Posted on Tuesday 12 February 2013 by Ulster Business
Patricia Clements collects her Women In Business award from the organisation's CEO Roseann Kelly and Invest NI's Tracy Meharg
One such local entrepreneur is Patricia Clements, the founder and managing director of Rostrevor-based aircraft seat cover maker Bradfor Ltd.
Patricia started her career in textiles at the age of 15 and in the late 1980s formed a fashion partnership in Rathfriland which created locally-made tailored garments that were worn by celebrities like Joan Collins.
But, as it became increasingly difficult for a Northern Ireland-based clothing business to compete with much cheaper locations such as China, she decided the time was right to use her skills elsewhere.
"The fashion industry was going downhill in Northern Ireland, and a lot of it was going out to foreign countries to be made. We had to make a lot of our people redundant because we couldn't compete. In my area there wasn't a lot of work around. I had two young sons at the time and didn't fancy travelling to Belfast every day. So I found another option," Patricia told Ulster Business.
In 1996, after hearing aircraft seat manufacturer B/E Aerospace in nearby Kilkeel were having some issues making seat covers in-house, Patricia approached their Managing Director to offer her services. She was given a three month trial, rented premises and went from there.
Bradfor started with six people, all of whom came from a fashion background. But with lots of experience with different types of stitching machinery, Patricia was able to invest time in training.
"It was a big change to get people trained in the handling of different materials. The fashion industry, particularly with ladies fashions, can be quite fine materials. So it took a fair bit of training and time, but we were quite small so I had the time to do it," she explained.
"It worked out that we were able to make covers faster than they could, so they were delighted," she added.
Bradfor now employs almost 100 staff and supplies to major airlines across the world through B/E Aerospace, also working for its core client's sister companies in the UK mainland and in North Carolina in the US.
"One of our main strengths is that we're always on time with deliveries. To me that is a big thing for customers and if you fall down on that, it is almost worse than being one or two pennies dearer than the competitor. The quality of your product and being on time is a big thing in the aviation industry," said Patricia.
"B/E Aerospace is an American company and they get a lot of things made in the US and China. It is possible to compete, but it's tight, so you have to be on top of it all the time and you have to be hands on. I do keep my overheads down and run a very small management team."
Patricia advises aspiring entrepreneurs that growing a business requires resilience and passion for what you are doing.
"You have to be mentally very tough and determined to succeed. But the main thing is wanting to do it. In my case I wanted to work, I've been working since I was 14, and I didn't want to be at home all day, even though I had two children. I wanted to have my own life as well. Then it was just a case of being strong enough to get over all the potholes," she said.
"You also have to have a good workforce. I think if you're hands on and working with your workforce they will be loyal to you."
At the end of 2012 Patricia was named as the Outstanding Businesswoman of the Year by networking organisation Women in Business NI.
But unlike many people in business, she is not getting carried away in her aspirations for Bradfor, believing that growing too fast could ultimately be do more harm than good for the company.
"The company at the moment is at a size where I would like to keep it. It is a comfortable size for me to run the way I want to run it. If I try to get it any bigger then my overheads would go up and then you're asking if you can still compete," she said.
"In five or 10 years I would like to think that we are still here going as we're going and maintaining the company as it is."