Deliver to Primark in the UK

The British are crazy again. But this is how innovation can work in the English provinces - unless a pandemic is coming

150 years after the industrial revolution, a cotton mill is again operating near Manchester. The business model works, but now is Corona. The north of England was hoping for a similar revival.

There was a time when the Manchester area was the industrial center of the world. The legacy of this dominance can be seen in the town of Dukinfield, on the banks of the River Tame. Three old spinning mills line up on Park Road like a string of pearls - red-brown brick giants from the 19th century, when 80% of the world's cotton was spun, woven and processed in this region. That is long gone, the demands are more modest. "It's no longer raining through the roof," says Andy Ogden happily about Tower Mill, the easternmost spinning mill on Park Road. “And it's safe and habitable. And it should be warm too. "

Successful experiment

Ogden had the four-story brick palace largely repaired. The work is not yet completely finished, but the renovation is not Ogden's biggest task either. It's entrepreneurial: the boss of English Fine Cottons set up a commercial cotton mill in the Tower Mill in 2015 - the only one in Great Britain. The experiment was successful and should remain so, because for Ogden, English textile history is more than just a nice memory: “There are competitive textile industries in Italy, in Germany, in Switzerland, in Spain, in Portugal. Why not in Great Britain? "

In the short term maybe because of the new corona virus. The responses to the pandemic have also forced a slump in demand and industry shutdowns in the UK. What initially only concerned the catering and hotel industry is now also affecting the textile industry: Closures in the retail trade send shock waves through the supply chains. The large textile discounter Primark has canceled all current orders in the factories. English Fine Cottons does not supply Primark, but the textile giant is unlikely to be the only one in the industry to pull the emergency brake. "It has become hectic," says Ogden about the current situation of his company.

150 years ago it was hectic, but in a positive sense: In the mid-19th century, over a hundred spinning mills were working in the Manchester region; in 1886, 44,000 spindles were turning in the Tower Mill alone. The industry declined in the 20th century, especially in the second half when manufacturing relocated to Asia. The last cotton mill closed in the 1980s. In the western former spinning mill on Park Road in Dukinfield, the River Mill, storage rooms can now be rented. But in the halls of the Tower Mill, the modern spinning machines are buzzing and turning the fluffy cotton into the finest yarn as if by magic. Only a few employees are required to monitor the systems in the long aisles. Lights flash and displays shine where hands and water power used to turn the wheels.

The north feels left behind

An economic revitalization like the one at English Fine Cottons would also be good for other parts of the north of England. Centers like Manchester are doing well, but the decline of industry, including coal and steel, has left deep scars in many regions. Prime Minister Boris Johnson won the parliamentary elections at the end of 2019 because he promised a renaissance of the “left behind” parts of the country, with a particular focus on the north (see addendum).

Certain regional differences have long characterized the British landscape, also in terms of productivity, which is so crucial for the level of prosperity. However, household incomes in parts of the north have grown particularly weakly in recent years. Today, the added value per capita there is up to a quarter below the national average. It can be difficult there on your own: Without public support, the restart of the cotton spinning mill would hardly have succeeded. English Fine Cottons' own investments of £ 2.8 million (CHF 3.2 million) were added to a total of £ 3 million from two public sources.

A country should be able to produce its own yarn, says Andy Ogden - just as it grows its own fruit and vegetables. English Fine Cottons is a subsidiary of Culimeta-Saveguard, a manufacturer of protective clothing, among other things. Ogden is also the head of Saveguard. The company manufactures synthetic fabrics in which not only textile fibers but also glass and carbon fibers are woven - with the help of a cotton spinning machine that dates back to the 1970s. The spinning process is the same, only the material is different.

Conversely, the workers at English Fine Cottons can handle the cotton because they already needed the knowledge at Saveguard. "If we hadn't revived the cotton mill, who would?" Asks Ogden in view of the current situation. In addition, if the experiment should go wrong, the spinning machines newly acquired for cotton and the knowledge of the workforce can still be used by the parent company.

Back to the old destiny

It quickly became clear where the resuscitation could succeed. Saveguard sits in the Tame Valley Mill building, the middle of the three former spinning mills in Dukinfield. The Tower Mill is just a stone's throw away. It was a natural fit for expansion, and Saveguard was bursting at the seams with more than 300 employees. However, the Tower Mill was in poor condition. In the past few decades she had seen changing owners and changing regulations, including becoming a rubber producer. When the textile manufacturer moved in, the pigeons and rats first had to be driven away, windows repaired and power cables laid.

