Textile boss dedicates his award to Johnston’s workforce

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SURPRISED, but proud, sums up James Sugden reaction to his OBE in the New Year Honours list.

The award for the 64-year-old, who lives at Bewlie near Lilliesleaf, acknowledges over 40 years service in the textiles industry, including 24 years as managing director of Johnston’s of Elgin and its Hawick knitwear factory.

Reacting from his home, Mr Sugden told TheSouthern: “It was completely out of the blue and not something I expected to receive.

“This is not just for me but the many, many people in Johnston’s who have helped us get to where we are.

“There have been tough times in the last 20 years for the manufacturing industry.

“But it is good to be recognised for our efforts, both those within the business and outwith it.”

Originally from Huddersfield in Yorkshire, Mr Sugden completed an economics degree at Downing College, Cambridge in 1968 before training for four years with Allied Textile Companies Ltd in his home town.

He joined W and J Whitehead in nearby Bradford in 1973 and then spent seven years as managing director of Wakefield firm M P Stonehouse from 1980.

In 1987, he joined Johnston’s as sales director, but within a year was managing director based in Elgin, his current role at the luxury cashmere garments company which employs 800 people.

In that time, turnover has risen from £6million to around £40million per year, with 250 people now employed at the Hawick plant.

Mr Sugden added: “Johnston’s started in Hawick with just eight people in 1983 in a rent property after being encouraged to come here by Scottish Enterprise, who we still work with.

“We are upbeat about being in Hawick. We have respect for the Borders and the skills that exist in the Galashiels, Selkirk and Hawick areas.

“The demise of other companies has probably helped us and we have slowly built up the company.”

Mr Sugden admits there have been “ups and downs, but probably more ups” as Johnston’s has had to compete with pressures that the whole textiles industry has had to cope with.

But he is adamant and proud of the fact that Johnston’s are committed to keeping production in Scotland.

“We have always resisted moving offshore – I am very passionate about being in Scotland,” said Mr Sugden, whose son John also works for the 300-year-old firm in London.

“The manufacturing industry has always been the Cinderella of the economy, but there are signs that the government is taking seriously the contribution that it makes.”

Mr Sugden now calls the Borders home and despite nearing the age of retirement, claims to still retain a “passion” for the job, travelling widely to secure supply of cashmere fibre and develop new products and markets.

The father of three added: “I had made the 265-mile journey from Elgin to Hawick for years and finally, four years ago, I was told by business partners that I needed to be down here regularly.

“So myself and my wife Linda decided to live here and we have not regretted it. I’m very happy here now.

“I am passionate about making things that are different, beautiful and in demand in the markets. We have expanded into new markets such as our glove-making plant in Hawick, where we make 200,000 per annum and have created 13 jobs.”

Alongside his role at Johnston’s, Mr Sugden has been chairman of the Scottish Textiles Industry Association and National Textiles Forum, and director of the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturing Institute of Boston, which represents the interests of luxury textile manufacturers throughout the world.

In 2003 he was awarded the silver medal for textile achievement by the Worshipful Guild of Weavers, and awarded an honorary doctorate by Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen for services to the textile industry last year.

As for future challenges, Mr Sugden told us the textiles industry needs to be “looked after and nurtured”.

“We need to get younger people into the industry,” he said. “We believe it is essential that a workforce is kept together. If you lose their skills, there isn’t a business.

“China and India can do it cheaper, but we have to do it better.”