After Covid-19 and Brexit, Carrickfergus-based furniture manufacturer Abbey Upholsterers was hit by a factory fire earlier this year. Nick Martindale speaks to Managing Director Paul Devlin and Commercial Director Judith Neill about
how it is rebuilding
Q Can you tell me about the business and how it was set up originally?
PD: It was set up by my grandfather. People were finding it difficult to get things done just after the war, and he started doing carpet-laying and moved into upholstery. In the 1960s my father, George, joined and he upscaled it, and they built a new factory in the grounds of the family home. My father is now 77 but he’s still in most days, from 7am to 6:30pm. My brothers, Desmond and George, are in the business as well.
Q How has it grown over time?
PD: When my father started the new factory it was manufacturing to supply shops, but during the Troubles there was a lot of damage done to hotels, bars and restaurants, and they adapted to that. We did a lot of work for a company owned by Guinness called Croft Inns, and would service its 12 pubs, looking after maintenance and fitouts.
When I joined in my early 20s we moved more into hotels.
In 2007 we left the original factory because we had outgrown it and moved to a 100,000 square foot factory in Carrickfergus. In the last two to three years, we have had an extension planned for that factory with a 25,000 square foot shed. Every year the business has grown and we now do more in hospitality, football and horse racing. We’ve done fitouts at Arsenal, West Ham and Wembley, and the boxes at Royal Ascot. But the company name doesn’t reflect everything we do. We can upholster and make new items, but we can also do joinery and repolishing.
Q How have you financed the business?
PD: We have financed it as we have grown. Last year we were looking at turning over £15 million, and then Covid-19 hit. Everybody thought it would pick up after the summer but it steadily got worse. It’s only in the last few weeks that projects that were on hold are starting to see life, but the downside is the increased costs. In a normal year we’d be looking at 3-5 per cent increases, but now we’re looking at 30-70 per cent across the board.
Q You were badly hit by a fire in April this year. How did that affect you?
PD: It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. There was a bit of light at the end of the tunnel coming out of Covid-19, and things were starting to open up. We had had a lot of projects before Covid-19, and that meant that we were storing a lot of furniture for different companies, and the fire took a lot of that out. But we were very lucky that all the heavy machinery was saved.
We were also lucky in that we were able to move 40 per cent of our production literally a couple of miles down the road into an old Amazon warehouse, which meant we were back up and running within two weeks. But we then had to jump on trying to get these projects operational, replacing furniture that had already been made. We’ve only been fully operational for new projects from the end of July. We hope to have the old factory fully open again for the end of March 2022.
Q How did you handle that from a staffing perspective?
JN: Paul and the senior management team made sure we sent out positive messages to ensure that staff were confident that we were going to get back up and running again. We’ve retained the majority of staff, and also had to take on a few extras just for the logistics of getting up and down the road.
Q What advice would you have for other small firms, based on your experience?
PD: One thing people should do is to look at their insurance in a very detailed manner because what they think they’re insured for and what they are insured for could be two different things. The other thing which has taken up a lot of time is getting them the information they need, so just making sure that all the paperwork is right.
Q What advice would you have for anyone starting their own business now?
PD: The main thing is to realise the amount of hard work that they’re going to have to put in to get it up and running, and to where they want it to be.
Q What do you enjoy most about running your business?
PD: The satisfaction you get when a big project has just finished. It gives you confidence and pride to know that you’ve done a football stadium or a hotel or fitted out a big house and people are delighted.
Q What are the main challenges as we start to recover from Covid-19?
JN: Staffing could be a problem. It’s quite easy to get people onto an apprenticeship in the joinery side of the business, but there are so many other aspects of the business that aren’t promoted in education. Apprenticeships are not offered in upholstery and warehousing through traditional avenues, so we have sought alternative apprenticeship schemes to further train and develop our employees. Brexit hasn’t helped, because we previously employed a lot of foreign workers and they have lost confidence in coming to Northern Ireland.
Q What are your hopes for the future of the business?
PD: We’re concentrating on getting the factory rebuilt, but we’re also looking at building the extension. We’ve invested in new machinery that’s due at the start of next year, so we’d like to get back to how we were in March last year.
JN: The expansion will increase our capacity and our capabilities, and hopefully our employment, and then we’ll be able to go for some even larger projects, as well as continuing to facilitate customers we already have.