Magazine article Management Today

The Weavers' Yarn

Magazine article Management Today

The Weavers' Yarn

Article excerpt

You get a better class of production-line pin-up girl in Ulster. On mainland shopfloors, the favoured icon is the gibbous Samantha Fox. In the Belfast weaving sheds of Ulster Weavers, by contrast, this year's model is Elizabeth: getting on a bit, 65, and ample bosom demurely covered, but striking nonetheless in full length white kid gloves, tiara and Order of the Garter. Even Elizabeth's headline seems classier than Samantha's. Not a Phew! or a Cor! in sight: instead, the straightforward sentiment, God Save Our Gracious Queen.

Old ways die hard in Belfast, and it would be easy enough to read the pictures sellotaped to Ulster Weavers' walls as evidence of this fact. The company, a division of textile manufacturers, the Linfield Group, is, moreover, in that most traditional of Northern Irish businesses, the weaving and design of Irish linen. The group is still owned by the families -- the Larmors and the Hollands -- that founded it a century or so ago.

All these facts do not add up to the whole story of the group, however. If evidence is needed that the firm is something out of the ordinary in Northern Irish textile circles, one fact should do nicely: it is still in existence. The last 50 years have not been kind to Irish linen. Buoyed up for years by government grants against the attack of foreign competition and the encroachment of easy-care textiles, it was finally left to sink or swim in 1955. By and large, it sank. No flax has been grown in the province since that date (most is now imported from Belgium), and the hundreds of pre-War linen houses have now been reduced to perhaps a dozen.

That Linfield remains one of them during what are perilous times for the entire worldwide textile industry may, ironically, be due at least in part to a corporate structure that itself seems distinctly unfashionable. 'We are,' notes Ian Webb, ('a far-out Larmor' and acting non-executive group chairman) 'the only what they call "vertically integrated" linen company in Ireland, and, I suspect, in Europe. We spin yarn, weave, bleach, finish, design, market -- whatever.' Sir Graham Larmor, founder of what was then the Ulster Weaving Company, was clearly a vertical integrationalist avant le lettre. While other linen houses concentrated on one aspect of the production process, Sir Graham's quietly acquired them all: a bleacher's (Murland), a spinner's (Killyleagh) and so on. It is a philosophy that his descendants have upheld, adding, for example, a stitching plant and a print and design unit in the last decade, calmly flying in the face of fashionable corporate orthodoxy.

'The strength of this philosophy,' reasons Paul Larmor, single largest shareholder and manager of Ulster Weavers' Linfield Road weaving sheds, 'is that one division has always been able to help out another when times have been particularly hard in a particular area.' Larmor's words have been vividly borne out during the present recession. Close your eyes, murmur the words 'Irish linen', and images of wedding presents will probably drift before your eyes: damask table napkins, say, a tablecloth or two, all tied up in tastefully Hibernian green ribbon. In fact, household goods (for such, prosaically, are these known) now form a relatively small part of Linfield's output, which is just as well: with a brace of linen sheets weighing in at an improbable 380 pounds in the Burlington Arcade, the '90s have not been good for household goods. On the other hand, apparel -- that is to say, cloth sold in bales to be made into clothes -- was, Larmor points out, a comparatively small part of Linfield's business until recenty. Thanks to some light-footed marketing by Italian couturiers (notably Sgr Armani), who have pulled off the ultimate fashion heist in convincing style victims that linen actually looks nice crushed, demand for apparel has burgeoned. Ulster Weavers, which would be facing penury had it stayed simply in household goods, is managing, says managing director John Robinson, to weather the storm, contributing 13 million pounds to the group's 18 million pounds turnover in the last financial year. …

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