Horween Leather Co. is all about high-end products, good customers and personalized service

By Lynn Ascrizzi

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The next time you’re glued to a TV screen during an NFL Super Bowl game, check out the football getting tossed and kicked around the field. There’s a 100 percent chance it’s made of leather processed and finished at Horween Leather Company, a tannery based in Chicago, Illinois.

Tannery owner and president, Arnold “Skip” Horween III, will be the first to tell you: the so-called “pigskin” has not been made of inflated pig bladder since the dawning era of the sport. And, he’ll be happy to point out that every Super Bowl is played with a Wilson football built from his company’s signature, pebbled steer hide. In fact, Wilson Sporting Goods Co., also of Chicago, is the NFL’s official ball maker and Horween’s biggest customer.

The same goes for the AFL (Arena Football League) footballs, CFL (Canadian Football League) footballs and NBA basketballs made by Spalding, of Bowling Green, Kentucky — they too, are built from Horween leather. And, there’s Horween leather in many Heart of the Hide series baseball gloves made by Rawlings. Since 1929, the Chicago tannery has been supplying leather to Rawlings Sporting Goods Co., Inc., currently based in Town and Country, Missouri.

Horween Leather, a 112-year-old company, is both a hide processing and finishing tannery. “We bring hides in the raw and process them here. There are not many tanneries that do that, the whole way through. We do some chrome and some vegetable tanned leathers,” Skip Horween said.

The 200,000-square-foot tannery, located since 1920 in a five-story factory in an industrial section near the North Branch of the Chicago River, operates with 150 employees. “We’ve grown a bit over the last three to four years and added about 14 to 15 people,” he said.

Good workers are hard to find, he added, a beef that many U.S. manufacturers can readily relate to. “If you’re tossing wet hides all day, that’s heavy work. People don’t want dirt under their fingernails. If you watch a really good finish carpenter, they can tell you what they’re doing, but can’t teach you how to do it. It comes from inside them.”

Amazingly, Horween is Chicago’s only tannery still in operation — one of the oldest, continuously running tanneries in the U.S. How did they survive the mass exodus of U.S. tanneries to Mexico, Asia and other parts of the world,a seismic, economic shift that began in the 1980s?

“The one reason we like to tell people is, that it was a combination of good fortune and being stubborn,” he said.  “The good fortune was that my great-grandfather, Isidore Horween, who started the place, really made good stuff. And, we’ve had good customers who have also survived — customers who recognize family. I can’t promise you that it was a lot of fun. We all play a bit of defense. The stubborn part is, that you stick with what you know and what you do well. We’re not trying to be everything for everyone.”

In the past decade or so, areas around the city’s designated industrial corridor, where the tannery is located, are fast becoming gentrified. “We are approached regularly by people who want to buy the property. If anything, I’m consistent,” Horween said, of his refusal to budge. “I see plenty of malls and condos, but I don’t see people making stuff.”

IT’S ALL IN THE PROCESS

Ninety percent of the hides processed at the Chicago tannery are cowhide, primarily steer, used for instance, in their combination tanned Chromexcel®, a versatile, trademark leather only made by Horween Leather Co., since 1913. Its complex process takes 89 distinct steps, many done by hand, and almost a month to complete. Chromexcel® can be given a bright luster or a matte finish and is typically used in boat and classic shoes, belts and small leather goods.

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Horsehide makes up the remaining 10 percent of the tannery’s processed hides, largely used for the specialty leather, shell cordovan. Horween Leather is one of the world’s last remaining producers of cordovan, originally used for razor strops in the early 1900s.

Nowadays, this non-creasing, long-lasting, veg-tanned leather is used in high-end footwear, such as Allen Edmond’s Park Avenue Cordovan Cap-toe Oxfords. This pricey men’s footwear goes for $650 per pair and has been worn by U.S. presidents the likes of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Horween’s biggest cordovan customer is Alden Shoe Co., of Middleborough, Massachusetts, a relationship that began in 1930.

Cordovan is a premium leather made from the fibrous, flat muscle (or shell) found in horse rumps, a term that easily becomes the butt of many jokes. However, processing high quality cordovan is an exacting art — a multi-step, six-month-long process that uses a proprietary tanning solution made from tree barks.

First, horsehides are carefully soaked, shaved and hand-oiled. After a month-long rest, the hides are rewet and expertly shaved, again. Next, the cordovan is run through a large roller to receive several, light coats of non-pigmented dye. Then, it’s allowed to dry. Only three employees at the tannery handle the process, Horween said.

“We have never kept up with demand. Horsehide is in limited supply,” he explained. One possible explanation given is that the practice of eating horsemeat is waning in parts of Canada and Europe.

The tannery sources cattle hides from the United States or Canada and horsehides from Canada or Europe. “No horsehide has been sourced from the U.S. in the past 38 years, since I’ve been here. We’re horse owners,” he said, referring to the culture in this country, regarding Equss caballus.

CUSTOMERS

Horween leather is used in a multitude of everyday products — footwear, sports equipment, bags, belts, wallets, briefcases, clothing and accessories. Fifty percent of the tannery’s business comes from high-quality leathers sold to sports companies, such as Adidas and Nike.

