An ecosystem of innovation

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From its beginnings as a textile trading town, Leeds became an early manufacturing location: first textile factories, then engineering. Many more products followed to make it a city of 1,000 trades. The contemporary economy, now so strong in services, has deep roots.

Survival and thriving depend on constant reassessment of how an organisation works and how it relates to the changing operating environment. There are some intriguing stories of ‘Leeds Legends’ – ingenious long-term survivors – as well as some salutary tales of ‘Giants of the past’.

AW Hainsworth – Legendary Woollen Mill

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The firm has its roots in the traditional economy of pre-industrial West Yorkshire with the forebears of the mill-owning dynasty earning a living as makers and merchants of cloth. As sources of power, production methods, modes of transport and markets evolved, the firm invested in machinery, buildings and staff. For more than 200 years, shares in the firm have been spread amongst a few members of the family, with managing partners bringing different skills to the business. Resilience was boosted from the 1970s by adding specialist products, often through acquiring small businesses that were struggling to maintain viability. AW Hainsworth has survived despite adversities of mill fires and a flood, premature death of members of the family in positions of responsibility and market fluctuations. Exports have always been important and sixty per cent of their varied output now goes abroad. The aspiration is for the firm to continue as a family business, providing unique products for world markets and employment for local people.

One of the earliest factories anywhere in the world

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Benjamin Gott’s Bean Ing Mill, started in 1792, was the first and largest of the Leeds woollen mills, famous throughout Europe in its day. Gott revolutionised the production of woollen cloth by bringing all the processes together on one site. He wasn’t an inventor; he was a merchant who could see that the woollen textile sector was woefully inefficient. Over thirty different activities were involved in turning a sheep’s fleece into a piece of finished cloth. Small businesses were scattered across the countryside and much time was wasted taking the outputs of one process to someone else along the chain. Co-location of all the different elements, which were gradually mechanised, made it possible to increase output and reduce costs. By the turn of the nineteenth century, Gott employed over 1,000 people.

The mill was demolished in the 1960s and Yorkshire Post was here from 1970 until 2012. The site was cleared again in 2014 and Stirling Investments is developing flats.