Belfast Telegraph

Thompson Aero: Highly profitable yet low-profile success

By Margaret Canning

Thompson Aero Seating has grown to become one of Northern Ireland's most successful manufacturers. And while the highs and lows of planemaker Bombardier are well-documented, the contribution to the aerospace sector of Thompson Aero Seating can sometimes be overlooked.

It's one of two aircraft seat makers in Northern Ireland, though B/E Aerospace in Kilkeel - part of a US company which also changed hands earlier this year - is the bigger of the two.

The company seldom seeks publicity for its deals, with its news only reaching the wider world through economic development agency Invest NI, which has supported the company on many occasions.

Low-profile founder James Thompson (50), who had worked in BE Aerospace, established the company which became Thompson Aero Seating in 1997.

Following a distinguished Northern Irish tradition of inventions, from ejector seat innovator James Martin to tractor pioneer Harry Ferguson, he developed patents for airline seating, coming up with a staggered seating design for business class seats.

The lie-flat, staggered Vantage seating became a sought-after design - and is still the company's leading product. The company was at that point based in Kilkeel.

Companies from Delta Air Lines to Swiss Air bought Vantage seats for their planes, and in 2009. under a licence agreement from Thompson, the first Vantage line entered production.

But the popularity of the seat meant that a production facility was required, and a new site was built at Seagoe Industrial Park in Portadown.

While James Thompson sold all his shares in 2010, he will always be associated with the company which still bears its name.

And it's a highly profitable business. Chairman Sam Rusk (63) and his family were estimated to be worth £48m in the Sunday Times Rich List this year, thanks to their ownership of 52% of Thompson Aero Seating.

The company's growth has accelerated in the last few years, and this year the rapid growth in its international sales earned it a place on the Sunday Times Fast Track.

Its customer portfolio has also expanded to included airlines such as American Airlines and Air Canada.

And earlier this year the first Thompson seats were sent to the Boeing final assembly line in Seattle as SWISS installed its Thompson Vantage Business Class sat on their new B777s.

Earlier this year, the company also provided the business-class seating on the RAF Voyager.

Belfast Telegraph