Keeping up with success is their biggest challenge
By Lynn Ascrizzi
In Springfield, Missouri, amid a sprawling network of streets, concrete office buildings and asphalt parking lots, is a long strip mall that might seem, at first glance, to be just a nondescript part of the urbanscape.
This site, however, happens to be the bustling, creative hub that is Springfield Leather Co. (SLC). Their eye-catching sign stretches above a long string of mall storefronts that make up its roughly 30,000-square-foot commercial space; a business quite distinct from the usual mix of boutiques, coffee shops and hair salons that you’d expect to find there.
And, displayed below that sign is the name of the company’s jewelry-and-rock- specimen supply division — Touchstone Beads.
For the past 19 years, this landmark company has evolved into a highly successful, go-to place for a diverse customer base drawn from all over the country, and beyond; folks looking for the right tools and supplies to ply their leatherwork and handcrafted jewelry, no matter how small or colossal their enterprise.
“Basic leather and leather craft supplies are the backbone of our business. Most of our customers are doing leatherwork for money,” Hopkins, 67, said. “And, we’re definitely a destination for Springfield residents. We’re so well known. We’re just a pretty cool place. People like to come here. They’re constantly amazed at the selection of leathers and the variety of rocks, beads and stones.”
Springfield Leather offers just about every necessary item to be found in the leatherwork cosmos. “If we don’t have it, we probably had it, or will have it in the future,” he said.
For starters, their leather inventory includes buffalo, deer, elk, kangaroo, kidskin, rawhide and suede, plus all kinds of exotics, from reptile to yak skins. And, there are saddle and tack leathers and upholstery, garment and lining leathers. Storage shelves are loaded with leather of all sizes, and there are no purchase minimums. “You can order 1 square foot of almost any leather we offer. It’s pretty darned unusual,” he explained.
Other products include leather hardware, new leather machinery, lacing, piles of beading and jewelry crafting materials, leather finishing products – such as dyes, cleaners, conditioners, cements and glues – and camp craft supplies and kits. Also, they offer horse-care items, airbrushes, how-to books, DVDs, stencils and patterns, and more.
“Leather sales are split fairly evenly between veg-tan and chrome-tanned leathers, with veg-tan probably being the dominant of the two. Leather, itself, is by far and away the biggest sector of our product line. We sell thousands of square feet of leather per day. Some days, we’ll sell 20,000 square feet, some days, as little as 3,000 square feet. Just the other day, we got an order from a California company for 15,000 square feet. Leather shipments, from one pallet to eight or nine, roll in every day,” he said.
“A crazy amount of leather moves in and out of here,” purchaser Deanna Bass said. “If we’re talking about all the leather, including leather strips, precut pieces, sides of leather, the skin of a shearling, even a python — it’s hard to quantify.”
Springfield Leather has been holding down the fort in its corner of the Show Me state ever since Hopkins bought the storefront from Tandy Leather in 1999. Today, its success staggers even him.
“The growth has just been phenomenal. It has not slowed down. Not even a little. We’re flabbergasted by the increase. It seems more people than ever want to make a little extra money. More and more people figured out they could do that with leather.”
Another factor adding to the surge: “We have a tremendous level of expertise. You can ask me a question, online. If I can’t answer it, I’ll forward it to someone else who can. Our operations manager has made shoes. We have a saddle maker here who does tooling. We’re engaged in educating the customer,” he said, noting their many, how-to videos posted on YouTube.
“A lot of our customers function as mom-and-pop businesses. Some are doing as much as several millions of dollars per year, and some are doing thousands per year.
Our little store does roughly as much as 15 times the annual revenue of other companies that have the same kind of business. We don’t have the volume as store chains, but we have a real chunk. Businesses in other locations don’t offer our experience,” he said.
HOW SALES DIVVY UP
SLC’s retail walk-ins make up about 15% of sales. About 20% of sales come from U.S. penitentiaries and inmates. Roughly 40% flow in from e-commerce, which includes their website (www.springfieldleather.com), a substantial eBay and Etsy business and Amazon.
“Our Amazon business has really increased over the past several years. Amazon ships the products we make available, such as leathercraft tools, certain hardware, certain types and cuts of leather and various furs and skins. We also have orders that come to us through Amazon,” Hopkins explained.
Their production shop, which employs about 20 leatherworkers, accounts for about 25 percent of the business. “We do a lot of prototyping for a lot of companies. If we don’t have the expertise to make a certain product, our R&D department can prototype it. The shop often ends up producing many thousands of pieces and products for customers. They (production staff) are tremendously skilled.”
