Change while we were sleeping

Redwood Comment
Published:  14 November, 2018
European tanners visit China 25 years ago

A look around the world of leather these days, be it at a trade fair, a convention or seminar, is enough to see that while we have been busy worrying about generational changes among consumers, there has been a similar change going on in the leather industry itself.

The number of new younger executives that I am talking to these days is quite remarkable, and there is no doubt that they are driving change.

Twenty-five years ago, I joined a European Tanners group visiting China for an extended three week tour. The plan appeared to have been for a relaxed trip for the elderly tannery owners but, for some reason, in nearly every instance they had been replaced at the last minute by their “children”. On that trip alone, we were seeing twenty or more of the younger generation who were being told to “take the reins” and drive the business on. 

In the main, they have done well and our industry has transformed some of its thinking in that twenty-five years. It was already changing as they took over, but there is no doubt that the generation leaving for retirement now have made good corporate behaviour a given and have been willing to invest and experiment.

Past generational failure

There have been other famous generational moments in the leather industry. In 1893. the United States Leather Company was formed. As a founder of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, it was one of the largest companies the U.S. had ever seen. It combined over eighty companies with 120 tanneries, nearly all Hemlock using vegetable units, into one huge business. It lasted until 1952 but was never really a successful business. Its formation had two drivers. One was a mistaken belief that, by combining, they could counterbalance the might of the meat packers and force down the price of hides, and the other was a lack of confidence in the younger generation about to take charge of the businesses.

It was never explained why that generation was not trusted with the stewardship of their family businesses in 1890s America, but something similar happened a few years later in the UK, where it is recorded that in Leeds most vegetable tanners closed rather than consider either letting a younger generation take control or changing their processing to satisfy consumer demands.

“The core of the matter was that the ageing gentlemen who owned old, reputable tanneries were not especially interested in new methods. They were emotionally committed to methods which had earlier made them successful. The only positive response was a general effort to improve on existing methods in the hope of making marginal gains”, according to the local historian W.G. Rimmer writing in the 1950s. That is not to underestimate the difficulty they faced being in a sector of vegetable tanned uppers for ladies footwear where both the material and the designs were fast being transformed. Nevertheless, one wonders what the younger generation thought as their parents closed down (some 75% of the tanneries closed in less than ten years) rather than change.

So, given what we know of the past the early 1990s generation change, and the current one both look like proving a dramatic success. The business approach, the interest in advance technology and in modern manufacturing methods seems to be excellent. Just as well, as the challenges of alternate materials and demands of technology are much greater than ever before.

Let’s hope, that unlike Leeds in 1900, the older generations give our new leaders space and opportunity.

Dr Mike Redwood

November 14, 2018

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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