Boyt Harness is all about outdoor sporting gear
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Adaptability, creativity and quality are the distinctive hallmarks of long-time, successful businesses. And, let’s not forget plain, old-fashioned grit and hard work. Traits like these have kept Boyt Harness Co., LLC, based in the small city of Osceola, Iowa, moving ahead and growing over its 115 year history.
Founded in 1901 by two leather-working brothers, Walter and John Boyt, the company’s first focus was the making of saddles and fine driving harnesses. Then the mechanization of America and the social and political pressures caused by World War I, prompted the company to manufacture cavalry saddlebags and military pistol holsters. Later, the onset of World War II led to the production of millions of pieces of military gear, such as backpacks, web belts and cartridge pouches.
Today, although still using its historic name, Boyt Harness is all about designing, manufacturing and wholesaling a widely diverse range of outdoor sporting accessories — high-end gun cases, hunting clothing, bags and duffles, tactical range bags, gun slings, snake-proof gators, canvas and leather shell pouches, hunting dog accessories, hard gun cases and much more.
“All of our products are designed in-house, with the hunter in mind. . . .We’re all avid hunters,” said Jennifer Watson, company marketing manager. Her roles include creating ads, promoting customer relations through social media like Facebook and Twitter, handling public relations and most of the package designing. “I wear many hats. . . . All of us, from our company president Tony Caligiuri to our employees, give their input to designs. Our input is valued. We work as a team or family,” Watson said.
Although Boyt has long been known for its quality gun cases and related gear, “we do not sell firearms,” she pointed out. “We do support the NRA (National Rifle Association) and gun companies.”
These days, the outdoor accessories company is no longer family owned but overseen by a board of investors. Its 25, full-time employees work in a 35,000-square-foot building. To accommodate the significant growth spurt the business has been realizing over the past eight years, a new 40,000-square-foot addition is currently in the works.
The majority of their products are made in a number of countries, overseas. Their hard gun cases, however, are made in Texas, and some of their leather belts and leather dog collars are made in-house. Busy global connections have Caligiuri and vice-president of product development Pat Foley, making regular trips abroad.
These cross-cultural contacts have, among other things, led to the incorporation of innovative materials in company product lines. For instance, “our Boyt socks are made of bamboo and merino wool. They’re phenomenal, comfy, and the bamboo acts as an antibacterial,” Watson said.
The company also keeps abreast of new-age technologies and materials so they can develop more useful and rugged products. One new, impact material being used protects against gun recoil. “An insert pad made of this material is put in our shoulder harness — a strap-on harness that you put over your shoulder when shooting with a high-recoil gun, such as in Safari hunting,” she explained. The impact material is manufactured by a U.K. company called D3O (www.d3o.com).
Materials used for gun cases include canvas, waxed canvas, leather, poly pique nylon, injection-molded, no-break polypropylene and customized resin.
“We hand-select all our material and use high-quality leather; the majority of which is harness leather. Our signature series of canvas gun cases comes with leather trim, one of our more popular items. For our Bob Allen line, we use leather-shooting gloves made with soft, aniline-dyed, Cabretta sheepskin leather. A shooting glove has to conform to your hand,” she said.
Cabretta leather comes from the skins of sheep that grow hair instead of wool. Because it is tougher than other sheepskins, it is used mainly for gloves and shoes. Most of the leather Boyt uses is sourced overseas.
EIGHT YEAR UPTURN
“We’ve had a steady increase in sales since 2008. Sales are really good. Thousands of products go out every month,” Watson said. “We sell to major box stores, all the way to mom and pop shops, all over the U.S. We’re not yet selling abroad. Approximately five percent of our business is retail. We want to make our products accessible to individuals.”
