Branson's eight-mile safety net

Chris Arnot reports on a firm that has its feet on the ground
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The Independent Online
RICHARD BRANSON and Per Linstrand should soon be up, up and away in their hot-air balloon. While they float around the earth, mechanical diggers will continue to scoop out large chunks of it as they burrow into one corner of the site where the balloon was made resilient.

This big hole in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, will eventually accommodate a machine that should quadruple Carrington Performance Fabric's production of thermo-plastic polyurethane, the coating that enables a helium-filled bag of nylon to withstand the elements. Messrs Branson and Linstrand rely on it to stay afloat.

Peter Morse, the operations director, is non-committal about their chances of getting around the world in 18 days. But he is confident that, whatever else might go wrong, the fabric will not let them down. "We're quite relaxed about that," he says. "We have a strong track record of not killing people. When their lives depend on it, balloonists and paragliders want a product that is proven and tested. That is a big barrier to companies setting up in competition."

Carrington has a 60 per cent market share worldwide and almost 100 per cent in Britain. "If you see a hot air balloon anywhere over England," said John Lister, the marketing director, "it is 95 per cent certain to be our fabric."

The fabric is made into balloons by Mr Linstrand's company in Oswestry, Shropshire. Even by the standards of this major customer, the order for the round-the-world flight was substantial. To be on the safe side, he wanted two, each the height of Nelson's column. Eight miles of fabric was required.

By their very nature, balloons are airy-fairy and not the sort of market on which a business with a turnover of pounds 50m can entirely depend. A pounds 3m investment in the new melt-coating machine is justified by other less glamorous outlets for thermo-plastic polyurethane. Water companies, for instance, are buying it to line sewers and it is used in heavy-duty jackets worn by policemen, postmen, BT and railway workers, and in safety equipment, like life jackets. Here the colouring and coating business faces stiffer competition, particularly from America.

But Carrington is well placed to meet any challenges. A long-standing reputation counts for much in a business where safety is such a key factor. Twelve people are employed in testing.

"We also benefit from being part of an integrated group of companies," says Mr Morse. "No work has to be sub-contracted." Nylon coloured and coated at Dewsbury comes from other former Coats Viyella factories that have remained under the umbrella of the IPT group since last year's management buy-out.

Workers at Carrington Performance Fabrics are left in no doubt about what is expected of them. "Quality is a devastating competitive weapon," says a sign in the corridor. Equally prominent in warehouse and shop floor is a red figure pointing out which week of the year it is. Orders are expected to be delivered on time. Customers cannot be kept waiting. Even those with time to float around the world in a balloon.