearables