Belfast Telegraph

Who's been rolling out the red carpet for the stars?

Ulster Carpets, of course. This homegrown firm keeps covering every corner on road to success, writes Clare Weir

What do Barack Obama, George Clooney and Claudia Schiffer all have in common? The answer is that they have all walked on Ulster Carpets.

The Portadown firm, which employs around 500 people, is the last carpet manufacturer headquartered in the UK and Republic of Ireland and has rolled out floor coverings for some of the world's most prestigious addresses.

The MGM and Bellagio casinos in Las Vegas - seen in the Oceans 11 chain of movies - the Monte Carlo casino, the Ritz hotel in Paris, the seven-star Burj al Arab hotel in Dubai - comprising 202 duplex suites and six restaurants - are all carpeted by the Northern Ireland company.

Ulster Carpets initially provided the Burj Al Arab's carpets on opening 12 years ago - and the renewal of the relationship will see them fit 11,700sqm of new Axminster carpet to guest suites and corridors in a deal thought to be worth $500,000 (£314,000).

Prices at the all-suite hotel range from $1,000 to $27,000 per night.

The Gulf is a fast-growing market for Ulster Carpets, which has won other contracts with the King Abdullah Convention Centre in Jeddah as well as major hotels such as the Marriott in Riyadh, Le Meridien in Al Khobar and the Sheraton in nearby Damman.

The firm, a long-term entrant in the Belfast Telegraph's Top 100 Businesses role-call, even rolled out the red carpet for President Obama during his visit to Ireland in April 2011.

The company donated a deep red carpet to Templeharry church ahead of the president's visit to his ancestral home of Moneygall in Co Offaly.

But it was not the first time that the President walked on Ulster Carpets - The Washington DC Convention Centre, soon to be the scene for the US presidential election, and the Washington DC Hilton hotel, which were both venues for events to celebrate his inauguration, were also carpeted by the firm.

And it's not just buildings - the Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Mary II also feature Ulster Carpets.

Nick Coburn, managing director of Ulster Carpets said that despite fierce competition in a global market, the company's reputation, its staff and its technology means there will be no move to cheaper operating costs or labour in the east.

"We have a big focus on productivity, innovation, patents and we have invested hugely in technology and research and development," he said.

"We are the last ones standing in this part of the world and we have to compete and stay ahead of the pack, the pack being our competition in the far east.

"We have a productive, flexible workforce which understands market needs.

"Customers can buy from us or they can buy from China, but we have an excellent reputation for delivering quality and delivering it on time."

Ulster Carpets has regional offices in London, Paris, Dubai, New York, Las Vegas and Chicago.

But the heart of the business is still in Portadown.

"We are currently tendering for the building of a new dyehouse which will be a £5m investment at our existing site in Portadown," said Mr Coburn.

"This will be followed by another £7-£8m investment in terms of replacing older buildings, new layouts, keeping the site up to date in terms of equipment and technology, furthering our plans to develop and innovate and keep ahead of the competition."

One of the main factors which keeps Ulster Carpets to the forefront of the market is the good old-fashioned British sheep.

"We buy wool from the main sales in Bradford, run by the the British Wool Marketing Board, on a daily basis and it comes in to Portadown every night," said Mr Coburn.

"This is spun to yarn and we dye it into colours.

"The looms then weave the carpet, it is packed and shipped out all over the world every day of the week, we are sending out on average about 40 sqm every week.

"We use wool from sheep from all over Britain and Ireland.

"The sheep here are hardy - they are out on the mountains in all weathers and that is the type of wool that people are walking on so it needs to be sturdy.

"Softer wools for things like jumpers and other clothes would come from New Zealand.

"Like other products, wool prices have risen in the last year, which has forced us to make efficiencies, but as can be seen in our last set of results, we are still experiencing impressive returns."

Mr Coburn said that the company's reputation has played a big part in its success.

"When we initially went into export markets 20 years ago, we always said we would deliver when we said we would deliver and that has stood us in good stead," he said. "We have a flexible, premium service which attracts repeat custom.

"On average a carpet would take four to six weeks, larger orders like the Washington Convention Centre would take about three months and our largest job in the last year was the MGM Casino, the largest casino and hotel in the world, which bought carpet equivalent to 60 football pitches. That took about six months to make.

"With a job like the Burj al Arab, there were lots of different areas and sizes to consider and a lot of expansion - we carpeted the original hotel and then were hired to do new ones earlier this year, so sometimes with our bigger clients it can be a bit like painting the Forth Bridge."

Mr Coburn said that big name clients are still keen for quality products despite the global downturn.

"We have not seen any cutback in regard to cheaper floor-coverings or materials - our largest market is still the US and they want lots of colour, strong colours, people are not keen on neutral colours.

"We haven't seen any cutback in that regard, US market, larger markets - they still want more and more colour, vibrant colours, and less of bland, neutral colours."

The results are plain to see - for the year ending March 31 2012, turnover rose by 13% to £55m and operating profit before tax was up by 72% to £5m, against a backdrop of job losses in long-standing Northern Ireland firms like FG Wilson.

In 2011 Ulster Carpets increased turnover by 4% to £49.07m and profits before tax by 119% to £3.17m.