The changing face of the British Wool Marketing Board

Following the departure of Malcolm Corbett, a number of new starts are getting to grips with the workings of the UK's largest cooperative

2015 Getty Images The British Wool Marketing Board's chief executive Ian Hartley, left, with retiring chairman Malcolm Corbett at Reghed Centre, Penrith
The British Wool Marketing Board's chief executive Ian Hartley, left, with retiring chairman Malcolm Corbett at Reghed Centre, Penrith

Following recent elections, it’s been all change at the British Wool Marketing Board, with new faces among the regional representatives and a new chairman at the helm of the body.

For the past four years, the top spot has been occupied by Northumberland hill farmer Malcolm Corbett, who, following his last official event - a visit from HRH The Prince of Wales to the Rheged Centre in Penrith - bade the BWMB a fond farewell, handing over the reigns to Northern Irish farmer Ian Buchannan.

County Durham’s Carl Stephenson, meanwhile, has taken over the English Northern position Mr Corbett had occupied for the previous six years, during which wool prices made a much-welcome bounce back.

“When I first got involved in 2008, there had more or less been a collapse in the wool price and there were lots of rumblings about the board,” Mr Corbett told The Journal in an interview in January.

“But this is the last real farmers’ cooperative we have, offering collective strength in the marketplace.

“We consistently have the best wool price in Europe and when you speak to farmers who don’t have this, it is often looked upon with envy.

Malcolm Corbett, British Wool Marketing Board
Malcolm Corbett, British Wool Marketing Board

“If you look at the dairy industry, for example, those farmers have lost their collective strength and many would like to see that back.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by BWMB chief executive Ian Hartley, who throughout roughly two decades with the organisation has seen numerous victories secured for British wool producers, despite significant cuts in staff and resources.

“If you look at the period before Malcom Corbett took over as chairman, wool producers were in the doldrums,” he said.

“During the previous 10 years, the price would have been about 40p per kg. Now it’s more than £1 and during the coming year, we expect that to reach £1.05 or £1.10 per kg.”

Certainly, the Wool Board has stood the test of time, showing every sign it is still going strong after more than six decades while other cooperatives have long since disappeared.

Established in 1950, the farmer-run organisation was created to operate a central marketing system for UK fleece wool, with the aim of achieving the best possible net return for producers.

Under the rules of a scheme set up in the same year, the not-for-profit body is required to register all producers with four or more sheep - and thus caters for around 46,000 in the sector today.

The BWMB remains the only body in the world that collects, grades, sells and promotes fleece wool, its preference for the auction method being another of its stand-out qualities.

Ian Hartley, chief executive of the British Wool Marketing Board
Ian Hartley, chief executive of the British Wool Marketing Board

“We are the country in the world that has a fully computerised auction system,” Mr Hartley said.

“We made the commitment that we would sell everything this way rather than through part-auction, part-private contract on the basis that it creates a level playing field for our customers.

“Originally, the Board was a statutory body, but it’s now what you would call a producer cooperative.

“There is no government funding or influence on it; this is a body run by farmers for farmers to get the best price for and enable the promotion of British wool.”

The body has also become increasingly outward looking as it moves with the times, providing a range of courses and training, for example - most notably perhaps when it comes to shearing, with farmers such as Mr Corbett crediting it for its significant contribution to the UK’s noted skillset in this arena.

You’ll similarly find the BWMB running competitions at trade shows, partnering with other organisations to promote British wool, working with schools and running regular events and open days for everyone from producers themselves to Young Farmers clubs.

A crucial part of its work these days also revolves around its support for the Campaign for Wool, a multi-national, cross-industry coalition established by Prince Charles to raise the profile of wool as the natural, sustainable fibre for fashion and interiors.

It is supported by everyone from the International Wool Textile Organisation to the Council of New Zealand Wool Interests Inc., with more than 70 fashion brands, a number of leading department stores and around 1,000 carpet independents being involved in promotions across the UK and nationally.

Carl Stephenson, BWMB board member for the English Northern region
Carl Stephenson, BWMB board member for the English Northern region

“The Wool Board has always been that way, but the drive has been stimulated further by the campaign, which has been going since 2010,” Mr Hartley said.

“All the wool-producing countries realise that the consumer had slightly forgotten about wool and its special qualities.

“It represents only about 1.5% of total fibre consumption, with synthetics, by contrast, making up about 60%.

“That’s why these countries are pulling together to promote it as a fibre and part of that involves education about it.

“If you go back 20 or 25 years ago, there were lots of adverts on TV about wool, so older people may know about its qualities, whereas younger people may not.”

Certainly, when it comes to the North East, Mr Stephenson, who farms 400 acres of Severely Disadvantaged land in Teesdale with his wife Julia, is clearly seen as the man for the job when it comes to driving the BWMB’s agenda forward.

His election victory was, after all, by a massive majority, winning 8,373 votes, putting him well ahead of the other candidates, Gordon Capstick (4,723 votes), Brian Nutter (5,087) and Trevor Wilson (5,373).

“It was nice to win by so much; it’s made me feel that I’ve got the backing of quite a few sheep farmers in the area,” he said. “I used to be the representative for County Durham and know that what the Wool Board does is vitally important.

“Just look at what happened to the milk producers and the potato producers when their collective organisations disappeared.

“We must keep the Wool Board as it guarantees a market for all types of wool, not just the highest grades.

“I’m looking forward to starting my role. It takes up two or three days a month, so it’s certainly quite a bit of extra work, but hopefully it will be worth it.”

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