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It is Wednesday and we are sitting outside Purchases restaurant on high chairs with small tables in North Street, Chichester, a historic Cathedral town near London. This is our first lunch away from home since September 2020, as the UK cautiously attempts to escape the shackles of Covid-19.
As we chatted with a couple at an adjacent table over a glass or two of beer, the conversation flows through engineering, being an international lawyer, university education in the times of pandemic, living in Sheffield, childcare, shopping and travel. Nothing to do with leather, but everything to do with understanding the context in which leather has to exist with the reality of everyday life and changing generations.
Sharing food and conversation as a useful method of exploring knowledge is not new. Every Scottish schoolboy brought up learning the classics knows that the word ‘company’ originates from the Latin meaning ‘with bread’. A company is all about getting together while sharing food and conversation.
In the last few decades, lunch has deteriorated to a quick sandwich in the office. ‘Pressure of work’ does not permit taking time out for a few minutes from the grind of throughput, selling prices and margins. But is this the moment for reconsideration?
Sitting in Chichester reminded me of the old Booth leather business that I have always admired. George Macaulay Booth was the second of three generations that ran Booths for a little over 100 years from 1862 until 1979 when it was sold and quietly faded away. George Booth bought Funtington Hall in Chichester in 1927 and lived there until he died in 1971.
Somehow, while still running Booths, where his father had built a shipping line alongside the leather side, he served as a Director of the Bank of England from 1915 to 1947, set up the first Unit Trusts in the UK, and during the Great War accepted the role of Director General of the Ministry of Munitions from 1914-19, after the Government approached him to make use of his global supply trading and extensive business connections to obtain supplies, accoutrements and munitions of all sorts.
One famous aspect of his work at the Ministry of Munitions, where he refused to accept any pay, was his Round Table lunches at the Reform Club in London. He established these in June 1915 with another Booth colleague, Harold Tregoning, and the large table was christened The Ministry Table. With strong individuals leading government all under extreme pressure, contradictory instructions regularly circulated from different areas. The lunches provided a clearing-house for these to be resolved. The more convivial atmosphere of a discussion over lunch was better than a sterile conference room meeting to reduce tension and find solutions. In the 1960s, The Round Table was still to be found at the east end of the dining room, but I sadly believe that it is now lost after various refurbishments. George Booth attended every day, only missing the lunches on the occasional Thursday when the Bank of England met.
Often the best answer is to sit together and lunch together
What should not be lost is the incredibly valuable role that meeting over food can play. As we return to offices from working at home, we have learned that for many types of work the home office is more efficient, but meetings at work at least one or two days a week will be required for team building, creative work and building social capital – the latter especially for younger employees. We have discovered that while much of the formal side is better done electronically, there is a need to converse, share stories, relax into expressing our imagination and avoid misunderstandings. Often the best answer to this is to sit together and lunch together exactly as the term ‘company’ suggests.
During my career, I have experienced these business lunches in the leather industry. I first came across them as a student in the 1960s when I was invited to one of the monthly ‘tanners’ luncheons’ in Scotland when there were a few more tanneries there than today. A few people I met then I still know today. In the 1970s, I was involved in long discursive and informative lunches when Dick Odey would regularly pull different small groups together for lunch in the top floor dining room at the Barrow Hepburn Head offices in South Audley Street in London. And for me, a totally different experience was to be found in Tuscany when I joined Gruppo Rosati and was told to eat every day at the Restaurant Bei on Via del Bosco in Santa Croce.
This was one of the favoured restaurants in Santa Croce for tannery staff and visitors who did not go home and retire after lunch for a siesta. Back in the 1970s, it was a simple place with no printed menu, and I well remember the friendly staff who used to discuss and suggest the dishes. The crosssection of industry people whom I met there was enormous, and it was a as good as any training course the Rosati Group might have sent me on.
Chrome tanning was invented over lunch
One well understands how commercial chrome tanning was initiated after a conversation in a New York restaurant. The manager of the Booth Group’s U.S. interests, Julius Kuttner, was a regular for lunch at Racky’s restaurant on Frankfort Street, one of the major original streets in the Swamp leather area in New York. Towards the end of the 1870s, he met Augustus Schultz, who also dined there. Augustus Schultz was working in New York as a chemist for Kuttroff and Pickhardt, a German dyestuff importer. Kuttner had left Germany after working in a corset factory there in the 1860s and both being interested in developing new technology spoke about various aspects of leather. One problem with corsets was caused when the white alum tanned leather used at the time became wet very easily, rusting the corset steels when moistened with perspiration.
Schultz was given access to materials from Booths Gloversville tannery in upstate New York and in 1884 he obtained two US patents for his two-bath chrome tanning process. After thirty years of hit and miss with chrome technology, Schultz’s ideas were steadily developed and commercialised to produce kid-skin shoe leather primarily for ladies’ city footwear. In the years when George Booth was learning the business and becoming a member of the Reform Club, he started the process of building one of the largest kidskin tanneries in the world, Surpass in Philadelphia, selling chrome tanned glazed kid worldwide.
The value of an old-fashioned lunch, getting together over bread, should never be ignored.
May 19, 2021
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