Belfast Telegraph

Big Interview: 'We're expanding our furniture firm despite Brexit but it really hasn't been kind to anyone'

The Big Interview: Paul Devlin, Abbey Upholsterers

Paul Devlin, managing director of Abbey Upholsterers in Carrickfergus
Paul Devlin, managing director of Abbey Upholsterers in Carrickfergus
Paul Devlin, managing director of Abbey Upholsterers in Carrickfergus
Paul Devlin, managing director of Abbey Upholsterers in Carrickfergus
Paul at his company’s Meadowbank Road headquarters
Paul at his company’s Meadowbank Road headquarters on the factory floor with Pawel Siwinski

By Lisa Smyth

Abbey Upholsterers has become famous for its high quality furniture.The manufacturing firm, based in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, counts Claridge's Hotel in London and the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin among its customers.

And it's currently in the process of a major expansion which will see its factory grow from 100,000 sq ft to 130,000 sq ft. During 2018 its turnover also rose from £7.3m to nearly £8m with a workforce of 111.

It is a far cry from the humble start of the company, which was established 90 years ago by George Devlin, the grandfather of the current managing director, Paul Devlin.

It came about after George was made redundant from the linen mill in nearby Whiteabbey in the early 1900s.

Looking for an alternative income, he started out by selling a roll of lino door to door and after a while his customers began to enquire about the possibility of upholstery and furniture.

Abbey Upholsterers was set up as a result.

The business continued to grow for decades and in 1972, with 10 permanent employees, it passed on to the second generation of the Devlin family, as George's son and Paul's father, also called George, took over the running of the company.

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He introduced the concept of large-scale distribution importing ready-made furniture products in large container loads from Europe, which resulted in an enormous increase in demand for new products, new fabrics, and new designs.

In the 1980s, Abbey Upholstery began to manufacture its own furniture and it now regularly creates furniture commissions for clients, exporting as far away as Barbados, Monaco, Los Angeles, Jordan and New York.

The expansion of its headquarters in Carrickfergus will allow Paul to further grow the company. However, he said this has been delayed as a result of Brexit.

"Business was flying three years ago and unfortunately I think that Brexit has halted a lot of big projects," he says.

"A lot of work has been put on hold and I think it will take a few years for that to start again and grow momentum.

"We actually held off on the current extension for two years because of Brexit but it got to the stage where we couldn't hold back any longer."

Paul says the potential for a no-deal departure from the EU could be disastrous for business and the company is implementing a number of different measures to mitigate any potential effects, including setting up an office in Galway.

He continues: "Brexit hasn't been kind to anyone.

"The biggest issue for us is that we have to price jobs for four, six or seven months in advance and then we're locked into the contracts, but we don't know how currency is going to go.

"If there is a no-deal, the pound will disintegrate.

"We also don't know what tariffs are going to go on goods to export and import, but I think the biggest thing for us is going to be employment because we have a good mix of people from every nationality.

"A no-deal will definitely be more damaging.

"The best result for me would be to go back and leave it."

The father-of-three spent his younger years working for the family business at every opportunity but it was not a given that he would automatically take on the role of managing director.

He travelled and worked abroad for a number of years before finally returning to Northern Ireland and working in various departments in the business before taking up a management position.

He has fond memories of his time at St James's Primary School in Newtownabbey followed by Belfast High School. "I didn't mind school, although I think I enjoyed it more than my teachers did," he says.

"When I was young, it was a strange set up because our family home was literally a minute from the factory so every minute that I had I spent it there.

"Summer holidays, Christmas, everything, it was all spent helping at the factory from a very young age.

"I didn't go straight into the business when I left school actually, I went away for a few years first and travelled a bit.

"I was into horses from a young age which happened because someone owed my dad some money, so he gave him a saddle.

"He had no idea what he was going to do with a saddle, so he went and got a little horse that we used to walk around the roads and it grew from there.

"So when I went away I did a little bit of showjumping, I was actually doing it at a very high level and I spent some time in Palm Beach.

"I was working for other people in America, bringing horses on and training young horses.

"It was a great experience instead of going straight into work and I feel like it really helped me with meeting new people from all walks of life.

"I was mixing with all sorts of people, including some of the richest people in the world, and I really learnt how to talk to them and deal with their staff as well, and I was also working with people of all different nationalities, so it was a great experience."

He adds: "The plan was always to come back, I knew I would have to come back to a serious bit of work and I started in the factory in my early 20s.

"I worked in every department in the factory for six months, dealing with all the different people.

"I felt like it was important to get that experience because if I was going to be speaking about something, I needed to know what I was talking about.

"I never went into the business thinking I was going to be managing director. Over the years I became more involved with the projects and I really grew into the position."

With such a long history, Abbey Upholsterers has flourished despite a number of challenges, including the last economic downturn.

"There have been very steep curves along the way and the recession in 2007 and 2008 was one of them," Paul says.

"Some of our major customers went out of business and to give you an idea of how difficult it was for us, we were moving into a new factory on Black Friday, so we had big concerns about the expansion. It was a very dark day for everyone.

"The business went from being very profitable with no debt to obviously borrowing from the bank to build new premises.

"The problem was that no one knew how bad the recession was going to be.

"It wasn't just a normal slow down, it was a car crash and you did wonder whether you had done the right thing by expanding and we probably did wish that we had stayed where we were.

"At the same time, we just focused on the fact that we were where we were and we knew we had to make it work and do everything to the best of our ability.

"Ultimately, it worked out well."

And despite the current uncertainty, Paul is determined to continue to build the business further.

"I think it's realistic to get turnover up by another 40 to 50% in the next few years," he says.

As part of this there has been a particular focus on marketing to highlight the extent of the work done by the company.

"There is a perception out there that we just do granny's sofa," continues Paul.

"There's a lack of understanding of the upmarket projects we do and we recognise that we need to get that message out there.

"We work with large high-end hotel groups around the world and specifically we recognised a gap in the market in America.

"It started out with a small job about four or five years ago that we thought may not even be worth doing, but I think that has been an important lesson because you never know what work is going to come from a contract.

"From that position, every job we go to we are hoping that when it is finished that our customers are happy and that's the best thing to grow the business."

Paul also spends as much time as possible with his employees.

Not only does this give him the opportunity to get to know staff, it also offers him to closely monitor the work being done.

"I walk the floor in the morning and afternoon, so I know what's going through the factory at all times," says Paul.

"You get to see the progress as it develops and it makes it easier to catch something early on if it isn't going the way it should.

"Having my finger on the pulse is very important to me."

So, after 25 years in the manufacturing industry at the helm of a hugely successful company, what advice would he give to other aspiring entrepreneurs?

"I really think the world has changed a lot in the last 10 years and I feel that the market is really difficult," he says.

"The competition is greater, so you need to try and stay ahead of the competition, you need to be thinking from the competitor's point of view.

"You need to do things better, but without cutting corners."

Belfast Telegraph

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