| 9.5°C Belfast

The Big Interview: 'An important part of our success has been our willingness to diversify and to move with the times'

The Big Interview: Jim Erskine, CCP Gransden

Close

Managing director of CCP Gransden Ltd, Jim Erskine

Managing director of CCP Gransden Ltd, Jim Erskine

Old projects

Old projects

Belfast’s Botanic Gardens Palm House

Belfast’s Botanic Gardens Palm House

Today’s workforce

Today’s workforce

Jim Erskine, Stephen Gallagher, director of sales, Andy McBride, production manager and Peter Quigley

Jim Erskine, Stephen Gallagher, director of sales, Andy McBride, production manager and Peter Quigley

Jim Erskine

Jim Erskine

Managing director of CCP Gransden Ltd, Jim Erskine

There aren't many companies in the manufacturing sector in Northern Ireland that can trace their history back as far as CCP Gransden.

Even more remarkable is the fact that the company has stayed in the same family all these years. The company's current managing director Jim Erksine is a direct descendant of co-founder Gussie Hamilton.

The Ballygowan-based firm, which employs around 25 people, specialises in advanced composite manufacture. It supplies the aerospace, transportation and security and defence industries.

Jim himself has been managing director at the company for 15 years, but he didn't start his career there.

But in his teenage years, Jim spent his summer holidays working for the family business.

"I brushed out, I cleaned up, I did whatever they wanted me to and I did anything to help," he explains.

"Initially I wasn't interested in working in the business, but I suppose you do feel a certain obligation to keep it going.

"I went to Queen's University and studied mechanical engineering and I went off and worked in a number of jobs and travelled to different countries.

"I suppose in some sense I was lucky my father gave me space to go and do something else first.

"There is also personal burden and responsibility with going into business and I was also lucky I was allowed to make mistakes elsewhere."

The company traces its roots back to 1894 and was originally located at the docks in Belfast where Titanic was built.

In 1892, Belfast engineer Augustus Warren Hamilton, known as Gussie to his friends, travelled to Canada on a ship called Head Line, and it was in a city called Miramichi, located near Nova Scotia, that he met and fell in love with Annie Harley.

However, Gussie's finances were not secure so he was unable to marry Annie.

She made a promise to wait for him and he returned to Belfast and borrowed money which enabled him to establish Hamilton and McMaster Engineering Co in 1894 alongside a friend.

At the time, Belfast was the premier shipbuilding centre of the world and his firm began to undertake engineering and ship repair work.

Within five years, the company was on sound footing and all debts had been repaid, meaning Annie was able to move to Belfast and the couple were finally reunited and married.

While their love story was complete, the future of Hamilton and McMaster was not assured and challenges lay ahead.

With the arrival of the First World War in 1914, the company was recognised by the Admiralty for dry docking repairs.

In 1917, the McMaster partnership dissolved and the firm became AW Hamilton and Co.

The Great Depression in the 1930s brought a downturn in fortunes and for a period, senior management even went without a salary just so the company could cover the cost of materials. Men had to queue for any work they could get, and in some cases, this was for only one or two hours in a day.

Even harder times lay ahead during both World Wars when it was listed as a key reserve occupation.

Despite employing more than 400 extra labourers at this time, the company couldn't claim any profits and suffered a post-war recession.

It somehow managed to escape the devastation caused by the Belfast Blitz, narrowly surviving several major fires.

In 1959, the company bought out David Scott and Sons and a decision was taken to diversify, leading to the establishment of Corrosion Control Ltd.

While the company grew, however, further turmoil lay ahead in the form of the Troubles, which began in 1969.

In October 1972, nearby Catholic-owned Benny's Bar, located in the Sailortown area of the city, was attacked in a no-warning car bomb.

Two little girls celebrating Halloween outside the pub were killed and the company premises were damaged in the explosion.

But despite the bloodshed going on around the city and the challenges this created for business, the company continued to operate.

