by Edward Stanners – 1980 Managing Director of Salts Mill
One of the most interesting aspects of running a business is that decisions often have quite unintended consequences, often for the better.
So, when Maria Glot approached me on behalf of Bradford Met to see if we would support tourism in Saltaire, I had little idea of how useful tourists would prove to be.
I was unsure whether it could benefit Salts Mill, but knew the shops on Victoria Road were seriously struggling and I thought they would benefit from having more visitors to the village. By then there were too many empty shops on Victoria Road and we needed to stop the rot.
Maria was a great visionary – there must be no illusions about who did what, she was the architect of the tourist boom in Saltaire. It was her tenacity and enthusiasm which persuaded coach operators, barge owners, mill managers and hoteliers to create something from nothing.
The initial request was for a quick mill tour every weekend but showing people around a mill on a Saturday when you barely have enough work for five day a week working was a tall order. So Donald Fowler, Alan Dawes and I decided that we would charge a pound per head for the tour in order to justify bringing in a guide or two.
What we soon realised was that, if you gave Maria an inch, she took a mile. It was not long before we were showing 200 or even 300 people around a day, with boats coming in with one load and buses taking them away and vice versa.
Donald was responsible for the mill shop and he quickly saw that, with the right stock, we could seriously increase our shop turnover – useful because the margins were far better than those generated by selling cloth.
I soon spotted another profit opportunity though – selling souvenirs. As a child I had often been to Haworth since my mother came from there. As tourism was in it’s infancy there, I had seen little shops selling keepsakes which were clearly not that relevant to the village, some having pictures of the seaside on them with just the word Haworth over-printed. Since Haworth must be 60 miles from the nearest beach, it struck me that if tourists were so easily persuaded to buy tat, they were a soft target.
So we started to sell pens and key rings where the formula was simple – buy for ten pence, sell for twenty. Yes it was bitty turnover, but at 100% margin compared with 5%, if we were lucky, on our cloth, the pens seemed attractive.
But we needed confectionery since many of the visitors were clearly grandparents and wanted little edible presents to take home with them for children.
I decided that Saltaire rock may sell but had no idea where to buy it. Then a stroke of inspiration – I looked in the yellow pages for Blackpool and it was full of rock-makers.
However we soon hit another problem – I wanted to buy a trial lot of 24 sticks and rock is sold ‘by the boiling’ which was around 720 sticks and payment had to be in cash. That was a risk. The mill’s losses were falling by then, but there was little room for a mistake even though a stick of rock was only ten pence.
We decided to risk a boiling, but sent our own van over to Blackpool when it was doing a Manchester run to keep costs down. Rock was a winner. We bought a stick for ten pence and sold it for fifty.
There was quickly so much profit that we kept the cash separate from the rest of the business calling it ‘the rock fund’. That money was used for expenditure we were not allowed to make officially.
At that stage, things were still hard and, understandably, IM would sanction only vital spending. We had a problem though.
Our windows, particularly those facing the canal, were being broken all the time and we needed to repair them if we were to stand any chance of impressing visitors. That was only half the battle: as fast as we repaired the lower windows, they were broken again.
The Rock Fund allowed us to use Perspex rather than glass in the really vulnerable windows. We had a lot of money from rock, a couple of hundred pounds a week in a good week coming in, and that paid for a lot of repairs.
There were other dividends though from tourism. Pride in the mill came back very soon after we started to show people around. Even the dreaded dyers started to take down their lurid pin-ups. People were happier to work in a mill which had a cachet in the area, and that made them nicer to work with.
Maria Glot’s dream made the mill a better place to manage. It was a very unexpected dividend.