A funny thing happened in Waalwijk today

Stahl CEO Huub van Beijeren opens the new leather laboratory
Stahl CEO Huub van Beijeren opens the new leather laboratory

In Waalwijk today Stahl opened their new laboratory and a happy crowd drank copious amounts of beer and wine. Nothing new there. With openings in India and China and constant development in the Netherlands we have seen it all before. Yet this does not begin to tell the story.

I had happened to let slip that my first ever visit to Stahl in Waalwijk was when I won a British Kid Tanners Scholarship to travel to European tanneries and leather schools in 1966; so just as I was delighting in my first glass of rather nice white wine I was asked to make a speech.

Streamers celebrate the Stahl laboratory opening ceremony
Streamers celebrate the Stahl laboratory opening ceremony

Trying to find something to say when handed the microphone did not prove so hard since the role Stahl has played in helping the leather industry in these last few decades has been outstanding. More to the point with it comes a very long list of individuals I am proud to call my friends. While transactions pay the bills it is relationships that make the profits and it is the staff that builds relationships.  Somehow or other all round the world Stahl have maintained a long list of really exceptional people. One of the other things about Stahl is that they have always tried to make products which add extra value, and in particular in the automobile industry have done so by looking further down the chain towards the consumer to understand what this added value should comprise.  This is fundamental to ingredient branding and to getting leather established in its rightful place as a superior, renewable material.

But for the leather industry it has not been an easy 45 years. None of the three European schools I visited – Waalwijk, Darmstadt and Reutlingen – exist today and so it was poignant being there on behalf of the University of Northampton wearing the Corium Club pin in my lapel. And nearly all of the great tanneries we visited like KVL are also shut.  The British Kid Tanners Association has long since disappeared. Even in the last ten years when Stahl changed hands we worried that the short term approach of venture capitalism was going to damage it permanently. Luckily we have clear evidence that the current owners have vision and are not there for the short term; I am sure that the industry will reward them for that.

Industry Sales value in The Netherlands is perhaps as high as it ever was

Looking at Northern Europe the industry has really been decimated over the last few decades. It is easy to become miserable – and yet if one examines the whole picture from raw to retail the story is not so gloomy. In Holland we have still quite a large number of medium size plants and machinery/chemical companies, but the two leading companies of Stahl and ECCO Leather stand out.  Just the growth of these two dynamic companies alone means that the leather industry turnover in the Netherlands is perhaps as high as it ever was.

Also notable in Waalwijk is how important this little town is for moving the world’s shoes around. Holland is really a country that causes confusion with footwear statistics as matching up imports and exports when so little is made is always problematic.  Waalwijk traders have picked up the license rights to many old and current brands and constitute a group with considerable critical mass.  Do not forget, either, that both Nike and ECCO shoes have big European HQs in the Netherlands.

Even the UK retains an interesting industry although with a structure that traditional tanners would not recognise.  There are few tanners but three sit at the pinnacle of worldwide industry in glove, suede and upholstery leathers.  In Northampton we have a concentration of welted footwear makers who are regaining their place not just in the standard lines but in new and exciting styles.  The UK has returned to being a major producer of automobiles and while it does not have the force of the big German brands it does have a very significant leather using segment of the world’s auto-leather market.  Think of Jaguar Land Rover, Bentley, Aston Martin and Rolls Royce.  Even the redoubtable little Mini sells more than 50% of its cars in leather. And of course the UK is now quite a growth place for those luxury brands with a story to tell that somehow blends the best of history and craftsmanship with leading edge fashion.

And we must not forget that there is the University of Northampton.  Getting the formula for survival right for leather is not easy but a determined move in the last decade has seen the tannery updated, the courses updated and modularised, far more relevant courses to fit with industry needs, and the research laboratories revamped. Talking of blended learning is not some alien thing but a given, understood as a key part of future interaction with industry stakeholders.

20th September, 2012

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