This week, the family and friends of John Michell gathered in Adelaide to farewell one of the key figures of the wool industry.

The 80-year-old died after a short battle with cancer.

For more than 60 years, he worked for his family wool carbonising and scouring company Michell, including three decades as Managing Director.

Grazier and former Federal Liberal MP Ian McLachlan described Mr Michell as "very forthright, had his own views but always a great representative of the wool industry and the wool processing industry in particular."

John Michell came from a family tradition of entrepreneurs.

His great-grandfather was a shoe maker who migrated to South Australia from Cornwall and set up a business in the Clare Valley.

He expanded his business to washing wool in the Wakefield River before he and his sons bought a tannery at Hindmarsh, where they began wool washing in the River Torrens and later added knitting and spinning operations.

John Michell was in charge of the company when it shifted from Hindmarsh to Salisbury where it became the largest wool carbonising plant in the country.

Now the firm has grown into the largest of its type in the world, processing an estimated 20 per cent of the global wool clip but not before almost shutting its doors a decade ago.

"We walked in one morning and thought if all our customers said we're not going to pay you for contracts that would have been the end of the business," says Executive Director David Michell.

"I didn't sleep much for six weeks."

The crisis came during what he refers to as a "one in a 100 year fire storm" where the business faced rising competition from China while the millennium drought caused the Australian wool clip to fall by two thirds.

David and his brother Peter Michell followed in their father's footsteps by taking over the running of the company and showed the family tradition for taking risks by buying out their 38 cousins.

They then set about saving the company by radically re-inventing its processes for greater efficiency and quality.

"We took a plant that did 600 kilograms an hour to one that now does 1250 kilograms with the same amount of water so it reduced our energy consumption across the board by half," says Peter Michell.

The brothers then took an enormous risk by taking the Chinese on in their own backyard.

They bought land in Suzhou, China and built a carbonising factory capable of processing wool from Europe, South Africa, South America and Australia.