For example, he mentioned a small holster company that can make and stitch holsters, but can’t cut the parts – a task jobbed out to production. “Our shop is extremely complete. We can split a full side of leather. Usually, only tanneries can do that.”
And, he cited a Southern company that makes whetstones, which come with a leather pouch. “These people sell gazillions of whetstones. We might make 50,000 pouches per year. If they order 8,000, it probably takes us two weeks. That includes working through all the other orders. We’re expanding the production shop, people-wise.”
One, happily rocky side of Springfield Leather is Touchstone Beads. The division was launched in 2001, a collaboration between Hopkins, who has loved rocks, minerals and fossils since he was a kid, and his daughter, Molly, who loves working with beads.
Today, thousands of colorful beads, crystals, precious and semi-precious stones and jewelry making supplies regularly move out of the shop door. Popular, in-store beading classes are also offered. The jewelry craft enterprise is run by Hopkins and managed by Christopher Costa.
Avid beader Jennifer Thomas, 41, who took part in one of the shop’s seed bead weaving classes a number of years ago, is now a full-time employee. Bead buying and keeping up with new beads is one of her challenges. She also teaches classes in the shop’s beading circles. “Seed beads are my passion,” she said of the tiny, glistening, glass beads. Each year, with Hopkins and other staffers, she attends the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, held in Tucson, Arizona. “I also track the movement of all the products in the store. I spend a lot of time at the computer,” she said.
“We have a really diverse leather vendor base,” purchaser Bass said, naming a few sources like Thoroughbred Leather of Louisville, Kentucky, Hermann Oak of St. Louis, Missouri, and Milton Sokol & Co. of Kew Gardens, New York. “We also buy a lot of job-lot leathers and scrap from boot manufacturers and others. We try to keep as much as we can out of the landfill,” she said. “We’re able to use almost everything,” Hopkins added.
Leathers are imported from Brazil, Mexico, Australia, France, Turkey and more. “We deal with tannery sales reps from all over. Leather is a small world. A lot of people know each other,” she said.
Hardware is ordered from places like SX Industries of Stoughton, Massachusetts. “We buy things like original Blevins buckles,” Bass said, of the manufacturing company based in Wheatland, Wyoming. As for tools, “We buy a ton of stuff from C S. Osborne of Harrison, New Jersey. And, we get mauls, mallets and hammers, swivel knives and blades from Barry King Tools in Sheridan, Wyoming. A lot of tools and hardware are imported from China and India.”
“We have generated, over the years, a high level of trust with our vendors,” Hopkins said. Every January, he and company staffers visit vendors at the WESA (Western & English Sales Association) show; the largest, single-source market for all things Western and equestrian in the country. The show is held annually, in September and January, in Denver, Colorado.
A BURGEONING INVENTORY
Overall, the company’s growing product inventory exceeds what fits in their annual catalog or what gets put online.
“In the last few months, I made a purchase of more than one million feet of leather,” Hopkins said, this past March. According to the company’s website, their purchase of original tannery rolls or “stock lots,” range from 500 to 6,000 feet. “We’re going to have that (leather) for a number of months before we can offer it all. We add new leathers almost every week,” he said.
Springfield Leather’s 2018 catalog, The SLC Supply Guide, was released this past March with a print run of about 15,000 copies. The free hardcopy catalog is available in-store or by calling 1-800-668-8518. The catalog can be viewed online at (www.springfieldleather.com). A DVD version can be ordered by phone or online.
The SLC catalog also gets mailed to more than 300 correctional institutions that operate leather workshops across the country. Both prison officials and individual inmates make orders, which include tools, dyes, finishes and hardware. This unique customer base, Hopkins explained, “is a big chunk of our business. I suspect we’re the number-one supplier of leather to penitentiaries. Our catalog is something needed more by our prison-based customer than our wholesale and retail customers.”
Also, SLC’s wholesale pricing offers are posted at their website, or people can call for more information. And, interested customers can sign up online for the company’s e-letter, SLC Scoop, to find out about new stock, sales and more.
The way things are growing, Hopkins has no intention of cutting out or reducing any sector of the business. “I honestly couldn’t pinpoint any one thing. All our divisions are doing so well. We’re focusing on keeping up with growth and going forward.”
