Conquering the world: J&C Joel’s success story

Mika perfoms at the Brit Awards against a backdrop supplied by J&C Joel
Mika perfoms at the Brit Awards against a backdrop supplied by J&C Joel

FROM the BAFTA awards to the Winter Olympics, J&C Joel has helped to set the scene for some of the world’s most exciting events.

Not bad for a family firm based in Sowerby Bridge.

I love Sowerby Bridge

I love Sowerby Bridge

Founded in 1978 by John Wheelwright - the ‘J’ in the company’s name - the theatrical drape manufacturer started out as a waste wool trader in a run-down mill in Barkisland.

Fast-forward 30 years or so, and from these humble beginnings an impressive empire has sprung.

The now world-renowned company has conquered three continents, with offices in the UK, Dubai, South Africa, and Hong Kong, and boasts customers in over 75 counties.

Managing director Andrew Walsh has been there almost every step of the way, having worked for the firm since 1980.

He said: “The company was basically a trader in the waste wool products of our founder John Wheelwright’s family company, which was a woolen manufacturer selling to the likes of Wallis and Laura Ashley.

“Because the British wool industry started to decline, and was bombarded with imports from places like Portugal, who were getting subsidies from their government, John had the foresight to diversify part of the company into what we call technical textiles. That was the start of what we do today.”

The company began in Barkisland Mill, which has since become home to luxury apartments - but there was no luxury back then.

“At the time it had no heating, the roof leaked, the basement flooded and most of the windows were breeze blocked up - but that was our home,” said Mr Walsh.

It’s a far cry from the plush offices the company calls home now, in Corporation Mill, Sowerby Bridge.

“We were very lucky in that John struck up a deal with a firm of property developers.

“That gave us the capital to move to Sowerby Bridge and buy this building. It was fantastic to come here.”

In the time since then, the business has gone from employing six workers to a total of 75, and is now capable of kitting out entire venues as well as continuing to supply the drapery and fabrics that are its hallmark.

Mr Walsh said: “We started the installation department to do all the drape tracking and stage hardware, which made us what we like to call a one-stop-shop.

“If you were building a stage these days we would tender for the whole project and manage it through to completion.”

One of the firm’s first big jobs was the refurbishment of the London Coliseum, home of the English National Opera.

“It was a very intensive design process working with English Heritage, because they wanted to bring the theatre back to how it was when it was first built.”

The firm’s ever-growing reputation has since earned it high-profile customers across the globe and it is currently tendering for the 2012 London Olympics.

Recent projects have included the Brit and BAFTA awards, the Royal Variety Show, Take That and Simply Red tours and the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

“The Winter Olympics was one of the most jaw-dropping moments, just to see how the designer had collated what we had manufactured and see this huge fabric structure appear,” said Mr Walsh.

“It was quite breath-taking. I watched it over and over again.”

He said seeing the company’s handiwork take centre stage at such huge events made him “immensely proud”.

“It does that for everybody that works here,” he said.

“Our employees are our greatest asset. We have got a very skilled, very conscientious workforce and I think everybody gets a great buzz from it.”