Lancashire textiles in the long run: A financial perspective

by Steven Toms (University of Leeds)

 

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Burnley, Lancashire, c.1900

 

Following decades of long run economic decline, recent calls to establish a “Northern powerhouse” offer some hope for the reinvigoration of once proud manufacturing regions of the industrial revolution. A recent 2015 report by the Alliance Project suggested that the textile sector had the capacity to create 20,000 jobs in the Manchester region by 2020.

But how would such a revival cut across the systemic causes of longer run decline? And what lessons, if any, can be learned from earlier phases of industrialisation?

To examine the long run rise and fall of the Lancashire textile industry, this research project has assembled financial data from over a hundred mainly Lancashire textile firms over the period c.1790-2000. Analysing this data in the context of wider economic trends and the strategic options available to individual firms offers new perspective on the long run dynamics of this once great industry.

Regardless of the size of the market, and the market share of the firms involved, firms’ profits were typically highly volatile. So although market instability was a continuous feature, profit instability reflected specific investments, which differed through time, according to ownership, industry organisation and technology.

In the early industrial revolution, the working capital cycle of inventory and credit was crucial, such that profit volatility reflected material supply and monetary conditions. Firms that were most successful in financial terms automated specific processes, using their enhanced capacity to exercise control over the remainder of the value chain and final product markets.

Greater investment in fixed capital in subsequent phases of industrialisation meant added risk in the face of volatile markets. Entrepreneurs were pressured by such investments to impose notoriously long working hours and lobby against regulatory interventions.

The most successful firms built partnerships that combined technical innovation, market access and mutual financial support. Like modern day venture capitalists, entrepreneurs operated through informal networks rather than hierarchical integrated structures.

Throughout the nineteenth century, and up to the post war boom and slump of 1919-1921, volatile profits reflected over-investment during upturns and surplus capacity during downturns. After 1920, firms that were most successful were those that avoided the temptation to refinance during the 1919 boom, and such firms at least survived, as profit opportunities dwindled in a declining market.

As more firms exited the industry, the remainder were absorbed by textile-based conglomerates. These firms enjoyed a short-lived period of success in the late 1960s and early 1970s, promoted by regional assistance and productivity-boosting capital investment.

Even so, exports dwindled further and the textile producers became increasingly dependent on contracts with large retailers. The more financially successful took advantage of strategic relationships with retailers to make further productivity enhancing investments.

The globalisation of retail in the 1990s undermined these relationships, resulting in the outsourcing of much of the remaining British textile industry to cheaper overseas locations. The few surviving firms had adopted niche strategies producing specialised fabrics for sectors like healthcare, outdoor equipment and motor vehicles.

Recent successes stories have also reflected strong demand in international markets for authentically British clothing. The Burberry brand is one good example and Marks and Spencer’s “Best of British” range is another. Authenticity requires genuine sourcing, which helps explain the opening of the first Lancashire cotton-spinning mill for several decades, in 2015, at Tower Mill, Dukinfield.

 

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Tower Mill, Greater Manchester, 2017

If textiles are to revive further in Lancashire, the lessons of history are important.

Regional, rather than national, financial institutions, ranging from informal networks to country banks to local stock markets, underpinned previous phases of development, and London’s influence as a financial centre then, and today, has little to do with investment in northern manufacturing.

Public sector funding, via the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, has helped secure the immediate future of Tower Mill. Meanwhile, recent research has identified further growth potential in the form of medium and small textile firms in the region fit the usual criteria for investment by private equity (n=52) and venture capital firms (n=125).

However, these are mere possibilities, and a far cry from the closely integrated networks of innovation and finance that underpinned success in earlier generations. Even if the demand for “Britishness” in fashion conscious international markets remains stable, and that is a big “if”, given the long run context of volatility, supportive regional financial institutions seem to be lacking.

In this sense, the lessons of history overshadow the future of the textile component of the Northern powerhouse project.

 

To contact the author:  @steventoms_lubs

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