Springfield Leather Co. (SLC)
Kevin Hopkins, president
1463 South Glenstone Ave.
Springfield, MO 65804
(And, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube)
ON HIRING GOOD PEOPLE
The large facility that shelters Springfield Leather Co., in Springfield, Missouri, takes up about half of the individual, central units in its strip mall location. “That’s a lot of walking,” company president Kevin Hopkins said, with a touch of humor.
Altogether, there are about 75 trained employees and a couple of part-timers working beneath that long roof. “We have really good people,” he added, citing operations manager (and son-in-law) Rusty Darnell, assistant operations manager, Chris Costa, and director of sales, Elizabeth Van Every. “Those people make it possible for this place to run.”
The company’s positive growth and expansion plans, however, create a constant demand for new hires. “We base our hiring on good people, rather than a piece of paper,” he said.
“I’ll tell you a huge secret, from personal experience,” he added. “The key, when you’re looking for good employees, is whether or not they have humility. This is a biggie. If someone understands what humility is, then they’re teachable. If they don’t have that, they aren’t teachable. We always ask them (job applicants) this question: ‘Describe humility.’ It’s amazing how many people can’t do that. Probably half. You can’t hide it. For us, we have a hard time finding good people. It all goes back to that humility thing.”
Employees hail from all walks of life. “We have a couple of individuals here who come from the federal prison system. They’ve worked out well,” he said. “The other thing I tell future employees, ‘You’re gonna be a lot dumber, for a lot longer than you want to be.’ There’s a lot of truth to it. The leather world is an interesting place. You can’t find someone with a lot of leather experience. They need to be trained.”
SLC purchaser Deanna Bass, 43, is still grateful for the coaching she received when first hired. “I knew little or nothing about kinds of leather. Kevin taught me so much. The majority of our employee base comes in with no knowledge. They have to start at the bottom, and learn.”
Folks who work at the shop are encouraged to “go ahead and create,” she added. “There are so many ideas, projects and kits that come from employees, including customers. There’s a lot of collaboration. It has created a great culture. In the company handbook it’s stated: ‘Contribute to the happiness of others around you.’ ”
FROM GARAGE BAND ROCK ‘N’ ROLL TO ROCKIN’ LEATHER COMPANY
Back in the early ’70s, Kevin Hopkins was a young, 20-something growing up in Porte City, Iowa, a wannabe rock ‘n’ roll star with an electric guitar glued to his side. Mesmerized by rock groups like REO Speedwagon, The Marshall Tucker Band and Deep Purple, he and his buddies formed a garage band called Sunshine. “We played a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival songs,” he recalled.
He was, after all, a post-WWII “Boomer,” part of a generation of freewheeling variables who prided themselves on thinking outside the box. According to some experts, this seemingly radical generation grew up to become “active, happy achievers.” In Hopkin’s case, the social theorists got it right.
One day, he got the urge to make a cool guitar strap out of leather. So, he stopped at a Tandy Leather store, then based in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and bought some leather supplies. It turned out his funky guitar strap was a hit with the group’s rhythm guitar and bass players. Before you knew it, Hopkins got into leather crafting. He made belts, handbags, wallets, and did figure carving on leather.
“My leather handicraft was extra money — a way of paying my rent. It wasn’t much more than that,” he said. But, he persevered. Then, on a return trip to the Tandy store, he spotted a sign posted on its door: “Manager Trainee Wanted.” He got the job.
For about a quarter of a century, Hopkins managed Tandy stores in Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa and Missouri, breaking sales records along the way. By 1999, when Tandy announced it was closing its store locations, he pooled his resources and bought the Tandy Leather store that he had been managing in Springfield. He changed its name to Springfield Leather Co.
“We bought the inventory in the store. It was exciting. I was probably well positioned, like nobody else could be. I knew all the vendors and knew where to buy products. All those vendors were wondering: Who are we going to sell our stuff to? They extended credit,” he said.
From the get-go, the company took off and hasn’t stopped growing. “We didn’t feel the 2008 recession,” he said. And, although he no longer has that first, handmade guitar strap, he still plays the guitar. “Nowadays, it’s mostly acoustic. I play just enough to make myself happy. My dog likes to hear it.”
Overall, there is something quite similar between “classic rock” music by the Rolling Stones, Seals & Crofts, Led Zeppelin and the like — which is still blaring out of college dorm windows 40 to 50 years later — and the leather enterprise Hopkins founded. And that is…a lot of esprit de corps and staying power.
“Looking back, it’s been wonderful. The biggest challenge is to give everything its proper priority. We’ve not let the business run us — we run the business,” he said.