Pulling the rug from under the carpet maker's feet : BUNHILL

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The Independent Online
SO FAREWELL then, Wilton. Next Friday will see the demise of the Wilton Royal Carpet Factory, near Salisbury, Wiltshire, the oldest carpet maker in the country.

Wilton is a victim of that dread disease, rationalisation. Its owner, Carpets International, itself a subsidiary of the American textiles giant Shaw Industries, is busy hoovering up Britain's carpet makers and concentrating them in a handful of giant plants.

Wilton did not stand a chance. Some of its buildings were put up in 1710, and the machinery is not exactly state of the art.

Result: 110 workers, many from families that have worked at the factory for generations, are losing their jobs.

Of course, no civilised country would have allowed such an historic site to close.

The tale dates from the 18th century. The story goes that the Earl of Pembroke, owner of Wilton House, came across carpets that impressed him deeply while he was travelling in France. He smuggled two of the weavers back to England in wine barrels, and was rewarded when one of them, called Antoine Dufossy, invented the whizzy, new, close pile that soon came to be known as Wilton.

The Wilton loom was patented in 1741. As John Britton put it in his book, The Beauties of Wiltshire, published in 1801: "The first carpet ever made in England was manufactured at Wilton by Antoine Dufossy, who is lately dead."

Wilton flourished in Wilton, if you take my meaning, until 1905, when the factory went bust. It was rescued by a consortium that renamed it Wilton Royal and gave jobs to hundreds of locals making hand-knotted carpets.

The last one, completed in 1958, is on the floor of Guildford Cathedral. Confusingly, this is not a Wilton but an Axminster; only a small part of Wilton's recent production has been Wilton. Most Wilton is actually made in Belgium.

After the war the company went through a number of owners. The one-before- last, Coats Viyella, which still owns the site, has been trying to sell its 18th-century courtyard for some years. Apparently there is "quite a lot" of interest in it.

Another tasteful retail development looms. Oh well.

LIKE all the best business histories, the story of Telephone Information Masters (TIM, geddit?) started in an improbable place, in this case the railway station in Brno, in what we have to learn to call the Czech Republic. Tim Newman, who was in the educational travel business at the time, noticed a computerised travel service housed in the run-down Austro-Hungarian palace that served as the town's railway station.

In a trice he had thought up TIM to answer your travel queries - all through the infamous 0891 telephone system, formerly used by peddlers of dirty jokes and stimulating suggestions. Hence a problem: it took Newman months to convince the authorities there was nothing louche in providing information about travel from Birmingham to Bratislava.

Newman's service is still on a steep learning curve (it took two phone calls to find the best way from London to Bruges on a Saturday when the trains are not running from London to Brussels), but he should be on to a winner. Even now it's almost impossible to get through to BR's enquiries desk, and after privatisation, the train-operating companies are likely to be as unhelpful as the regulator will allow - downright useless.

French for failure

YOUR starter for 20 (million French francs). What does Bernard Tapie, glamorous, bankrupt French businessman-politician, have in common with the equally troubled Health Care International private hospital in Clydebank and the Multiyork furniture chain, which went under a few days ago?

Answer: their principal bank was Crdit Lyonnais, which is eternally in the news because of the troubles inherited by the present management from predecessors anxious to make a Bigger Splash in international banking. So much so that the French now use the phrase "he's a client of Crdit Lyonnais'' to mean "he's on the way out."

Multiyork's business was immediately snapped up. Let us hope, though, that its problems put an end to the dreadful ads on Classic FM, which treated sofas as if they were sex objects.

AS JEREMY FRY puts it: "We're being a bit naughty with Direct Line." Last week the telephone insurance business that cuts out brokers, and therefore their charges, moved into life cover. But Fry's firm, Policy Profile, had jumped in several months earlier, using "a bunch of computer nerds" to set up a database covering areas such as term insurance, mortgage protection and critical illness. He is offering a computerised broking service - old hat in motor insurance but state of the art in life cover - and his attempts "to persuade the public that not everyone in insurance is trying to stitch them up" have proved startlingly successful.

He has found that the price differences can be enormous, and that even the biggest firms vary wildly. Another discovery is that Direct Line, which does not discourage assumptions that it is the cheapest, can often be undercut by reputable rivals.

Ritz stays upright

WORRIED of Piccadilly can relax. The Ritz Hotel is not, repeat not, about to fall into the sludge of nearby Green Park. The alarm was raised at Thursday's AGM of Trafalgar House, the hotel's owner, only to be brusquely dismissed by the chairman, Simon Keswick. Worries about the hotel, constructed by Cezar Ritz at the turn of the century and the first building in London with a steel frame, sprang from the extension of the Jubilee Line. This passes nearby and is supposed to threaten everything in its route, including Parliament. Cue for jokette: "Come back Guy Fawkes, all is forgiven."

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