'As a child, I was fascinated both by machines and by the smell from wool in the dye house'
Nick Coburn, managing director at Ulster Carpets in Portadown, tells Audrey Watson about making and fitting carpets for top hotels, from London’s Savoy to the Paris Ritz, and his pride in the third generation family firm
There’s currently a little bit of Portadown under the feet of Sir Alex Ferguson and boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. And if you have ever visited a Las Vegas casino, or cruised on a luxury liner, chances are you’ll have been walking on home ground.
Forward thinking investment in technology and creativity — as well as exporting prowess — have enabled Co Armagh firm Ulster Carpets to become a world leader in the design, manufacture and export of high-quality Axminster and Wilton carpets.
As well as casinos, including Caesar’s Palace and the MGM Grand, the company carpets the floors of the world’s most luxurious hotels, such as the famous sailboat-shaped Burj Arab in Dubai and the George V in Paris.
“Exports outside of the UK now account for 70% of sales,” says managing director Nick Coburn. “Ten years ago it was the opposite.
“We are currently re-carpeting the Ritz in Paris, which is being extensively refurbished. We designed and manufactured the carpets for the Ritz in London and also the Savoy, which underwent a huge refurbishment a few years ago.
“For the Savoy, design alone took about a year.”
The company recently announced pre-tax profits of £7m for the year to March 31 — up from £6.5m for the same period in 2014.
“Such a good result is predominantly down to the recovery of our biggest export market, which is the US,” says Nick.
“The American market has not only recovered, it has actually progressed enormously and that’s where we have seen the biggest growth.”
Last year was also a bitter-sweet time for the company. As well as marking its 75th anniversary, the year also brought the death of George Walter Wilson, the company’s honorary president, at the age of 84.
Nick (56) studied textile and carpet technology at Birmingham University, before starting to work for the family firm 38 years ago.
He has held the post of managing director since 2004.
“I always had it in my mind that I wanted to work in the family business,” he says.
“When I was a child, I was fascinated by the machines and the smell of the wool in the dye house. It was always in the bones. I was fortunate, in that I was able work in all the different areas of the company and learn what went on, from production to sales to design to management.”
Ulster Carpets was started in 1938 by Nick’s grandfather George Walter Wilson for the main purpose of bringing employment to Portadown.
“It’s a family business, but is very much run as a meritocracy,” he adds. “The management board consists of 15 people, only four of whom are family members.”
Nick admits the track records of previous family members mean he is following in some very big footsteps.
“There is pressure,” he admits. “But it’s a challenge I enjoy. It’s very exciting to see the company doing well and one year into a seven-year, £35m investment.”
That investment, which was announced in 2014, consists of a complete facelift for the company and its Portadown headquarters, including new manufacturing facilities and expansion.
As a group, Ulster Carpets employs 600 staff in total, 400 of whom are based in Portadown.
Three other companies make up the overall group — a sales company in America, a yarn-making operation in Yorkshire and a Denmark-based company which makes carpets for the healthcare sector.
“On a daily basis, I would be in touch with our offices around the world, but Portadown is still the hub,” says Nick.
“I do a lot of travelling. With a turnover of more than £60m, it’s important to keep an eye on what everyone is doing,” he says.
“I spend a lot of my working life travelling, so it’s nice to come back home to Northern Ireland.”
Home is just outside Portadown, and includes wife Diane, doctor son Jamie (25), and daughter Cara (21), who is studying food science at Queen’s University, Belfast.
“As well as America, we have offices in Dubai, Paris and London, but everyone has to come to Portadown to train,” says Nick.
“Our staff are not just selling carpet, they are also required to give expert advice to people on all aspects of carpet care and design.
“They are all astounded by what we can do here and that the world’s leading carpets are made in Portadown.
“It’s also a great opportunity to showcase Northern Ireland.”
Carpet from a decor point of view has a huge impact, but in the past decade there has been a shift toward wooden and tiled floors — has this affected business?
“Very much,” says Nick. “About 20 years ago, 70% of our carpets would have been going into domestic homes — that’s been reversed.
“We still do domestic houses, although the products tend to be plainer.
“However, interior styles are changing again and carpet is making a comeback. After being flat for six or seven years, we have seen an increase of about 10% in domestic sales.
“It’s great that home decor is still part of our business, but for us, the growth is very much in the contract and export markets.
“And while we didn’t escape the recession — by-and-large, luxury and top-end consumers tend to maintain their spending habits to a certain degree — it has been very hard.