Besides the aforementioned companies, including Wilson Sporting Goods, Spalding and Rawlings, here are some other Horween customers:

  • Under Armour, Inc., — Footwear, sports and casual apparel
  • Timberland Boot Co. — Boots and shoes (Horween supplies the leather shells for their footwear)
  • The Alden Shoe Co. — Custom shoemakers
  • Rancourt & Co. Shoecrafters — Handcrafted shoes
  • Quoddy, Inc. —Handcrafted boat shoes and moccasins
  • Allen Edmonds — Premium dress shoes
  • Wolverine Worldwide — Boot and shoemakers
  • The Frye Company — Boots, shoes and other leather goods
  • Horween also makes special leathers for New Balance, a major sports footwear   manufacturer based in Brighton, Massachusetts, and for Johnston & Murphy, of Nashville, Tennessee, makers of men’s and women’s shoes, apparel and       accessories.  

 “We sell most of our leather to U.S. customers, but ship all over the world. Most of the sporting goods get made in Asia. We ship there for a lot of these guys. It’s probably 50-50,” he said, of the percentage of Horween’s domestic versus foreign sales.

“On average, we run about 5,000 sides, 2,000 shells and 2,000 horse fronts — tanned, finished and shipped — per week. We’re not so big. In the world market, we’re a rounding error. We’re big enough to notice, but not so big we’ll annoy you,” he said, with characteristic wry humor.

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The Wikipedia states that in 2012, the tannery’s revenue was $25 million, a figure that Horween called, “inferred data. . . . The way we make leather is expensive. For one year in the business, I’d like to make as much money as people think I do,” he quipped.

BRANDING

“One of the tannery’s team goals is to become a component brand,” Skip Horween said, a term that includes a brand’s core identity, image, personality, character and culture. “We want people to let their customers know that they’re using our leather, because our brand stands for a certain level of quality. We’re getting name tags put on products stating that they’re made from Horween Leather. We’ve built our reputation as a quality component.”

For instance, one of his newer customers, Nomad Goods Inc., a Santa Barbara, California company that makes leather phone cases for smartphones, promotes these products as “Crafted from Horween Leather.”

“Nomad does smartwatches and phone cases with a really cool battery in it, to charge your phone. They make great gifts. The battery is part of the wallet. You can plug in your phone and recharge it,” he said.

The tannery has developed relationships with other new customers, too, such as a group of companies that make watchbands for Apple smartwatches. “We don’t do the work directly for Apple — we deal with aftermarket people,” he added.

Global competition is stiff, but high quality is the tannery’s niche. “We fit in with those who want part of their line to be premium. We have the luxury of working with people whose first question is not price. They want to develop a certain look. When the conversation shifts to price, we typically show them the exit. I don’t walk in with a huge price, with the idea of knocking off a percentage. That’s not how we’re structured.

“The temptation is to say ‘yes,’ if someone asks you to do something. It’s not like we can’t do something, but if you say, ‘Hey, I need this in two weeks,’ I’ll tell you there’s somebody else who can take care of you . . . . There are times when ‘no’ is just as important as ‘yes.’ We do develop products. But it’s not an instantaneous process.”

Are tanneries coming back to the U.S.?

“That would surprise me. They did open a new tannery in Mississippi,” he said, referring to Mississippi TanTech Leather, Inc. in Vicksburg.  Opened in 2015 by foreign-based ISA TanTech, a German-invested company founded in 1995, which owns three tanneries in the United States, Vietnam and China.

WASTEWATER SOLUTIONS

Besides cutting labor costs, a big reason why U.S. tanneries shut down and/or relocated overseas, was stiff EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) regulations for leather tanning and finishing wastewater; national standards first put into effect in 1974 as a result of the Clean Water Act (1972).

“My father had the foresight to see that proper chemical waste solutions were part of the tannery’s future,” Skip Horween said. “In the early ’70s, we built our water treatment plant. We’ve added on to it several times and improved its performance. Water is sourced from the city of Chicago, and all the water we use is returned to the city sewer system. The tannery treats and aerates it. It’s filtered when it returns. The city treats it a lot more. It meets Chicago’s standard for industrial waste water.”

The tannery also has an officer in charge of safety and environmental compliance, and the factory meets strict European regulations, called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals). Each year, the tannery gets a letter from all their suppliers stating that every chemical they use is in compliance with REACH.

“Customers can get copies on request,” he said. “Bigger customers that use auditing agencies — we welcome that.  We’re not going to tell you our formulas, but we show you the process. You should be able to ask any question you want. If regulations change, which they do, then we change as well.”

LOOKING AHEAD

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Recently, tannery staff has been running experiments on calfskins, Horween noted. “We’re aiming for limited, high-end, dressy-type calf, possibly for some leather goods or for ladies. At the moment, I don’t believe anybody is tanning calfskin in the U.S.  As we’re learning — it’s really hard. It’s the reason people got out of calfskin. There’s always a demand for top-end, but only a small portion of skins do that. Europeans still do a beautiful job (with calfskin). Our interpretation would be different, but would appeal.”

The company has also dipped its collective toes in other waters, like tanning specialty deerskin and bison, at the specific request of certain customers. “We probably do less formal planning than most people. But our direction is driven by the idea that we should be making the best. We will follow that wherever it takes us,” he said.

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