Entrepreneur Dr Ali J. Wright, who is keen to establish an upholstery training academy in Mid Wales, has added a coveted apprenticeship award to her growing collection.

Ali’s business, Needle Rock, based in Llanrhystud since 2013, was named Small Employer of the Year at the prestigious Apprenticeship Awards Cymru 2024, held at ICC Wales, Newport.

A former UK Government plant health inspector, Ali is now growing her own apprentices after turning her hobby of rescuing old furniture into the award-winning business that creates “unique and remarkable upholstery”.

Highlight of the year for apprentices, employers and work-based learning providers and practitioners, the Apprenticeship Awards Cymru are organised by the Welsh Government and supported by the National Training Federation for Wales (NTFW).

Headline sponsor this year was EAL, specialist skills partner and awarding organisation for industry. The awards highlight the outstanding achievements of employers, apprentices and work-based learning practitioners.

Accredited by the Association of Master Upholsterers and Soft Furnishers, Needle Rock offers a diverse portfolio of traditional and modern upholstery for homes, pubs, clubs, restaurants, caravans, narrowboats and motorhomes.

“I am absolutely thrilled and it’s amazing to get the recognition,” said an emotional Ali, after receiving the award. I have been in business for 11 years and growing apprentices for the last three years with backing from the Welsh Government.

“This award will enable me to get exposure for the business and I would like to establish a Needle Rock Training Academy. I feel I have been on a journey, having had various careers which have led me to exactly where I am today. This is the final piece in my jigsaw.

“Investing in young workers is labour intensive but gives significant gain. The impact of having apprentices within the Needle Rock business has been phenomenal. Turnover has tripled and our workshop is now open for 50 weeks a year.”

Winner of the Federation of Small Businesses’ Microbusiness of the Year 2023 award, the company has four employees who were recruited with support from the Welsh Government’s former Kickstart and current Jobs Growth Wales Plus programmes.

Ali’s ambition is to establish a Needle Rock Training Academy to fill the void for upholstery apprenticeships in Wales and wants to create a Level 3 Apprenticeship framework for Advanced Upholstery Skills.

Needle Rock’s first two apprentices, Roselin Morgan and Jason Vale have completed a Foundation Apprenticeship in Performing Manufacturing Operations and are now enrolled on another Level 2 Apprenticeship in Business Improvement Techniques.

Last November, Jason won the Foundation Apprentice of the Year at the Skills Academy Wales Awards 2023. He and Roselin are mentoring the two latest recruits who are following the same learning pathway, guided by Myrick Training and Needle Rock.

Al Parkes, managing director at EAL, said: “I would like to congratulate not just Needle Rock and the other award winners, but all the employers, apprentices and work-based learning practitioners who were nominated.

“Showcasing their achievements is important as it inspires more people to consider apprenticeships and encourages more employers to take on apprentices.”