The clamour for quality British fabric has done wonders for worsted mill Alfred Brown’s client list, leaving its managing directors to grapple with the welcome challenge of expansion.
It’s no wonder joint managing directors Ian and Nigel Brown are sporting smiles when Drapers pays a visit to the Alfred Brown worsted mill in Bramley, Leeds. Turnover and sales volumes at the family-run business – the brothers are part of the fourth generation – are poised to rise for next year as demand from consumers and trade customers for their woven in Britain products continues to rise.
“Price was driving the market and retailers had been sourcing their fabrics offshore, but now there is a focus on quality and we’re getting return business and dealing with more retailers than ever before,” says Nigel.
He talks amid the hustle and bustle of the mill, where each department is busy working to create the woollen fabric for which the company has been known since it was founded in 1915.
This year, Alfred Brown added Moss Bespoke and Aquascutum to its growing list of UK brands and retailers, which also includes Marks & Spencer, Next, Austin Reed, Gieves & Hawkes, John Lewis, Jaeger and Paul Smith.
Ian adds: “Consumers are also more interested in British fabrics, and there is a marketing advantage there for both us and the retailer. Because we are based in the UK we can work closely with our customers, they can benefit from our design expertise and we can turn orders around very quickly.”
The production process requires highly skilled employees, a commodity Ian says is hard to come by because of the lack of manufacturing education courses in the UK.
Reflecting Drapers’ own ambitions with the Save Our Skills campaign, Alfred Brown instead invests in its staff by training them in-house. “Today it is becoming increasingly difficult to pick up skilled operatives and as our business depends on first class, highly skilled people, we are having to do much more in-house training,” says Ian.
“We also now train our staff to be multi-skilled,” he adds, referring to the way the company encourages them to work across a range of departments.
As for the production process itself, it includes warping, twisting, weaving and mending, before the fabric is sent to a handful of local finishers, including WT Johnson & Sons in Huddersfield, where the fabric is washed and scoured. It is then delivered back to Alfred Brown’s mill for checking before being sent on to retailers’ garment makers.
The increased demand for the mill’s fabrics is most evident in the weaving shed, where Alfred Brown has just completed a £1.5m investment in new weaving machines: 26 Sulzer G6500 rapier looms. Nigel hopes this will up the mill’s production capacity by 15%, and says he is confident the increase in demand will warrant the investment.
Alfred Brown is forecasting its turnover will rise to £8.5m this year from £7m in 2010, and projects sales volumes will increase to 1.25 million metres this year, from 1 million metres last year, as a result of the growing demand.
Not that it’s always been plain sailing for the Bramley mill. Nigel says the scrapping in 2005 of a 30-year-old quota limiting Chinese textile imports “decimated the UK textiles manufacturing industry”. He explains: “There were woollen mills twice the size of us 10 years ago but they have either downsized, gone offshore with some entering into joint ventures with mills in the Far East, or have simply disappeared.”
Ian adds that five years ago there was a lot of pressure on the company to relocate its textiles production offshore due to the increased competition, which led to its corporate accounts, including uniforms for airlines and banks, sliding from 50% of sales in 2005 to 15% today as clients switched to cheaper foreign mills. Alfred Brown rejected the idea of relocating and took a longer-term view. It is now, according to Ian, one of the largest producers of high-quality wool in the UK. “We can never be the cheapest producer, because retailers could source their fabrics cheaper offshore,” he says. “For us it’s about retailers buying into our pedigree.”
Nigel says clients are buying into colour and detail. “There has been a move away from basic colours and coloured striping fabrics to tonic colours and plains where you can introduce colour into the weave, such as herringbone, birds’ eye, and hairline,” he says.
Alfred Brown offers more than 200 options for suiting with fabrics including pure new wool, wool and cashmere, wool and mohair, wool and Lycra, natural stretch and wool blend fabrics.
The success of the business, says Nigel, relies partly on the fact that it caters for both high-end and volume retailers. “Volume retailers are particularly important to us because naturally they buy in large volumes,” he says. “We produce fabrics for the £200 upwards suiting market, which means we need to be very efficient. Our average run is around 1,000 metres. In order to produce smaller bespoke runs of 330 metres, the increased production costs would make us too expensive for our volume customers.”
The increased demand has meant that while delivery times for fabrics from stock remain at between two days and four weeks, made-to-order fabrics have been pushed back from between six and eight weeks to 12 weeks as the business attempts to cope.
Most of the wool yarn is sourced from overseas, including Germany and India, and has not been immune to the soaring cost of raw materials, most notably wool. Ian concedes it is a worry that further increases – he doesn’t rule out price rises in Alfred Brown’s products – might cause retailers to source offshore again. “It is entirely possible,” he says. “But our customers have stuck with us so far.”
He adds: “I think at the premium suiting end, where our fabrics sit, there will be a strong incentive to stick to pure wool, but if retailers end up wanting more affordable wool-rich blends then we might have to go down that route.”
But Alfred Brown has plenty of plans up its sleeve for further expansion. In the UK, which accounts for 85% of the mill’s sales, it will introduce wool fabrics for men’s formal overcoats. It has also set its sights on international expansion and plans to grow its presence in Japan, which accounts for 10% of sales, build on its 5% European sales, and is also evaluating its potential in the US, China and India.
Ian and Nigel have witnessed the industry’s ups and downs first-hand since joining the family firm in the mid-1980s and take a positive but pragmatic view of its future development. Nigel says: “We plan to grow organically and won’t over-extend ourselves, but our skill is that we’ve been doing this as a family business for a long time, so we have a good feel for what sells and what doesn’t.”