By Dr Michael Redwood and Richard Smith
It is hard to recall the Asia of 27 years ago a time when few leather industry executives had any knowledge of China beyond a giant that was awakening and could as both a producer and consumer have become important. Few recognized the speed and the scale of what was to follow. What was the role of a trade fair in this early stage? In a leather industry that had for decades become used to major fairs in France and Italy, being the sole punctuation in the calendar year, how should APLF evolve?
Under his leadership and commitment, APLF steadily evolved through being a busy location for companies to sell raw and semi-processed material and to learn about China and the wider Asian world at a time of advancing globalization. He led APLF to become more than just a trade fair as it was transformed into an integrated, international event with fashion shows, seminars, conferences, and trend areas - designed to cover all aspects of the industry alongside a more traditional trade fair where the most important companies were exhibiting from over 80 countries worldwide.
For many exhibitors and visitors, Michael has been the public face of APLF being as he was always at the forefront of the opening ceremonies and fair press conferences that took place in Hong Kong from 1994 and in firstly Beijing then Shanghai for ACLE since 1998.
1995 APLF Opening Ceremony
Opening Ceremony of 1996 APLF
Italian Pavilion in 1996 APLF
1999 ACLE Opening Ceremony
Michael’s command of fact and figures as well as his imposing presence and cool, firm presentation style has made him the ideal “front man” for international events. Such a combination provided APLF with the credibility needed before in front of the international specialist media that attended the press conferences where he was most definitively in charge.
Michael joined the company in 1994 after fulfilling an international role at the Vestey Group and interestingly he brought experience with him in the Leather sector from the UK/Australia/Brazil and New Zealand after having worked also at Gomshall Tanneries- a Vestey Company. Such an international and well-traveled background made him the ideal leadership candidate for a global sector such as the leather industry as can be seen from APLF being widely recognized as the Meeting Place for the Global Leather Industry.
Although based in Hong Kong and primarily overseeing the continued development of APLF in the mid-1990s, Michael's attention was drawn to the fact that there was not a regional leather fair catering for the whole of the American continent. There were local fairs in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil but all these were mainly local affairs and did not have the international reach envisaged by Michael and his team.
The result was the launch of the Pan American Leather Fair in Miami, South Florida, in January 1996, to facilitate business for North and South America. The inaugural event, held at the Miami Brach Convention Center, enjoyed almost 40,000 square meters of stand space and was the largest ever launch exhibition in the history of the global leather industry.
The fair offered raw materials and tannery supplies alongside finished products and leather goods. Major participation from South America, in particular Brazil and Colombia, and the wide range of products on display, made this an event that is still talked about some 25 years later.
The bustling business atmosphere and the post-show entertainment in Miami and Ocean Drive all contributed to a rounded success. Sadly, the last edition of this mega-vent was in 2002 as it could not escape the effects of the following economic crisis and the fact that China was becoming ever more dominant in the global leather and footwear industries, meaning that focus switched to Asia.
HKCEC Expansion 1998
APLF’s success was boosted for the 1998 event as the completed and expanded Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre came on stream after Hong Kong was handed back to China after the UK’s leasehold on the territory expired. In fact, APLF had developed so successfully that it outstripped the initial space available in the new center.
Australia Pavilion in 1999 APLF
1999 Asia Pacific Leather Fair with Turkey as the Focus Country
It was around this time that Michael consolidated his team at APLF by bringing on board Perrine Ardouin as Senior Event Manager who was well-experienced in Hong Kong having previously worked for the Hong Kong Trade & Development Corporation (HKTDC) and who worked hand-in-glove with Michael as a successful team for over 23 years.
With Michael as captain and Perrine at the helm, APLF was guided to even greater heights in 1998 as the increased space available for trade fairs eventually allowed APLF to expand dramatically and the 1998 event boasted some 4300 exhibitors in five halls including the sister event of Fashion & Finished Products.
Michael Duck and Perrine at Exotan Booth
2003 and SARS
With the fair’s success consolidated and its reputation placing it firmly in the pole position of international leather trade fairs, all appeared to be set for many years of well-earned and planned success. However, unforeseen occurrences can scotch the best laid plans, and this happened in 2003 when the SARS epidemic reared its head and Michael was obliged to cancel the 2003 event until 2004 as many visitors would not risk international travel to Asia in the face of such a deadly pandemic. When asked about a year that stood out in his mind during an interview in Sao Paolo with the Argentine footwear publication SERMA, Michael answered: “Definitely 2003 when we were forced to cancel the fair due to SARS. It was awful!”.
Even as tough years came and went, such as in 2009 after the financial crisis of 2008 and the resulting crash in hide and leather prices in 2009, Michael’s resolve was always behind APLF. The aim was always to ensure that it could ride the rough economic seas and storms that were whipped up by external events.
