The Story of Saddleback Leather
By Nick Pernokas
Dave had designed the coffin himself. Built from leather, it was a gorgeous piece with options to make the ride to the afterlife convenient. There were pockets for storage and a bracket to accommodate a favorite scripture. The coffin could be secured with reinforced leather straps and the leather handles rested against the side when not in use. Finally the time had come and the video camera began to roll. Dave stepped inside the coffin, closed the lid, flicked his lighter and began to speak.
Actually, Dave Munson’s story begins many years earlier in Oregon. As a teenager, he loved the products that were offered in the local Wilson Leather store. Dave still remembers being drawn to the smell of the store. He never thought that leather would have a place in his future though. Dave was a twenty-eight-year-old youth pastor, in 1999, when he moved to Mexico to teach English to disadvantaged children.
“I didn’t know how to teach English,” laughs Dave, “but I guess if you’re born in the U.S., then you’re an expert in English.”
Dave had a half-mile walk to the school every day; he realized that he needed a backpack to tote all his books through the streets of Morelia.
“I thought that there was a lot of leather around there. I wondered if I could find a bag like Indiana Jones carried,” says Dave.
Dave searched the local markets, but did not find what he wanted. He did find a small leather shop that built bags; the owner’s family had made leather goods there since the early 1800’s. Dave asked the craftsman if he could build a bag from a sketch.
“I prayed that he could make me the coolest bag ever and I think it happened.”
Dave wanted a bag that wouldn’t break, so he didn’t want any snaps, zippers or buttons. Dave told the leather worker that he wanted a bag that his grandkids would want someday. The resulting product was better than Dave had expected. It was a bag that was both durable and beautiful in its simplicity.
When Dave returned to the States, he was constantly asked where he had gotten his bag.
“People would cross the street to ask me about it. It was pretty cool.”
Dave returned to Mexico, and had the bag maker and his son make eight more bags. Unfortunately, the bags were made out of orange-colored leather, so Dave sanded them down and refinished them with brown shoe polish. He sold the first one to his sister in Texas because she felt sorry for him. He hung the other seven on the luggage rack of his Land Cruiser and drove back to Oregon. The sign on his window said: “Real Cool Bags for Sale”. By the time Dave and his companion, a black Lab named Blue, reached Oregon, all the bags were gone. Dave’s sister sold her bag on EBay for $335.00. Dave saw that there might be a future in the bag business, so he moved back to Mexico. His day job was selling real estate around a golf course and he poured his profits into bag production. In 2003, Dave ended up in Juarez for three years, sleeping on the floor with his dog, in a $100-a-month apartment. The lack of air conditioning or warm water was tough, but Dave sent most of every paycheck to the father and son who were building his bags. They would ship three or four bags at a time to Juarez on the bus. Dave would take them over to El Paso, and use a friend’s computer at night to sell them on eBay. Gradually the number of bags on the bus increased.
“I just kept growing it. Back then, I didn’t have any competition. There wasn’t anything else like it.”
Dave had always liked traveling and now he would go to North Africa and Eastern Europe, taking pictures of his bags in exotic locations. The travel tie-in worked; he couldn’t keep the bags in stock. Dave was still just selling his original style in one size. He tried to stick with a chestnut-colored, chrome-tanned leather that was lined with pigskin. The bag could be used as a back pack. The chrome-tanned leather was pliable and didn’t show travel wear and water marks as easily as vegetable-tanned leather.
“I like veg-tanned leather and we occasionally make a few veg-tanned bags, but the chrome tan just ages slower.”
About the time the bag prices were climbing on the eBay auctions, Dave met an attractive woman on Myspace — the profile picture of her gutting a deer won over his heart. Suzette and Dave were married and he moved to San Antonio; two children came along in the next few years.
The original bag maker had difficulty keeping up with the increased demand for the bags, so in 2008, the Munsons opened a factory in León, Guanajuato, Mexico. León was a logical choice as the leather industry is deeply ingrained in the city; 250 million pairs of shoes are produced there each year. Dave found it easy to find the stitchers, the lifelong leather artisans and the quality he wanted there.
“Quality is a big deal for us, and it’s what our reputation is built on.”
Quality is synonymous with durability for Dave and he thinks that Saddleback has contributed to this from the beginning. The bags are designed to have as few seams as possible, and the stitches are longer than in some luggage, to put fewer holes in the leather. Handles and dees are reinforced with nylon inside the leather.
