Christopher Nieper is a Brexit believer – so much so that he has set up a school to produce local skilled employees for the David Nieper manufacturing-to-mail order business in Derbyshire
A photo is taped to one of the walls inside the David Nieper factory in Derbyshire. In it, Boris Johnson watches intently as a woman irons a large white flag, emblazoned with the words “Vote Leave”. In a similar shot next to it, he and Labour MP Gisela Stuart can be seen waving two of the flags. Spools of yarn and a mannequin dressed in womenswear provide a colourful backdrop.
Boris Johnson at the David Nieper factory
The photos were taken during Johnson and Stuart’s visit to the factory in the run-up to the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union on June 23. A few weeks earlier, former home secretary Alan Johnson had launched Labour’s “In” campaign from the same venue. Out of nowhere, this relatively small manufacturing and mail order business in the former coal-mining town of Alfreton had become a hotbed of political debate.
“It was democracy in action,” recalls Christopher Nieper, managing director of the womenswear business his parents, David and Roe Nieper, founded in 1961.
MPs were drawn to David Nieper for several reasons: a long-established family business with a good reputation, it employs 250 people – making it attractive to local and national news outlets, as well as politicians – and a third of its sales come from Europe, where it has offices in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
“So [being part of the EU] affects us quite a lot.”
David Nieper is one of the UK’s few vertical fashion businesses: it designs, manufactures and sells daywear, lingerie and nightwear straight to the consumer, who is usually a woman aged 40 or above. Virtually everything is done on site, from photographing the new collections to printing the catalogues. It even employs its own gardener, while solar panels on the roof provide 70% of its electricity. It has an annual turnover of £15m and it is growing, adding an extra floor to one of its factories – it has four, totalling 65,000 sq ft – and employing staff from recently closed manufacturer Courtaulds at a new production unit.
We have an income in euros and costs in euros, and one balances the other out
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, many businesses have struggled with sterling’s weakness and the drop in consumer confidence. But this has not been Nieper’s experience. During the week of the referendum, sales were down 20% but by the following week they were only down 3%. The week after they were back to normal. Since March 31, sales are up 7% year on year – and sales from EU countries are up 12%.
David Nieper is also better protected than some from the currency fluctuations. It buys many of its fabrics from mills in the foothills of the Alps – in northern Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany – so the cost does go up when the pound drops against the euro. But it also produces catalogues for its top European markets in local currencies.
“We have an income in euros and costs in euros, and one balances the other out, which means the company has a natural currency hedge,” says Nieper.
This security in the face of such a historic vote is testament to the company’s ability to evolve. Nieper’s grandfather had worked in a local knitwear company, and his father, David, studied fashion. In the 1960s David his wife Roe decided to start producing nightwear. They began at home, cutting out garments on the living room floor. Gradually, they built a customer base of 300 to 400 luxury boutiques around the country.
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But in the 1980s, the world of retail changed. Chain stores rose to prominence and small independents could not compete, so they began to disappear.
Nieper, who joined the business towards the end of that decade, says: “Our only choice was to take our product downmarket and try to sell to the chain stores, or to find another route. That was a major blow.”
The Niepers were wary of selling to chains.
“A big retailer will buy several thousand garments. But if next season you don’t get the order, what do you do? It’s far too dangerous and they can negotiate the price down to the bone,” says Nieper. “All the risk is with you: you have the premises, staff, but no control over the merchandising of your product or the price.”
So they made a dramatic shift, moving from being a manufacturer to producing and selling directly to the consumer.
“Suddenly we changed from being dependent on a few large customers to having thousands of customers buying one garment, which made it much safer. In addition to that, we could maintain a premium position. We knew that, if we could do that and give the same personal service, but on a national level or international level, we had a powerful model.”
So, in the 1990s, David Nieper morphed into a mail order business, which manufactures most – but not necessarily all – of what it can sell.
Since then it has grown into a quietly impressive business, while maintaining a certain quaintness. A Wilcox & Gibbs sewing machine bought for £1 in 1960 sits in the entrance, while a pot of Derbyshire jam for sale takes pride of place on a table inside. But go further in and the scale of the operation is surprising.
