Belfast Telegraph

The Co Down firm weaving path to success with rugby fans

By Margaret Canning

Selling textiles and collectables to everyone from petite Chinese women to rugby fans is all in a day’s work for Wendy Hamilton, commercial director at Ulster Weavers. Yes, Northern Ireland’s glory days as a titan of the linen industry may well be a thing of the past.

But Ulster Weavers, which has its roots in that bygone era, is still making a success of textiles — and has held the royal warrant as suppliers of kitchen textiles to Queen Elizabeth since 1995.

The company, which employs 46 people and had recent turnover of £8.9m, was founded by John Hogg in 1880 — and his descendants, the Webbs, are still in charge today. Some of its production still takes place at home but the majority is now off-shore.

And Ulster Weavers, now based in Holywood, found new and lucrative areas of business, particularly in export — and recently announced a licence to produce merchandise for 12 of the competing nations in the Rugby World Cup.

And Wendy, who’s been with the company for 30 years, doesn’t agree that it’s almost impossible these days to find people who have been with a firm for much of their working lives. “Surprisingly enough, you can in this country. We have a number of staff here are all coming up on 25 or 30 years. They are exceptionally loyal to company and it is a family when you come in to work. Even when customers come in, they are so surprised at how welcoming and warm everybody is and how positive they are.”

The company focuses on making collectables and kitchen textiles, such as tea towels and oven gloves. Its goods are now being sold in Europe, America, Canada, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Kenya, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia and Japan.

Unsurprisingly, export sales are a major focus. “They’re growing rapidly at the moment.  Up until basically last year majority sales were UK-based with small percentage of around 30% being export but this year it is growing rapidly. We’ve just employed two new salespeople in Shanghai and Singapore.  We feel there is a huge potential there.

“We also have the royal warrant, and there is a hunger for what we do.”

It might seem to most that a ‘one size fits all’ approach would work in everyday items like oven gloves and aprons, but there are international idiosyncrasies.

“The Chinese love aprons.  But we’re having to make minor tweaks to our aprons because Asian ladies are not the same size as European ladies. And when making tea towels for sale in the US, we have to bear in mind that over there, they are viewed not as something to dry your dishes with but as something decorative or a wall hanging. And in Japan, they use them on top of their table.”

There are further revelations on oven gloves. “Anywhere outside the UK, people don’t use double oven gloves of two layers — instead you find a single oven gauntlet.  You have to be very attuned to a country’s needs.”

It’s all a contrast to how the company worked when Wendy started out as an office junior and linen products were still sought-after. “At that point it was making traditional linen and linen damask and very plain linen. We had a lot of hospital contracts for very plain cloths. But then we had to introduce something more decorative for everyday use rather than traditional linen tablecloths.”

The size of the workforce fell as Ulster Weavers battled through an era of mass lay-offs and closures as the textile industry declined — and almost died — up to the early 2000s.

But the start of Wendy’s time in the company was very different. “When I started it was 1984, we were in the old original factory on Linfield Road in south Belfast, a site now known as Weavers Court.  That was where all the original weaving sheds and stitching was done. We had huge factories filled with people and machinery, with sites in Castlewellan, Annalong, Dunmurry as well as Belfast.

“It was sad when people had to be let go because it’s a family company, so everybody who still worked there become very close. Then there was a time when we couldn’t get people to work. You had Tesco and other big new supermarkets where people wanted to work instead.

“So we had to have a quite a well-established workforce here but also started moving things off-shore. It was sad but allowed us to develop more and do things we could never have done in factory here.”

Yet the firm has also come full-circle by opening its own printing and manufacturing in Castlewellan Road in Banbridge, as retailers and customers started to desire products which were made at home.

The company has benefited from the huge changes in China’s economy as it’s grown into more of a consumerist society.  “In China they’d never had the spare money to buy goods but with the government changes and growing wages, things are now affordable so they can buy something from the west.  And they want something very different from the products they have in China.”

