Ullman sets up global manufacturing HQ Cape Town

Loft Group Buys South African Licensee 

Michael England sits down in his boardroom chair with an air of burly confidence. More like a strong breeze of confidence, swelling the prospects of newly-formed Ullman Sails Manufacturing.  Not surprising given his recent appointment as chief executive of Africa’s biggest sail loft, the well-known maze of interlocking warehouses along Cape Town’s Voortrekker Road that collectively produce an average of 30 sails a day. England means business and says as much in a vacuum-packed manner that sucks in attention.  “The problem with the Ullman group is that we didn’t have a dedicated manufacturing facility,” he says, glancing across at longtime sales manager Tony Strutt. “So Ullman purchased this facility.”

Straight talking surely served England well during his previous incarnation as a lawyer; now he is using it to bolster Ullman’s success. He wants to streamline the Cape Town factory that is already a standout performer in Cape Town’s manufacturing sector thanks to his predecessors, notably Jannie and Belinda Reuvers. He is doing this not by retrenching staff – “we’ve hardly got rid of anybody” – but rather by seeking out possible operational efficiencies.

To illustrate his point England marches down a flight of stairs into the bowels of Ullman Sails Manufacturing, past a table laden with company accolades and a wall plastered with a high-tech sail. “That’s a membrane sail,” he says, still a little awed by the sight. And it does look good, with a fine web of cross-hatched yarn overlaying a thin polyester.

Downstairs things are busy. A pile of stock packed in trademark Ullman blue and red colours leans against one wall, destined for exotic locations. A giant laser cutter takes up almost the entire length of the huge room, next to an adjoining floor area splattered with sails, all staked out like giant butterfly wings. For the uninitiated it is a marvelous sight, these high-tech playthings designed to catch the wind; for England and Strutt it is a tapestry of production, efficiencies, and design innovation. The art of cutting cloth and costs, to produce a sail that will add value.  “It all grew rather organically,” says England, leading us along a corridor and across the road to the rest of the plant. “There wasn’t enough space so they expanded over here.” A driver interrupts us, backing out of the driveway with a cargo of sails. “Those are heading off to Knysna,” says England. And away they go.

Next up is the membrane facility which has a strict shoes-off code. In the centre of the room is a strange steel vehicle the height and length of a coffee table, more metal engineering in its bowels than a space shuttle. The laminator. As if on cue a driver parks the metal beast atop a membrane sale and sears it with 250 degree heat, so intense the floor around it is still baking hot minutes after. Membrane sails cover the floor like elaborate artworks, their fibrous webs a mystery to all except their creators. A staff member hovers above one of them, tracing the outline with a hand-held gadget that seems vaguely sci-fi. “Checking for leaks,” says Strutt of the peculiar routine. “She must check every one – very important,” he explains.

And so we travel through the heart of a famous loft which has produced more sails than the Spanish Armada. Technical expertise, product innovation, and institutional memory – you don’t need to look too far to see that Ullman is a manufacturing treasure.

This explains the deal finalised in September whereby the Ullman Sails South Africa, one of about 30 Ullman business licensees, was merged with Ullman Sails Manufacturing which previously operated out of the US. It means the Cape Town plant is now technically the engine room of the Ullman empire, producing a large proportion of Ullman’s exports. Although the Ullman manufacturing division operated out of the factory since 2013, it now owns the entire business and leases the building from Reuvers. Explains England: “It means we are now in direct control and have a direct impact on research and development. The problem with the Ullman Group was that we didn’t have a dedicated manufacturing facility.”

“Although (the Cape Town plant) did most of the group’s outsource manufacturing, it wasn’t exclusively for the group,” England said. Now it is. “We were starting to manufacture internally a bit more, so we felt we needed to get control of manufacturing to offer them a better product and make sure the produce worldwide became more consistent. That is really the reason why we did it”.

It also means the Group founded in California now manufactures in the same time zone (give or take an hour or two) as Europe – “to make it more relevant to the world”, says England, who sees Europe as a key growth market. Worldwide the market has now consolidated under five or six main brands, forcing the major players to up their game. “It (the merger) allows us an opportunity and possibility of controlling our own destiny when it comes to production, versus outsourcing. As a manager of licensed businesses around the world you don’t have control over production, and that can cause problems.”

Not that there are too many problems on the horizon for the Voortrekker Road plant, now 51-years-old and tacking into the breeze like a Volvo Ocean Race veteran. Just as well there’s no shortage of wind to fill up Cape Town’s sails.

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