Brush-maker that's swept the competition aside


Trade NamesFor over 200 years Varian Brushes has adapted to meet the challenges of the times, writes Rose Doyle

Varian Brushes, in various guises and never more colourful than they are today, have been around for more than 200 years.

Exactly when, where and how the first brush came to be made is shrouded in the uncertainty of history's mists but the year, 1798, is a given, somewhere in Cork city another absolute, and the names of the first Varian brush-makers - Amos and Thomas - fairly well established.

Patrick Varian, who runs today's business in Walkinstown, is the sixth generation of the family to do so. He loves what he does, has an innate courtesy and a pride in the Varian achievement that is almost disguised by a laid back charm and informality.

Varian, the company, is good at what it does and Patrick Varian knows it. The business has survived and thrived because of an ability to change and adapt, never more so than in recent years.

He smiles in his "no frills" office, agrees that, yes, they should have a definitive history of the company researched, says he's always been too busy and doesn't see that changing, much. "We're a market leader, you know, we're progressive and innovative and that's why we're still here after 200 years. Brushes change and we have to be up to speed with colour and trends."

It's not all about brushes either, but more of that later.

Those early Varian brush makers of Cork were of Huguenot extraction, or perhaps Unitarian Presbyterians, passionately concerned with social and political issues and, in time, with the Young Irelanders. Involvement with the latter led to one Isaac Varian spending time in Sunday's Well gaol and, afterwards, taking off to live in London. He wrote poetry there, and journalism, and all the time went on making brushes.

When he returned to Ireland it was to live in Dublin where, at 91-92 Talbot Street, he set up Varian Brushes in 1856. And there the company grew and flourished, building and employees witness to the changing city and, in 1920, to the death in battle outside their window of Republican leader Sean Treacy.

Varian men, in earlier centuries and old pictures, were invariably white bearded. Patrick Varian's grandfather was "a colourful character. He met my grandmother on the top of a tram in London. She was German, a violinist in the London Philharmonic.

"They used to go off to Africa for months, to Bahia and other places, to source raw materials for yard brushes. The bristle for paint brushes used come from all over the world; the stuff of twig brushes used come from Mexico. These days we buy the finished article from Mexico."

His father, Ian Varian (his mother was Sheila), ran the company during the second World War. "There were lots of brush makers in Dublin then," he points out, "around Capel Street and Christchurch. Getting raw materials into the country was difficult but my father used send food to England and get goods in return which he would then distribute to the other brush makers. At the end of the war the Irish Brush Manufacturers Organisation formally thanked him for his help. I have the letter still."

Talbot Street, with its Dickensian-style factory and "big, old shop" at the heart of a Dublin gone forever, was a living part of Patrick Varian's early life.

He's 43 years working with the company but long before he became employed used go into Talbot Street during holidays from school in Newtown, Waterford. He well remembers the brushes hanging from the shop ceiling, how he swept floors while serving his time.

"My father trained me very hard," he says, "and when I'd finished he paid me 13/9d per week. I served my time making yard and sweeping brushes by hand, sitting around with the pitch boiling away. You took a tuft of bristle, tied hemp around it and put it into the pitch to glue it together. That was the way brushes were made."

At the beginning of the 20th century Varian Brushes had some 365 employees, most of them doing piece work, hand-crafting brushes. Economic pressure and mechanisation arrived and, with them, the inevitable and heartbreaking loss of jobs.

"There's a machine out there," Patrick Varian directs a nod at their large, warehouse/factory area, "which made 16 people redundant. I remember the agonies my father went through when he had to let people go in Talbot Street. They were generously looked after but an area of craft working ended forever."

He remembers getting the "one minute past eight diesel electric train every morning" from his home in Glenageary to Talbot Street, remembers looking up the street on a morning in 1966 to see a stump where Nelson had been on his pillar the day before.

Economic constraints, external pressures and mechanisation brought sudden change to the brush business. The Talbot Street premises "just didn't do any longer. The trade unions resisted change, and quite rightly. But a lot of stuff had become containerised, we couldn't unload in Talbot Street, nor get goods up the three/four storeys in the building either.

"We sold the building to Irish Life. It was a lovely old place. They built a shopping mall there. We bought a single-storey building on the SCR and moved in 1972. It was our first experience of being on the flat and it increased efficiency dramatically."

So dramatically that they outgrew SCR and, about six years ago, moved to their present address in Walkinstown.

"We thought this place too big in the beginning and now we're stuck for space. The core brush business has stayed the same in terms of turnover but we've bolted on a whole new range of brushes, metallics and other colours. There's a whole fashion in brush colours which we buy in from the Continent. We do a big floor covering business too. We always did mats but now we do rugs too. We hugely supply the hardware trade - but a lot of other people supply it as well, so we have to be up early in the morning and innovative."

A thought strikes him and he pauses, smiling. "I work because I want to work, you know, not because I have to. The hardware trade is like that, riddled with lovely, lovely people that you would want to work with."

In 1963 80 per cent of Varian Brushes' business had to do with the manufacture and sale of brushes, 20 per cent with bought-in goods. Those figures are exactly the reverse today.

What Patrick Varian calls "the big difference" happened when accountant and IT expert Tom Byrne joined the company some six years ago.

"He's very hot on the technology side of things," Patrick says, "and has brought in huge changes. He and Sean Brennan, who is our factory manager, are the key people in the company. But everyone's important, and everyone's lovely. We've a team ethos here, and the company is the people who work here. Thanks to them I only just blow the whistle in the background; they take the weight off my shoulders.

"We like to think, too, that a legendary honesty is part of the company ethos, and courtesy of course."

We take a quick tour then of Varian Brushes, of the factory where a machine punches holes to pack bristles in a brush head, of the vast shelving and storage for everything from domestic, path and platform brushware to paint rollers, mats of every kind and colour, shag and designer rugs, to dusters, cloths and gloves.

So what about the future?

Patrick Varian hasn't a doubt in the world that the company will go on. "Maybe not with a Varian at the top but it's good for another 200 years, at least," he says.