Weaving magic

Posted on 10 Jul 2009 by The Manufacturer

Carpet weaving company Brintons has come a long way since its establishment in 1783. TM talks to group operations director Phil Ellis about how quality, service and value have propelled the company to five-star status.

Residential and commercial carpet manufacturer Brintons was established in 1783 and, unsurprisingly, began life as a very locally-driven business. 225 years later, and the company is now a major player on the global stage – but it is still owned by family shareholders, and Michael Brinton is one family member who is very active in the running of the business today as president.

On the residential side, which makes up 30% of its business, Brintons carpets can be found in most high street retailers; on the commercial side, its customers include Buckingham Palace; the White House; Las Vegas-based casino Caesar’s Palace; the Sydney Opera House; international airports and all the major five-star hotel names – that is, Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt and Four Seasons. It is hard to see how a client list could get any more prestigious than that.

So how did Brintons come from being a locally-focused company all those years ago to the global operation it is today, with a £100m turnover and 1900 employees in the UK and overseas? The company’s journey can be mapped out using a number of significant milestones, characterised by pioneering innovation, and from this it is clear to see how it has reached the market-leading position it finds itself in today.

“When Brintons was originally formed by the Brinton family it pioneered many of the modern weaving processes that you’ll see around in carpet weaving today,” explains group operations director Phil Ellis. “Weaving technology has always been very much at the forefront of modern weaving and it’s pretty much stayed there. In 1890, Brintons patented the technology behind its gripper Axminster loom, which was leading-edge at the time and is still very much in use today. In 1909, it introduced the industry’s first broad loom – broad looms revolutionised weaving in terms of efficiency and manufacturing output. In 1950, Brintons pioneered the use of 80/20: 80% wool and 20% nylon. Prior to that it was all wool; the nylon content gives it a better appearance and more durability. In 1976, Brintons became the first company in the world to exploit CAD [computer aided design] within the weaving industry. Brintons began to evolve as a global manufacturing business when in 1991, we opened our Portuguese plant and in 1999 we opened our plant in India.”

A bespoke approach
Specialising in Axminster and Wilton wool-rich woven carpets, the successes for Brintons continue. “We’ve delivered the world’s largest ever woven carpet order,” explains Ellis, “and that was about 23 acres of carpet installed in the Chep Lap Kok International Airport in Hong Kong. The installed carpet has to withstand the wear and tear of around 35 million passengers a year.” The company is currently working on the newest, largest Axminster project in the world – a highly prestigious project of around about 170,000 square metres of carpet.

Brintons does not consider its product to be a commodity whatsoever, and sees each new commercial order as a “blank piece of paper” requiring bespoke, specialist design. It is within this area that Brintons sees itself as standing apart from the competition in terms of its design capability, technical expertise and project management skills. “We are very much a project management business,” confirms Ellis. The company sees its other key specialist areas as being design innovation and manufacturing excellence.

In recent years Brintons has become a truly global company, with operations in Europe, the USA, Australia and the Middle East. It is also currently building a new facility in China, which will be operational in 2010. The location here is key in terms of route-to-market and low-cost manufacture, which translates into reduced lead times for the customer and improved profitability for Brintons. “Strategically, those plants are very well placed and service all of our global markets,” confirms Ellis.

Brintons prides itself on the quality of its products, and to achieve this, it sources its carpet components from the best providers around the world. Wool is sourced predominantly from the UK; nylon fibre from the US; and the backing material – such as jute, polyester and polypropylene – is bought from India and Bangladesh. The company does not buy through traders but sources direct, giving it better access and control of the best quality base materials which go into the manufacture of its carpets.

Continually improving
Brintons is rapidly developing its culture of continuous improvement in order to stay ahead of the competition. “The foundation for lean enterprise and continuous improvement is the Brintons Operating System [BOS],” confirms Ellis. “BOS is our dashboard. It provides a consistent reporting process for operations and focuses on those things which ‘truly move the needle’ in terms of business performance.

Recognising and identifying value streams has been a key part of managing Brintons’ manufacturing operations and associated global supply chain. Lean enterprise is in turn, a key component of the Brintons’ global manufacturing strategy. Kaizen and Six Sigma activity form part of daily work in the Brintons manufacturing plants with increased focus in transactional areas of the business. “There are two lean leaders here in the UK,” explains Ellis, “who have developed our kaizen promotion office [KPO] both in Kidderminster and Telford. They will be developing further KPOs in our overseas plants in due course. We’ve also just started training our first four six sigma black belts.”

The benefits have been clear for all to see. “We’ve reduced our working capital significantly,” he confirms. “Understanding our value streams and identifying areas for improvement has generated sustainable benefits, including inventory reduction, reduced manufacturing costs, increased efficiencies and reduced warranty costs. BOS and lean enterprise have KPIs linked to profit and cash generation, and that’s how we drive our business.”

Brintons’ people have had a key part to play in the success of lean enterprise. “Our people have been very receptive and engaging in terms of driving improvements throughout the business,” confirms Ellis. “They’ve been extremely supportive of the many business initiatives we’ve introduced and accelerated in the last fifteen months.”

People development is a major focus for Brintons and has been for many years. It has a dedicated training and development function within the human resources department. “We do not sell ourselves short on people development here,” says Ellis. “It is a remarkable business in terms of what it does in terms of training and developing people.” All employees have an employee development review (EDR), in place to identify internal and external training requirements. The company has work-based NVQ programmes for employees at all levels of the business, and comprehensive training programmes for manual workers to facilitate multiskilling and flexibility. There is even the opportunity for employees to undertake university degrees.

“Over the last nine months we’ve managed to keep our motivational level within the plants high and the reason we’ve been able to do that is by making sure that we engage with our people,” explains Ellis. “We value their views and their input into the business. Whilst we might have some excellent technology around us, that technology would be pretty worthless without the goodwill and flexibility of our highly motivated employees. At the end of the day it is our employees who offer the most opportunity to make further step changes in business performance.”

Always looking forward
The excellent technology Ellis refers to certainly enables the business to further its innovation agenda. “We have our own bespoke ERP system. We also have CAD which is extremely useful within the design function which is directly linked to some of our electronic jacquard machines [the same as a CNC machine]. We’re always looking to improve our IT systems,” he confirms. “We feel we are the market leaders due to innovation, technical expertise and speed-to-market and IT plays a major part in our ability to differentiate as a business.” The company is also currently investing in new loom technologies which will deliver further benefits in improved quality, reduced manufacturing costs and reduced lead times to the customer, not to mention further reductions in working capital.

Brintons is clearly focused on initiatives that will enable it to maintain its expertise and quality, rather than chasing rapid growth. “That’s just not something that we would pursue,” says Ellis. “We achieve our growth through product excellence, speed-to-market, design innovation and technical skills: these are the key areas in which we differentiate as a business and which will continue to provide us with a competitive advantage in increasingly difficult trading conditions.”

While Brintons believes it has a business model that works, it is keen to guard against complacency. “We have to keep focusing on doing the right things” says Ellis. “The future will continue to present challenges but by maintaining our focus of continuous improvement I’m confident we will continue to prosper as a business.”