Not surprisingly, the company wholesales to well-known outdoor outfitters who specialize in hunting, fishing, camping and shooting sports. These include, but are not limited to, big U.S. retailers, such as Cabela’s, a publicly traded company based in Sidney, Neb., with over $3 billion in annual sales; L.L. Bean, with $1.61 billion in annual sales, and whose Freeport, Maine store gets 3 million annual visitors; Gander Mountain Co., based in St. Paul, Minn., with 152 stores in 26 states and $1.3 million annual sales; Scheels All-Sports, Inc., with 26 locations in north central states and a revenue of $100 to $500 million; and Bass Pro Shops, headquartered in Springfield, Mo., with sales at 4.3 billion.
Boyt products are affected by gun markets and hunting, she added, a factor that makes their sales largely seasonal. And, hunting seasons can vary from state to state. “We just finished up turkey season, which runs from April into May,” she said, in early summer. Our duck hunting season starts in early fall and goes through early winter. Deer hunting is in the fall. People are anxious to get ready. Our biggest time for sales is in the fall.”
Since the hunting industry is still male dominated, their products are mostly bought by men. “About 90 percent of our customers are males. The majority are in their mid-40s, although ages range from 18 to 65 plus,” she said. But, she has seen a gradual increase in female customers. “Women’s presence in hunting and shooting activities has definitely increased. I have a personal interest in that observation. I’m an avid wild turkey hunter and have been involved in shooting since I was old enough to hold a gun.”
To appeal to female tastes, this past spring, the company offered to customize Mother’s Day gift products with embroidery. “We do a lot of embroidery in-house. We have embroidery machines and a gal who does a fantastic job. We can digitize logos so they’re properly designed with proper colors.” Embroidered logos are created for organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation or company banquets, and they do a lot of hand-done embossing, in which dyes are used to imprint logos. The logos are then pressed onto a leather patch and hand-stitched onto a product, she explained.
Another customer service offered is repairs. Boyt products come with limited lifetime warranties. For example, if a zipper breaks on their gun case with standard use, they’ll replace it, she said.
GROWTH THROUGH ACQUISITIONS
A significant part of Boyt’s recent economic growth has been realized through the acquisition of a number of outdoor sporting goods businesses, and more recently, through cobranding. “Each company contributes to the overall profit. They are costly investments, and we’re looking to maintain this growth into the future,” Watson said.
In January 2016, the company signed on with Ducks Unlimited, an American, non-profit, 501(c) organization dedicated to the conservation of wetlands and other habitats for waterfowl, wildlife and people. Boyt will be cobranding their Mud River waterfowl line as Duck’s Unlimited.
“The tag will say Mud River; the logo will say Ducks Unlimited, ‘We’re banding together for waterfowl,’ ” she said, noting the slogan’s play on words, which implies both cooperation and the bird-banding used in conservation research. “It’s a great move for Ducks Unlimited. We use their name. A certain percentage of sales go toward waterfowl conservation. They are a great group,” she said.
The Outdoor Connection (TOC), of Waco, Texas, was acquired in 2013, now a division of Boyt. Its main focus is making gun slings. “They’re still based in Waco. In the next six months to a year, they’re moving up to southern Iowa. We’re adding the new warehouse to accommodate them,” she said.
Then, there’s Mud River Dog Products, builders of innovative, quality accessories for dog training and the hunting world, acquired by Boyt in 2007. Their products include dog beds, bowls, collars, kennel covers and the like.
Earlier acquisitions include Bob Allen Co. (1997), whose niche is shooting sports, like trapshooting; Secure Vault, makers of personal security and hand gun storage systems; and Rattlers and Bug Out brands of protective clothing for the outdoorsperson.
Besides growing sales through acquisitions, Boyt also has expanded its own core brand through its popular, injection-molded, hard-sided travel case series, introduced within the last ten years. “Our designs keep evolving. Our hard-sided gun cases (H-cases) are coming out with new designs and sizes. That line is ever expanding,” she said.
