Rich History…Ambitious Plans for Co. Down Manufacturer

There aren’t too many companies around the manufacturing sector in Northern Ireland that can trace their history back to the late 1800’s. Nestled in the County Down countryside on the outskirts of Ballygowan, CCP Gransden is one of them. Established way back in 1896 as A.W. Hamilton Engineering on Belfast’s bustling dockside, the firm repaired ships and acted as a contractor to the nearby Harland & Wolff shipyard. Remarkably, it has stayed in family ownership since then.

Current MD and Owner Jim Erskine’s mother was a direct descendant of the original founder Augustus Hamilton.

“We rank as one of Ulster Bank’s oldest customers,” says Director Robert McConnell. “But the company has certainly not stood still in that time.” That said, cutting edge engineering (of a different variety) and innovation are still at the core of today’s business.

The company evolved through time and responded and adapted to market changes. So, as heavy engineering waned, the company got involved in new technologies. In fact we were one of the first local engineering firms to see the potential of composite materials in its very early stages. It was back in the 1950’s and 60’s that the firm started to move from shot blasting and metal coating towards corrosion resistant plastics and those pioneering composites. Customers back then included some of Northern Ireland’s leading blue chips, Michelin, Enkalon and Courtaulds amongst them.

As the corrosion resistant plastics element of the business grew, the company name evolved with it. Corrosion control plastics led to the CCP acronym, with Gransden added when the firm acquired Gransden (BiChem) and the Allied Colloids water treatment chemical business. Today, CCP Gransden business has two distinct areas of business, one of which is in the chemical field. Working now as the main local agent for chemical giants BASF, the Ballygowan firm is the market leader in the supply of flocculants used in the treatment of water, waste water and minerals.

Robert McConnell joined the company in 2012, and is helping to steer those engineering and composite skills in another direction, into an innovative new future as a key composites manufacturer with customers in the aerospace, defence, marine and energy sectors. “We work with a variety of advanced materials including carbon, glass, aramid and natural fibres,” he says. “We can also select the best composite mix for specific applications using polyester, epoxies and phenolic and natural resins.”

CCP Gransden is one of the most active members of the Northern Ireland Advanced Composites & Engineering Centre (NIACE), the industry-led technology hub based next door to Bombardier’s Belfast plant. Robert McConnell chairs one of the key committees at the Centre. “We’re very committed to research and development, to innovation and to collaboration with others in our industry sectors,” adds Robert.

Today, the Ballygowan-based company has a number of key areas of core business, ranging from general composites manufacturing to the manufacture of composites for the construction industry and filament winding. “We’re not keen to be pigeon-holed as a company that is limited to one specific area of manufacturing or another. Our future, we think, is as a highly flexible manufacturer working with a wide range of customers and our aim is to build on our reputation as an innovative producer of high quality finished products.”

CCP Gransden has invested over £1 million on automation equipment in recent years, and Robert believes that investment in both equipment and R&D will continue as the company strives to win more contracts in the exacting aerospace and defence sectors.

“R&D plays a vital role,” he adds. “But it’s important to stress that R&D has to lead to workable solutions that can be implemented, resulting in real business improvements, something that’s crucial to our competitiveness in the wider marketplace.” The company might be one of the Ulster Bank’s oldest business customers, but the bank hasn’t made much from it in loan repayments. “We’ve never been into borrowing…we’ve tried to grow organically over the years.”

But sales don’t come without a spot of hard work. Robert McConnell and his colleagues travel widely to present CCP Gransden’s expertise to some of the biggest industrial names around. In the aerospace industry alone, relationships have been built with the likes of Airbus, Brazilian plane makers Embraer and NI-based BE Aerospace and, in recent months, CCP has made inroads with Jaguar Land Rover, one of the biggest UK operators in the automotive sector. Like others in the advanced composites field, the company struggles to find experienced people.

“It’s almost impossible,” Robert says simply. “So our solution has been to train and develop our existing staff. This thankfully has not been a struggle, and staff retention levels are excellent. So our staff have the perfect blend of several years of combined experience, with up to date training using the latest techniques, machinery and materials.”

The company is future proofing the skills shortage however, and has established links with both South Eastern Regional College – its local FE establishment – and Belfast Met, collaborating on engineering course requirements and providing training and placements to students. It’s also an established client company of Invest NI.

“We’re prepared to work on our own or collaborate with partners,” he says. “We’re great believers in the old maxim that a rising tide lifts all ships. It’s not sensible to fear competition in a sector like this one.

“We don’t set out to be the cheapest in the marketplace. That would be impossible. What we aim for is the right balance of quality and value.

“Manufacturing in Northern Ireland is alive and kicking, and we are as good an example of that as any.”