A Second Leather Fair…………….in China
Perhaps the most successful launch in which Michael was involved and its ongoing success was that of the All-China Leather Exhibition in 1998. The aim was to offer more direct access for international leather and chemical suppliers to China by selling to them in China. ACLE started out “quietly” with about 400 exhibitors and 6000 visitors in its first edition held in Beijing when, of all things, it was bitterly cold and snowed! Michael says “The opening first ceremony was outside and there was a blizzard of snow. I asked Mdme Zhang [The President of the China Leather Industry Association] if she wanted to bring the ceremony inside? To which she replied “No. It's very lucky in Chinese as snow means good crops next year and also the snow means people will wear out their leather shoes faster! “
1998 ACLE Opening in Beijing
From 1999 onwards this trade fair moved to Shanghai and continued to expand rapidly to reach over 1400+ exhibitors and 23,000 visitors of which 19,000 came from the main manufacturing provinces of China.
In this sense, APLF’s partnership with the China Leather Industry Association (CLIA) ensured the ongoing success of ACLE to serve and supply the China industry as it expanded and hence satisfy its need for western technology, equipment and tannery chemicals. One characteristic of ACLE was that the world’s major chemical suppliers used this trade fair as a platform to launch new technological developments directly to Chinese technicians and managers. For a moment it looked like China would become so dominant in leather that the fair in Hong would become irrelevant, but Michael and the very skilled team he has built have steadily adapted them both to fit the industry’s specific needs. APLF remains the global meeting spot for every sector of the leather industry where meetings are held, strategy developed and the future interrogated. ACLE is very much a vital China fair very much focused on those who need to be in touch with the activities and changes occurring in this enormous and powerful country. The two trade fairs have become quite distinct.
ACLE first Press Conference in 1998 APLF
1999 ACLE Press Conference
Moving with the times
As leader of the central Hong Kong team, Michael was aware that APLF had to move with the times as leather was gradually transformed from being just a commodity to an eagerly sought-after fashion material.
It was during this period that Michael and his predecessor Derek Dickens who he had been kept on in an advisory role and who first began to recognize the rising tide of misinformation that was creating potential problems for leather as a consumer material. In 2008 and 2009 Michael became one of the driving forces behind the founding and launch of the Leather Naturally! campaign. Its aim was not only to defend leather from unwarranted attacks but also to educate the designers and public about the longevity, sustainability, and beauty of leather. Given millennia during which leather has been a ubiquitous and essential material, the industry was having to come to terms with it becoming an optional choice for the consumer at a moment when a rapidly urbanizing world was producing new generations who often did not see livestock until their teenage years and had little concept of where leather came from. The idea of spending serious money on marketing, as opposed to the production of seasonal brochures and colour charts was very alien to most of the industry.
Nevertheless, under Michael’s leadership his team stayed loyal to the concept and Leather Naturally began to expand its international traction as the trade found it was losing market share to cheaper synthetics especially after late 2014. The leather industry began to recognize the problems inherent in it becoming marginalized and commoditized and Leather Naturally continues to grow today. More and more national leather bodies and tanneries have started to recognize the importance of proper communications, avoiding greenwash and starting to look outwards in their work. He has remained a key member of Leather Naturally’s supervisory board throughout. Leather Naturally Is still going strong and increasing its membership base each year.
The fair’s updating can be seen from its name changes that resulted in transforming its focus and branding – for example, the Hong Kong International Leather Fair became the Asia Pacific Leather Fair; this then became APLF Materials Manufacturing & Technology: to APLF Leather & Materials+ and now APLF Leather.
Such changes were incorporated into the fairs over some 24 years but besides working with the APLF team and overseeing progress and transformations, Michael also had a plethora of other duties and responsibilities within Informa Markets.
In this context we quote from Informa Markets official press release on Michael’s promotion……...he focused on building up the company’s presence in the Asia region, especially in China and India, and expanding events into the Middle East and Africa. He founded and chaired the Asia, Middle East and Africa and Sustainability chapters for events industry body UFI, before spending 10 years overseeing the Cruise and Beauty verticals in the United States. Most recently, Duck has overseen Sinoexpo, and the Informa Markets Leather, Food, Building and Maritime products in Asia.
Despite these enormous responsibilities Michael has always taken time to stay in touch with leather, to understand the needs of the industry and to marry those needs with a steadily evolving APLF without losing its relevance at any stage. In a leather industry that dislikes change and is highly skeptical of novelty that is an achievement indeed.
After dedicating 27 years to the leather and fashion sectors, Michael laid the foundation for APLF to maintain its leadership as The Meeting Place for the Global Leather Industry. With experienced management now in place with a background in the sectors, APLF is set to overcome the challenges of the pandemic and offer both digital and hybrid events as well as the physical Hong Kong and Shanghai trade fair so as to consolidate its mission of serving the leather and fashion industries.