The Northampton Leather Hub

Delegates awaiting the start of the SLTC conference.
Delegates awaiting the start of the SLTC conference. From left: Amanda Michel, Stephen Trantum, Ian Michel

For the second year in a row the SLTC held their annual conference in Northampton. The one this past weekend was the 115th. I wonder if anyone knows how many have been held in Northampton? Certainly these last two appear to herald a turnaround in the fortunes of the Society. Numbers are up and most noticeably it is now dominated by active industry executives with a fair group of students. The decline into a retirees club seems to have been slowed if not stopped.

This puts the SLTC under pressure to make sure they adjust their programmes to meet the expectations of this new group. They are international and from a very professional global leather industry where the old family tannery system has steadily evolved into quite new groupings. There is much more vertical integration and much better understanding of what is happening throughout the supply chain. How will the conference have to develop go be more suited to this audience? And it was interesting to see the difference in attendance between the day and the evening. Two quite different audiences.

And while the attendance was good it was also significant that some were missing; some of these were clearly part of the target audience and important in the world of leather. So this also needs some thought.

However this is viewed the importance of leather in Northampton is increasing each year. Northampton is back as a leather hub. It is more knowledge management than leather manufacture (although thankfully there still is a little of that with companies such as Blenkinsop) but it is growing and it is important on the world stage. Considering the value chain changes going on it is good that Northampton remains a major producer of welted footwear and has leathergoods businesses like Tusting. It is not clear that these companies quite get the value of the links back to leather; there is still a bit of a silo culture that runs counter to global trends.

We heard at the Conference about the importance of the connection between the tanner and the designer, of knowing who you are in all this, and we also heard of the reasons to bring more manufacturing back to the UK. Not just that hides and skins should not leave the UK with hair, dirt and the like attached but that moves towards Cradle to Cradle require it. Also when being reminded of all the issues from farmer to tanner with hides one wonders if all the knowledge gained in the UK is being fully exploited.

Getting round the, rather old-fashioned, notion of not naming commercial products and making rather dry fundamental research relevant to students and younger members is complex but using Northampton offers new opportunity. The tannery can be used for demonstrational, the University has NVision – the UK’s leading immersive 3D visualisation set up. Is it inconceivable that we might hold a lecture there with someone like Tony Covington walking us through the fibrils? And with lecture capture there is no reason why our South African members should not join us live.

The Ups and Downs of the Leather Business

It has been a hectic few weeks for the leather industry. Everyone expected prices of raw material to fall at APLF and they stayed up. Then everyone thought that Lineapelle would mark the peak and they still stayed up. Now they are hoping that a quieter level of business will force a fall: but while speculators might have caused a partially false high it is hard to get away from a feeling that we are looking at a long term towards higher raw prices in our sector.

And despite some concern about the level of trade, mostly in Europe, many of those the University interface with remain very busy. Margins are tight but the route to improvement is a mix of innovation, careful product positioning and perhaps some structural adjustment.  This is the moment to get serious about the look of the value chain, and should involve looking at elements beyond your own factory walls to see what needs to be reconfigured.

In a way that is what is happening in the UK University sector as income streams have been stood on their head. It does in retrospect look like the updating of the tannery, research labs and classrooms was done just in time to meet the new types of demand. New courses, increased student expectations and evolving teaching methods are a lot to handle all at once.

Get Leather at Northampton on a Roll

Delia Heneghan (left) and Rachel Garwood talking to an alumnus at the Corium Club event
Delia Heneghan (left) and Rachel Garwood talking to an alumnus at the Corium Club event

Add to these the keen interest of the Vice Chancellor who within the space of four weeks has been checking out the role of leather by visiting Ethiopia, India and APLF at Hong Kong.  And in each location he had his enthusiasm for leather and the fit for the University in this sector enhanced. The historic danger has been that we have not been able to turn this enthusiasm into students on courses but it does seem that now things are really moving. We had a good Hong Kong last year and an even better one this with one student flying straight over from Hong Kong for this week’s short course. If you are an alumnus reading this get involved. Think about how you can use or contribute to industry education and research.  Let us take advantage of where we are with great facilities, top rate staff and a University with associated skills in Fashion, Podiatry, Waste Management and Product Design.

Mike Redwood
19th April 2012