'Our hairbrushes are used by movie stars and royals... we are like the Hoover of beauty products'
Denman managing director Philip Steele speaks to John Mulgrew about the Mod scene, learning Japanese and helping grow the hairbrush business
Philip Steele remains rooted in Mod culture and, as well as speaking Japanese, he heads up the world's best known hairbrush brand - used by the rich and famous for decades.
The 51-year-old Belfast man is managing director of Bangor firm Denman, which led the way in the 1970s when the company's brush was first used by top stylist Vidal Sassoon.
The brand actually started life in 1938 through another Northern Ireland entrepreneur, Cushendall man Jack Denman Dean.
"The roots go right back to Northern Ireland, despite having been made briefly in Great Britain," Philip said.
"We are at heart an injection moulding company.
"There was a demand for the Denman brushes. It didn't really exist before that. The owner had the opportunity to buy the guts of a company and his plans were for the textiles industry.
"This coincided in 1972 with the ending of the patent. The patent on the brush expired then.
"Vidal Sassoon was going round with the first bob hairstyles.
"He helped form the demand for the hairstyling and for Denman brushes. I guess he tried different products but found ours worked perfectly with the hair dryer. The rubber grip, giving him control, and it was also anti-static.
"It was a product which could stand up to the demands of a salon.
"It can last an exceptionally long time. It's a durable and high performance, and that's why he would have chosen Denman originally.
"It would be the same as David Beckham going round (advertising it) nowadays.
"Since then, it became a general term, like Hoover, for a rubber cushion brush."
Denman is part of the overall Denroy Group, which includes Denroy Plastics, and produces part of the aerospace industry.
Denman now turns over around £9m a year, with around 6% profit. The overall group employs around 200 staff, while Denman has a workforce of 47.
Northern Ireland's own celebrity hairdresser Paul Stafford is a global ambassador for the brand.
Denman hairbrushes are used by some of the world's biggest celebrities - including pop star Lady Gaga.
"Movie stars and musicians to members of the Royal Family use or have our products used on them," Philip said.
"We had to work harder over the years as competition grew.
"We have expanded our range. Brushes are the core of our business and 80% would be Denman brushes and combs.
"We have dozens of styles from paddle brushes to vent or cushion brushes, and detangling products have been very popular as well.
"We had a very successful hair dryer business at one time. We were the last hair dryer company in the UK. But prices came down - you can buy a hair dryer for four or five quid. They are almost sold as a loss leader now.
"We have always had a varied market and product portfolio. We have our export business, we have our pro-salon and UK retail business, so generally if one is lower, we have enough irons in the fire."
Denman has 'brand ambassadors' across the world - top stylists who use the products on a daily basis. "At a professional level, our endorsements are critical. We have had Vidal Sassoon, Paul Mitchell, Trevor Sorbie, Andrew Collinge and, at a local level, Paul Stafford."
Exports are still a large part of the Denman hairbrush business, according to Philip. "Around 40% is exported to around 60 countries, including the US, Japan, Germany and South Africa, while Argentina has come flying up the charts," he said.
Denman now has offices in Bangor, London, Boston and Amsterdam.
On Brexit, Philip said: "I could honestly say we haven't noticed any obvious benefit. We had short-term gains because of the currency.
"In terms of sales, yes our products should be cheaper to buy, but conversely, our materials are in euro and in dollars.
"We are seeing some growth ... we are having a serious look at the German retail market. Because the pound is weaker, it is cheaper for them to buy.
"We did a Brexit risk assessment. The international aspect, we have talked about foreign exchange, maybe some contracts. We have some EU staff, that may be affected, things like employment, working time directives, the supply chain.
"There is corporate reorganisation, and talk of companies needing an EU office.
"Grants - what is going to happen to funding? Data protection and intellectual property. It's the uncertainty. It makes everyone uneasy, on both sides. It is what businesses don't want."
Philip says the long-running deadlock at Stormont is "an incredible situation to be in". "It can't be good," he said.
Philip was born and bred in Belfast, attending the then Grosvenor High School.
He was one of the first crop of marketing graduates, studying for his degree at the University of Stirling in Scotland, where he met his future wife, Laura.
He's been with Denman since 1990, but began his career at FG Wilson in Larne.
"I did a year, didn't click, and then went to hairbrushes," he said. "I did a graduate trainee programme, young graduates were sent out, primarily to North America."
After a time "traipsing around America" he was then offered a full-time job with the company.
Philip then spent several years in Japan - working and learning the culture and language during his time in both Tokyo and Osaka.
"It (the business) has changed quite a bit. It's a family business. They need to plan for succession. There was a restructure to set up a new management team for both companies," he said.
Dr John Rainey remains the company owner and chairman.
Philip's wife is an accountant, and they have two children, Molly (18) and William (15).
"My daughter is looking at universities, and wants to do chemical engineering," he said.
"It's too early for William. He's playing rugby and about to do his GCSEs."
His parents, dad Jim (86), a former civil servant, and mum Pearl (76), a former nurse, are "still going strong", he says.
And while the atypical answer for many Northern Ireland managing directors and chief executives is a weekend interest in watching the Ulstermen at Ravenhill or playing a round or two of golf, Philip's passion is Lambretta scooters.
"I was part of that '70s revival, Quadrophenia (an album and film from the Who), the Mod scene and clothes," he said. "I also really like soul, jazz and funk. And more normal things like reading, collecting military items and a bit of DIY in my spare time."
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. In life, “If at first you don’t succeed, do as your wife told you to do in the first place” — Robin Eames.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. Have a clear vision and 100% commitment, be prepared for setbacks and learn from these and consider a mentor to avoid basic mistakes.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. Strategic alliances. Scunci US hair accessory brand for UK mass market distribution added 15% turnover in two years, and Panasonic, the licensing of the Denman name to Panasonic in Japan, was a lucrative revenue stream and created awareness of the brand in the Japanese retail market.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. As a student I considered the Army and the police as career options having work experience with both while I was studying at university. Otherwise a greenskeeper at a golf course, or groundsman at a sports ground.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. My last summer holiday was Donegal, Portnoo, and winter was Dubai. My next is spring in Lake Como.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. Lambretta motor scooters. I’m a member of the Ulster Lambretta Club and own three. I like jazz, soul and funk, as well as military history, reading and DIY.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. Football: I have supported West Ham United since I was three or four.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. I played rugby on the team that won the Ulster Schools’ Cup for Grosvenor Grammar School back in 1983 and I now play golf occasionally.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. Fiction, and I enjoy crime/thrillers, such as the Inspector Rebus novels and Sherlock Holmes. I would recommend ‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper or ‘Papillon’.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. Uncertainty and caution will be the watch words of the day with short to medium-term low economic growth, rising inflation and Brexit providing challenges for business and consumers. Rapidly growing digital influence on everyday life and business.
Q. How do you sum up working in the haircare sector?
A. The professional salon market is a great industry with talented and hard-working stylists at its core, wherever I have been in the world.
The consumer/retail market is more corporate and challenging, with pressure ever-increasing as retailers come under more pressure, which in turn can be directed to their suppliers.