I am sitting at my desk holding a thick book. It is the outcome of a quite a few years of part time work getting a PhD in management at the University of Bath. It is not a leather industry PhD but it is about the leather industry in that it looks at the evolution of business networks through the lens of Booth and Co from 1860 until 1920.
Today we think of networking as something done on social networks, or rushing to crazy breakfast meetings or wine evenings set up up to be the business equivalent of speed dating. But in business terms networks are about the complex way that companies relate to one another. This is very important in the modern world of globalisation and complex technologies but was just as important in historic times.
Booths are rather a forgotten company as a start up UK business working in the US, and they never chose to make dramatic headlines or push themselves strongly forward. Yet it was their recognition of supporting and instigating research that got us our first fatliquors, chrome tanning, vegetable-aluminium combination tanning and helped promote the first bates. In his spare time one of the founders Charles Booth drew the first social map of London and pushed the government into establishing the universal pension. His son Thomas invented unit trusts, was chairman of most railroads, tramways and a lot of ports in Brazil, was a supply minister in the first World War and a director of the Bank of England.
The Booths were always willing to support good ideas and to stimulate research in one way or another. They did not try and own the technology either nor always to benefit from it at once. Having helped Schultz get his two chrome tanning patents it was nearly a decade before they were exploited commercially, but when they were Booths became one of the largest and most successful tanning groups in the world.
So where is that research today? When Booths started there were no research associations or universities to do leather research so it was all done in the tanneries. But once chromium tanning and faster processing using strong acids came in the need for chemists meant that leather schools were needed all over the world. First in the UK came Leeds followed by London, with study at Northampton starting a little later. The links between industry and academia were clear and no more so than with Professor Procter, perhaps the most important leather chemist ever, who worked at Edward & James Richardson in Newcastle before moving to Leeds to head up the leather school which was later to become the Procter Department. Procter has strong associations for me as I studied in the Procter Department and my first industry job for Barrow Hepburn was to manage the wet end at Richardsons.
By the 1920s most of the top leather countries had established research associations so that research continued in these along with the schools and the tanneries with interested owners. So the first chromium patents came linked to the Booth tannery in Gloversville, upstate New York, where a few years before they had backed James Kent when he developed the wildly successful Dongola tannage. Sir John Turney Wood, also linked to Booths, developed enzymatic bating at the start of the 20th century in his Nottingham tannery.
Then gradually, as the industry became more industrialised and scientific the big chemical companies began to take the lead in research. I remember this is a child as my father was a surface chemist hired as part of his role to make the finishes for Muirheads car upholstery leathers in the 1930s. This was not a matter of mixing and spraying but designing and making the resins and lacquers from their original elements. He was excited when he had to make a new white finish for soccer for soccer balls which were to be used under floodlights. But he came to realise that with the scale and knowledge of companies like Stahl and BASF he could not compete and steadily dismantled the big chemical mixing tanks as they started to buy proprietary products from the top chemical companies.
I have to say that while the industry research associations all did excellent work – just think of Betty Haines at the BLMRA – I am not able to recollect any great developments that emanated from them
In the last twenty years things have changed once more. As the industry has relocated the historic research houses have largely lost their historic funding security, perhaps with the exception of France, and have become more like testing houses and consultancies. Margins at the chemical companies have slipped as they are now servicing many more regions, having to spend big money on compliance issues such as REACH, and have new low cost Asian competitors creating new competition.
With the big reconfiguration that took place in the 90s when we lost old names such as Sandoz, Hoechst, Earnshaws and Yorkshire Chemicals and another bought of “For Sale” notices out now it is hard to expect that any deep research will be done any more in this sector. Short and medium term will continue but the resources are not there for anything speculative or fundamental. Stahl is owned by a private equity group, albeit apparently benign and Clariant put their leather business up for sale in 2012 because they could not see it ever achieving a 17% EBITDA.
Yet in the time that the chemical companies did all the research the tanneries in the world moved their technical skills to managing the scaling up and the mass production. So few tanners have the really fundamental technical knowledge, support and facilities, to do their own research. Even in my time I can remember the fabulous library and facilities that Colomer had in Vic, Spain and Hellemaa in Finland. Who has anything like this today except perhaps in the automobile industry?
So we find the industry at a crossroads. If the chemical companies and the research associations are out of the picture and the tanners have limited competence where will the new technologies come from? Without question the industry would like to stop using some of the more difficult inorganic chemicals such as hydrogen sulphide and lime. After twenty years of trying we still do not have really good replacement for chromium that is accepted by tanners and consumers.
Most of all the leather industry has never had a technical leather sector in the way the textile industry has. It is curious as in clothing especially it is technical textiles that have knocked leather out of all performance sectors and into a small fashion niche; and it is from the technical textile sector that many useful technologies might be adapted. We tried to develop an approach of this sort with our Leather Futures concept at Northampton but it never came to anything. Yet without question leather is as important for its performance as it is for its beauty and elegance: the two go hand in glove.
So the question arises as to where future research will take place and without question two locations are likely to grow. These are within tanneries and in the better equipped leather schools such as Northampton. From the tannery side the structural changes that we have been seeing in the last few years have created some very large professional tanning groups who must be realising that depending on others for innovation and all new product development does not serve to meet market needs in today’s world. Yet in this modern complex world the insular approach to innovation usually ends in failure and in house competence needs to work with selected external partners to maintain a steady stream of developments. In these circumstances organisations such as the ICLT could clearly make a great partner for some. Having started on research nearly twenty five years ago Northampton has built up a top reputation world-wide for its leather research. With a new young team now installed as our older experts phase out, but remain accessible for support and advice, the time is right for a new dynamic in research. With the teaching successfully adapted to be much closer to industry it would be good to see our research involve a major foundation of industrial cooperation.
Without question the location of research is changing quite quickly, and the need for a higher overall level of leather industry research has become apparent.
26th June 2013