It takes 200 employees, in the 15,000-square-foot complex, to keep up with the Saddleback Leather bag orders; another 30 employees make bags for other companies. Dave has added many bag styles and accessories to Saddleback’s line of leather goods. He has a nine member development and design team that translates his sketches into patterns for the next new item. They have also added a line of waxed-canvas bags made from a high-quality canvas from Scotland.
“The canvas is really beautiful and I just thought it needed to happen. It took five or six years to finally launch. It was really a bear. There were a million things we all learned from.”
Not only do the canvas items have a rugged outdoorsy look, but the traditional material blends in well with nature.
“I’m saying ‘no’ to eye pollution,” says Dave, referring to the cavalcade of bright colors that are found around beautiful, mountain lakes and other natural destinations. Dave feels that the neon oranges and blues of synthetic fabrics in modern tents and bags clash with Mother Nature’s beauty. Leather and canvas hues seem to go with the scenery.
“All those tech fabrics aren’t something that you get attached to. When it’s over, you throw it away and get another one. There’s something about leather that you just get emotionally attached to.”
Travel and adventure seem to be some of the attraction of Saddleback’s products, but Dave says this is just an extension of himself, and what he did before Saddleback Leather. Perhaps his main tool in marketing is education. By using an impressive website to tell his story and to steer customers to his large catalog of videos, he gets his message across.
“I tell people, whether you buy from me or someone else, you really need to buy quality. Watch what I’m going to show you and it will help you make a good buying decision. People appreciate that.”
Through a series of YouTube videos and his web series, “Not Dead Yet,” Dave does just that. In 2012, Dave hired a full-time filmmaker, Joe Callander. The videos he’s produced have high production values, are mostly tongue-in-cheek and are entertaining. Some are good enough to have been shown at film festivals. Many of them tell stories that just barely touch on the business; one is addressed to those wanting to build a cheaper, knock-off of his bags, and shows all the steps to leave out. YouTube allows Dave to circumvent more expensive, traditional forms of advertising and get his message directly to the consumer.
The adventure and travel that you can enjoy with these bags is obvious in the videos, but so is the sentimentality attached to these memories, which is transferred to the bags. The durability ensures that the bag will last, be repairable and finally, be handed down to your grandkids. One of Dave’s prize possessions is an old pocket knife that his great-grandfather whittled with. Dave wants his customers to have this same attachment to his bags.
Dave’s next project will be trunks. You might think that trunks aren’t exactly the wave of the future. But, when Dave paints a picture of a young girl putting her dolls in it, going through all the stages of her life until she is an old woman with all her mementos and memories in it – you’ll want one for your kid.
“We’re a leather company that’s creating art in leather and film. We make things that are beautiful and that make people smile. We do it with quality. To me that’s art.”
Saddleback does other things to make people smile as well. At their factory they have a daycare center so their employees won’t have to worry about their children while they work, and they teach the kids English while they’re there. Older kids can also take advantage of an English school.
“I say if it’s not a good deal for everyone involved…then it’s not a good deal. It’s easier to mold clay than to bust bricks. We’re going to reach those kids and break the cycle of poverty with them.”
In 2008, Dave and Suzette also became involved with the African New Life Ministries in Rwanda. A personal visit there in 2010 changed their lives; they became more involved and even started sponsoring some of the kids they’d met.
“It changes their lives completely, not just because they get an education, but because they have a sense of belonging and they feel valuable and loved.”
Dave tries to influence people to pursue quality, not just in bags but in life. He feels that hard work is pointless if you neglect the things that matter – like friends, family and your dreams.
Which brings us back to the coffin…the actual leather coffin is a key prop in Dave’s latest video, “The Work/Death Balance.” The coffin is a constant reminder in Dave’s office to not put off doing things because of work. He reminds the viewer that the death rate in Texas is 100%, so you’re going to need one sooner or later. Dave points out that the coffin can be laid down to make a rugged “coffin table.” This dark humor and gentle preaching, reminds the viewer about priorities. It also reminds them that quality leather products will probably outlive you, making Saddleback Leather’s slogan, “They’ll fight over it after you’re dead,” seem very appropriate.
To view the Saddleback Leather products, videos or “Not Dead Yet,” go to www.saddlebackleather.com.
Saddleback Leather Co.
600 Railhead Road, #200
Fort Worth, TX 76106