Build Your Business:

On the Right Track

In addition to offering screen printing and embroidery, F&E Sportswear also does vinyl car wraps that are printed on a 54-inch Roland printer.

November 20, 2013

In 1997, Richard Patino was living in Colombia and looking to buy a business in the United States. After a conversation with the owner of F&E Sportswear, a small screen printing and embroidery shop in Alabama, Patino realized he had found a good fit. He purchased the company, which was founded in 1979, and headed to the States.

To say his learning curve was big would be an understatement. Patino knew about businesses and had even worked with American companies — but always overseas. Owning a U.S. business was different. “I had to learn how to run this company,” he says. The old owner, who Patino had hoped would teach him the ropes, decided to leave, so Patino was on his own.

There also was the small matter of being a newcomer to the decorated apparel industry. “When I first started, I used to call [the ink] paint,” Patino says. “I had to be reminded that we work with ink, not paint.” Also, the practice of referring to products by their style numbers got to him. “It was confusing,” he says. “I would think, ‘What are they talking about?’.”

So, Patino went to seminars, took classes and did everything he could to learn the decorated apparel business from the ground up. “I learned by doing,” he says. “I made mistakes and I learned from them.”

He also reached out to F&E’s original vendors. “I called them and said, ‘If you help me and work with me, and be honest with me, I’ll be with you forever,’” Patino says. “Ninety percent listened to me. They were excellent, and they are still with me.”

In all, Patino says, it took about two or three years to “really get my feet wet, but I had to learn all the ins and outs.”

When Patino bought F&E, it was housed in a 10,000-square-foot shop that included one older, four-color automatic screen printing machine and three manual machines. He knew that in order to grow his business, he would face challenges and competition.

“Once you start growing, you see people come in and go out of business yearly,” he says. “You can’t just offer lower prices, because you have your people to take care of. I decided not to compete with pricing, but to compete with quality and how good I could do the job.”

The idea worked. Patino says F&E has probably grown five-fold since he bought it. Now located in a 50,000-square-foot building in Montgomery, the shop still offers quality screen printing and embroidery, but it has expanded to also offer promotional products, signs, graphics and car wraps.

“In 2007-2008, we were renting a warehouse space, so we were up to 80,000 square feet. But we stopped doing prep work here, like folding, tag changes and packing, so now we’re back to 50,000 square feet,” he says.

Screen printing makes up about 60% of F&E’s business, according to Patino. The shop currently operates five M&R automatic presses (one 16-color Performer, three 12-color Gauntlets, and one 10-color Sportsman) and three M&R six-color manual presses. The shop also includes two M&R Passport take-off units, two M&R dryers and one National dryer, as well as a numbering machine, three heat-transfer machines, a hat machine and an M&R folding and bagging machine.

Patino says most of the screen printing work is done on the automatic machines because his team has worked hard to improve efficiency. “I can do 24 pieces faster on the automatics than on the manuals. It’s important that everything is done fast and is good quality,” he says. “It used to take an hour to set up a job. Now we can do it in 15 minutes, give or take, with tweaking.”

Patino also says about 70% of what F&E prints is T-shirts. The rest are sweats, towels, golf shirts, umbrellas, business pads, hats, etc.

 “We have plans to expand the number of [printing presses],” he says. “[I want to add] one more machine. I would say no more than six [automatic] machines [are needed]. This year, with all the contract work, I’d have done a lot better if I already had a sixth machine, but by next year [I will].”

For embroidery, which makes up about 20% of the shop’s business, F&E has Barudan and Tajima equipment, and is running 50 heads, which is down from 115. “I am doing 900 to 1,000 stitches a minute,” Patino says. “With updated equipment, I am able to do the same work with [fewer] heads.”

The shop operates with 65 employees working a 10-hour shift Monday-Thursday when work is slow, and Monday-Saturday during busy times. The staff includes three graphic designers who can work with existing art or create custom designs.

“Business varies from year to year,” Patino says. “[The frequency of] custom work goes up and down, so contract work fills the voids. You just have to be careful; when you’re doing a contract job and custom work comes in, you have to be able to find a balance.”

Football season is a busy time at F&E because it decorates licensed apparel and other items. Being located in Alabama gives the company the advantage of having the licenses for the state’s two major universities — Auburn University and University of Alabama — located in its back yard. And even though it sells to a customer base mainly located in the Southeast, F&E also has clients in New York, Texas and California.

Through necessity, Patino says, the company recently had to expand its offerings. “When the economy went down, I had to figure out what to do with the people that work for me,” he says. “When I find printers I like, I like to keep them and diversify, so I looked at what was selling and what was the new trend.”

That led Patino to get F&E into offering car wraps. It didn’t hurt that he has been a racer for seven years in a car wrapped with the company’s advertising. What’s more, a lot of wrapped cars are featured on the NASCAR circuit.

The car wraps are made with a vinyl material, printed on a 54-inch Roland printer. “[The material is] a special vinyl that can be heated to wrap around different shapes,” Patino says. “It’s my hobby, and I get most of my biggest customers from racing. It fits well. It’s important to find hobbies that help with your business.”

In a gesture of “paying it forward,” Patino regularly offers area start-up apparel decorators the opportunity to learn and train with him.

“I do this because I wish I had someone to train me when I was first starting out,” he says.

This practice also has helped him establish mutually beneficial relationships with these smaller shops. For example, because of equipment constraints, if they get a job too big to handle, they call F&E. Likewise, if Patino is too busy to handle a smaller job, he calls a smaller shop for help.

“I know the quality is there,” he says. “I trained them.”

Good relationships are key to F&E’s success, but Patino’s most important relationship is that which he has with his staff. “The workforce that we were able to assemble in the past 17 years is without a doubt one of the best anywhere,” he says. “It takes a long time to get a crew like this.”

Being able to buy a company with no decorated apparel experience and growing it five-fold over the years goes to show that even for a racecar driver, slow and steady wins the race.  

F&E Sportswear Corp. At A Glance

Company Name: F&E Sportswear Corp.
Address: 1230 Newell Pkwy.
  Montgomery, Ala. 36110
Founded: 1979
No. of Employees: 65
Decorating Methods Offered: Screen printing, embroidery,
  promotional products, signs and banners, car wraps
Company Website: