Combining heritage and innovation has been key to driving family business Kinloch Anderson into the sixth generation

An old adage claims that the first generation creates a family business, the second spends the money and the third destroys it. Cynically simplistic perhaps, but statistics suggest only 3 per cent of family businesses make it to the fourth generation and only 1 per cent to the fifth.

John Kinloch Anderson with mum and dad, Deirdre and Douglas
John Kinloch Anderson with mum and dad, Deirdre and Douglas

By that measure, Kinloch Anderson is a rare phenomenon, with current chief executive John Kinloch Anderson the sixth generation family leader. His mum, Deirdre, still senior director, wrote a book to celebrate the firm’s 150th anniversary in 2018 and it is clear that Kinloch Anderson’s heritage is – literally – woven into the history and culture of Scotland.

Tartan is at the heart of that story. Although the firm began as a traditional men’s tailor, William Anderson and Sons on George Street, Edinburgh, the quality tartan products made by Kinloch Anderson have become the firm’s trademark, at home and abroad.

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Scotland’s relationship with tartan is complex. As a national symbol, it is often derided as part of the “tartan and shortbread” stereotype, deployed by critics as a sign that modern Scotland has failed to cast off couthy historic emblems.

Yet as John Kinloch Anderson points out, the younger generation embraces tartan, especially the kilt, as much as any before it. “I think tartan is timeless,” he says. “It’s about belonging, it’s about culture and people still feel strongly affiliated to it, especially family tartans. It can also be used at the highest level of haute couture by top designers. It is very versatile.” At the other end of the market, John is too diplomatic to utter the phrase “tartan tat”, often used to describe the plethora of shops, especially in central Edinburgh, selling tartan – and shortbread, whisky and the rest – to a burgeoning tourist market demanding “Scottish souvenirs”.

He has no issue with such shops selling tartan products, often imported, at low prices. “Every business sector has different levels and ours is absolutely no exception,” he says. “We know what we are trying to achieve and concentrate on that rather than worry what others are doing.”

Indeed, cut-price sales of tartan kilts and scarves to a mass market could be seen as industry disruption in much the same way as when Kinloch Anderson started selling ready-to-wear men’s clothing – incurring the disdain of Edinburgh’s master tailors in the 1920s and 30s.

Kinloch Anderson has continued to succeed by innovating in each generation, while trading on its heritage. Visitors to its Dock Street, Leith, premises can see kilts made through a window into the manufacturing area. “It brings it to life for people; they can appreciate the craftsmanship and expertise going into making their kilt,” says John. One kilt needs eight yards of cloth and a full day to make, and typically costs £600-plus.

The Gold Brothers, who operate a chain of Scottish souvenir shops, also display manufacturing at the Edinburgh Old Town Weaving Co, formerly owned by kiltmaker Geoffrey Nicholsby, in their multi-level store beside Edinburgh Castle. When they bought out Nicholsby five years ago after a long dispute, Director Dildar Singh Gold said fewer goods labelled “Made in China” and more quality “Made in Scotland” stock would be sold, some manufactured in the small weaving mill on the Castlehill site. This was driven by both customer trends and economics. He said: “Prices are going up for products from China. A lot of people spending [in Scotland] now are prosperous Chinese customers. They don’t want stuff made back home.”

Asked how his firm stands out in this ever-changing, highly competitive market, John says: “Real provenance and an expectation of high-quality products and service. What we do has not changed radically in 150 years; it’s the method of delivery that has changed. Lots of people still come in and enjoy a high level of expertise but we need to reflect that quality experience online to global customers.”

This has included creating a wholesale division, increasing exports to serve the Scottish diaspora, and entering global partnerships. Kinloch Anderson products are manufactured and sold by approved partners in the Far East and North America. “You have to put in time and effort to meet new partners and ensure they identify with what you do,” says John. “You must be confident they will uphold the standards and understand the history and heritage that goes with the Kinloch Anderson name.”

