The Ayrshire micro-company operating on a global scale
Ailsa Craig has been quarried for its micro-granite since the mid-nineteenth century for the specific purpose of producing curling stones. Kays Curling, based in Mauchline, has the exclusive rights to the Ailsa Craig granite. But Ayrshire came very close to losing this long-standing business.
“Kays was in financial difficulty,” Jim English tells me. “It was under threat to move out of the area.” Jim is the company’s new managing director and also co-owner along with chairman, Paul Davidson.
Jim is from Dreghorn, just outside Irvine, but he left at the age of 16. He joined the military and travelled the world and then worked off-shore on oil rigs before venturing into business turnarounds, joint ventures and other types of investment portfolios.
“Big corporate companies were having problems with culture, quality, cost, lack of engagement and poor or no profits,” he explains. “I would go in there and just lead a strategic change working with all key stakeholders and shareholders on business critical realities.”
And this is exactly what he did at Kays.
“When the previous shareholders saw me get it back to profit, helped by all the employees… they looked to sell the business. So I got two local companies to look at the business and they both showed an interest. But they left it far too long and another chap came in around December 2021.”
But Jim was determined to keep it in Ayrshire, as were the previous shareholders, so together with another local businessman, Paul Davidson, he took over the business.
“We went through due diligence and got it over the line in September. We went in, turned the business around and ended up purchasing it.”
It’s completely different from anything Jim has ever done before, but he’s already committed to build the heritage and complete the legacy.
“If you look at Ailsa Craig from a distance, it looks just like a curling stone which is pretty bizarre as it’s where you get the two materials that actually end up as a curling stone.”
The island, he tells me, is a Site of Scientific Interest and is made up of two granites: common green and blue hone.
“They’re both micro-granites. The green is the body of the stone. The blue one’s effectively waterproof so it doesn’t draw any moisture in, so it’s brilliant for running along the ice.”
Jim and the previous stakeholders had to complete a 52-page planning application to obtain an Environmental Impact Assessment allowing them to use the stone on Ailsa Craig up to the year 2050. It forms part of an Environment Management Plan which includes, amongst other things, seal mitigation and rat mitigation plans, and ensures no damage is caused to the environment and biodiversity over on the island.
“We go to the island probably once every ten years for both products. We can only do it between October and November… to comply with the planning conditions. That’s obviously to protect the seal breeding season and the bird breeding season.”
I suspect that’s not the best time of year to be crossing the water…
“You’re absolutely spot on there! We left the harbour one time and a 12-foot rogue wave lifted the whole boat out of the water – and that was just getting out of the harbour!”
But weather aside, they must need to take an awful lot of equipment?
“First of all you need to find a landing craft because you have to make your own quay. There’s no natural harbour over there so we have to go at low tide with a 25-ton excavator and make a ramp, grinding out the boulders on the shorefront… to create a temporary quay. Then we get the boat in and anchored, get the kit on site which includes big dumpers, excavators and drills, along with portable accommodation just in case you get caught with the weather.”
It sounds like a major operation but understandable when you’re collecting 3,000 tons of stone per trip.
“We’re allowed to take 25,000 ton of the common green between now and 2050. We would never get that in one run. Because of the weather, you need to plan for 30 days and hopefully get two weeks of it. We end up bringing back around 3,000 ton per trip.”
It’s hard to believe Jim has only been involved with Kays for a short period of time. He already has a tremendous amount of knowledge about the entire operation and, it has to be said, just as much passion.
“When I first came here… I was only employed by the company for about four months… I project managed 600 ton of the blue hone, which was interesting.”
He certainly had to learn very quickly. And where better to learn than on Ailsa Craig itself?
“The granite comes in on a landing craft,” he continues. “The boat… goes back and forward to Ailsa Craig and Girvan. The boulders go into a skip which is easier to handle and easier to pack on the landing craft. Then we take it off the boat, put it onto a truck by crane and store it in Girvan until we need it.”
Kays are famous for producing the highest quality curling stones but there are actually five different levels of curling: Olympic standard, dedicated curling rinks, shared rinks, leisure rinks and outdoor. Kays sell to everyone but it’s their Olympic standard stones that set them apart.
“For Olympic standard… you need to make sure you’ve got the right type of boulder. The mineral itself needs to be aesthetically the same shading, which takes a lot of time to actually get there.”
But get there they do and, in doing so, Ailsa Craig stones have become the only curling stones approved for use in competition by The World Curling Federation, an accreditation Kays have held since 1998.
“For the Beijing Olympics, we made 164 stones. The technology is so fantastic nowadays we have to make sure the surface finish is polished to the same specification for every single stone, as the camera is on the stone 90% of the game and not the player. We had to ship the best 96 matched stones to Beijing. They went on a private jet and due to Covid, apart from the two ice technicians, nobody else was on the fight as flying into China required a special licence.”
The stones, Jim informs me, which cost up to £600 each, are sold with a 10-year guarantee but could last anywhere between 25 and 40 years.
“You will get ones that will break because it’s a mineral. I think we’ve had one break in the last ten years. There’s obviously been a natural flaw in that rock so we send it away and get it to a geologist to understand the mineral breakdown of it and to understand if it’s something that we’ve possibly missed.”
Who knew there was so much involved in producing a curling stone?
“The rock itself, we actually make it and match it to the player. There’s an algorithm…”
Of course there is!
“… based on the weight, the surface dimension, the diameter of the running cup, and the mass within the diameter of the running cap. And the running band itself should be about 6mm thick.”
Apparently, these combined measurements result in an algorithm of what is deemed as the best curl and that is then matched with the players i.e. lead, first, second and the skip. That information then helps the technicians and ice gurus at each club to work with the team, made easier by the fact that each individual stone has its own unique number.
“Every stone globally has a unique number so we know when it came off the island, what batch it came from, what rock it came from and who made it. It’s not just about grinding a lump of rock!”
Indeed it’s not. In fact, Kays will also service and repair curling stones.
“We take trade-ins. If a club has had stones for 30 years, we take them back and look to use them in emerging countries or emerging clubs for use outside. We find this is really good for our circular economy.”
As positive as it all sounds, there are always challenges to deal with. One of those relates to the shortage of labour and the transfer of knowledge and skill.
“There’s not enough skilled labour to go round. We’ve been trying to get new labour for about a year but it’s really difficult. I think there are 200 qualified stone masons left in Scotland. We’re working with the National Curriculum and the Scottish Qualification Association to rewrite the curriculum so we can upskill the people we’ve got here and hire more to upskill and hopefully retain for life at Kays.”
I can hear the frustration in Jim’s voice but I can also sense a steely determination and a definite sense of pride. And something else… satisfaction?
“I’ve worked in China, Oman, Saudi Arabia, America, Singapore, the whole shebang. But this has got the best story and I’ve loved every minute of it, coming here every day.”
Jim is as pleased as anyone that the Ailsa Craig curling stone tradition has remained in Ayrshire. And let’s not forget, this small micro-business operates globally in over 70 countries. Its stones have also won every gold, silver and bronze medal since curling became a medal sport back in 1998.
“The company’s been going since 1851,” Jim confirms. “I’m still learning, but I think the company will see me out!”
That seems the ideal way to conclude our conversation. But I’m curious to know, does he actually play?
“I’ve never even thrown a stone!”