Denman’s brush with engineering success

Bangor firm celebrates 75 years making hairbrushes

June promises to be a momentous month for Northern Ireland when it hosts the G8 summit of world leaders in Enniskillen. But another gathering will take place that month in Northern Ireland that, while it cannot boast world leaders, will be no less important for a company celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Bangor-based Denman is going back to its roots to celebrate the success of a family-owned business whose products are sold in more than 60 countries.

It plans to toast the fact that, confounding the counsel of professional advisers who said the company did not have a future, it is competing with global brands on the world stage.

Denman is one of a handful of UK manufacturers – and the only one in Northern Ireland – specialising in hairbrushes. And, as any celebrity hairdresser will confirm, hairbrushes are big business.


But the pressures of competing with cheap imports from Asia and creating new products to keep up with the latest hair styling techniques means the market is far from easy.

The company's founder, Northern Ireland-born John Denman Dean – Jack Dean, as he was known – set up the business in 1938.

According to John Rainey, who runs the business now, its reputation for quality products is key to the support and endorsement of celebrity hairdressers it has enjoyed, from Freddie French in its early days to Vidal Sassoon and, latterly, Trevor Sorbie.

Rainey says the company has built its reputation on design innovation that is as strong today as it was in 1938.

The 75th anniversary gives the company an opportunity to recognise just how far it has come by celebrating its success with its staff, its local community and long established partners such as the Japanese company, Torico Industries, with which it has been doing business for 41 years.

Denman can trace its origins to the United States, where Dean, an engineer, worked for the government during the second World War, and from which he brought a shipment of nylon, DuPont's revolutionary polymer, upon his return.

His application for patent protection for a rubber- cushioned hairbrush was accepted and a brand was born.

Dean established his business in Hertfordshire and when illness forced him to retire it was acquired by the Yorkshire-based Lindsay and Williams group, which moved the Denman brush company to another of its businesses, Belfast-based Ulster Plastics.

It relocated from Belfast to Bangor in 1969 but hit a slump that led to voluntary receivership.

In 1972 the company was acquired by the Rainey family, which amalgamated it with their existing business – Martin Rainey – to establish Denroy Plastics.

More than a decade later the family divided the company’s two divisions into separate firms, Denroy Plastics and Denman, which currently employ more than 180 people.

Denroy Plastics specialises in the design and manufacture of injection-moulded components.

Rainey, who is at the helm of both companies, says they complement each other.

“They are, of course, very different businesses in contrasting sectors but one of our strengths throughout is our engineering technology,” he said.

“Everyone can appreciate the ground-breaking technology involved in designing and manufacturing injection-moulded components, for example, the aerospace and defence sectors.

“But what they might not also realise is that the design and manufacture of a hairbrush handle is also surprisingly demanding from an engineering technology perspective because of the complex contours involved.”

After the party in June, a potential new Invest NI-backed multimillion pound investment boost is on the cards later in the year.

Francess McDonnell

Francess McDonnell

Francess McDonnell is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business