15th April 2020

Craft / Culture / Featured / Jack Millington

Billy Tannery: Spotting An Opportunity to Turn Waste Into Worth

40 8 mins 3

JJack is the founder of Billy Tannery. Having discovered that every goatskin leftover from the British food industry was going to waste, Jack and co-founder Rory decided to do something about it.

Today their micro-tannery produces exceptional vegetable-tanned leathers that are made into a growing range of products in British workshops. Jack describes the journey of his idea, through love and dedication and how he makes his business work.

Having a Good Idea or spotting an opportunity is often described as to an instant lightbulb moment and I think many are waiting for this moment. But for me it was a slowly dawning realisation, a loose thread that I just kept pulling at over a number of years. If you’d told me in 2010 when I was starting a career in marketing that in five years, I’d be back on the family farm, elbows deep tanning goat leather, I would have been sceptical to say the least. With the benefit of hindsight, I can pull out three key factors that were instrumental in getting Billy Tannery off the ground, so if you’re looking to turn a waste product into a business, then hopefully my story will be helpful.

Fertile Beginnings
My first job after university was in a trends research company, so my days were spent telling big companies about all the interesting things small companies were doing and why. Now I look back on this as an incredible education in spotting opportunities, but at the time it was mainly a sales job and I was bored. On the positive side, this was a fertile breeding ground for ideas and my phone’s notes were full of half ideas for businesses that I’d jot down at lunch or on the tube, but I didn’t know how to act on any of them. I decided that I wanted to work on the marketing front line rather than research, so made the move into creative agency life. Fast-paced, great fun, but incredibly stressful.

So, when a few years later my Dad, a farmer, asked if I could help him find any local restaurants who might be interested to buy meat from his small herd of goats, I was ready for a new challenge. Food is a big passion of mine, so I put a lot of effort into sending out sample packs, setting up a website and by 2011 this little side project started to tick along quite nicely. As we sold more goat meat I started to wonder if there were other opportunities that we were missing? One day the phrase ‘handle with kid gloves’ came up in conversation and remember thinking, why can’t we make leather from the leftover hides?

I contacted James Whetlor, founder of award-winning goat meat supplier, Cabrito, and it turned out he’d had a similar realisation. Occasionally the hides were being shipped to Asia to be tanned cheaply but most were being burned and at a cost to the abattoir.

 

We agreed that this was absolutely insane, and James said if I could find a solution, I could have all of the thousands of hides left over from his growing business and suddenly this had gone from a tiny side project to what I believed was a much larger opportunity.

Naïve Perseverance
I knew from my trend spotting days that both ethics and sustainability were hot topics in innovation departments but hadn’t quite hit the mainstream. New British brands were also starting to pop up with a focus on reviving old industries and ‘Made in Britain’ was starting to mean something again. I excitedly started contacting tanneries in the UK with my big idea and immediately found three things: firstly, there were only a few tanneries left. Secondly, those that remained couldn’t handle small goat hides. And finally, no one takes you seriously if you call them goat hides. They are called goatskins. Lessons learnt, but was this a dead end?

The next months were spent deep in the last pages of Google searches, sending begging emails to anyone I could find who might help. Then, on Friday 13th April 2012, a reply arrived in my inbox connecting me with Paul Evans, a lecturer at the University of Northampton, who I was told by a reliable source was, “the most knowledgeable person in the UK on the topic”. Paul had been thinking a lot about the idea of a micro-tannery and, as he was about to retire, was keen to help. The trail was finally warm and I thought the solution was just around the corner.

A New Perspective
Of course in reality it has been eight years since that email and Billy Tannery has just turned three. We now have our own tannery, a range of British made leather goods and a growing list of trade clients. But it was only with the right mix of naivety, persistence and incredible support from others that we’ve got here.

Turning a waste product into something of value will always require fresh thinking. If the solution was obvious then there wouldn’t be any waste in the first place.

Jack Millington

To anyone in the leather industry, the opportunity was too small and too complicated to be worth exploring, but with a different perspective, things can look very different.

My co-founder, Rory and I approached the challenge with a big focus on brand, which is certainly not the path for a quick win but it’s extremely rewarding. The amazing response we’ve had from crowdfunding campaigns really brought this home and we can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner for Billy Tannery.

Questions to Ask
• What’s your connection to the opportunity? It has to be deeply personal.
• Are you ready to do this for years? It will take much longer than you think.
• What unique perspective do you bring? Everyone else must be missing something.
• What’s the worst-case scenario? Write it down, it’s often not as bad as you think.

 

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Jack is the founder of Billy Tannery. Having discovered that every goatskin left over from the British food industry was going to waste, Jack decided to do something about it. Today his micro tannery produces a growing range of leather goods.

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