Know Your Customer
By Nick Pernokas
Jack Gully decided to take a break from the plains of Montana in Miles City. He was hauling a load of horses home to South Dakota. As he ate breakfast in the motel, an older gentleman walked up. Jack didn’t recognize him at first.
The man said, “You damn sure knew what you were doing!”
Jack looked at the man blankly, until he began to talk. He had come into one of Jack’s trade show booths the year before and tried to buy some heavy, oil-tanned chaps for use in the brush. Jack had asked where he was going to ride, and what he was going to do. Upon hearing his reply, Jack had steered him to some lighter, more suitable chaps. This chance encounter on the road, gave the gentleman an opportunity to show his appreciation. It was nothing new for Jack though; he lives by the rule of knowing his customer.
Jack Gully was raised on a farm in eastern South Dakota. At the University of South Dakota at Springfield, he discovered the world of rodeo when some friends put him on a bareback bronc. Jack was hooked.
“I had always wanted to be a cowboy,” says Jack. “It wasn’t just a kid thing – it was a passion.”
In 1977, Jack Gully was teaching high school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Many of his students were interested in rodeo, and Jack tried to encourage this to keep them enthused about school. He started a rodeo class, so they would be eligible to compete in high school rodeos. The class included practicing on a bucking machine, braiding reins and hand stitching a pair of rodeo chaps. At the end of the class, Jack donated the chaps he made for the rodeo club to sell. Someone saw the “fundraising” chaps and asked Jack to build them a pair.
“I was buck-stitching them all together and doing everything by hand,” laughs Jack.
The couple that Jack was living with, Bud and Ada May, had a Kenmore sewing machine they taught Jack how to sew on. The chap leather was a little heavy though…and Jack wrecked the machine. So, Bud went to town and bought Jack a commercial machine, and said to pay him back when he could.
The chap business was steady from the local cowboys. Jack had an income all summer, when many of his fellow teachers didn’t. He made up a dozen pairs of chaps during the week, and he’d sell them at the rodeos he competed in on the weekends. Jack rode broncs and bulls, and he would hang his wares in back of the chutes while he was getting ready. The $55-basic pair was good income then; Jack even made a really fancy pair for $250.
When Jack left the reservation, he also temporarily left chap making behind as well. In 1979, a bareback bronc went over the fence with Jack and shattered his right arm, ending his rodeo career.
After that, Jack worked in various sales jobs and became a successful sales manager. His time in high-level sales gave Jack an education on how to sell. By 1987, Jack and his girlfriend, Kelly, were living in Reno, Nevada. Then a trip to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko jogged some old memories.
“I told Kelly that I used to make some pretty nice stuff,” says Jack.
When they returned to Reno, Jack went to the Tandy store to get leather to make some belts. The Singer Sewing Machine dealer had a shop right next door to Tandy, and there was a sewing machine head for sale in the window. Jack had $300 cash in his pocket and after negotiating, Jack had a sewing machine without a table or a motor. Jack found a motor, and made a few chaps. A table followed, and he was back in business.
In 1988, Jack and Kelly got married. The couple moved to Grand Junction, Colorado, where Jack cowboyed and made a few pairs of chaps on the side. Jack rode for a grazing pool that had 2500 mother cows and calves running on a 55,000-acre lease in the mountains. The chaps were tested in the everyday ranch work, and other cowboys took notice. After a while, Jack was making chaps for a living and cowboying on the side.
A lot of the cowboys wore chinks in that region, and they would tell Jack what they liked and what they didn’t like about them. He listened, and incorporated their suggestions into his designs.
“After two summers up there, I finally felt like I had the best pair of chinks in the country.”
One day, M.L. Leddy’s Saddle Shop called and asked Jack if he’d like to make chaps for them. It was the beginning of a 28-year relationship.
“All of the chaps that were bought through Leddy’s, I made.”
As people found out about Jack, and Leddy’s, he was able to grow his business. He switched styles around for different customers, and K Bar J Leather ended up private labeling for 15-20 stores.
“I learned a long time ago that if you’re going to be in the wholesale business, you need to learn to private label. The only place your name needs to be is in the ‘pay to the order of’ space.”