“But progressively each year it gets better.
“Because our products are known for their quality and bespoke designs, we have been able to grab market share.”
Other selling points for Ulster Carpets include the yarn manufactured in its own spinning plant in Dewsbury, North Yorkshire, enabling the company to have total control over the quality and long-term security of supply.
And the patented, futuristic machines invented by the company that can weave a huge spectrum of colours to make carpets up to an unprecedented five metres wide.
“We are the only company able to offer such a high number of bright colours — which suits the luxury and US market,” says Nick.
“In America, we have 45 people including 12 designers and 10 sales people. In Las Vegas alone, we have six people whose market is effectively the famous ‘strip’.”
Looking ahead, the company has no plans to rest on its laurels. “The Middle East is our most recent market,” says Nick.
“The current situation in certain areas is cause for concern, but on the other hand, more and more people are going to Dubai because they see it as a safer place than, say, Egypt or Tunisia.
“We are seeing a lot of business in Dubai and also in Qatar in the run-up to the World Cup.
“We have a lot of contracts to furnish hotels that are being built ahead of the 2022 competition.
“In terms of the seven-year plan, we have just started work on a prototype for our new loom, which will be another step forward in terms of efficiency.
“It is a £10m development and will increase further the number of colours we can offer.
“Even though we are constantly developing new automated technology, we will keep adding to the workforce.
“In the past year, more than 30 new jobs have been created because of the increase in business.”
With his job requiring so much travel, it’s hardly surprising that the majority of Nick’s spare time is devoted to family activities — but when socialising and visiting friends, he admits that he just can’t stop himself checking out their carpets.
“Always. It’s a terrible trait,” he laughs.
“I always look down when I walk into a room and if it’s not one of our carpets, I start looking for flaws.”
This time it’s personal...
Q. Do you prefer the town or country, and why?
A. I prefer the country, probably as that is where I have always lived. To walk in the fields close by with the dogs is a great way to leave the pressures of work behind. It reminds you how much there is of nature to experience. We are very fortunate in Northern Ireland to have wonderful countryside that is easily accessible.
Q. How has the textiles/carpeting industry in Northern Ireland changed in the last 10 years?
A. There has been a dramatic decline in a once great industry. Most bulk production businesses have headed to lower labour cost countries in Eastern Europe and Asia. This has been deliberate on behalf of the UK Government since the early Eighties, for reasons only they perhaps know. But there are still some great companies who have adapted to the new global market and thrived.
Q. How do you see it growing in the next decade?
A. I believe the next decade will bring huge opportunities for good companies which take the plunge into new export markets. This is not easy and requires a long-term approach but there is a vast global marketplace out there and high-performance businesses should see it as a big growth area.
Q. Have you any advice for anyone trying to reach director level in the sector?
A. Set your sights high, but be prepared to put in hard work to climb the ladder. Being a team player and genuine about wanting what is best for the company and not just oneself is vital. It is very helpful to cover as many different aspects of a business as possible and experience doing the job is hard to beat. I encourage young people (not just them) to travel and work in other parts of the world. Every time I travel I meet so many people from this country and they are all doing well. Northern Ireland could gain so much more in global markets and we have people with the right character and aptitude but it needs a courageous leap forward.
Q. What was the last book you read and what was it like?
A. Conversations with my Father: Jack Kyle, written by his daughter Justine Kyle McGrath. Kyle is best known as one of the greatest rugby players ever, but the book concentrates on his medical work, as well as his huge interest in poetry and other outlets. He was a humble person who did magnificent work in very poor countries but never sought credit. Many of our sporting stars today could learn a lot.
Q. What was your last holiday? What will be next?
A. My last was travelling the Great Ocean Road on South East Australia’s coastline, including the 12 Apostles. I plan to visit another part of the world with a rugged and fascinating coastline, Donegal. I visit each year and even though it is close, you really feel like you have gotten away from it all.
Q. What is your favourite band/album or piece of music, and why?
A. Hard to choose but I grew up in the Seventies as Queen were starting out. Freddie Mercury was a controversial character but his brilliance, and showmanship made the band so unique.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team? Have you ever played any sports?
A. My favourite team is Ulster Rugby, and I am hoping they can go to the very top in European rugby over the next few years. I played cricket for many years but have now switched over to golf. I am fortunate to play at Royal Co Down most weeks. Its location, the fellowship and the challenge of playing one of the toughest courses in the world is the perfect way to relax at the weekend.