Mill set to bring forward foray into China on back of TV show

Cashmere manufacturer Hawick Knitwear is ramping up its international expansion plans after taking part in Lord Digby Jones’ new BBC2 show.

The ex-CBI boss tours three British companies in a series which is a revival of a 1990s format made famous by ‘Troubleshooter’ businessman John Harvey Jones. And next Thursday viewers will see the former minister for trade delve into operations at the Liddesdale Road mill, where he deduces that it is doing well, but could do better – by promoting their wares better overseas.

Hawick Knitwear’s co-owner and managing director, Benny Hartop, says Jones may not have spotted anything the company had not already discussed, but he has prompted the firm to reorder priorities. “He said to us, you need to focus on China and I think he has probably brought forward our plans there by about 18 months. But the UK is still our No 1 market and there is a huge amount of untapped potential there.”

Marks & Spencer now buys its ‘Best of British’ cashmere sweaters from Hawick Knitwear, and with signs of a revival in quality products with a strong heritage, Digby Jones believes Hawick’s textile industry encapsulates both the challenges and opportunities for British manufacturers.

He spent months working with the three firms to come up with ideas for what they could do differently, before making his recommendations.

But, as John Harvey-Jones found two decades ago, Digby Jones isn’t convinced companies will always heed his advice.

“Hawick Knitwear is a company doing well,” a spokesperson for the firm and show said, “but if it can crack the holy grail of the Asian luxury goods markets it could secure the future of Scottish Borders textile industry. Digby Jones is flabbergasted to find that Hawick Knitwear’s one store in Edinburgh already does booming trade with Chinese customers, so much so that it employs Mandarin-speaking staff. The Hawick Knitwear brand has no obvious presence in China, however, the sales numbers in just one store in Edinburgh are staggering. Forty per cent of its sales come from non-European residents, the majority visiting from China.”

Since filming, it’s been reported Hawick Knitwear has taken on Japanese agent Will Waddell, and secured an account in the high-end Isetan Mitsukoshi department store. It is also launching in South Korean department store Hyundai. Mr Hartop has also set up “promising” meetings with Chinese buyers to crack the market that “dwarfs anything else through its size and scale”.

“Hawick is making something the world wants,” Jones said: “The issue is: do they go backwards by standing still or forward by taking a few risks?”

Digby Jones: The New Troubleshooter airs on BBC2 on Thursday at 8pm.