Used tannery machinery never dies; it is merely bought by a second-hand machinery specialist where it is reborn and sold to a tanner in another part of the world.

For many used and reconditioned machinery manufacturers, the staple diet of their business is the closure or relocation of tanneries. Over the past fifteen years, tannery closures in the UK and other western European countries has been the life-blood of companies like Vordale Ltd.

Vordale are located in the village of Little Addington, close to the towns of Rushden and Kettering, once the centre of the tanning industry in the UK and, during the middle of the last century, one of the leading leather and footwear producing areas in the world.

During the 22 years that Vordale have been in existence, the region’s tanning industry has been decimated with the last significant tannery (Pearce-Pebody then Connolly) closing in the middle of last year.

As we are fully aware, a shift in global production of tanning and leather products has taken place from western Europe and the USA to Asia and to a lesser extent to Latin America and eastern Europe. Many new tanneries in Asia and the Indian sub-continent have prospered and, where possible, have expanded their businesses using new machinery from Europe or local producers.

However, companies such as Vordale have exploited the gap between tannery closures and the need for machinery that is significantly cheaper than new yet has not had too many hides or skins passing through or along.

‘When you enter a factory you find three types of equipment’, says Graham Sykes, managing director and founder of Vordale Ltd. ‘Firstly, there is the machinery which is almost new and in good condition. These machines can be reconditioned and sold very quickly where the demand is high.

‘Secondly, there is the equipment that requires time and effort to bring back to a reasonable second-hand condition and thirdly is the equipment that a used machinery company would buy and store for spares or if a buyer was looking for a particular model. However, the third group is normally the equipment that is the most difficult to re-sell’, he added.

Using Sykes’s categories, in recent years the first group has become increasingly more difficult to find as tanners are not replacing old machinery over long periods while businesses struggle to survive. Sykes has observed that the tanning industries in Germany, France and South Africa are now feeling the same pain as the UK industry has over the past fifteen years.

He has been involved in a number of tannery closures in South Africa where the emergence of the large automotive tanners squeezed many of the domestic footwear upper producers out of business. The upholstery tanners have a higher purchasing power for the raw materials (which are subsidised for local tanners) and the upper tanners were forced to look elsewhere for hides. Many have not survived.

Vordale will buy and sell any type of equipment and they work beyond the tanning industry. ‘I would recommend to any tanner that some pieces should be bought new if possible. Clearly, new machinery is going to be the best option but some pieces such as a flesher or splitting machine should be set-up from new if possible. Incorrect setting-up of such machines can cause a lot of damage to the leather at great expense’, he says.

Used machinery buyers

Approximately 80% of the equipment from Vordale is exported around the world. Most of the business is repeated from people who know the company and their reputation. Sykes said that new leads often came from chemical suppliers or hide and skin traders who recommend Vordale to tanners looking to replace old equipment or upgrade their factory.

Vordale will not carry out any work on a piece of machinery until a buyer is found. Once a buyer reserves the item, work is carried out to replace or recondition worn or defective parts. Finally, the equipment such as a setting machine or a buffing line, is resprayed and Vordale give a one-year parts warranty.

At the time of the visit from Leather International, Vordale had been meeting buyers from Pakistan. Many tanners in the Indian sub-continent look to companies like Vordale to supply them with good quality and mechanically sound machinery, which is typically only a third of the price of new equipment.

The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made exporting machinery to the region more difficult but still possible. Indian restrictions on used imports have been relaxed, making it easier to ship.

Other major purchasers of reconditioned machines are the new and increasing breed of tanners from China and the Asia Pacific Rim such as Indonesia.

‘There are complex restrictions on getting second-hand tannery machinery into China. Once you know how the system works, it is a little easier and so far we have had no major problems’, said Sykes.

After sales

Vordale prefer the buyers to see the equipment either themselves or via representatives of the company before they are shipped. They then offer a one-year warranty at the date the kit leaves the workshop. The warranty guarantees that the machine works properly and covers major parts that break down outside other damage or wear and tear. Vordale employ seven mechanical engineers and two electricians. Three of the engineers travel the world to help install the equipment on site. Most transactions take place with a letter of credit or cash. ‘We usually ship machines within eight weeks of the order being placed’, says Sykes.