John Walsh

John Walsh of Moons

Leading the textile renaissance

Innovation and diversification are key to the survival of Britain’s historic textile industry, according to John Walsh, managing director of Abraham Moon & Sons Ltd.

Founded in 1837, Abraham Moon & Sons is one of the last remaining vertical woollen mills in Great Britain and is flying the flag for UK manufacturing across the globe.

Over the years the family business has battled through a series of turbulent times – from the burning down of its original factory in 1902 through to countless recessions and unexpected bereavements.

Despite this, continued investment and strong family values have helped the mill power through and cement itself in British textiles history – whilst many of its competitors have fallen flat.

John Walsh, managing director and the fourth-generation of the Walsh family which succeeded the Moon dynasty, reveals the secret to his success.

He told BQ: “As a vertical woollen manufacturer there is a constant need for a massive capital investment budget, and old buildings are costly to maintain.

“It is a testament to this and previous generations that the owners of the company have always re-invested the profits back into the company, however the relatively modest profits of the past meant that we needed take on some debt to give the required injection of investment in new machinery and working capital.

“This was anathema to a traditional Yorkshire textile business but thankfully the investments proved successful and allowed the company to expand. We diversified both organically and through acquisition so that with a multiple niche business we could support the infrastructure and costs of manufacturing in the UK.”

Moons was originally founded by Guisley local Abraham Moon back in 1837, the same year Queen Victoria succeeded to the British throne. The Moons family led the business for almost a century until they sold their shares in order to pursue other interests in 1920.

The shares were purchased by Charles H Walsh who was both designer and mill manager at the time with the borrowed sum of £33,000, the equivalent of £1.25m today. Charles' death in 1924 saw the company passed onto his son Frank, who was already in the business.

Frank’s nephew Arthur took control until John (managing director) decided to join the family business in 1985. Arthur remained in the business up until 2010 when he retired as chairman.

John added: “I studied for a degree in economics before going on to spend seven years at Courtaulds in Coventry which at the time was a large conglomerate – as you can imagine it was very different coming into the family business in what was a really difficult time for the industry.

“The company was traditional in what was a very conservative industry but at Moons I do believe our people are more flexible and able to adapt better than most. The majority of the companies in our sector didn’t move with the times and, as a result, are now long gone. The most important early changes were to build an IT/ERP structure, where formerly hand-written ledgers sufficed, and to introduce the concept of brand and marketing.”

The worsted and woollen textiles industry was once at the centre of the industrial revolution in Yorkshire and boasts a rich history. One of the key reasons for its demise however was increased competition from overseas which killed off many of the region’s businesses. Moons however were one of few who managed to differentiate from their competitors and continue to win business.

John said: “Much of our industry disappeared between 1960 and 2000 as production moved overseas, chasing low wages. But we remained here and eventually grew our UK manufacturing business.

“We survived and, eventually prospered for many reasons, predominant among these has been a company structure which has allowed constant and continuous investment, a focus on design and on the customer, a willingness to find new products and new markets and, needless to say, good management and great people.

“The old companies with old ideas went by the wayside. There was little innovation when it was really required and even less investment. Too many old ideas and old attitudes. Too little willingness to change and adapt.

“But mostly it was inevitable that only a few would survive as the mass market was price driven and the costs of British manufacturing was not sustainable for the majority. Those who survived saw it coming, adapted to the new reality and quickly moved up-market and into exporting.

“A few companies came through, some of them joined larger corporations but most of them are still private independent companies and they have found all sorts of niches from airbags in cars to technical textiles.

“Even on the fashion side, those that exported their British made products have reaped the benefits. There are some companies out there exporting 99% of their products. People appreciate the added value of the ‘Made in Britain tag’ and it has helped keep the industry alive.”

The ‘Made in Britain’ tag is something which John firmly believes in and is something which has also helped the company break into scores of overseas markets. Some 60% of the company’s business is now generated from exporting to over 40 countries around the world. “Western Europe, the USA and Japan are the largest export markets and we are making inroads into China although copying is still a problem there,” he added.

It has been widely reported that the UK’s textile industry has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in recent years and Moons is firmly at the heart of it. Walsh added: “The UK’s textile industry is largely niche but diverse and widespread, either design-led or technically at the forefront. Whilst the mass market producers are unlikely to return there continues to be some re-shoring, particularly in sectors where there is competitive advantage from making in the UK. We, and many like us, make best use of our British Made and heritage themes.”

And having originally started off producing fabrics for the fashion industry, John has helped drive the business into new sectors, something which has seen the company double its turnover over the past five years and recruit an extra 40 staff.

“We were traditionally a family business making fabrics for clothing from the better end of the high street all the way up to the cat walk for the likes of Paul Smith and Burberry. Although this was successful, we realised we were making a product which we felt could be more universal and could lend itself to new market sectors.

“The problem with the fashion industry is that it is seasonal. Our wool fabric was fantastic for the winter. Back in the day, people would wear it all year around but as of the 70’s people tended to ditch it for lighter products in the Summer.

“We realised the product could lend itself to the home so we launched our own furniture collection with the belief that people loved to wear our products so they would also love to have it in their home. We took a gamble on it and today it’s a very substantial part of our business.”

As the company has continued to grow another challenge which has hit Moons has been the skills gap. For all Yorkshire was once a textile manufacturing powerhouse – it’s major decline in recent years has led many people to move away from the industry and it has deterred lots of young people from getting involved in the industry.

This is something Moons – as an ambassador of Yorkshire’s rich industry – has helped tackle with the launch of its own apprenticeship programme. The programme is helping create a small but highly skilled talent pool of textile manufacturers in the region and is helping keep the industry alive.

John said: “When the industry around you disappears, you lose the easy access to skilled people. Most of our people are trained in house now by our apprenticeship programme. We focus on apprenticeships now more than ever.

“Where we are based we offer relatively high employment in a low employment area so we have to be attractive to people coming into the industry. Formally it was an industry which had a bad reputation as so many people had gone into it and lost their jobs.

“We’ve had to change the perception of the industry which has seen us go into schools and colleges as well as working with The Huddersfield Centre of Excellence and other areas.

“It has taken half a generation to do it but I think people are starting to see that it offers a great career. Textiles and manufacturing was a bit of a dirty word but it’s cleaning itself up now and people see real value in British textile manufacturing.”

Looking forward, John is confident that the mill will continue growing and is excited about the future. He concluded: “We are confident of substantial future growth as we continue to grow our brands and diversify into new markets. We are moving closer to the consumer through retail, social media and product penetration.

“We are gaining a growing network of loyal consumers who love the product and support all that ‘Moon’ and ‘Bronte by Moon’ represent in terms of design-led products, made in the UK from a genuine mill.”