Volume increased and Jack began to outsource part of the work. He kept everything to his demanding specs though, to ensure that his quality stayed high. Jack built part of the K Bar J chaps in Colorado, but he hired some contract labor in South Dakota to finish the easier parts of assembly.
By 2002, the Gully’s were living back home in South Dakota.
In the mid 2000’s, K Bar J began to diversify their products. Jack could see that the pool of western-oriented riders was not going to grow; there just weren’t more moving up through the ranks.
“After the baby boomers were gone, the market was going to decrease,” says Jack. “So you look at the technology in your shop, and see what other products your people can make without having to retool the whole shop.”
Jack began to make holsters and did well as the gun craze grew in the next few years. His Back Country Chest Holster has become his most popular style and is a staple at the tradeshows. He also increased the production of notebooks and briefcases. K Bar J bought a laser so they could offer economical customization, which opened the door for bidding on awards. Kelly started a separate wholesale website called Cowgirl Classics, for purses and other leather aimed at a female demographic, and recently added a one-of-a-kind retail site, Red Horse Design Company.
“I realized early in life that I knew too many old cowboys that didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, and I wasn’t going to be put in that situation.”
In 2017, K Bar J was selected to be the sole representative for South Dakota in Washington, D.C., for the Made in America Showcase. The program was designed to demonstrate the wealth of products that were being made across America. The Gully’s were on their way to the White House. The K Bar J products were proudly displayed next to others from all 50 states. Their products were reviewed by President Trump, as well as many other high-ranking officials.
Jack goes to three different trade shows during the year. One of his main reasons is so he knows what the current trends are and what to sell. You need to see what is hot in various disciplines, as well as different regions. He believes this market research is extremely important, and you can’t get it staying home at your shop. By taking the pulse of the retail industry, he can better adjust his wholesale business to what people will want to purchase from his dealers. Jack also feels that you have to take a hard look at your product, and ask yourself if you would pay retail for it. If you’re selling a product wholesale, would you pay your price plus 35 – 48 percent tacked on it? Keystone pricing has become rare.
Today, all of K Bar J’s chaps are built in his 6400-square-foot Newell, South Dakota shop where they employ nine local women. K Bar J also has an additional 1200-square-foot holster shop. The chaps make up 90 percent of K Bar J’s products. Jack’s zippered shotgun-style Versatility Chaps and his high-end, working chinks with buckles are the best sellers. Smooth-out leather in earth tone colors is the favorite, 2 to 1. Basket-stamped belts are the most popular.
“The general public loves the look of hand-carved floral, but they do not like paying for hand-carved floral.”
Jack will go to 2 to 3-ounce leather in his show chaps, his middle-of-the-road chaps average 4 to 4 ½-ounce and some of his chinks are around 5-ounce. Retail chaps start around $550 and chinks start around $300. There is also an economy grade, which is a little cheaper, and Jack tries to keep 100-200 pairs in stock. He tries to appeal to the masses in both sizes and style. If he has to do a custom job, he will charge for it.
“Two things make a good chap: good leather and the right measurements.”
Jack and Kelly’s participation in equine events keeps them in contact with their customers. Kelly has won the AQHA Select World Show reining twice, as well as a Reserve World Championship. She has also been twice Reserve World Champion in the box-only cow horse class. Jack has been 4th in the world in the Non-Pro Two Rein NRCHA class. Jack team ropes as a header these days, but he enjoys roping on the ranch even more. In fact, he hosts a branding at his ranch every year.
Jack considers business for the western manufacturer solid these days. It may never get back to the pre-recession levels, but it’s still good. There’s something to be said for being able to make a living doing what you want to do, and associating with people you enjoy being around. To date, K Bar J has produced over 80,000 pairs of chinks and chaps.
Jack doesn’t plan on slowing down.
“I’ll probably have to serve lunch at my funeral.”
If you’d like to find out more about the K Bar J Leather products, you can visit: kbarjleather.com, kellyscowgirlclassics.com, redhorsedesigncompany.com or call 605-456-1332.
203 Girard Avenue
PO Box 107
Newell, SD 57760