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There is the main garment design and production building, filled with rows of sewing machines; the knitwear production unit, where the machines hum all day and night; and a minute’s drive down the road, the cutting facility and the printing site, where it produces 3 million catalogues a year. Workmen are putting the finishing touches to a second storey above the cutting factory, doubling the space to 24,000 sq ft.
The vertical model is key to its success, Nieper emphasises: “By manufacturing for the end consumer rather than the retailer we’re able to run with almost no stock. We manufacture what we need in the right size and the right colour, rather than manufacturing a batch to hang on a rail in a shop and wait for a customer to come in. So we can sell 99.3% of all of our product at full price.”
Kate Hills, chief executive and founder of Make it British, describes David Nieper as “an amazing business”: “Nieper’s created a customer base who are very loyal and want him to continue making in the UK, and are willing to wait a week or so that it takes to get something made, so they know where it was made and who it was made by. And he reinvests everything in supporting UK manufacturing.
“He’s a great case study. He’s made UK manufacturing profitable.”
Over the last 20 years, 900,000 jobs have gone from direct textile production in the UK, nearly all to the Far East
Although his parents are both still involved in the business to varying degrees, the softly spoken Nieper took over as managing director about 10 years ago. But it was not always his intention to follow them into the family business.
When he left school he started a business repairing furniture. Then, aged just 19, he set sail across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. On his return, he went to university and studied mechanical engineering. One day, he came to the David Nieper factory to help out in the canteen.
“Then they needed somebody to help in the shop,” Nieper recalls. “Then they needed somebody on the cutting counter. Then somebody left and I became cutting room manager. And gradually I got sucked into it.”
The biggest challenge for Nieper, is to expand the business, which struggles to recruit skilled staff to keep up with the pace of demand.
David Nieper factory
“Skills are the problem,” he explains. “This business is all about people but, over the last 20 years, 900,000 jobs have gone from direct textile production in the UK, nearly all to the Far East.”
David Nieper has coped partly by recruiting staff from factories that have closed over the years. Most recently, Courtalds, hosiery supplier to BHS, was forced to close its plant in the nearby town of Belper in May, resulting in the loss of 350 jobs.
“Within 10 days we had 150 applicants,” says Nieper. ”On the back of that we interviewed 40 and we’re going to start another production unit perhaps with 20 to 30 of those.” His plan is to train the staff and then move them to a site in Belper, so they can continue to work near where they live.
But Nieper is painfully aware that picking up staff from other, failed manufacturers is not a long-term solution to the skills shortage.
“We’ve been able to keep those skills up from the latent workforce that existed, but the sector has evaporated.” So his focus now is on training the next generation.
David Nieper has funded scholarships at Nottingham Trent and Derby universities for the past four years, and offers work experience and paid internships in the design and pattern-cutting studios, which he is extending to other areas. Last year, it launched a sewing school that is open to people of all ages, including those returning to work after having a family or career changers.
Brexit won’t make much difference to us in the long term if we can grow our own skills locally
The investment in talent does not stop there. The company is now sponsoring a local secondary school, which is to be renamed the David Nieper Academy.
“I discovered the school next door to here was in special measures and had been for 10 years,” says Nieper. “It was in the weakest 2% of all schools in the UK for attainment. And I thought, how could we possibly be here for another 55 years if the education is so poor in this town?”
David Nieper Academy
He created the government-approved David Nieper Education Trust, which is sponsoring the school. As well as being renamed, it is being completely rebuilt. Uniforms will be purchased from a specialist third-party provider – “at least to start with” – and issued free of charge to its 850 pupils. A headteacher has been recruited. Six employers from the local catchment – including David Nieper – will partner with the school to offer applied-learning opportunities.
“For example, we could teach geometry by using examples from pattern cutting,” says Nieper.
“If we can turn this from one of the weakest schools in the UK to a good or outstanding school, we could really do something valuable for the town and the local people.”
Nieper believes the UK can stand on its own two feet without the EU. But to do that, he insists that the government must invest in British manufacturing. In the meantime, he is going to do what he can at a local level.
After all, he argues: “Brexit won’t make much difference to us in the long term if we can grow our own skills locally.”