Breaking the glass ceiling of recession
How a group of friends joined forces following the collapse of Tyrone Crystal to pursue their own business venture
A small group of friends who were made jobless following the collapse of Tyrone Crystal are rebuilding their lives and their careers with new business ventures.
The historic company folded with a loss of around 30 jobs in March due to a decline in the popularity of its glassware and the availability of similar and cheaper goods from overseas.
Many former employees have struggled to find jobs since the closure — for those who were employed at the plant for decades, their skills in a very particular trade have not stood them in good stead for finding alternative work in other industries.
So together, they are adapting their talents and going it alone — some working both in a freelance capacity and as part of a co-operative of former employees.
Some ex-staff have set up the www.sculpturedesigner.com website.
Using the input of online customers, they tailor-make solid polished 30mm glass blocks or sculptures.
They are also repairing and polishing crystal, cleaning and repairing chandeliers, engraving glass and have introduced Sculpture Designer, which enables customers to commission their own products.
The closure of the iconic Tyrone Crystal factory — once one of Northern Ireland’s flagship industries — also involved the closure of the Tyrone Crystal shop on Royal Avenue, Belfast.
The company, which had been trading for almost 40 years, was shut after last-ditch attempts to find a new buyer for the business failed.
Set up in 1971 by Fr Austin Eustace to create employment in the area, Tyrone Crystal emerged as one of Ulster’s best-loved companies and a global ambassador for Irish craftsmanship.
It once employed over 300, but became one of many businesses hit by the recession and changing tastes.
Aidan Lundy, a former operations manager at the plant, is one of those who decided to continue with the trade.
Remarkably, most of the machinery used by the new co-operative was bought from the old factory, using redundancy money paid to Mr Lundy and others.
“Most of the former workers have been unable to find employment so we decided to set up on our own,” he said. “At the moment we are working out of homes, garages, sheds, using equipment we clubbed together to purchase from the sale of goods from the old factory.
“I was relatively new in the company when it folded but others had been there for 30 years and the average time the employees had been there was around 18 or 19 years.
“For people of a certain age who had been in a very specialised trade for their whole lives, it has been very hard to get a new job.
“It has been terrible, devastating and traumatic for a lot of people. This is why we decided to go out on our own doing something we have experience with and are hoping to build up our client base for the future.”
They are doing their best to continue using their skills — even if lack of money means they cannot continue the exact work of Tyrone Crystal.
Mr Lundy said: “Because of the corporate, capital and labour intensity of crystal production it would take someone with quite a bit of money to come back in and create what Tyrone Crystal was doing so we will continue with what resources we have and hope that people will continue to have an appetite and an interest in our products and our skills, even if the factory is gone.”
Mr Lundy said that a programme from Invest NI helped get him back on the road to business.
“I took part in Invest NI’s Go For It course,” he said.
“I was a company man and I had to learn a lot of new things, like marketing and sales and setting up websites. It was a real help and support and was an excellent introduction into how to start a small business.”
Niall Dynes, another member of the co-op, was chief designer at the plant where he worked on a freelance basis.
As well as relaunching his own business, Sandcarving Design, he also works alongside Mr Lundy and two other former colleagues as Sculpture Designer.
After graduating from Belfast College of Art and Design, he worked for 15 years as a graphic artist and provided artwork and design for Tyrone Crystal, as well as rivals Tipperary Crystal, Caulfield Glass and Derryveagh Crystal.
Mr Dynes, a member of the Guild of Glass Engravers, designed the last two Canadian Grand Prix trophies as well as Tyrone Crystal’s Studio Range.
“I started working at Tyrone in 2000 as artwork administrator, at that time, most of the engraving was still being done by hand but sandblasting soon took over as it was more efficient and cost effective,” he said.
“A couple of years ago I met Aidan and he would have been one of the first to make the sandblasting more creative and we worked on a project called the Studio Range, which bought into the sense of limited editions, bespoke products. That aspect of the business was doing really well.”
As to whether the closure of Tyrone Crystal was inevitable, his view is ambivalent.
“To be honest while it wasn’t a huge shock to hear that Tyrone Crystal was in difficulties, as a lot of businesses were and still are, but a big institution like that, you thought at least some small part of it could go on indefinitely.
“Part of this co-op is trying to keep those traditions alive. It was easy for me to carry on engraving, sandblasting, I was always very busy right up until the closure.
“That’s the part of the business that always did, and still does, have legs — the fact that we can provide bespoke products, we don’t have a factory full of cheap ornaments we have to try and sell.
“We were lucky enough to have a good grip on the corporate market in terms of trophies and mementoes and we are going to keep trying to sell to that client base.
“People can approach us with whatever they want really so there is that flexibility.”
And Mr Dynes has not ruled out the chance that more tradesmen will join the co-op in future.
“At the moment there are only a few of us, I was used to doing my own thing and some of these guys have a skills base of 20 to 30 years which should not be allowed to die,” he said. “There are other guys out there trying to get themselves back off the ground again, things like chandelier cleaning and repairs that can diverge and dovetail nicely with what we’re trying to do.”