Belfast Telegraph

Why William Cleland's firm deserves its place in history

Staff at a Co Antrim packaging factory are celebrating 150 years

By Yvette Shapiro

Belfast owes a lot to the men who built the city's rich industrial base.

Names like Barbour, Andrews, Pirrie, McCracken, Thompson, Harland and Wolff are indelibly woven into history. And William Whyte Cleland is another 19th century business leader who deserves his place among them.

The printing firm he began in Belfast city centre on May 1, 1865 now produces specialist packaging for the pharmaceutical industry and is part of Multi Packaging Solutions, a global corporation with 60 factories and 9,000 employees worldwide. But the history of the Northern Ireland operation means a lot to the firm.

"May 2015 was the 150th anniversary of the company's foundation and we've been having a year of events with employees," said spokeswoman Elaine McNeill.

"It started off with a staff and family day trip to the Ulster Folk Museum where they allowed us to rebrand the historic print shop with the Cleland name for the day. That was very special."

Next month, celebrations will culminate in a lunch for former employees at the Newtownabbey factory. In a bid to contact retired staff, MPS recently placed advertisements in the Belfast Telegraph.

"We've had a brilliant response to the advert, with ex-employees now in their late 80s contacting us to say they're coming to the event on September 9," said Elaine.

"Sadly, some are too frail to attend but they've been ringing up and sharing great stories with us.

"We're putting together a very comprehensive 1900s exhibition with lots of memorabilia like posters, ledgers, old debentures, employee records and even the 'tea coins' staff used to get in their wage packet - they exchanged them for tea when the trolley came round the factory floor.

"We've also recreated a 19th century office which really helps to bring the history alive."

By all accounts, William Cleland drove his business forward with steely determination. The company quotes this description of him: "An old-school pioneer who scorned difficulties, or regarded them simply as incentives to increased effort."

His firm moved to High Street in 1867, acquiring further premises in Great Victoria Street in 1871. These buildings were connected by a private telegraph wire which was soon upgraded by the very first commercial telephonic installation in the Ulster region.

In the early 1900s, Cleland's moved to the Cullingtree Estate, almost two acres from Grosvenor Road to Albert Street and from Durham Street to Stanley Street.

This was its home until the end of the 20th century and was known across the city for its distinctive five-storey tower.

The Cleland name was still attached to the company after its acquisition by the locally-owned Boxmore International group in 1983, when it became known as Boxmore Cleland. However, it's thought the Cleland connection ceased in the 1950s when the Geddes family became involved.

The factory moved to a greenfield site in Newtownabbey in 1999 and among the 170 current employees are several who previously worked at Cullingtree.

The longest-serving staff member is finisher Paddy Brunty, with 43 years. Paul Flanigan (42 years) and Stanley Noble (40 years) work in the cut and crease department, and Stewart Brennan (41 years) works in the art room.

"There are a lot of family connections," said technical manager Alastair White. "My son works here and my wife's grandmother worked for the company, too."

The continuity of employment is in contrast to the firm's ownership. In 2000, parent company Boxmore International was bought by US-based Chesapeake Corporation. It was renamed Field Boxmore Belfast, then Chesapeake, then in 2008 the group was bought by Irving Place Capital Fund and Oaktree Funds and later sold to the Carlyle Group.

In 2014 Chesapeake merged with Multi Packaging Solutions, a New York-based print and packaging giant with manufacturing operations in North America, Europe, and Asia. MPS raised $215m (£163m) in a partial IPO last October. The company also has manufacturing operations in Dublin, Westport and Limerick, as well as several factories in England and Scotland.

"Packaging is a fast moving, innovative business," said Alastair White. "We export worldwide, supplying the pharmaceutical industry. We have a number of blue chip customers like GSK and Almac. The brand message on the pharmaceutical cartons is very important and the companies are constantly refreshing their look and their message. It's a very aggressive industry and companies demand a lot in terms of innovation and technology. We have to stay ahead, and we do."

The outcome of the Brexit vote is still being weighed, but is not causing concern.

"There's uncertainty for everyone in industry on how Brexit will work out, but it won't affect what we're doing here," said Liverpool-born general manager Chris Dears.


1865 — William Whyte Cleland sets up printing business at Victoria Street, Belfast

1867 — Company moves to High Street

1871 — Falcon Works established in Great Victoria Street

Early 1900s — company moves to Cullingtree Estate

1919 — William Cleland dies at 80. Son James Adam Cleland takes over

1983 — Company acquired by Boxmore International. Renamed Boxmore Cleland

1989 — Stock market flotation in London and Dublin

1999 — New factory is built in Newtownabbey

2000 — Boxmore is acquired by Chesapeake Corporation. Renamed Field Boxmore Belfast

2014 — Chesapeake merges with Multi Packaging Solutions

Belfast Telegraph