A Hull-based leather repair specialist that started out in a garden shed and now operates on the global stage, is leading the way in environmentally friendly production techniques and industry innovation.
The Leather Repair Company, based in Argyle Street, Hull city centre, was founded by co-owner Richard Hutchins in his garden shed back in 1987, repairing ‘things people could post’ – leather items such as jackets, handbags, shoes and motorcycle and car accessories.
Since then, the firm has grown exponentially and now counts everyone from Arabian Sultans to UK TV celebrities among its customers. Wife Carolynne joined Richard in the business in 2003 and they now employ four other members of staff.
Founded on the principles of restoring and refurbishing to ensure a long life from quality, natural materials, the firm inhabits a sweet spot given the current emphasis on the urgency of environmental issues worldwide and people’s increasing appetite for avoiding waste. And it has long sought to operate ethically in the products it produces and how it packages and ships them.
Carolynne said: “We’ve always recycled everything. I don’t think we’ve bought any packaging for over a decade now – instead of opting for flashy packaging when we ship items around the world, we store and recycle everything and aim to re-use paper, cardboard and other recyclable materials wherever we can.”
Added to this, the forward-thinking couple believe the core product they work with – leather – is inherently in tune with the environment. “There is some debate about it, admittedly,” said Richard, “given the move towards vegan materials, which often feature man-made materials including plastics. However, we believe leather is as natural a material as you can get, and doesn’t contribute to increasing landfill mountains.”
The company’s impressive pedigree also includes a commitment to innovation and Richard is a typical entrepreneur, determined to lead from the front in a highly specialised industry.
Among their most recent innovations is a colour-matching app called Restorers Help, which can solve what Richard describes as one of the biggest issues for the restoration industry – matching and mixing colours accurately for leather work.
The couple have also created what they believe is the only water-based leather treatment solution in the world, for stripping colour from leathers as part of the restoration process without the use of harsh chemicals normally associated with the technique – kinder for the world we live in and the safety of customers’ homes.
They’ve also established new product lines like compostable, bamboo-based cleaning pads and luxury soft cleaning cloths made from natural materials, which the Hutchins say are better for the environment than their counterparts made from synthetic materials.
And this combination of artisan skill, ‘green’ values, and innovation is being rewarded with global growth, thanks to an ever-expanding list of orders in new and emerging economies beyond Europe.
Securing new contracts worth tens of thousands of pounds in economies like India has led to a 50 per cent increase in annual turnover for the Leather Repair Company – to an expected £320,000-plus in 2021.
“A number of things are really coming together for us and we’re dramatically increasing our year-on-year turnover, which leads us to believe the world will be our oyster over the next five or 10 years,” Richard said.
“We’ve had our best year yet despite the COVID crisis, and the generalised reset in people’s thinking that has followed that, towards restoring and maintaining rather than replacing, is only serving to make our products and services more popular.
“Post-Brexit, there seems to be a renewed appetite for traditional, handmade British products from the wider world, too, and a new-found sense of freedom to trade with us among countries from the US to India, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.”
The expertise that underpins such ground-breaking work emanates from Richard’s early career. Leaving school at 14 because he was bored with academic study and eager to make his way in the world, he worked for a company with a large collection of classic cars in the South, helping with restoration, repair and detailing. Joining the company owner on visits to the US, he cemented his knowledge of this specialist industry.
Together, he and Carolynne have developed The Leather Repair Company as a one-stop shop for all things leather, offering a repair and restoration service for everything from car interiors to designer clothing; as well as manufacturing and selling their own treatment products around the world, offering leather restoration franchises across the UK and abroad, and training other specialists in the intricacies of leather work, both in-person and via video calls beamed to places ranging from India to Norway and the States.
As the shadow cast by COVID begins to dissipate, they envisage an exciting time ahead, which will see them expanding globally across all arms of the business.
“We had received an amazing reception at American trade shows before the pandemic hit and have maintained the relationships built via video conference for the past 18 months, but now we’re really excited about heading out there again in-person to see what possibilities that will bring,” added Richard.
“We’ve joined the International Detailers Association and have already seen significant enquiries emerge from that, so we hope that will grow dramatically as the world begins to fully open up once again. We’ve sown the seeds and now we just need to water them.”
In fact, their first return visit has taken place this month.
“America is one of our key target audiences because of its historic motor industry, and as really the birthplace of car detailing,” added Richard. “So, in a way, my career has gone full circle and now we see some very exciting opportunities emerging there.”
And the business is looking east, too, for further growth opportunities.
“We’ve signed some sizeable contracts with suppliers in India, for example, where the market for luxury goods and car modifications is exploding as that nation accrues wealth,” said Carolynne.
“And we’re also seeing an increasing amount of business from the Middle East, with high-end designer goods sent to us for repair by the country’s aristocracy, for example.”
A major rebrand and new website is also helping the Leather Repair Company to cut a modern, professional dash among its new potential audiences. The burgeoning business currently serves distributors in France, Belgium, Norway, Holland, Israel, Finland, the US – and now India. Its franchises are currently based in the West Midlands, London and the South-East, and Suffolk. They span licensed product sales and mobile and in-house repairs.
Richard and Carolynne hope to build the appeal of their quality products among consumers as well as trade suppliers. Carolynne added: “Quite simply, if people think about leather, we want them to think ‘Leather Repair Company’.”