By: Mike Safley
Over the years, Julie and I have done business with Michell Co., S.A. purchasing everything from alpaca tops to top coats. We visited the Michell sorting sheds and spinning plant on our first trip to Peru in 1991. More recently I was invited to visit “Los Sauces,” or Mulkini, the Michell hacienda near Juliaco in the district of Puno, Peru where I had the pleasure of getting to know Derek Michell, the grandson of Frank Michell, the company’s founder, Derek manages the Arequipa office of the company and his uncle, Michael Michell, manages the company’s headquarters in Lima.
It wasn’t until last year when I started to research Peru’s alpaca industry, beginning at the turn of the century that I began to understand the unique odyssey of Frank Michell. Every country has men whose vision, drive, and tenacity create an industry where none was before. Born three days before Christmas, 1886, in Queen Victoria’s London, England, Frank William Michell Webster was such a man.
Today the Michell name is synonymous with the world wide alpaca business. The Michell Company is a vertically integrated Peruvian textile manufacturing conglomerate that is known to almost everyone associated with the specialty fiber business. What isn’t as well known outside of Peru is the fascinating story of Frank William Michell and his persistent quest to build a world class business organization.
The Story of Frank Michell
Raised by the sea along the Briston Canal, southeast of London, Frank’s life long thirst for adventure was rarely quenched. When England entered World War I, Michell joined the Royal Air Force and was soon piloting his Fokken D-VII into battle against the infamous German F-13 junkers. Shot down more than once over Egypt, he survived the war. Back home and out on the town in post war London, young Frank encountered a glamorous young starlet wearing a shimmering chinchilla coat. He had never seen anything quite as beautiful as that coat. He inquired about the origin of the lady’s fur and was told the chinchilla was from the High Andes of Peru. Convinced he had seen his future and never one to procrastinate; young Frank booked ocean passage for Latin America. Arriving in June of 1922, he struck out for the high sierra. At 14,000 feet above sea level, Michell was startled to find that there were no chinchillas in Peru.
His disappointment soon gave way to loneliness as his traveling companion, Mr. Ford took ill and had to leave the mountains. Young Frank was left with a gold cigar case, a loyal horse, and little else. Always the optimist, it wasn’t long before alpacas replaced chinchillas as his goal at the end of the rainbow. Michell sold the cigar case and soon owned his first inventory of fine alpaca fiber.
After making friends with an English engineer working for the English Train Company, he hitched a ride and headed for Arequipa where he made his first sale of alpaca fleece, at the Stafford Company Stores, located at the corner of La Merced and Palacio Viezo. The cycle was complete he had bought and sold, profitably.
Convinced he had found his path in life, Michell returned to the highlands, where he was the lone gringo, speaking Quechua with a strong English accent, and trading sugar, cooking oil, and alcohol for fiber. After several years of trading, Michell’s fertile mind developed a strategic plan to create a unique Peruvian wool export company. Michell sought and received approval to bring together the Peruvian government and the alpaca producers of the Sierra into the Peruvian Trading Company.
Before this enterprise could get off the ground, a coup d’ etat brought down Michell’s benefactor, President Augusto B. Leguia, and the Peruvian Trading Company dissolved. Never one to dwell on defeat, Frank Michell soon joined with Roy S. Patten, another English expatriate, to form Patten/ Michell, which exported alpaca fleece abroad until 1945. Along the way Michell, always the innovator, created the current system of sorting alpaca fleece according to a more profitable grading system, including the “Arequipa fleece” at 26 microns, which became the standard of alpaca quality and helped expand the export market.
The 1940s brought both happiness and despair to Michell. He met and married Marjorie Stafford Gibson and the couple was blessed with two sons, Anthony and Michael. Michell also pursued his long held dream of creating Peru’s first spinning mill, but this project was not without problems.
Building Michell & Co.
