Simon Glendenning tells us the exporting story of 122-year-old cloth merchant Dugdale Bros, who’ve exported worldwide for more than a century…
What does your company do?
Dugdale Bros is the last remaining independent cloth merchant in the centre of Huddersfield. We supply fine fabric in bulk to bespoke and made-to-measure tailors, luxury fashion houses, retailers and garment makers around the world.
When was your company launched, who by and why?
The company was started by brothers Henry Percy and Frederick Herbert Dugdale in 1896. Textiles manufacturing in Huddersfield had reached its zenith, with international demand for luxury worsted cloth quickly rising. These were the days before ready to wear clothing was available, so those who could afford would have their garments tailor-made.
Demand for the accoutrement necessary to craft these finished pieces similarly outweighed the supply at the time, so the brothers made the most of a natural business opportunity and began providing tailoring accessories alongside a growing range of fine worsted cloths.
How long has the company been exporting?
Exports have constituted a large part of the company’s sales operation for over 100 years. The Dugdale brothers first started shipping their wares around the world in the early part of the 20th century, and the international popularity of the brand has continued to grow since then.
What do you currently export, and where to?
All products within our portfolio are exported worldwide – we have excellent distributors throughout Europe, the US, Asia and beyond, so our Yorkshire-made cloths are certainly well-travelled. Of course, some are more suitable for certain climates than others. For instance, we’re seeing a lot of demand already for our latest linen ranges in the more temperate Australasian and Mediterranean regions.
Having said that, there are some anomalies that do surprise us – our Derby Tweed range being a stand out example. At 1000g per linear metre it is our heaviest fabric, occupying such a niche that we only offer it on a bespoke made-to-order basis. Although designed primarily for the kind of hardwearing coatings you might need on the Yorkshire moors or Scottish Highlands, this collection has recently experienced a huge surge in popularity within the Japanese market – the last place we would have expected it to thrive!
What motivated you to start selling overseas, and how long did it take?
Whilst we have been exporting for over a century, in the last ten years we have taken a far more proactive approach with developing our overseas markets. Prior to this, our attention was almost exclusively on our domestic sales. However, we recognised untapped potential in international territories that we were not yet making the most of, so we started focusing more on growing our export function.
There has been a steadily emerging global interest in provenance recently – with people placing far more value on the craftsmanship that has gone into the things they buy. In turn, this has strengthened the renown surrounding premium materials and quality manufacturing – not to mention strong values, sustainability and heritage.
With these elements at the core of Dugdale Bros, we’re lucky that as a result of this shifting consumer mindset – and growing favour for such qualities as durability and attention to detail – international demand for our products has also lifted. There’s real esteem surrounding our ‘Made in Huddersfield’ label in these overseas markets, which is largely down to the town’s rich clothmaking legacy standing the test of time. Huddersfield cloth is also known for giving better drape, durability and warmth in cold climates than trendy lighter weight alternatives.
What is the easiest part of exporting?
As we have been doing it for so long, exporting is just a natural extension of what we do in the UK, which means there’s nothing to be afraid of. Day to day, we look at our domestic and overseas markets as a whole rather than disparately, which I believe is crucial to maintaining our brand integrity and authenticity irrespective of location.
Whether we’re showcasing a new collection at a Savile Row tailors or visiting one of our clients in Seoul, the respect we have for our customers and the dedicated service we provide remains the same. It’s this consistency, familiarity and commitment to building longstanding relationships that makes exporting second nature to us.
And the most challenging part?
As with many areas in life, the biggest niggle when it comes to exporting is probably the invoicing! Calculating different rates of duty, settling import taxes and negotiating the most commercially beneficial freight agreements can be a bit of a headache, but the benefits certainly outweigh the challenges.
Have language barriers, currency changes, etiquette and culture ever caused you any difficulties? How did you overcome them?
We have been visiting clients around the world for many years now, so have grown accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of a huge variety of cultures and customs. Being aware of and sensitive to different practices and etiquette is, of course, essential for any traveller.
One country that stands out in this respect is Japan, where we have a steadily growing base of valued customers. Each time I visit, I find myself in awe of the prevailing centrality that tradition has within modern life there. Practices such as remembering to remove your shoes when you enter a smart restaurant or sitting on the floor to eat, certainly take some getting used to, but are precisely what makes the travel so rewarding.
I think it’s worth mentioning that being a British brand, we are lucky that most of the world speaks English, so there are rarely any language barriers. I try not to take this for granted, and make an effort to learn a few key phrases before arriving – it shows respect and willing, even if no one can understand me!
Did you get any support when you wanted to trade abroad? Who from, and was it helpful?
Certain services that would have been helpful – such as the Department for International Trade (formerly UK Trade & Investment) – were only brought to our attention after we had already established our export operations. So we have largely relied on support in the form of peer advice and word of mouth recommendations. It can be difficult to research and identify the right distribution partner within new overseas markets, so we do seek assistance when we can in this arena – although always on a case by case basis, as no two territories are the same.
What advice would you give to someone just starting to explore overseas markets?
Do your research thoroughly before attempting anything, and make sure there is a demand for your product within the marketplace. For instance – ignoring the fluke Derby Tweed example I gave earlier – we know that it is very difficult to sell heavy, rustic cloths in China due to the climate, so be sure that people actually want what you’re offering them.
Finally, don’t give up.
Where next? What markets are you looking into and where do you see the company in 5 years time?
We have covered most markets, but are yet to break into South America and Russia. South America is our next target – particularly those countries that have an affinity for British goods, such as Chile, Argentina and Colombia. Plus, rather than exclusively expanding our distribution, we are also intending to explore other avenues of usage for our collections – including interior design and upholstery, for instance.
With export turnover up by 22% in 2017, we had our most successful year to date, so we are hoping to build on this momentum and aim to further increase our overall turnover by 40-60% in the next five years.
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