BIKE-RIDING businessman Ian Brierley is in optimistic mood.
The joint managing director of one Huddersfield’s oldest family firms has faith in the staying power of businesses in the town – providing companies focus on niche products which give them the edge in world markets.
And Ian – who commutes the mile-and-a-half from home to work on a bike – has plenty of first-hand experience to draw on.
John L Brierley Ltd, based at Turnbridge Mills on the edge of Huddersfield town centre, was founded as a textile manufacturer in 1893 by Ian’s great-grandfather, who hailed from Saddleworth.
By the time Ian joined the company about 20 years ago – after graduating in textile engineering from Leeds University – the firm was specialising in selling undyed cotton yarn to the Lancashire mills.
But it was about to embark on the first of a series of step-changes that have transformed the business.
Says Ian: “I had been to see some customers in France and they were all talking about a new material, Lycra. I remember coming back and saying ‘I think this Lycra stuff is going to go somewhere’. We spent £400,000 on machinery to twist Lycra yarns and did not look back for the next 10 years.”
The company later repeated the process of staying ahead of the game – this time investing in machinery to produce chenille, which gave them the leading edge again. “That gave us another 10 years while the market lasted,” says Ian.
John L Brierley diversified further, producing textile machinery monitoring equipment, which was also developed for other industries, including food production.
“By the mid-1990s we were expanding strongly,” says Ian. “We were operating weekend shifts and running for more hours. “But when the Far East crash came along, our market was decimated and we could not carry on doing what we were doing at the price we were doing it.”
Undaunted, Ian and his brother and fellow managing director Graham looked to develop the firm through astute acquisitions, including a yarn merchant business and a firm reconditioning and distributing turbochargers.
But the humble pipe cleaner has proved as big a success for John L Brierley as any of its other products. Says Ian: “We began making pipe cleaners in 1935. Nowadays, we mainly provide them for the handicrafts market – along with other craft products such as paper balls, pom-poms and machinery to make sequins. There is a niche market for craft products.”
Ian agrees that textiles has been an industry in steady decline, but insists: “There is a future for manufacturing if we ‘up our game’.
“Otherwise, we will see more examples of what happened to the textile machinery industry – where the UK was at the forefront in the world, but by the 1960s was outpaced by Germany, Switzerland and Belgium, where they were making better machines.
“As a country, we have to find the things we can do well and better than anyone else – and keep moving forward.
“Toyota have suffered a bit of a blip recently, but they provide a good example of what I mean. Toyota were happy to have other people going round looking at their factories because they knew that by the time their competitors had copied what Toyota were doing, Toyota would have moved further ahead.
“In my experience, the companies that are most open are the most advanced. The ones that don’t want to show you around are the ones with old machinery and the ones that are not doing anything at all creative.”
As well as encouraging businesses to talk to each other, Ian is also keen to see firms engage more fully with their local communities.
In his spare time, Ian is involved with the Kirklees Grantmakers Alliance, which he says “aims to promote corporate social responsibility in its fullest sense”.
KGA, which was set up with support from Kirklees Council, acts as a broker between businesses keen to help good causes and worthy projects in need of support. The KGA board decides which projects deserve support and promotes them to member firms. Examples could include company employees volunteering to help tidy the gardens at a care home or take a group of elderly people on an outing.
“Our experience is that lots of companies want to do ‘their bit’ – but the problem is that employers are too busy running the business to find out how and where they can help.
“KGA is a brokerage service to facilitate that link-up between the company and the cause.”
Ian accepts that some people are cynical about firms’ motives in embracing corporate social responsibility. “There are the PR benefits – which in the case of John L Brierley are non-existent because we only have one customer in Huddersfield!
“But there are two other benefits – what it does to help your employees and what it does to help deserving causes. There’s also the fact that it just feels like the right thing to do!”
Along with his commitments to KGA, Ian is helping set up One Foundation – an initiative to build up a pot of money as an endowment fund with proceeds distributed to community organisations in Kirklees.
“Both the KGA and One Foundation are getting to the stage where they will start to do some real good,” says Ian.
All this hasn’t altered Ian’s commitment to John L Brierley’s commercial interests. “I do at least a full-time job in the business,” he says. “My involvement with KGA and the foundation is something I chose to do with my own time.”
Always looking for new opportunities, Ian has been considering property matters – and the potential of the firm’s mill complex.
The proposed Tesco superstore would be just yards away from Brierley’s Quay Street premises , which are also close to the area between the town centre and the Galpharm Stadium earmarked for development under the ambitious HD One development scheme. Says Ian: “We are not forced to move – but we have a great location in the town and buildings which could lend themselves to phased development at some stage.”