Shortly after World War II ended in victory, Patton/Michell was dissolved. Frank Mitchell bought out his partner of 15 years. In 1946 Michell went together with three other men and they invested 450,000 soles, forming Michell & Co., SA. Their goal was the construction of a scouring plant, combing facility, and spinning mill in Tacna, near Peru’s boarder with Chile. The men took up residence in Tacna’s Pittaluga Hotel and began construction on the necessary industrial buildings. In November of 1946, crates of carding machines, generators, and comb accessories began arriving in Arica, Chile from Liverpool, England. The equipment was then shipped to the company compound at Quinta las Palmeras in Tacna. By June of 1947 all the necessary machinery had arrived. Optimism was running high as the parts and pieces were being assembled for Perus first alpaca textile mill.
As with most pioneering enterprises, the path to completion was filled with potholes. Michell’s partners, tired of the mounting investment and with no cash flow in sight, wanted out. The company was dissolved. Now it was again up to Frank Michell to step into the breach and put his solitary shoulder to the dream of a Peruvian spinning mill, pushing it forward with a single minded perseverance.
The plant in Tacna finally came to fruitation and from this precarious beginning one of Peru’s great industrial companies was created and with it a national industry which, to this day, adds value to the Peruvian alpaca, which is known around the world for being grown closer to heaven than any other fiber on earth.
Frank Michell’s died at high noon on May 27. 1987 in Arequipa, Peru, but his story doesn’t stop there. The achievements recounted in this article are only an abbreviated version of the life’s work of a man who was awarded the silver medal of Arequipa and the Merit Order of the Great Cross, by Peruvian President Fernando Belaunde Terry.
In 1996, Mr. Michell was honored as one of Peru’s greatest industrialists by the National Society of Industry for his contributions in the field of textiles. For a man who constantly told his sons that “in business it is better to be small and strong than big and weak,” he was a giant whose true legacy may have been his ability to see a bright future where lesser men saw only defeat.
As we shall see, his sons and grandchildren have inherited the genes of optimism and perseverance, as Michell Co. continues to push the envelope of growth in modern Peru. A smaller story of Michell Company’s alpaca farming enterprise helps illustrate the tenacity of a family who refuses to acknowledge defeat, confident that they will prevail at the end of the day.
Alpaca Farming in the Altiplano
From Frank Michell’s early beginnings, the company’s roots were in the high sierra. His residence in a small cabin outside of Juliaco surely made him the only gringo during the 1920s and early 1930s with a permanent address on an Andean hillside. The natural extension of this love for the mountains was the purchase of an estancia or farm which was located far up in the Andes, miles past Rural Allianza’s well known suri breeding property, which is not far from Nunoa in the district of Puno. Never a large operation, “CIACASA” was only about 1300 acres carrying 1,000 to 1,200 alpacas; the ranch was, nevertheless, a source of pride and connection with the sierra for the family. Orlando Barreda, the nephew of Julio Barreda, managed the Michell property on behalf of the family. In 1983, he had stocked the ranch with 350 alpaca from Accoyo adding to the many fine quality suri and huacaya purchased from neighboring operations.
During 1987 the bloody Sendero Luminosa were extending their reign of terror to the mountain towns of the Altiplano. Terrorist acts were more frequent and personal safety had become an issue for anyone with business in the highlands. Orlando, who was one of Peru’s best alpaca breeders, had invited Alberto Pumayala, a world famous alpaca researcher and breeder to visit the ranch with two agrarian engineers and eight students from the University of Molina in Lima.
As fate would have it, the Barreda party, driving two trucks arrived in Nunoa just after Shining Path guerrillas had been agitating the town square. With night falling and in a hurry to reach the ranch, the group, whose trucks were full, ignored several people waving their arms, thinking they wanted a ride up the mountain. Several compensinos later reported that they had tried to warn the men of the recent terrorist activity in the area.
