Oddly enough this is not an article about the UK and the EU!
In this article, I look at truth and values and how they affect our business and its future, and in particular how we can plan for the future. We want to involve staff and customers in this process.
Truth, trust and values
At present, it interests me that there seems to be both more science and communication and less clarity as to what is really true than at any time I can remember. For me, truth is tied closely to values and practical realities: how we see, respond to and judge what we observe.
In today’s world, with the internet at the fingertips of almost all of us, there is access to facts, truth and opinions so easily, and now of course there is also so much of all of these that it may be easier to select the ones which fit our expectations, hopes and desires than to trawl endlessly through to try and establish a true result. And of course, those of us with a little knowledge of history also know that a true certainty of yesterday may turn out to be completely untrue in a few days’ or even decades’ time.
Does this matter? Well I guess that depends on how much we care about our world, however large or small we consider that world to be … if for instance we care about the environment, does this include our home and immediate surroundings or do we also care and possibly take action about the way the environment is managed all across the world? Can we truly and consistently be both strongly in favour of protecting our world and in favour of protecting our own family?
We started and have always worked as a values driven business, which is very important to me personally and which is reflected in the way we work, I hope, at all levels. When we started, this was a less common business attribute than is found today, when every business has values. So are ours correct? Are we doing them, as well as espousing them, and are we doing them well enough?
The values statements on The Natural Fibre Company and Blacker Yarns websites are slightly differently presented but contain virtually the same words. There is a little more context about being a mill and providing a fibre processing service for The Natural Fibre Company.
The key Values are:
- we use the word “we” throughout, to include all of our staff and we need to ensure both that this is understood by staff and can be relied upon by customers
- we say first that the customer is right. This may not be quite what the customer has envisaged however! We need to explain to customers what is actually possible with the fibre or yarn we make for them or sell to them, and we do sometimes fail to achieve this. As we are working with a natural fibre, this is a vital part of the communications with customers, and we do try hard to put this over: each batch from each flock or animal is unique and will perform differently to the last one, which is a crucial benefit and challenge: on the one hand it means that everything is special and unique and on the other it means that no-one can expect the same every time! Quite often we respond to enquiries with a long list of questions, in order to be able to give the “right” answer – we hope our customers can bear this patiently in order to, eventually, ensure that they are indeed always right
- we also believe fundamentally in local services and we know that the vast majority of our customers do so as well, so we make everything here at our mill, to simplify both communications and the supply chain. However, in the markets of today, local is not as clearly on the doorstep as formerly and can now mean a sharing of values and attitudes across the globe rather than just within a single area or country.
There are other important aspects of our values:
- we try to build to last – we know that the fibres we use can be hard wearing and also attractive, so this is an important and sustainable reason to continue to make high quality yarns from them
- we support farming, which is highly regulated, so the fibre which comes to us has already been through this regime, and then manufacturing and trade are equally highly regulated, so we process not just according to what our machines and expertise can do but also within parameters of waste, environmental, health and safety, human resources, IT, organic and general legal requirements, to name but a few ...
- as manufacturers, we make things, starting from the raw materials. This is amongst the most difficult of businesses to undertake in the UK, where nowadays by far the majority of primary manufacturing is sub-contracted abroad except in food processing
- we have also chosen to work with wool, mohair and alpaca. These are natural fibres, produced sustainably by animals annually. But we also have to recognise that most farm animals are bred, raised and eventually killed, mostly for meat for human consumption. This issue is increasingly debated and the views are very strongly held and expressed
- then of course there is the interesting challenge of terminology and definition! Trust and truth require clarity of language, so to call a particular yarn British is correct but may be seen by some as nationalistic, while to call a breed British may annoy the English, Scots, Welsh, Irish and Cornish amongst us, to name only a few. Also the spinning of yarns is quite technical, especially for those experiencing it for the first time, so we have loads of information and advice sheets, to the extent that we sometimes wonder if we have provided too much …
Of course, we do not always get things right:
- if we fail, we have a published comments, praise and complaints policy, which we hope will address things.
- sometimes we have not communicated well, particularly recently when we have had slower production due to both pressure of orders and staff changes with less experienced staff – one mistake has been to wait until we were able to give some sort of answer or solution rather than just saying things are slow – this is difficult for us and for customers and we need to work on it more – we also now know that customers’ views of realistic timescales vary considerably.
So we come to making choices: we have chosen to do the things described above and we must therefore also live with the consequences and we must, if we wish to comply with our values, ensure that we look at evidence, view things clearly and objectively and recognise that everything we do will cause some damage to something, so we need to understand this and limit it to the best of our abilities. In going forward, we need to review things regularly, recognise changes and deal with them consistently with our values, and also review our values.