The Swiss Christian Koch would certainly not have appreciated this decline of the Tower Mill. Growing up in Italy, where his father owned spinning mills near Naples, Koch took over the Tame Valley Mill in 1874 and later had the other two spinning mills built in Dukinfield. The Swiss textile entrepreneur became one of the town's most important personalities. The 45 meter high tower of the extraordinarily decorated Tower Mill still shapes the area today. The cotton mill in the building ended in 1955. It took 60 years before production made economic sense again.

In a high-wage country like Great Britain, cotton weaving becomes profitable through automation. It makes less labor possible and cuts costs. English Fine Cottons needs less than 40 employees for an annual production of 600 tons of cotton yarn. In 1960 it would have been up to 300. The compulsion to produce in Asia under all circumstances is a misjudgment, according to Ogden. But of course the costs cannot go down enough to produce cheap goods for the mass market. That is why the company positions itself in the upper quality segment, first working with luxury cotton from Barbados and now with sustainably grown cotton from California.

Points through flexibility

Fast availability instead of long delivery times and small quantities instead of the obligation to make large orders - this is supposed to make English cotton yarn more attractive to clothing manufacturers on the island than orders from the Far East. In some cases, English Fine Cottons have teamed up with weavers to sell the linen they make to large department stores such as Marks & Spencer and John Lewis. The company also produces a clothing line under its own name, including t-shirts, sweatshirts and pajamas. She sells most of the yarn in her British homeland, after which Switzerland is the second largest sales market - Christian Koch would have liked that.

Sometimes it was tough to get tradition back with new methods: "There were times when we knocked on the doors in the industry and didn't get the support we were hoping for," says Ogden. The company is now established on the market. But uncertainty about the future is a problem for the entire industry and was already before the crisis caused by the coronavirus - mainly due to Brexit. Some retailers and clothing manufacturers are cautious and buy yarn abroad because of the cheaper price. "It is really a challenge to be optimistic now," said Ogden. After all, Brexit could have an advantage if new trade barriers motivated potential buyers to buy more in their own country.

The clock can no longer be turned back in Great Britain, the time as a location for mass production of textiles is over. But that's not Ogden's claim either. «What's wrong with being a niche player? We're not doing this to revive a globally dominant industry. It should just be a solid, profitable business that offers young people good prospects. " For the guild of cotton mills in Manchester, which actually went down, that's already a lot.

Boris Johnson has a duty in the north

bet. · It was the big surprise of the British general election last December: The Conservative Party under Prime Minister Boris Johnson managed to conquer many constituencies that traditionally belong to the Labor camp. Most of them are in the north of England, where the industry has withdrawn as a mass employer over the past few decades. Johnson not only promised the final Brexit, but also an investment boost for the recovery in the parts of the country. He did not cancel the rain of money because of the Corona crisis.

The former Labor constituencies have actually been left behind over the past decade from an economic point of view, says Charlie McCurdy of the Resolution Foundation think tank. Real wages, employment and house prices grew more slowly there than in the rest of the country. One reason is the reluctance to spend that the British government had to impose in the wake of the global financial crisis. This also affected the financial allocations to the regions, and of these, those suffered most where the state already plays a major role as an employer or client - that is, precisely the structurally weaker parts of the country.

London prefers itself

London centralism and the fiscal preference for the capital and the south-east are also considered to be the cause. The north of England did not have a fair share of the state investments, complains Andy Ogden, head of the yarn and textile manufacturer English Fine Cottons near Manchester. Westminster politicians should stop focusing on London and the surrounding area of ​​the capital.

The neglected infrastructure plays a major role for Ogden: “The north needs a fantastic infrastructure so that it can be in the center of the world. Today the world is the sales market. " Boris Johnson promises countermeasures here. The government's latest budget gives priority to capital investments, such as railways and roads, over increases in current spending. The projects are intended to specifically benefit the “lagging” regions of the country.

Infrastructure is not a panacea

London has promised investments in the three-digit billion range for the next five years. But the experts from Oxford Economics emphasize that no quick remedial action is to be expected: Expenditures traditionally get going slowly and take years or decades to fully develop. If you want to accelerate this, there is a risk of worse policy decisions, which in turn threatens the long-term benefits. The government's obsession for large transport projects, among other things, will not solve the deep-seated problems, judges the think tank The UK in a Changing Europe and calls for more attention to be paid to education, training and social policy.

You can follow Benjamin Triebe, business correspondent for the UK and Ireland, on Twitter.