H-cases feature high-density, easy-to-customize foam, a dust and water-resistant O-ring seal and a built-in pressure relief valve that equalizes pressure on the inside of the case, according to company literature. Larger hard cases come with heavy-duty, in-line wheels for easy maneuvering through airports and public spaces.
“We took the injection-molded hard case to the next level,” said Boyt vice-president, Pat Foley. “Our steel draw latches keep the (gun) case closed during rough transport conditions . . . We have dropped cases from 20 feet with no cross-hair damage or movement on a variety of scope brands and types. The physics are rather straightforward,” he said.
“It is not easy to set the standard for quality,” Watson added, “but it’s a role we’ve grown accustomed to after more than 100 years in business.”
An Overlooked Giant: The Outdoor Recreation Economy
Nationally, the market for seasonal outdoor sporting gear, namely, hunting and fishing, takes a whopping $108 billion annual slice of the huge $646 billion pie that makes up the outdoor recreation economy.
Those estimates are the result of research done by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), and according to their 2012 report, “The Outdoor Recreation Economy,” their dollar estimates are conservative. Altogether, more than 140 million Americans are making outdoor recreation a priority, the association said.
The OIA called this broad and deep outdoor recreational economy, “an overlooked economic giant . . . a growing and diverse . . . super sector,” which includes hiking, camping, wildlife watching, golfing, horseback riding, target shooting and so on. Gear purchases include outdoor apparel and footwear, tents, hunting rifles, backpacks, fishing waders, bicycles, skis, saddles and much more.
Americans “who seek meaningful outdoor experiences in their backyards and in the backcountry,” come in “all genders, ages, shapes, sizes, ethnicities and income levels . . . and view outdoor recreation as an essential part of their daily lives,” the OIA reported.
Amazingly, this enormous outdoor sector spends, on related gear, travel and other expenses, roughly twice as much as the dollars annually shelled out for motor vehicles and parts ($340 billion), pharmaceuticals ($331 billion) and household utilities ($331 billion).
The United States, the OIA emphasized, is a globally recognized leader in the outdoor sporting equipment market, which has been steadily growing about five percent annually between 2005 and 2011, and this during an economic recession.
Back in the Day, Boyt Brothers Made Saddles and Driving Harnesses
In the early 1900’s, downtown Des Moines, Iowa was a modern and lively hub of industry. In itself, this was an amazing economic feat, for in 1843, only three generations earlier, the site was an untamed outpost — a U.S. Army fort.
Old directories of that busy era were full of company ads for lumber, coal, hay, paper, electricity and insurance. Entrepreneurs included makers of linseed oil, beer, sheet metal skylights, antique reproductions and upright pianos. Also listed were lawyers, doctors of optics, engravers, goldsmiths and jewelers, roofers, piano movers, stenographers, interior designers, clothiers and lots more.
Among the beehive of businesses that thrived during this last heyday of the horse and buggy era, were saddleries and harness shops. The most prominent was the Des Moines Saddlery Co., located in an impressive, four-story building on Court Avenue near the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers and the railroad lines. The saddlery’s proximity to the all-important rail yard gave the company a significant competitive edge.
Any stranger passing through town couldn’t mistake the intent of the enterprise going on inside that big building, for painted in bold letters at the top of an outside wall was the advertisement, “Leather. Saddlery. Hardware.” And likewise, at street level, “Harness. Saddles. Collars.”
In 1901, the big saddlery was bought by two of its employees, Walter and John Boyt. Before that, the two energetic brothers had spent “long days sorting hides, making patterns, tooling leather and then sewing it on massive, belt-driven machines,” according to a brief history written by Jennifer Watson, marketing manager for Boyt Harness Co.
After the purchase, the business was renamed Walter Boyt Saddlery Co. The enterprise was then moved just a few blocks east, into a three-story building located at 208 Court Ave., still conveniently close to the rivers and rail yard. The building was first erected around the Civil War era, and remarkably, is still standing today.
