How Bangor company Denroy Plastics' brush with greatness has been leading it to aerospace and beyond
Its hairbrushes were made famous by Vidal Sassoon, its aircraft components are used in fighter jets and passenger planes. John Rainey, head of Denroy Plastics, talks to Yvette Shapiro
If it’s Tuesday, it must be Las Vegas, New York, Hong Kong, London or Bologna. Rarely, it seems, does John Rainey touch down long enough at his Bangor factory to reflect on almost 50 years in the plastics business, man and boy.
“I’ve spent my whole career convincing customers around the world that Northern Ireland isn’t isolated,” said John. “We sell our products in 60 countries, so our team is always on the road, or rather, in the air. The philosophy of this business is personal. In this digital age, where people try to hide behind emails, it’s more important than ever to get out there. Our customers know that we’ll always get on the plane and come to them.”
And that globetrotting has paid dividends for Denroy Plastics, whose products range from the world’s best known hairbrush brand, Denman, through medical devices and components for aircraft wings. Last year, sales hit £10.3m and profit before tax was £283,000. The doom and gloom that’s enveloped the world of manufacturing in the past week, following the closure announcement from Michelin, hasn’t affected Denroy.
“We’re privately owned, indigenous and entirely committed to Northern Ireland,” said John. “We’re not trying to please the City and we’re in control of our investment and financial decisions. We’ve had numerous approaches to sell out, but I’ve never been tempted, not once.”
There was never going to be another career path for John Rainey. “My father, Max, was an engineer and he made it clear to me from an early age that I was going to do the same.”
As a 15-year-old schoolboy in north Belfast, John was pressed into service by Max, who had set up his own plastic injection moulding company. “We produced a plastic golf club head, the first of its type in the world. I worked there every summer and Christmas.”
Max joined forces with Billy Martin (later of Brett Martin). In 1970, the company moved to Bangor and acquired the plastics division of Ulster Plastics, which included the Denman hairbrush, invented by Ulsterman John Denman Dean.
“Consultants advised us to forget the Denman brushes,” said John. “We ignored them! Instead we improved the tooling and quality of the product, and added innovation. We always innovate, we never copy.”
It was the quality of the product and the endorsement of hairdresser to the stars, Vidal Sassoon, that propelled the Denman brand to become the number one choice for professional salons worldwide. “Vidal changed everything in hairdressing. He gave the world the blow dry, and the Denman brush was the only product able to withstand the heat of the drier. It was also resilient to water — most brushes rotted.”
As a young man, John met Vidal Sassoon on a couple of occasions. “He was very impressive, totally single-minded and very direct. I imagine he needed to be to achieve his vision.”
Northern Ireland’s own celebrity hairdresser, Paul Stafford, is a global ambassador for the brand and has just returned from a tour of South Africa, demonstrating the brushes. Denman has an office in Johannesburg, run by Northern Ireland ex-pat Julie-Anne McDowell, the company’s former export manager.
“She’s making a colossal impact on the market there,” said John. “We’ve made a huge investment in promotion and Julie-Anne has made sales of £250,000 in South Africa in the past year.”
Another ex-pat Bangor woman is driving the company’s remarkable performance in the United States: John’s eldest daughter, Victoria, heads up the Boston office. “She has doubled our US sales in the past 18 months, achieving $2.5m this year alone. The Americans prefer American and European products to those from the Far East, and Victoria has made a major breakthrough there.”
John’s younger daughter, Zoe, is an accomplished actress, currently starring on the West End stage with Dame Judi Dench in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s production of The Winter’s Tale. She’s had several roles in big movies and stars alongside Sir Ian McKellen in the Sherlock Holmes film, Mr Holmes. Zoe is also the “face” of Denman brushes and appears in some of the company’s promotional videos on YouTube.
“Both of my daughters are very talented and very hardworking,” said John, as he handed me his phone to view a video clip of Zoe in Dr Holmes. “I’m tremendously proud of both of them and their work.”
Denman brushes are sold in 60 countries, but there’s still scope for export growth, with China the next big target. The company is considering a new office in Hong Kong to take advantage of the Chinese consumer desire for luxury products from the UK.
For a short time, some years ago, Denman had a joint venture production base in India, but John said that it “didn’t work out” and there are no plans to move production to a cheaper wage economy in Asia.
“We’ve kept faith with Northern Ireland, through the toughest times. Even some of our clients were laughing at us for not exploiting cheap eastern imports. But our decision was vindicated.
“There’s increasing disenchantment with the Far East, in terms of price increases, poor quality, ethics and the long supply chain. We do buy certain components in China, but we’re totally committed to Northern Ireland.”
The Denman hairbrush continues to define the company, but Denroy Plastics is an important player in the aerospace sector. It designs and manufactures lightweight plastic components used in structural wing and air frame assemblies, cabin interiors and cockpits of civil and military aircraft. Airbus is a major customer, a relationship that goes back 20 years, and the company makes at least 180 parts for the Eurofighter Typhoon, regarded as the world’s most advanced combat aircraft.
“Aerospace is now being taken very seriously in Northern Ireland,” said John, who’s a founder and council member of ADS, the trade body for the aerospace, defence and security industry here. “Despite its long history and impact, the industry’s scale and importance was overlooked. There’s great potential for growth and employment.”
Denroy is currently working on a major project in collaboration with other NI aerospace companies which he says will have a “colossal” impact in terms of jobs and investment. He wouldn’t be drawn on the details, but said the consortium hoped to make a key announcement at next summer’s Farnborough Air Show.
At 64, John shows no signs of slowing down as chairman of Denroy. And his pride in its achievements — and that of its staff — is evident, never more so than last year when the RAF paid a special tribute to the firm. Air Vice-Marshal David Niven visited Denroy’s factory and promised to bring one of the jets to Belfast so that the staff could get a close-up look at their handiwork.
“I never expected him to follow it through,” said John, “but not only did he keep his word, he actually sent two of them. We took a bus load of staff up to RAF Aldergrove and they were absolutely thrilled.
“As I stood on the tarmac looking at the Typhoons, I was really overwhelmed and I said to myself: this is when you know you’ve made it as a company.”