Posted on Sunday 13 October 2013 by Ulster Business

Profile Denman

The company behind one of the most iconic products produced in Northern Ireland is looking to widen its markets even further this year, according to its new Managing Director.

Hairbrush manufacturer Denman International Ltd, which already exports to over 50 countries, is aiming to break into potentially lucrative regions such as South America and the Middle East this year, while also continuing to grow sales in its core UK and US markets, said Philip Steele.

Steele, who has been with the business for 23 years, recently took over the day-to-day running of Denman International from John Rainey, Chairman and owner of the Bangor-based Denroy Group of companies, which employs 180 people.

His aim is to build on Denman's success and continue the growth it has managed to achieve through the recession.

"The last two or three trading years have been very strong. Our UK retail business is up, our export business is up, our professional business is like-for-like. We seem to do better when there is a recession on. When times are slow we benefit from the so-called "lipstick effect", where women cut down on big ticket items but they still like to treat themselves to a smaller product that will make them feel good," he explained.

"Our exports are up 25% year to date, so we're also doing extremely well there. A large part of that is America, which is flying at the moment."

Denman's business is evenly split between the UK professional salon market, UK retailers such as Boots and Sainsbury's and exports to other countries.

Its biggest international market is the US – where it has had a wholly owned subsidiary, Denman Inc, for nearly 25 years – followed by Japan, Germany, South Africa and Australia. Steele wants to extend that export business further.

"We're actively starting to look at South America and we have just found a distributor in Brazil. We're also working very hard in conjunction with Invest NI to identify partners in the Middle East because we feel we could be doing better there. We also haven't really cracked China. We've been in and out of China via Hong Kong and we'd like to do something in China in the future. Russia would also be a newer market that has started to take off in the last couple of years," he said.

The business is this year celebrating its 75th anniversary and Steele puts its longevity down to the quality of its products and its reputation as "the hairdressers' hairbrush".

It will underline that reputation as the premier sponsor of the Alternative Hair Show at the Royal Albert Hall this month, which attracts an international audience of 5000 hair stylists.

"Ask any hairdresser about Denman they will normally say good things. We have a reputation for quality and performance," said Philip.

"We are at heart an engineering and plastics company. We're used to making industrial mouldings products and have always used the best grade plastics or materials suitable for hairbrushes. That makes them very hard wearing. We've always worked with hairdressers on product development since our origins. Jack Dean, the guy who invented the brush, worked with everyone from Vidal Sassoon onwards."

The focus on the quality of its products, good service and consistent supply from within the UK has helped Denman secure breakthrough orders from some major US players and seen several large UK retailers come back to Denman in the last year, said Steele.

"Superdrug have come back to us, Tesco have come back to us and we've got the biggest range we've ever had in Boots. We think part of that is they are being let down by suppliers from the Far East – either costs have gone up or more likely supply has been interrupted, leaving them with empty pegs. We make 80% of our own products here in Bangor. So if we get a phone call from Boots on a Monday morning we can get a 40ft container to them on Friday, whereas in China you are talking three to four months door to door. So we've benefited from the Far East not being so competitive," said Steele.

"At one level you can say we don't compete on price. We are a mid-price brush in Boots. We are the BMW not the Bentley. In export markets we're positioned as a more premium product. But we always offer value for money."

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