Made in Lancashire - Newhey Carpets

PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 May 2015 | UPDATED: 15:40 21 October 2015

Sample yarn

Sample yarn


Martin Pilkington visits a small carpet company in Rochdale with big ideas.

Emma Norman (Marketing Manager), Anthony Whitehead (Chairman) and Howard Whitehead (Joint MD)Emma Norman (Marketing Manager), Anthony Whitehead (Chairman) and Howard Whitehead (Joint MD)

Stone cottages from the heyday of the Lancashire textile industry line the nearby thoroughfare. The occasional old mill building shares the skyline with the Pennine hills. There’s even a short stretch of cobbles on the approach road to Newhey Carpets. But don’t get the idea this Rochdale company is in any way a throwback – it has survived and thrived by embracing new technologies, a service ethos and some eco-friendly innovations.

‘We couldn’t compete in volume business with low-wage economies in Eastern Europe and Asia,’ says joint managing director Howard Whitehead. ‘And we didn’t want to outsource manufacturing as that’s our trade. We wanted to remain in that with a competitive edge so we’ve ended up with very high performance machinery and high-end, mainly bespoke product.’

Howard’s father, Anthony, now the company chairman, founded the business in 1968. ‘He was a carpet manufacturer,’ he says. ‘He sold up but I decided I’d rather be an employer than employee, so we looked round, found this spot, and my father helped finance the start-up.’ The original factory building had been the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway cotton warehouse. It’s still in use, but it is now surrounded by modern units. Anthony had the foresight to find a site with plenty of land for expansion.

The company started with two 27” Axminster looms, then the UK standard for carpeting. They progressed to broadloom weaving, eventually running 25 such machines, but then boldly changed direction. ‘It was becoming very difficult to compete with large public companies in this country. They were over-producing so prices were driven down,’ his father recalls. ‘We decided to refocus on a new technique of carpet manufacturing, so we now have five high-speed tufting machines that do twice as much as the 25 we had before, so we’re competitive and, importantly, we can produce designs that were not possible previously.’

Earlier in the company’s existence they made a similarly radical marketing decision, exiting the domestic market and focusing on the contract sector, supplying customers like hotels and restaurants. In the UK you’ll find their carpets in places like The Intercontinental in London’s Park Lane and Park Inn by Radisson at Heathrow, and closer to home The Renaissance in Manchester city centre and Manchester City Football Club. Now Howard, who heads the sales and marketing side of the company, is targeting greater export sales, though they’re not new to overseas markets, the Tilal Liwa Hotel in Abu Dhabi is one prestigious recent commission.

Service will be a key to such growth. ‘Normally we have a six week lead time for bespoke carpets, but we just produced 900m2 of bespoke carpet for a hotel in Prague, made and despatched within three weeks. We may not be the biggest name, but we service the hell out of the market!’ says Howard. ‘If a hotel opening or refurbishment is delayed because they can’t source a carpet – or have delayed ordering - it costs them a fortune.’

Design is vital to their strategy too. They employ four designers in-house, and have developed an interactive website that allows interior decorators to select a design and play with innumerable colour combinations online. Thanks to investment in a computerised sample-making machine they can have a nine inch square swatch with the client in a couple of days, so it can be matched to existing decor, and the quality felt. ‘Touch is important, and with the new machinery we can, for example, mix velvet-yarn and twist-yarn in a design, and get a lovely texture and 3D effect,’ says Howard.

A significant element of carpeting not generally seen is the backing, another area where Newhey have found competitive advantages. ‘We’re the first carpet manufacturer to use backing made using recycled plastic bottles as raw material, a product we’ve branded as Evobac,’ says Anthony. ‘The backing comes in from Germany, it’s a bit more expensive, but it’s the direction we wanted to go in because of the environmental advantages,’ continues Howard. ‘When we’re talking to bigger groups it’s music to their ears, they’re all looking at ways to improve their environmental impact.’

Working with a German machinery maker they’ve developed a method of applying the backing that’s both ecologically and economically beneficial. ‘The traditional method is wet-to-dry, needing 50m drying chambers to dry the adhesive. We work hot-to-cool: EVA adhesive is applied hot and then cooled so it’s done in 2m or so, no waste and very energy efficient, and no waste water treatment either.’

One aspect of the otherwise innovative company is rather traditional – it’s a family affair. Howard’s brother Lees is joint MD on the operations side, and they both joined in their teens, learning by doing the job. Their sister Emma is marketing manager, their mother the company secretary, and Lees’ wife runs the administration.

With a turnover approaching £6 million, 275,000m2 of carpet produced a year, and 50 employees, the company, though continuing to expand, is not huge. But that’s not their aim. Howard concludes: ‘We know what works for us. We compete with service, design and quality. Our business model is not to take on too much volume work. We don’t want to be busy fools.’

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