Walter Boyt was company president, his business savvy wife, Mary, was vice-president and brother John was bookkeeper and advisor. Business was solid for fine driving carriage harnesses, despite the fact that interest began to spark for electric cars, thanks in part to Des Moines resident William Morrison, whose six- passenger electric auto, the first of its kind in the U.S., could hit an unexciting 14 miles per hour. By 1913, automobile ads were popping up in Des Moines publications, especially since the gasoline-powered Model T introduced in 1908, had become widely available by 1912.
Nonetheless, the horse still reigned for many more years as the primary mode of transportation and farm work. The Boyt factory later expanded into three nearby buildings, but this growth spurt was likely triggered by America’s involvement in World War I in 1917, which brought a sudden demand for U.S. Army leather equipment. This demand for military accessories triggered a plethora of new product manufacturing and created a sudden economic upturn for a number of harness and saddle makers like the Boyts.
The advent of WWI took the saddlery in a new direction, one that would shape it for the next 100 years. In that period, the company “built the first of many firearm accessories, such as military pistol holsters for the new Colt 1911 .45, along with cavalry saddlebags and harnesses for artillery and transport horses,” according to Watson.
In May 1917, the publication, “Harness,” reported that Walter Boyt Saddlery Co. had been awarded a bid to make the following leather equipment for the U.S. Army:
• 18,000 saddlebags at $10.78 each,
• 9,540 lariat straps at 0.165,
• 76,000 pair of spur straps,
• 19,605 sabre knots, and
• 4,540 bridles for field artillery
In August 1918, Walter Boyt gave an address to the annual convention of The National Harness Manufacturers’ Association held that year in Des Moines, as the influenza pandemic raged throughout the city, and the world. Ironically, unknown to city residents at the time, that deadly outbreak had been hastened by the very war that brought a surge of new business and prosperity to the saddlery.
In his talk Boyt expressed, in an understated way, his concerns for the cataclysmic changes brought on by the war and modernization and how to move ahead:
“The future course before the wholesalers and retailers is to promote the best interests of the harness and saddlery trade, so the industry may continue as an individual industry and meet the new conditions created by the war along prosperous and profitable lines for both branches of the trade.”
In 1925, Walter Boyt sold the company to his brother John and his three sons, Joseph Walter, Arthur John and Paul Alfred Boyt. The business, renamed The Boyt Harness Co., brought “a new generation of Boyt brothers, who continued the tradition of making harnesses, saddles, bridles and other tack for farmers and stockman across the Midwest,” marketing manager Watson said.
After struggling through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, the company’s next challenge was World War II. From 1941 to 1945, The Boyt Harness Co. produced millions of pieces of accessories destined for the American war effort.
Many of the soldiers who served in WWII lived near the Boyt factory in Des Moines; including the Italian-American community of the city’s south side. “My uncles . . . were combat Marines . . .,” Boyt’s current company president, Tony Caligiuri, said. “On their transport ships to the Solomon Islands, they were pleasantly surprised to find that much of the gear they were issued had been made at the bustling harness factory just a few blocks from their homes.”
Boyt combat gear included backpacks, web belts, cartridge pouches and slings for the M-1 Garand, a .30 caliber semi-automatic rifle. At its peak, “war production required 2,800 workers, and Boyt became one of the largest manufacturing operations in the world,” Watson said.
After the mechanization of America put most work horses out to pasture, sporting goods became a company priority; gun cases, hunting vests and cartridge bags became the majority of their production, although saddles and tack were made into the late 1950s, she added.
In 1963, the business was sold to Welsh Sporting Goods. Headquarters and production moved from Des Moines to Iowa Falls, Iowa, along with the creation of Boyt Luggage Co. and an expansion into the soft-sided luggage market.
In 1996, a group of investors purchased the sporting goods division and moved operations for all hunting and shooting accessories to an existing Boyt facility in Osceola, Iowa. Honoring the company’s heritage, the new venture was renamed, The Boyt Harness Co.