The guerrillas apparently spotted the shiny new truck pulling through town. They followed. That night the men arrived at the ranch and began preparing for the next days work. Sometime before dawn disaster struck.
The incident ended three days later when the eight students were released barefoot, to walk out of the mountains. They called the university in Lima, the University called Michell headquarters in Arequipa, and they called their office in Juliaca. When a rescue party arrived at the ranch, Orlando, Alberto Pumayala and the two engineers were dead.
These deaths served notice to the men of Arequipa’s alpaca industry – don’t travel to the highlands unless you are prepared to die. The terrorists control of the highlands intensified and the foot they placed on the alpaca shepherds’ necks grew heavier.
As a result of the bloody guerrilla scourge, investment in the Altiplano ceased. Chaos became the order of the day. Alpaca production decreased by 25%, no roads were built or repaired, the railway was bombed and commerce withered. No one in Peru escaped the suffering.
The Michell estancia near Nunoa had to be abandoned. The alpaca population at the ranch declined to less than half its previous total. Eventually, the Michells transferred the property to a Catholic priest who today operates it as a social program on behalf of the poorest Indians.
No part of the Altiplano escaped the desperate circumstance invoked by Ismael Guzman and his Maoist Shining Path. The terror was indiscriminate, arbitrary death became a fact of life until salvation arrived in an unlikely form.
A Peruvian man born of Japanese parents was elected president of Peru. He was entirely unknown before the election. The Indians called him El Chifa or EI Chino the Chinese. Today the entire world knows Fuji Mori. He defeated the Shining Path, jailed its leaders, and liberated the Peruvian sierra. Recently, when the Tupac Amour captured the Japanese embassy in Lima, holding hundreds hostage, he blasted his way in and set the hostages free with the world watching on CNN.
Fuji Mori didn’t stop with the victory over terrorism. He continued building schools, roads, and hydroelectric projects throughout the poorest regions of Peru. Today you can move from Juliaca to Macusani in half the time that the trip took just a few short years ago. New telephone and power lines are bisecting the hills and mountains that frame the Altiplano. Hope has become a legitimate attitude.
Private investment is following the roads paved by Fuji Mori. The Michell family is back in the highlands, connected again to Frank Michell’s beginnings on the high ridges of Peru. They are busy establishing “Los Sauces” a neo-Peruvian hacienda that is being reorganized from a decaying colonial property. Located near Juliaco, in the heart of alpaca country northwest of the Sollocotta alpaca co-op and 25 kilometers east of Picotani, a famous sheep and alpaca operation, the 7,500 acre fundo or farm currently has 2,500 alpacas, 1,000 sheep both corridale and merino, brown swiss cattle, acres of potatoes, quinua, rye grass barley wheat, and alfalfa.
More than just a ranch or hacienda, Los Sauces represents a new found confidence in the Peruvian economy, alpaca production, and the Altiplano. The original hacienda’s name was Malcuini, which is Quechua for “Plant the Land.” That’s exactly what Frank Michell’s sons and grandsons are doing. This investment would have been considered impossible in 1992. Today, hope runs as fresh and clear as the Tarucani River, which frames the ranch’s six kilometer western boundary.
A dairy is under construction on a recently acquired neighboring property. The alpaca herd will be increased to 7,500 and the herds of sheep will eventually number 10,000. One new home has already been built, another is under construction and there are immediate plans to plant a forest of more than one million pine trees.
As you can see from the sidebar, the Michell Company has continued to prosper under the able management of Frank Michell’s sons and grandsons. No longer exclusively involved in alpacas, the company has interests in the food industry, banking, and insurance. More recently they have acquired the Coca Cola bottling franchise for all of Peru. Cotton, wool, and alpaca fashions from their textile plants are found in stores around the world.
The common thread for all this is surely 100% alpaca. But I believe that, had Frank Michell believed, back in 1922, that chinchilla were to be found in America, instead of Peru, that there would be a chapter in our history books bearing his name.