In fact, increasingly innovations took place where people and companies interfaced. Where they could combine one new idea with a few older ones and reconfigure the whole idea in completely new ways. Both process and product innovations result.

From this came a greater interest in the choice of business partners, and how companies fit into the business network and create links with completely new partners, with often quite different technologies. This changed the way senior players worked in the leather industry. Relationship management had already changed into the more transformative Key Account Management in the late 1980s and this steadily evolved to create the backbone of strong, resilient supply chains.

In recent years, these supply chains have been further tested in the search for traceability and other aspects of a clear and transparent approach to corporate social responsibility, which the main stream leather industry has taken on board as fundamental to responsible leather making.

Nevertheless, the leather industry entered the Hong Kong APLF Leather show this March facing more uncertain times than in the past. Many see the difficulties as needing marketing, something long overdue. But of course, what they want is sales, for which the marketing should have been done some years ago. It will indeed be a huge breakthrough if we can leave Hong Kong this week determined to see some united leather action to build the image of leather in the minds of the new generations of consumers and the brands who will be working with them. But it will not be enough.

Robust supply chains are built on Key Account Management

Meanwhile robust supply chains will need to be managed by strong Key Account Management (KAM), which my friend Dr Iain Davies at the University of Bath describes as having “become one of the fundamental changes in how business-to-business companies manage their most strategic relationships”. When I introduced it to my leather company back in the late 1980s, it served us well, but today’s KAM provides an additional function. It helps to manage those interfaces where innovation happens.

For me, strong marketing and image building for leather is a given requirement and must be done, but equally urgent is a massive investment in innovation to make leather stronger for the 21st century. As end uses for leather have changed from boats, to armour, to industrial belting to modern automotive and faced new types of competition we have seen our technology adapt. We have created better water resistance, breathability, fire resistance, perspiration resistance and the like. We need another major advance to start now, and to be linked with the process innovations that meet the new urgency created by the modern digital consumer. It is a time of instant delivery and of a production unit of one, just as much as a superbly relevant product. Where and how leather sits in this environment will truly decide our industry’s future.

Dr Mike Redwood

March 14, 2018

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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