At 180 years old, family sailmaking company Jeckells has had to adapt through the decline of the fishing fleet, two world wars, economic downturns and technological changes. Annabelle Dickson meets the family

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The Jeckells family’s sailmaking business has come a long way from its origins serving the Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft fishing fleets.

The idea of making sails using electricity would have seemed alien to founder Robert Jeckells, who stumbled upon a sail design when repairing his own in 1832.

Now his great great great great grandson Chris, the current managing director of Jeckells the Sailmakers, flies out to Antigua to measure sails, kits out boats for around-the-world voyages and is in charge of a thriving company turning over more than £1m as it celebrates its 180th birthday.

But like many companies of such a ripe age, it has had to be at the forefront of technology and adapt with the times.

With the introduction of laser cutters and more advanced machines, the company had to downsize from five sailmaking lofts with 150 people and banks of sewing machines to just one with the latest in sewing equipment and computer and laser technology in Wroxham employing around 20 people.

In the 1980s the company was one of the first in the country to have a computer-controlled laser cutter, which was even featured on TV science and innovation programme Tomorrow’s World.

It was a great advancement as it could cut 0.01mm and heat-seal each cut to prevent fraying, as well a reducing the amount of space needed to make a sail.

Chris said: “We used to have five lofts. But with the laser cutter and sewing machines and new techniques we now do it in one.”

And the company still takes its equipment seriously.

“Over the last few years a few machines have been replaced. We had a new laser installed which was better and faster. If we need something we get it,” he said.

It was Chris’s father, Raymond, who was responsible for bringing in a laser.

“We started looking at technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” said Chris.

He described how Raymond had worked out the calculations for the sails on a Hewlett Packard calculator which was printed on a till roll. But it is also a willingness to diversify which has stood the company in good stead.

The company has expanded its non-marine related business including shade sails for pubs and schools and other industrial contracts.

Around 15pc to 20pc of its business is not sail-related, although sails and associated products still make up 80pc and are the company’s core business.

During the second world war the company diversified by making camouflage netting, gun covers and latrine screens for the services.

But it has now set up what it has called its SAD division – special application division – giving an existing employee the job of running it and it has really taken off in the last four years.

“His job is to find us anything we can sew. We’ve got a laser cutter. We have got the toys and the tools and the capacity,” said Chris.

“We can offer sewing machine facilities. If people want things sewn up we can do it,” he added.

“We always used to be very seasonal. We would have nothing to do in November and December. We have spent a lot of time trying to smooth out the peaks and troughs.”

He said that people were also using their boats for longer due to a combination of plastic boats and better mooring facilities.

“But the spring is always the busy time,” Chris added.

Chris has also taken marketing very seriously in his role and uses local company Media Managers.

“We have pushed it very hard,” he said.

“You have got to keep your name at the forefront all the time.”

And in answer to a question about whether being a family company helped with the success of the business, Chris said it had.

“It has got a lot to do with it. There’s an awful lot of pride that goes into the name. If it has got our name on it, it has got to go out right. The staff have got the same attitude.

“They are a loyal lot.”

Some of the employees have been there for 40 years.

And Jeckells grows its own skills.

“On-the-job training is what we do,” he said.

The company took on an apprentice last year and, although there is no sailmaking apprenticeship, he is doing industrial applications.

Jeckells has also recently taken on an employee on the South Coast.

While Chris does get up at the crack of dawn still to travel around the country to measure sails, having someone based on the coast has eased some of the burden.

“He has brought in quite a bit of business because he is on the scene. It was nothing for me to get up at 3am to measure a boat,” he said.

The company is also considering setting up a repair facility on the South Coast too.

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