By Nick Pernokas
It has been said that Los Angeles is the land of broken dreams. Fortunately that generalization doesn’t describe all of the dreams or the dreamers who live there. A case in point is a family business on the southeast side of Los Angeles. International Sheepskin and Leather is not just the culmination of any dream, but of the American one.
In 1965, Pepe Cerda Sr. arrived in Los Angeles from Mexico. His first job was at a car wash for three days. His second was at a restaurant; it didn’t last much longer. Then Pepe heard about an opening at Golden Wool, which was a local tannery. His first job in the sheepskin department was sweeping.
“In those days, we were tanning between 4500 and 5000 sheepskins every day, 6 days a week,” says Pepe.
Most of these skins were exports to Europe for garments. In 1965, Golden Wool started making sheepskin barks for lining saddles, and according to Pepe Sr., at that time they were the only ones making the product. They shipped all over the United States and even to saddle makers in Australia. Today, of course, there are other companies producing saddle barks, but they remain one of International Sheepskin’s mainstays, along with sheepskin for footwear and paint rollers.
Pepe moved up to grading skins at Golden Wool. He also began picking up hides and bringing them to the tannery. He progressed to working in the beam house on the wet floor. The owner of Golden Wool, Arthur Golden, contracted a specialist from Hungary to come and show the tannery personnel how to make double-face shearling for garments.
“My boss in those days, Sol Felman, told me that I was going to learn from this Hungarian man how to tan and dress sheepskin.”
The Hungarian was at the tannery for four months. He taught Pepe Sr. everything that he knew about tanning sheepskin and at the end of that time, Pepe was promoted to foreman. Next, he moved to sales; by 1975, Pepe was the superintendent for Golden Wool. When Golden Wool closed its doors, Arthur Golden and Pepe moved to a new location and began to buy and resell leather. They never stopped making sheepskins though.
In the late Nineties, Pepe and Sol Felman bought the company from Arthur, and changed the name to International Sheepskin and Leather.
They have kept the feel and distinct, rich color of the original barks. In 1965, an acid dye was used on the skins. This produced an orange color. Today, there are other dyes and technology available, but the color is so popular that International Sheepskin has to dye the barks with different dyes to resemble the old ones.
“If you send them a lighter color, they don’t think it’s the same thing, even if it is,” laughs Pepe Sr.
Even though International Sheepskin had to move its tannery to Mexico, the skins are all from the U.S. Many come from ranches and feedlots in California’s Imperial Valley, but some also come from Idaho and Colorado. At one time, smaller skins of nine to eleven square feet were requested by saddle makers, but today the demand is for larger sides of twelve or thirteen feet and up. This is primarily due to the popularity of larger saddle skirts. These skirts require a larger sheepskin and the skins have to be handpicked. Only ten to fifteen percent of sheepskins are good enough to become saddle barks.
International Sheepskin and Leather also tans saddle skirting, latigo and other side leathers at their tannery in Mexico. These hides are also all from the U.S. The tannery has 12 employees; at their 38,000-square-foot warehouse in Commerce, California, Pepe employs eight people. The wholesale business offers services such as custom cutting to their customers. The sheepskins are brushed here and then trimmed to the customer’s specifications. The saddle barks are usually 3/4 inch in thickness, but some customers like a 5/8 inch thickness and some saddle makers prefer up to 1 ¼ inch. “I like doing this business and taking care of my customers,” says Pepe Sr. “If I didn’t do this, I don’t know what I would do because I don’t know about anything else.”
Today, 31-year-old Pepe Cerda Jr. runs the day-to-day operations of the company in Commerce. His job takes him to Mexico and Brazil, as well as handling domestic sales in places like Wyoming and Texas. Seventy percent of International’s business is in the Midwest.
“I love this business. I grew up in this business,” says Pepe Jr. “I’ve been working with my dad here since I was five years old.”
Pepe Jr. had the best teacher possible in his father. Pepe Sr. taught him every facet of the tanning business.
Sheepskins still make up a majority of the company’s business. The other side leathers make up about 40 percent of the business. Their latigo is available from 4 to 11 ounces in a wide variety of colors; for saddle latigos, 8 to 9 ounces is their biggest seller. International also offers a very durable Indian Tan (Alum Tanned) latigo in various weights and a nice buffed saddle skirting in 12 to 14 ounces.
Pepe Jr. plans to grow this company; he feels that International has the advantage of doing everything themselves. This eliminates the middleman and lets them offer their wholesale accounts a more economical price. Pepe Jr. thinks the leather business has been holding steady in the current economy, but that it is going in the right direction.
“We have big plans. We want this legacy, which is my dad’s, to continue.”
Pepe Jr. also designs and manufactures leather goods for fashion brands. These private label items range from belts and wallets to jackets.
For someone who came from Mexico with nothing but a pocketful of try, Pepe Sr. embodies the American dream. Fortunately for those of us in the saddle business, his dream overlapped some of ours. The world can always use more successful dreamers.
For more information on International Sheepskin and Leather’s wholesale products, call (800)421-6154 or go to www.isl-np.com .
International Sheepskin and Leather
6021 Scott Way
Commerce, CA, 90040