China cars boost for leather factory

Karen Marshall, managing director of Bridge of Weir, is gearing up for expansion  Picture: Robert Perry
Karen Marshall, managing director of Bridge of Weir, is gearing up for expansion Picture: Robert Perry
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PRODUCING leather that is hard wearing and eco-friendly has given a historic factory in Renfrewshire the edge as it expands to meet the vastly growing demand for sumptuous car upholstery in China.

Bridge of Weir is Europe’s largest, and one of the world’s most sustainable, manufacturers of cowhides for furnishing since it started producing its energy from waste in 2010.

Last week, the company unveiled its new factory on the site. The £2 million investment will enable it to ramp up production to 10,000 hides per week. Previously, the facility had a capacity for 6,000.

If you’ve driven a new Jaguar F-type, or the more exotic Fisker Karma – a low slung, sporty hybrid – you will have been able to sink into the specially dyed leather upholstery produced at Bridge of Weir.

In 2011, the company grew its turnover 80 per cent to £53.8m. This was despite the global economic downturn, which hit its automotive market hard.

But the key for growth has been China – where Bridge of Weir has been a supplier to Volvo for seven years. The leather factory expansion in Scotland comes as Volvo prepares for massive growth. Last year, the car giant Ford sold the Swedish marque to Zhejiang Geely, owner of China’s largest car manufacturer, Geely Automotive, in a $1.8bn deal. The carmaker’s new owner now has ambitious plans to double production for export markets, but it will make Volvo one of the first manufacturers to grasp the domestic Chinese market.

Ford/Volvo’s existing joint venture will soon be joined by a new Volvo factory in Chengdu in the south-western Sichuan province which will be running next year, with another planned for Daqing, close to the Russian border.

Karen Marshall, who became managing director of Bridge of Weir in March, said the expected explosion in Volvo manufacturing meant the Renfrewshire factory had to upscale.

The company established its “who-fe”, a wholly foreign-owned enterprise – and a 50/50 joint venture leather finishing plant in the Shandong province of Zibow. And while the firm also has operations in Mexico and Detroit next to other manufacturers, China has the potential to be a game-changer.

She said: “We set up in China about seven years ago and we followed Volvo, who were going to China and they asked us to go with them. Volvo have plans to expand their market share in China. We will grow with them so there will be need for further expansion.”

The history of Bridge of Weir’s parent company, the Scottish Leather Group, stretches back to 1758. Bridge of Weir has been in business since 1905, and the group, which has three sites in the west of Scotland, is owned by the Muirhead and the Lang families. SLG chairman Jonathan Muirhead is the grandson of the tannery firm’s founder.

Bridge of Weir’s focus has almost exclusively been on the automotive sector since it provided the leather seating for the first Model-T Ford produced in the UK.

In August, the company was awarded ECO2L, the world’s first accreditation for energy efficiency and CO2 emissions for a tannery after it installed a £6m thermal energy plant, which burns waste produced by the hides.