In Business: Jonathan Muirhead, Bridge of Weir Leather company

Leather forecast still good after 245 years

Jonathan Muirhead, 52, is director and sixth-generation family member of the Bridge of Weir Leather company, one of the major leather producers in the UK. After leaving school he wanted to join the family business, so he took a course at the National Leather Sellers College in London to specialise in leather science and technology. In 1973, he spent a year in Germany to experience life in a foreign leather company and to learn a new language.

On his return to England he entered the family empire at the bottom. "I worked my way from the factory floor, learning each job as I went along. I moved on to be a management trainee, then into production planning, then sales and marketing, and finally management," says Muirhead. He was managing director for 15 years, before taking the title of director and the responsibility for strategic marketing. He is also chairman for the holding company Scottish Tanning Industries.

The original business was founded in 1758 by John Muirhead, and became the Bridge of Weir Leather Company in 1905 under Jonathan's Muirhead's grandfather, Arthur. From 1758 through to 1905 the company made leather for the leather goods industry, particularly for gloves. At the turn of the 20th century Arthur realised there was a market in supplying leather for upholstery in the transportation and furniture industries. "He must have been very far-sighted to think the automobile might one day become as popular as it has," says Muirhead. Today the company, which has won the Queen's Award for Export Achievement three times, is still based in Glasgow, has a turnover of £31m and employs 200 staff. All of its produce, made from about 8,000 cattle hides a week, is manufactured in Scotland.

Automotive contracts account for 80 per cent of the company's business. The rest is specialist contract work. "We are good at handling both large and small contracts, whether we are supplying to car manufacturers or simply one hide to an individual in a bespoke colour," says Mr Muirhead. "It is that blend of bespoke manufacturing and producing something that is individual, meeting a customer's needs and being efficient at handling fairly large automotive contracts that we pride ourselves on. Also by handling niche manufacturing and difficult projects, we feel that we can keep a step ahead of producers in the Far East who may not be so flexible in production and know-how."

Bridge of Weir Leather's clients range from the Victorian Art Centre in Melbourne (which purchased 2,500 hides for the panelling of its walls), to members of the PAG Group - including its biggest client, Volvo. The company's first contact with Volvo was in 1979, and it started supplying the upholstery for Volvo's 740 range of cars in 1983. Today, the company supplies leather for all Volvo's large cars, including a fine Atacama leather for its new R-concept cars.

The company also supplies hotels, libraries and parliament buildings. "We are a frequent contractor with the British Houses of Parliament and have supplied the leather to the Welsh assembly," says Muirhead. It has also supplied leather for the US presidential jet, Air Force One; for cars used on Hollywood film sets including As Good As It Gets, Back to the Future and the last James Bond film, Die Another Day.

But Muirhead is mindful of the future. "We have to keep one step ahead of competition. We are investing more into research and development to ensure that we have new products which will meet the increasing environmental demands of car manufacturers, safety demands and the demands of designers," he says.

But Muirhead notes that competition is not huge: "The number of leather manufactures supplying to the car industry is very small and there are probably 20 companies in the world." The main competitors are in Germany, Austria, Italy and America, and increasingly China. "Our other challenge is to continue manufacturing in Scotland. Manufacturing in the Far East is less expensive so it is vitally important that we invest in new technology all the time to remain competitive," he says. "Also our raw material is essentially British cattle hides - a by-product of the beef industry - and it is a very fine raw material, which we would lose if we were to move our manufacturing base outside Europe. In addition, we have a great inherent set of skills from within our staff. The workforce are probably from six generations, which is a tremendous advantage for us."

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