The focus on export is also driven by changes at home — ironically, even though the economy has been improving.  In the UK and Ireland, there is a strong business supplying directly to retailers — everything from independent gift shops right up until department store John Lewis. 

“We have a lot of other high-end brands that we supply into other own brand name, such as The National Trust and Royal Collections. And in Ireland, one of our largest accounts is the Kilkenny Group and in Northern Ireland, our products are very popular in garden centres.”

And, her work does come home with her. “It’s much more than my husband would ever like, with so many oven gloves and tea towels, and our house is coming down with our little doorstops.”

Recent turnover was £8.9m for the year to April 30, 2014, with a slump in pre-tax profits from £650,600 to £420,840.   The company’s report did predict “an increased level of activity” in the latest year —and its Rugby World Cup merchandise of tea-towels, bags and aprons, designed with 12 of the countries taking part, may improve sales.

The company has managed to ease its way into the lucrative event tie-in market.

“We’d made tea-towels for London 2012, as well as kitchen textiles, bags and children’s aprons. Then we were approached by Team GB so we are now working directly with them in preparation for Rio 2016.

“Then Elite Sport Properties (EPS), the body that runs the commercial end of Rugby World Cup, contacted me and I went over and met with them and the deal was done.

“We’ve also just done our Second British Open, where we make products here in Northern Ireland for Liverpool, and then St Andrews.

“It’s a small fraction of what we do but it is growing.  We were even approached by the Tour de France. 

“There’s just lots of things going on but you have to sit down and make sure they’re all commercially viable.”

This time it's personal

Q: Do you prefer the town or country, and why?

A: Country. Peace, quiet and scenery. I love to just watch the sea — maybe that’s why I married a seaside lad.

Q: How has the independent retail sector in Northern Ireland, where you sell some of your produce, changed in the last 10 years?

A: The last few years have hit the Northern Ireland retail sector hard — however Northern Ireland has some very good independent shops, who are very forward-thinking. They are always on the lookout for something new and they work hard creating stores that people enjoy visiting. The high street in most of our towns could do with more of these shops.

Q: How do you foresee it growing in the next decade?

A: Where is a company like Ulster Weavers placed globally? We foresee most of our growth coming from export markets over the next decade. Our design and quality, along with the Royal Warrant that we hold, are huge selling points. This year alone, we are making huge headway into markets like Asia and the Middle East. So much so, that we have just appointed sales people in China and also in Singapore to handle the growth that we are experiencing in Asia. Our Holywood-based offices have also experienced an increase of staff to handle more export markets and licensed brands.

Q: Have you any career advice for anyone trying to reach director level in the sector?

A No job is too menial. You learn a lot from doing the little things and you understand how the business works from the ground up. You appreciate what members of staff do on a day-to-day basis and it helps to think creatively how you can not only improve their roles, the company’s efficiency, but provide the customer with a better service.  Understand your product, understand your customer and just love what you do.

Q: What was the last book that you read and what was it like?

A The Winner by David Baldacci. A nail-biting thriller about someone who rigs the American lottery.

Q: What was your last holiday? What will be next?

A: I had a super holiday this year when the family joined my sister and her now husband when they were getting married — safari in Kenya, followed by the wedding in Zanzibar and then a few days of retail therapy in Dubai. My next holiday is in Westport for a few days of relaxing, eating and drinking Guinness.

Q: What is your favourite band/album or piece of music, and why?

A: Much to my family’s disgust, I have no favourite band, album or even style of music, I just love listening to music that I can hum along to if company is close by, or have a little sing if I am in the car on my own. If pushed, anything from the 1980s — I usually know all the words.

Q: What is your favourite sport and team? And have you ever played any sports?

A: In our house, it’s all sports, so I end up knowing quite a bit about most of them. However, my favourite would have to be motorbikes, from MotoGP, to World Superbike and British Superbike. I love watching the racing and it’s a must in the house on a Sunday (especially a Superbike Sunday) while I’m doing the ironing. I always like watching the local racers and see how well they are doing.

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