Flying the woven Yorkshire flag
Imagine if the product you have worked for years to perfect, around which you have built a global reputation, is the finest luxury good no-one gets to see, hidden under something that is worse, but more prized. That infuriating scenario is what James Taylor has to go through almost every time he signs off another order for the carpet underlay made by his firm, Texfelt, which is now selling to top hotels and organisations around the world, including the Atlantis and the Kempinski at the ultra-exclusive Palm resort in Dubai.
But now one of Yorkshire’s best-kept secrets is about to get the fame it deserves, after landing supporting roles in some of the biggest movies around – and taking pride of place in a new factory.
Texfelt joined Taylor’s 160-year-old family textile firm JR Group UK as part of a debt payment. The two had worked together, so when times got tough for Texfelt, Taylor’s family stepped in and took over the firm and its famous products, with the top of the range Sterling Royale made from 80% luxury wool and entirely recycled materials. It might get brushed under the carpet, but the fact that it is very green – and that the work is here in the heart of Yorkshire – is a source of great pride.
“We say on our website that some of our underlay is an unseen work of art, and that is a marketing frustration we have because it performs far better than anything else on the market and we are very proud of it and would not have been able to build things up to this level if it didn’t perform as well as we say it does,” Taylor says. “And JR Fibres now has an export market that we have been working on for 20 years where things are certainly looking very promising, with Texfelt’s exports up by 81% over the past 12 months, and over the five year period June 2012 to June 2017 have risen 173%.
“There is high-demand in our field at the moment and the market for flame-retardant polyester fibres going into furniture and fillings is very positive in the UK, with a big rise in export activity generally, certainly on the back of the post-Brexit-vote weak pound. So, whenever we are trading within the UK, we fly the Yorkshire flag in a very big way, with our long pedigree in the industry back to the days when we were shoddy and mungo manufacturers [shoddy was cloth made from ground-down woollen rags, while mungo was a similar process, but using felt].
“We are trying hard to do more business at a local level as well, with people like carpet retailers and contractors because we feel this is a key part of us growing. Dealing at a local level with the waste products, we recycle benefits the regional economy and cuts down the traffic miles, which is good for all of us.”
Taylor’s era at the head of the business will be a momentous one, with radical changes to some areas, all with a determination to retain the character and quality that is woven deep into the fabric of Texfelt.
“We have been working on a project here for the past six years to re-equip the Elland business, where it is run out of a fairly old traditional two-storey mill,” he tells me. “The plant is probably coming up for 20 years old and is limited in the type of products it can make and we have seen a move away from traditional felt underlay products in favour of more modern polyurethane foam because fitters like the ease of working with those materials.
“We have been working on a range of non-woven products for various markets, including more technical industries like automotive and filtration, so we have put in a multi-million-pound investment at a new site in Bradford where phase one gave us a new 56,000sq ft warehouse, which will also host a new production line for us. Then phase two is further 24,000sq ft of warehousing, all backed by funding from the Regional Growth Fund, which means we will be safeguarding and creating Yorkshire jobs.
“This will set us up for the next generation as we turn the business from what was a small company turning over £1.7m a year to potentially a £9m to £10m operation with much greater flexibility.”
This is essential reinvention for Texfelt, JR Group and for the whole textile sector in Yorkshire. It has to take place to make sure there is a home for the skills that built this part of the world, and not just in craft centres and museums. These are living and breathing highly-valued practices that have never been bettered, and there is a whole new generation out there waiting to see if the textiles industry could still be a place to create a career.
But the reinvention has to happen to provide the future-proofed environment inside which those skills can flourish again. “It is a big challenge for all of us to keep the values and products that people know us for as well as progressing the company.” says Taylor.
“What we have seen is a traditionally-low turnover of staff who are very skilled, particularly as carding engineers on older machinery and we now need to move that to state-of-the-art programmable touch-screen machines that don’t require that ‘spanner in your back pocket’ mentality.
“We have to train the workforce that is coming with us from Elland as well as taking the opportunity to start bringing in more apprentices and some younger talent into an industry that has been really badly neglected for many years. There is a feeling in the country and across the region that textile is dead, but that is clearly not the case because there are a number of us investing in machinery and staff and we can make a difference.
“We have had apprentices recently who would come in on the first day into the old mill and see the machinery and have left after a couple of days. This new plant, which will look like a car assembly line, should be much more encouraging for people wanting to get involved in the industry.”
Taylor is backing that passion with millions of pounds. It is a very personal mission to give his workers – and his family – a future to be proud of and to feel secure in. JR Group is now in the fifth generation of a family business, with his son, who is at college at the moment but already working part-time and starting at the bottom to work his way up. His dad’s responsibility to do the right thing just keeps on growing.
“I am very aware that we have to continue to grow for their futures as much as ours – for our staff and for their children, which is what every family business tries to do,” he says. “There isn’t any reward without risk and we think this is a calculated risk that’s been six years in the making and is happening at the right time, despite obstacles like Brexit.
“Life would be a lot easier if you could just sit on your bum and invest in property, but that is not what we are about. Our Yorkshire DNA is in manufacturing and doing what is right for the people who have supported us for all these years.
“Our business is done at face-value; in a world full of Skype and WhatsApp, we will still get on a plane and service our international markets at least twice a year and have face-to-face relationships that are a key element in our success. ‘Service above self’ has been drilled into us since my father’s and grandfather’s days.
“We have long been members of the Institute for Family Business and I am working hard on setting up a facility where next-generation members can go and do work experience so they get to see how other companies are run and can bring back that insight to their own families. The generation following mine is really important and I would love for my children to join us at some point.”
One unexpected tribute to the quality on offer has come from some of the world’s leading film-makers, who have ordered metre after metre of the fire-retardant fabric to contain explosions and flames on blockbusters like Spectre and the latest Transformers film. Taylor explains that it all started with a single online order.
“We have a division that operates a carpet underlay shop online and we had noticed an order from Pinewood Studios, and then more coming in for the same person, so we asked them what was going on and it turned out they were building the set for Spectre and were using it for sound absorption and for explosive containment.
“Trying to get people excited about the world of underlays is a challenge, and finally we have this great opportunity to help people understand what we make. I have got shivers down my spine just talking about it all. This just underlines that this is our time and a great team is in place to make it all happen, including my 70-year-old dad who still comes in two or three days a week – we just can’t switch our minds off.”
The challenges of running an international business means Monday to Friday and nine to five routines just don’t happen. Time zones start at Bradford and reach to Dubai and businesses like JR and Texfelt are always alive to any possibilities to fly that woven Yorkshire flag.
Published: 03 October 2017