Leading figure in textile industry who expanded Johnston’s of Elgin

Born: September 13, 1946;

Died: December 28, 2017

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JAMES Edward Sugden, who has died aged 71, was a well-known figure in the Scottish textile industry who, as chief executive of Johnston’s of Elgin, expanded the business substantially from a small weaving mill into a global brand.

Born in Huddersfield, he was educated at St David’s Preparatory School and Sedbergh School. He gained a degree in economics from Downing College Cambridge and joined R Beanland & Co in Scissett while taking an evening textile course at Huddersfield College of Technology.

He had a spell at W&J Whitehead in Laisterdyke before he moved to MP Stonehouse in Wakefield, his father-in-law’s business. After they were taken over by Readicut he accepted an offer in 1987 to move to Elgin to join Johnston’s of Elgin as sales director, quickly becoming managing director in 1988.

In the subsequent 25 years, he developed Johnstons into the leading UK manufacturer of cashmere products, renowned for its fabric and accessories, and more recently knitwear where the company developed from scratch a new knitwear facility in Hawick. Johnstons’ turnover rose in the period of his tenure from £5million to over £60m, and their products are now exported to over 30 countries.

He travelled widely to meet suppliers and to source cashmere from China and the Upper Grasslands of Inner Mongolia, while at the same time expanding the customer base into a who’s who of fashion brands. He extended the cashmere visitor centre and later supervised the creation of a new furnishing department in Elgin which was opened by Prince Charles in 1994. Above all he revived Johnstons into a British powerhouse in textiles, known the world over.

In 2005 he moved to Hawick to develop the knitwear business there. Once again he painstakingly transformed the business, overseeing new products, suppliers and customers to the great benefit of the town, and enhanced the reputation of the company significantly. He was awarded the OBE in 2011 for his services to the industry

He became a liveryman of the Worshipful Company Of Weavers in 2006 and joined Court in 2011. He was soon asked to become chairman of the company’s textile committee and worked tirelessly to get young graduate weave designers into UK mills; later he introduced an apprenticeship scheme to train more young weave technicians.

By the time he retired in 2013 he was without doubt the leading expert in textiles in the country and his knowledge of the industry was unsurpassable. He was chairman of the Scottish Textiles Manufacturing Association where his expertise and opinion were highly valued. In particular he was actively involved at Dumfries House under the chairmanship of Prince Charles in encouraging young people to learn new skills there. He was an early member of the Manchester-based Alliance project, set up by Lord David Alliance to examine the potential for repatriating textile manufacturing to the UK.

After retiring, he maintained his enthusiasm for all things textiles, accepting the role as a non-executive directors for Brora Cashmere as well as developing his new business venture with his son, Campbell’s of Beauly. He particularly enjoyed his other non-executive position on the board of Baxter’s Food Group in Fochabers, the company of his great friend the late Gordon Baxter.

He loved his home town of Huddersfield and had a remarkable knowledge of the history and development of the textile industry, the families and the mills. He was well respected by customers, suppliers and not least his employees. He was generous with his time and advice, had boundless energy and had a great ability to get on with everybody from all walks of life. Nothing was too much trouble and he was modest at all times. Every morning on arrival at work his first task, schedule permitting, was to walk around the mill greeting the incoming workforce. Such a gesture enabled him a great rapport with all his employees on every level.

While living in Yorkshire he was church warden at Holy Trinity Church, following in his father’s footsteps, and wherever he went he would support the local church, including a spell as treasurer at Gordon Chapel in Fochabers. He was an honourable man who stuck to his principles and good Yorkshire common sense.

He loved his family, his dogs, and his garden and supported his children when they all chose their own textile ventures which gave him huge pleasure, especially when his son acquired Campbell's of Beauly and carried on the family textile tradition.

He is survived by his wife Linda, his three children Emily John and Rosie, and four grandchildren.