In 1974, it was renamed Corrosion Control Plastics and the firm continued to diversify and adapt to the changing needs of manufacturers.

In 1985 came a takeover of Gransden (Bi-Chem) and the company became a leading distributor of wastewater chemicals across Ireland and much of the UK.

Further evolution lay ahead and a decision was taken diversify into the world of composites, which is its area of expertise now.

It is a remarkable story and Jim is proud that the company has continued through the generations. "I suppose my son would be the fifth generation," says Jim.

"We've also been with Ulster Bank since the very start and I would think we're their longest surviving customer.

"We actually have cheques from 1910, from when the banks used to keep cheques and return them to you.

"I think an important part of our success has been the willingness to diversify, to find ways to move the business on and move with the times.

"Composite can be very basic or very, very technical and advanced, and we now have a very advanced manufacturing system in place and we primarily supply aerospace and some automotive customers. Composites are primarily used where they offer some kind of performance improvement, so they would typically be making a product stronger or lighter.

"In addition to that, with careful design, it is possible to reduce the number of parts and that is very important as well.

"Composites aren't cheaper, they are normally more expensive, but by using them, a company can made considerable savings.

"For example, every aircraft needs to be economical and by making the aircraft lighter you can save a lot of money for customers.

"It's the same thing for the automotive industry, the cost of using composites might be higher but by doing so, it increases the strength and rigidity and reduces the weight of the vehicle.

"Reducing the weight means you get better fuel efficiency, better acceleration and better performance while having to do less work."

He says constant innovation is crucial in the business. "We are constantly looking at new ways of doing things, of improving how we do things for our customers.

"If we don't offer performance improvement in a product and if we can't make composites by the best method, someone else will.

"It's vitally important that we do what we can to meet our customers' expectations and we frequently work with them to develop prototypes.

"It does mean that we have to make quite a large investment and the process can take a long time.

"It involves a process of us designing for the manufacturer, what their requirements are, and the process can take six months to several years in the aerospace industry before a prototype is ready for use.

"It takes considerable investment and hopefully there will be good returns in the end."

Just as the business has stayed in the family for 125 years, Jim said they have also worked hard to recruit and retain a loyal staff.

In some cases, employees have worked for CCP Gransden for 35 years and this continuity has been crucial in ensuring the company's success.

"We now have about 25 employees and they are mostly engineers," continues Jim.

"We also have people working in the office and sales.

"Sales is such an important part of the business - without sales you don't have a business, it really is the bread and butter.

"We work very hard on building up relationships with good customers, we put a lot of emphasis on that.

"Of course, our customers have changed over the years and we have moved from more the industrial sector to more aerospace and automotive where the advances in composite opportunities have increased.

"Twenty years ago, they wouldn't have used composites at all.

"It was difficult to get those customers, particularly in the aerospace industry because they have such a high requirement for certification and such an extensive approval process.

"We have to handle an awful lot of data, for example, every part we produce has to have a birth certificate so they can trace back where it came from and we have to be able to track every single component that goes into every single item we make for customers.

"That information has to be available for the duration of the life of the part and that can be 25 years."

Acknowledging that for all its success, the company isn't the biggest engineering firm in Northern Ireland.

However, Jim said that this can be a draw from some engineers and it also creates a greater sense of satisfaction.

He explained: "I think with a small company, the advantage is that the engineer gets much more exposure to a range of different functions.

"All our engineers are expected to be salespeople as well, they will meet the customers and they get much more exposure to the business side of things.

"They understand that every job has to be created right and you have to make it within budget.

"For me, I think you have to enjoy your work and I suppose it's rewarding and satisfying to work with some of the organisations and know that we have contributed to their success.

"It's nice and pleasing to do well, not everything is easy in business, but when you do do well, it's nice to see some success.

"That means a lot to everyone in the company."

@Lisa_J_Smyth

Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.

Already have an account?

Belfast Telegraph