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The Challenges of Being a Small Manufacturer in Britain

Maintaining this manufacturing base in Britain is very important to us but it is certainly not without its challenges, mainly those of staff and suppliers. Here are the reasons why:

  1. No one can sew anymore - for a country with a heritage of seamstresses,   you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to find people that can sew!  Many of our workers learnt to sew many years ago when they were at school. Now, whenever we have a staff member who leaves (or retires!) finding a ready-made replacement is increasingly difficult.  Today, textiles is taught less in schools and many young people don’t have the motivation or will to learn this important skill.
  2. The loss of in-house employees has created a logistical nightmare – We used to employ up to 25 on-site factory staff – now we have 10.  The loss of in-house employees has been supplemented by the use of remote workers but this itself creates a new type of problem.  Every couple of days our factory manager has to complete a 60 mile round trip delivering the raw materials and collecting finished products from those in the surrounding towns and villages. This puts a significant strain on management resources.
  3. We train up apprentices and then they leave - In the past we have run apprenticeships for youngsters – but the time needed to train them to be effective workers simply isn’t available. We spend six months building up their skills only for them to then leave for a job in a local supermarket.
  4. British raw material suppliers are disappearing – With the general decline of manufacturing in Britain and the state of the economy, getting hold of the raw materials needed to make our products has become increasingly difficult.  The frequent disappearance of material suppliers makes forecasting hard and lead times for receiving goods are getting longer too.  We now have to have a contingency for everything – but it’s not all bad.  Situations like this open your eyes to things that need to change if you are to grow in the long run. As a result we’ve become more efficient managing stock and forward planning.
  5. Managing costs is a significant problem – The world has gone global, and even though we manufacture our products in Britain, often the raw materials have to come from somewhere else.  Events such as the flooding in Bangladesh, which severely affected the price of cotton, is just one example of circumstances outside our control which have a knock on effect on costs.

The reality is that manufacturing in Britain is a shrinking industry.  You’re never sure whether something you were expecting to be there tomorrow will exist by the time you need it.  We know not to take things for granted and we plan for all circumstances.  The company has been around for almost 100 years and has seen worse times than this.  We’re still here, adaption is key, and we’ve become stronger because of it.

Chris Brinklow is Head of Production at Carr & Westley, a family-owned British manufacturing business making classic womenswear.

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