The Leather Business should contribute to society

Redwood Comment
Published:  02 October, 2019
Dr Mike Redwood

Liverpool needs little introduction with its top football team returning to prominence in the last few seasons. It has many other reasons to be famous from the Beatles to waterside buildings exactly like the Shanghai Bund, which serve to remind us what an important global shipping centre it has been for centuries.

It is also where Charles Booth was born in 1840 and started his business, and he was recognised by a posting from the Liverpool news and media organisation, House of Scouse:

#InfluencersLiverpool Charles James Booth

  • born in Liverpool in March 1840.
  • Contributed to the creation of the “Old Age pension”
  • Pioneered Free school meals for the poor
  • Popularised the idea of “Poverty Line” which helped improve welfare

#HoSTV

All these happened because between 1886 and 1903 he dedicated a huge amount of time and cash for an office and staff to produce multiple volumes of ‘The Life and Labour of the People of London’, a statistical and descriptive analysis of London’s entire four million population. It was accompanied by extensive maps in which every street is coloured to indicate the income and social class of the inhabitants. The work had a major impact on society as well as Booth himself, not least in the discovery that poverty was much more widespread than had been understood. Hence, he began campaigning for various state interventions.

The value of an analytical approach

This was the first really serious statistical project ever undertaken, quite apart from it being huge and privately funded. Booth, unhappy with claims that 25% of Londoners lived in abject poverty, worked out an approach that he asked the Royal Statistical Society to consider; and they were so impressed they awarded him their Gold Medal in 1892 and made him President. Booth uncovered that 25% was not too high at all; the real number in poverty was 35%.

This analytical approach he also used in his business. He was senior partner in Alfred Booth and Co Ltd, a leather trader he founded in the early 1860s with his brother, and to which they added a small shipping line started by building two ships to ply initially between Liverpool and the Amazon. The leather business had offices in New York and Liverpool and moved semi-processed skins – mostly sheep from the UK for the growing demand in a fast-developing U.S..

As the business grew the shipping line and the leather business regularly overlapped, as skins were widely sourced across the world with offices in New Zealand and Australia and links to Middle East, Africa and Asia. Charles moved to London to have better access to buy French skins. Most years, he spent three months in the U.S. and the other nine months in the UK moving between London and Liverpool plus other locations in the Midlands and North of England where they had plants or did business.

To avoid a client bankruptcy in a tannery in Gloversville, upstate New York, Booth backed John Kent whose technical skills he admired. In the renamed Kent & Booth, John Kent created the Dongola Tannage using vegetable and aluminium as an attempt to replace the expensive alum kid tannage.  It did not work on gloves but was spectacularly successful for footwear, and at the same time he went some way to finding better fatliquors for leather than egg yolks.

Booths also talked with Augustus Schultz about the possibility of making chrome tanned leather and supported him to develop his two patents, later commercialising this leather and building the world’s largest kid tannery, Surpass Leather, in Philadelphia: a subject I talked about in July in New York. Around this time, they had transformed from a merchant to a major tanning business.

With its name changed to Booth and Company, Booths had become a worldwide tanning and trading business that spanned the globe for much of the 20th century, with a real interest in advancing technology. They pushed Charles Wade to take chrome tanning to Europe and financed his tannery to help. They worked closely with Turney Brothers, eventually buying the tannery, where Joseph Turney Wood led the search to replace dog dung.

Charles James Booth

Carelessness in buying or manufacturing will eliminate profit

It was looking at detail and studying long-term trends that characterised his approach deciding the strategy, while his carefully chosen employees – Booth men – worked it out. He wrote “let it be understood that the margin of possible profit (with leather) is very limited. A very little carelessness in buying, or in manufacturing, will eliminate it”.

Amidst all this massive activity Charles Booth also built the port of Manaus (a pontoon to allow bigger ships access despite the huge rise and fall of the river Amazon through the seasons) and had it towed across the Atlantic and up the Amazon.

Charles Booth built a large and successful business that both his son and grandson were to run into the second half of the 20th century, when the structural changes in the global leather industry meant consolidation and relocation. Yet he still had time to put a huge effort into contributing to society at large, and be it in Gloversville, Philadelphia or Nottingham, Booths had a good reputation with their workforce and their local community.

The modern battle for profits and the danger of minds unable to look beyond screens to see the worries of the community and the perils in society has not done business a great favour. Companies must have a purpose that goes beyond profit and dividends. Charles Booth considered the leather industry both necessary and honourable. Profits were the payment for services rendered to the community: not to be sought after greedily, but the just reward of efficiency.

Business and the community

Modern life and business exist at a faster pace but this does not mean that context and community can be ignored, even (if not especially) in this global environment. Booths left goodwill and great memories for decades all round the world.

It was his social work that convinced Booth of the need to fight for free school meals and a universal old age pension. It took 18 years before Parliament introduced the pension, and not quite in the universal format he had hoped for. Yet, given the incredulity his initial paper and campaigning had received, it was an enormous achievement. He truly showed that a committed tanner can make a difference, in the leather world and society as a whole.

Dr Mike Redwood

October 2, 2019

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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