Made in Britain

It is July and I am in Germany at Lake Constance. For a decade or so I’ve made the journey to mix holiday at one of our favourite little hotels with a visit to the Outdoors Show at Friedrichshafen. It has never let me down. If you bring, or hire, a bicycle you can enjoy fantastic Lake side rides and mix them with ferry trips to Switzerland or Austria if you want to go further afield.

The Show itself always delivers. Innovations, new ideas and approaches, thoughtful actions related to the environment and sustainability, clever branding and a real dynamic makes it all a very vibrant experience compared to most other fairs.

And who did I walk into this year but Brooks leather saddles! Still made in Britain and expanding and developing in the 21st century after doing so well in large parts of both the 19th and 20th. But of course not all of the 20th century was good to it; and it is now an Italian owner who is driving it on. One who is trawling the archives and willing to link with British design students for saddle bags and other items suited to the Brand. One who understands heritage branding in a modern world, the consumer experience linked to the story.

This is a moment when with rising costs in Asia and concern at the various impacts of transportation implied in some of the aspects of globalisation that we believe elements of manufacture can return to Europe and the UK. This includes footwear, gloves and leather goods as well as a lot of fashion. A mix of what might be called “time zone” manufacturing linked to great design and knowledge.

Yet why is it that it is foreign companies that are needed to drive forward great brands like Brooks and Church’s? Even the much younger Mulberry needed a clever lady from Singapore to get it back on a growth track balancing great product with clever marketing. And now Mulberry are building another UK production plant.

In the leather trade 100 years ago, before chrome tanning, the UK was the world leader. Despite a British Company, Booths, being instrumental in getting chrome tanning into the world market the UK lost its place and never looked likely to get it back. We now have only three world class companies plus a number of boutique plants, albeit excellent in their own way.

UK manufacturing has shown itself skilful at growing smaller and then closing. I know, I share part of the guilt. I’ve been hands on in closing three fine old brands and on the Board when we took tough decisions about many others.

As I look back much of this was issues of family businesses and family business mentality. Today as I look at Clarks and ECCO I find myself thinking that family businesses can be the best, and I worry as VF and Wolverine gobble up the world of the “virtual” shoemaking brands.

Some of what happened was self managed consolidation and a way for businesses, and families, to escape from difficult city centre sites and rising environmental costs. It is just hard to see that Italy retained so much while Northern Europe almost totally closed down.

Even towards the end we managed to lose some great brand names – Connolly, Pearce, Pebody – whose reputations spread across the globe. Even today I don’t think we’d let that happen – or at least the Indians, Chinese or Italians wouldn’t.

Somehow we lost confidence in our ability to make things and recognition of the value of what we have achieved in the past. There is a message in all this that links into knowledge. It’s knowledge that gives us confidence in our manufacturing skills. It’s knowledge that lets us identify the value of companies in terms of more than just bricks and mortar.

When Nestlé bought Rowntrees back in 1988 they paid 5 times the value of the book assets. It was not the manufacturing capacity they were after but the name and reputation. So closing a company like Connolly and ignoring those values was a grave mistake.

Now we have in the UK a number of opportunities.

  • building up all the companies that we have managed to retain. Scottish and Pittards appear to be leading the way but all the “boutique” plants should also be able to participate.
  • look at helping bring back more leather product production to the UK – footwear and leathergoods especially – via a mix of automated technology, additive manufacturing and pure craftsmanship
  • helping start ups in these latter areas
  • considering the wisdom of doing more with UK raw material given both its quality and the current value in knowing the origin of things.

I am a globalist and like the concept of BMW making Minis in the UK for the whole world rather than fighting for manufacturing just to make and keep in Britain. But now is certainly the moment to start using our skills and education to do a lot more in leather at all levels in the UK

Mike Redwood
15th July 2012

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