We do believe that we can justify the choices we have made: to work as a business to process natural animal fibres into yarns and other products on a relatively small industrial scale, both for commission customers and Blacker Yarns, and that we always try to do this honestly, truthfully and consistently with our values and are happy to discuss this.
So how have we worked this out in practice so far?
There are some things we do differently than originally planned:
- we originally planned to do felting but found the equipment and floor space costs were too great to permit us to do this within our financial business model, so a use for coarser and lower quality fibre has to be found elsewhere – we do pass on rejected fibre to a merchant able to ensure it goes into the textile chain
- we continued for a while with smaller scale felting and also batt-making, but found both were too hands-on and limited our production capacity so discontinued this – so we were able to pass on equipment and there are options at various places to do this on the smaller scale which it suits better
- we originally planned not to do dyeing as we saw it as too bad for the environment, but the dye-stuffs and auxiliaries now available have enabled us to reverse this and dye organically, though this is still at an industrial rather than small scale so we are still unable to make less than batches of 6kg – however dyeing is fun and easy so we hope to leave it to the customer to enjoy!
- we originally planned to make much more knitted, fabric and woven products but found that the working capital requirements and marketing challenges were too great for us alongside our other commitments so have discontinued this although of course we work with many customers who do this
- for a while we had a weaving workshop, but the floorspace costs were high and we could not continue, particularly since we could not find a part-time local weaver and build up slowly, but also there are many more weavers than yarn spinners and so we now work closely with several weavers instead.
Because we have tried all these ideas, we do have some pretty useful contacts and background knowledge of our industry in the UK and increasingly also across the world, so this can be quite helpful in finding the right options for customers. Also of course, some ideas which were not feasible in the past may now be much more appropriate and possible …
So what should we be doing next?
- perhaps we should use plastic to blend with our natural fibres, so as to capture it and lock it into use? We have looked at this but it will cause production issues so is not a viable option, and this is the case with quite a few other fibres, because our mill equipment is pretty specialised
- we do plan to re-cycle more of our waste natural fibre into yarns and will soon be launching a new Blacker yarn reflecting this
- we have reviewed our use of plastics and have written separately on this
- we should perhaps begin to work more specifically with longer term partners, in dyeing, weaving, carpet and rug-making, and felting. So far we have looked at “packaged” solutions, and have delivered them for some customers, but they do require quite a lot of organisation, take time and extend the distance between the customer and the whole of the process from fibre to finished item, so this is perhaps not for everyone.
Or should we do less?
- we only have a basic dye-plant, so cannot do colour matching and cannot always be consistent because of the variation in raw materials, so perhaps we need to work more with other dyers and only do very basic dyeing inhouse?
- similarly, we have already cut back on some products and processes – 50g skeins and 25g balls are very time consuming and we find that customers are unwilling to pay double for double the work … we have also simplified our range of standard yarn specifications, although of course we will still match yarns and make other yarns if requested
- should we discontinue using some or all social media? Is it “right” to use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.? We have never purchased email addresses and never give them out – so our own mailing list is truly selected by our customers. But then how would we reach the wider audience we need to grow our business?
How viable is this value set and business for the longer term?
All of this is important to us and, we hope, to our customers as we also begin to think about the longer term future of the business, as, oddly enough, we are getting older and will not live forever!
How much should we aim to grow our business? Maybe we should aim to grow less, particularly since our yarns last a long time? We are actually close to capacity in our building so need to grow by duplication or productivity now in any case, and even possibly by selective sub-contracting. However, we do know that a business which is not growing is often also becoming not viable and less able to adapt to change.
As we work so closely with our customers, we do try to ensure that our prices are reasonable. We are much cheaper than other small mills although of course we are more expensive than bigger ones – this means that, especially for larger orders, and given our full range of services, we have very low profit margins, which are a problem for us for cashflow and credit rankings – indeed we have made losses in most of the years since 2005. So how should we achieve a better balance going forward? Is this something we could do better with more structured relationships with our customers, for instance with services in return for participation or investment, and how could this be done fairly?
We need to start to explore options, including shares for our staff team and for our customers in the future shape of the business. From our research so far, this will probably require a change of structure from a limited company to a co-operative company, which is also a different mind-set. We would also want to raise new money in this process to give the business a stronger basis to move forward and enable existing shareholders to retire. We are very keen to hear views on this – we know our staff are eager to have a stake in the business and we hope this may also be the case for our customers. We have a 2-4 year timescale to look at this so will not rush but would also need to take this time to explore all the possibility and make sure that the company can continue to deliver its values and its services.
Please contact me to let me know your views, suggestions and questions about this - there will be other articles in this new series