Although Highland dress is still key to the business, Kinloch Anderson has diversified significantly into scarves, shoes, whisky and much more, as well as creating corporate tartan identities for businesses and organisations, including Irn-Bru and The Scotsman.

John’s increasing focus on digital opportunities reflects how every Kinloch Anderson generation has freshened up the business, from ready-to-wear clothes and ladies’ fashion to exports and brand partnerships. He thinks this is a sign of the greater opportunity to flex a family business: “You definitely have the ability to about-turn and go in a different direction if that is right for the family. You can pass down skills and knowledge through the generations and plan for the long-term as you are not having to deliver short-term returns for investors or shareholders.”

John sees the strength of family businesses as “a commitment to the business and willingness to invest time and money”, but concedes this can also be a challenge: “The commitment can be very demanding and the nature of a family business will not suit everyone.”

John came into the business in 2000 aged 29 after working in the health and fitness industry in London. He started as brand development manager and worked as sales and marketing director and deputy chairman before being appointed chief executive in 2010.

“When John thought he might be interested in coming into the business, we thought carefully how to do that,” Deirdre recalls. “He did a part-time MBA too when he came in, so he could see if he could work with his father and mother. If the chemistry doesn’t work for the family, it doesn’t work for anyone in the business.”

John decided he was able to work with his parents, but insists it wasn’t based on sentiment. “We are different and have differences of opinion,” he admits, “but it’s about how you deal with them. The experience of working with my parents has been, and continues to be, invaluable to me.” Deirdre says John handled the transition very well: “He didn’t just come in and say ‘Here I am – the sixth generation’. He came to learn and get experience until he was ready to take it on. You need time; we are always learning.”

So what next? Will John’s children make it Generation Seven? “They are only 11 and 15 and it would be terrific if they worked for the company,” he says, “but it will have to work for everyone.” Whatever happens next, longevity has clearly helped Kinloch Anderson. John concludes: “People want heritage and authenticity and the longer you go on, the more interesting and relevant your history becomes.”

Totemic timeline

“Tartan” is most likely derived from the French tartarin – Tartar cloth – although it has been suggested it might derive from the Gaelic tarsainn, meaning “across” as the warp and weft threads across at right angles.

Dating the first tartan is difficult – some say it goes back to 1200 BC China – but when the 1747 ban was repealed (see below), it was said Highland Dress “came down to the clans from the beginning of the world”.

Its first written mention was in 1538, when Heland tartane featured in a list of clothes for James V. By the time of the Jacobite rising, it was seen as a weapon of war as it allowed easy movement through all terrain.

- 1747 Tartan was banned by law following the Jacobite rising led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, inset. Anyone convicted was liable to six months’ imprisonment. Military forces were exempted from the ban and from 1757-63, some 11 Highland regiments were raised, “plaided and plumed in their Highland array”.

- 1782 Ban repealed, with a Gaelic proclamation in the Highlands saying: “This is bringing before all the sons of the Gael that the King and Parliament of Britain have ever abolished the Act against the Highland Dress... This must bring great joy to every Highland heart.”

- 1822 King George IV comes to Scotland, on a visit organised by Sir Walter Scott, and tries on the Royal Stewart tartan. He wears Highland Dress for numerous processions and receptions.

- 1829 Vestiarium Scoticum published by the Sobieski Stuart brothers, claiming to be from the line of Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was seen largely as “Highland Myth”, but many tartans linked to clans and families date back to this publication, inset.

- Early 1900s The Scottish National Dress book written by the Kinloch Anderson family.

- 2001 Deirdre Kinloch Anderson convenes representatives of the industry to discuss recording and registering all tartans.

- November 2009 The Scottish Register of Tartans Bill receives Royal Assent.

- 2018 The tartan industry is estimated to support 4,000 direct jobs in Scotland.

This article appeared in the spring 2019 edition of Vision. A digital version can be found here.