John L Brierley,
ACTIVITY: viscose yarn manufacture
TASK: low-cost responsive manufacture of technically complex yarn in a demanding commercial environment
SIZE: 200 employees
OUTSTANDING FEATURES: continuous improvement, preventative maintenance, real-time efficiency monitoring, commitment to investment
John L Brierley has been making yarn in Huddersfield ever since its eponymous founder set up shop in 1893. 'I can remember when there were nine firms like ours in Huddersfield,' says third-generation company chairman John B Brierley, who joined the business in 1954. 'Today,' he reflects sadly, 'there's just us.' These days, Brierley Sr spends most of days in the company's electronics lab, and the baton of active management has passed to his sons, Ian and Graham, as joint managing directors.
The job is no silver spoon sinecure. Both sons gained textile degrees at local universities before joining the firm, and both are grimly determined to do their utmost to hand the company on to the next generation of Brierleys.
The commercial strategy revolves around a growing product concentration on producing hard-to-spin yarns such as chenille (which has the texture of pipe cleaners without the wire) using machinery that is as modern and up-to-date as possible.
Borrowings are eschewed in favour of investment from retained earnings: £592,000 of capital expenditure last year; £489,000 the year before and £408,000 the year before that - a rate of capital ploughback that is no mean achievement for an £18 million business in Britain's struggling textile sector. Nor has it been achieved without some personal pain. An earlier Brierley, explains Ian Brierley, nearly bankrupted the company through underinvestment and excessive proprietor's drawings. He and his brother accordingly prefer to invest in the business rather than live a lavish and ultimately unaffordable lifestyle. 'Most days, I cycle to work,' he shrugs.
The company's production is spread over two mills: the Quay Street mill, dating from 1845, and the adjacent William Hirst & Sons mill, built in 1872 and acquired by the company in 1925. The award is for the manufacturing excellence exhibited in the latter mill - due in large part to the determination of Alan Olive, mill manager, and Paul Bottomley, production supervisor; the combination of modern machinery and manufacturing best practice is impressive. The pace is fast and rarely lets up, even at weekends or Christmas.
Speed of response is a competitive edge, explains John Aitken, production director. Cross-functional improvement teams, conditioning monitoring of equipment, detailed process documentation, 'care' points - they're all there, and in a listed mill that is 125 years old to boot.
Neat touches abound. The judges particularly liked the slavish attention paid to avoiding accidents with craft knives, and the see-through waste drums calibrated in pounds. Ian Brierley is unabashed. 'The more we save, the more we can invest,' he says, adding - albeit without much conviction - 'one day, we might even be rich.' These days, in Britain's beleaguered textile industry, mere survival is an accomplishment.