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Changing of the guard

Updated: 2013-02-22 11:37
By Cecily Liu ( China Daily)

Changing of the guard

Hainsworth wants to demonstrate that it is a cut above its competitors in the Chinese market. Cecily Liu / China Daily

Company with highest of royal credentials has plans to branch out in China

Its wares have been witnessed by hundreds of millions around the world but few would probably know its name.

When television snooker took the world by storm in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the tables viewers saw were decked in the company's finest green cloth, and when Prince Charles married Diana Spencer in 1981 he wore its finest navy blue.

A decade later, A. W. Hainsworth & Sons embarked on an adventure that took it to China, and 20 years on that odyssey is about to take a new turn.

For Hainsworth, a British company with 230 years of history under its belt, and which makes the red cloth for the uniforms of Buckingham Palace's guards, now hopes to supply fabric to luxury Chinese fashion brands.

"We see great opportunities in the Chinese market now, as the business environment has improved greatly compared with 10 or 20 years ago, particularly on intellectual property protection," says the managing director, Tom Hainsworth.

The company already supplies snooker-table and piano fabric to China.

Founded by Abimelech Hainsworth in 1783 in Farsley, Yorkshire, the family business has grown to employ 170 workers and export 60 percent of its products across the world.

Tom Hainsworth, 46, is the seventh-generation managing director in the Hainsworth family. He says the brand has changed greatly over the years but that one value to never change is its dedication to quality.

For more than two centuries Hainsworth has clothed the mighty of Britain and its empire. From Charles' 1981 wedding garb to the woolsack on the seat of the Lord Speaker in the British parliament, from costumes in Harry Potter films to head linings of the Rolls-Royce marquee, Hainsworth cloth exhibits the finest details. In recent years, the company has even shown its willingness to diversify and at the same time has burnished its environmental credentials by branching out into making woolen coffins.

"In every niche market, we work with the best manufacturers who appreciate our quality and heritage," Hainsworth says.

Hainsworth first entered the Chinese market in the 1990s, selling snooker table cloths. It was a time when snooker was popularized through the rise of color television, and the 1986 world snooker championship final telecast drew a record 16 million viewers in Britain.

"Likewise, the engaging game was watched by a large Chinese audience, who really took it to their heart," Hainsworth says. As Hainsworth was then supplying cloth to the snooker equipment maker Riley, it made a name in China through Riley's exports of snooker tables.

Subsequently, many Chinese snooker table cloth distributors contacted Hainsworth proposing to become its distributors in China. It was through these distributors that Hainsworth's cloth began to be sold across China, largely for old snooker tables that needed re-covering.

Meanwhile, Hainsworth started supplying piano cloth to Chinese piano manufactures including Hailun Piano Co Ltd in Ningbo, and Pearl River Piano Group Co Ltd in Guangzhou. Built at the base of each piano key, this layer of woolen cloth plays a crucial role in delivering the piano's sound.

These Chinese manufactures were introduced to Hainsworth through their foreign partners, the American-German piano manufacturer Steinway & Sons and the German piano manufacturer Louis Renner GmbH & Co, to whom Hainsworth has long supplied piano cloth.

"Our product delivers consistency of quality, so if you're playing in a concert, every single key will achieve perfection," Hainsworth says.

The company's sale of snooker table and piano cloth in China has risen greatly over the years thanks to young celebrities such as the snooker player Ding Junhui and the pianist Lang Lang, who helped to popularize these Western entertainment activities in China.

Hainsworth estimates that China is now its third largest export market, accounting for 8 percent of annual revenue, after Australia and Canada.

Another change Hainsworth has noticed in the Chinese market is an improvement in intellectual property protection, as counterfeit products, particularly for snooker table cloth, was a problem when it first entered the Chinese market.

Hainsworth says the company realized the problem after being told by its Chinese distributors that Hainsworth cloth was being sold in China at very low prices, suggesting that the cloth could not be authentic.

"Back then we stopped supplying a lot of Chinese distributors, so only supplying selected Chinese distributors who had values similar to ours. We became more transparent about who our distributors are, so customers knew where to get authentic Hainsworth cloth."

In recent years the company has received less feedback from distributors about counterfeit products in China, which Hainsworth takes to be a sign that China's business environment is improving.

"Back then, I felt that Chinese entrepreneurs only cared about achieving sales and finding a way to live. Now, there is more respect for brand image and longer term profit."

This realization made Hainsworth think about broadening its product range in China. Another reason that he now feels more confident about doing business in China is that he recently partnered up with a new Chinese adviser, Iris Cai, a Mandarin teacher in London.

Hainsworth and Cai met in March last year while appearing on a BBC radio program on which both were guest speakers. The friendship grew and Hainsworth says Cai has helped him understand more about Chinese culture, which he says is more different from British culture than the language gap suggests.

For example, when Hainsworth first entered China, its name was transliterated into Chinese, which had little meaning and thus was difficult to remember. Cai then gave Hainsworth the new Chinese name with the meaning of gem textile of England.

"When we translated Hainsworth into Chinese literally, it meant something completely different to what we as a company are all about. But now we understand this difference, and we apply the global to the local, the effect is much better," Hainsworth says.

One new opportunity Hainsworth hopes to focus on in China is supplying cloth to selected fashion brands, and discussions have begun with the Chinese menswear label Eve de Cina, best known in Britain for hosting a fashion show in London during the Olympics last year.

Founded in Beijing in 1994, Eve now owns more than 500 franchised stores and employs about 3,000 workers across China.

"Eve's products pay great attention to detail, and the fabric is of great quality," Hainsworth says. He first read about Eve in an article in China Daily last May, he says.

Hainsworth later contacted Eve about the potential to supply fabric for its clothes, and sent samples of its fabric to the Chinese company. Hainsworth says his company makes more than 150 types of fabric and supplies many fashion brands in London's bespoke tailoring street Savile Row.

Discussions between the two companies started, and when Eve's chairwoman, Xia Hua, came to London for the fashion show last summer, she met Hainsworth.

"It was great to know that she was also thinking of building a long-term relationship with us, and taking one step at a time," Hainsworth says.

"We are keen to work with Eve's designers. If they want a certain part of the fabric to drape in a particular way, we can help them deliver it, not by having a quick press at the end, but putting in a lot more detail throughout the manufacturing process."

Hainsworth complemented Xia on Eve's fashion show. "There was a real balance between the elements: the water, the sound, the space, and the people all achieved great interaction."

In October Cai and Hainsworth's sales director Diane Simpson visited Eve's operations in Beijing, which Simpson described as "very dynamic". Looking through different photos that Eve put on display, Simpson says one photo that stood out for her showed a parade at the 60th Anniversary of the Founding of the People's Republic of China in 2009, for which Eve supplied the majority of uniforms.

"It's incredible to find that they supplied the uniforms with such speed and still delivered the quality," Simpson says. "This is the same value that we champion."

Hainsworth is also very positive about his company's future in China, but says every step needs to be taken with care to protect the brand's quality.

"We have to make sure the Hainsworth brand is true to its roots, and that our story is well understood by our Chinese customers."


(China Daily 02/22/2013 page15)

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