Preserving Leather for Generations
By Danna Burns-Shaw
Family businesses are the backbone of the American economy. Did you know that the greatest part of America’s wealth lies with family-owned businesses, and, that small family businesses employ just over half of US workers?
Family businesses have a deep-seated culture, founded with core values. They have a defined purpose and they care about their community and their employees. But sadly, few family businesses last past the second generation; they are purchased, acquired or simply close.
Statistics show that only 12% of family businesses survive by the third generation and less than 3% after that. So it was truly great to speak with one of the exceptions, Thomas Angelo, the passionate third-generation owner of Blackrock Leather ‘N’ Rich. I wanted to learn the story of why this enthusiastic 30-year-old decided to buck the odds and purchase his grandparents’ (Jake and Dixie Gray) 40-year-old leather care business back in 2012 – while still in his 20s.
Within minutes of speaking with Thomas, it was clear that he purchased the family business because of his complete and utmost respect for his departed grandfather, and a burning desire to carry on his legacy.
In 1976, Jake Gray and a few friends put their entrepreneurial spirit together and opened a small, shoe repair store on Derby Street in Pekin, Illinois; a moderate size town of 30,000 people, located on the Illinois River.
They soon realized that they had a captive audience to purchase new boots, so they added a few boots to sell to the clients bringing in repairs. Along the way, they added western wear and leather goods, adding additional income. They named their shop Christian Brothers Western Store. Before long, they expanded their business to include six retail locations throughout Illinois.
During that busy time of expansion, Jack and his friend decided to use their limited chemistry skills to create a leather-care product to sell with each pair of boots. Their end goal was a leather crème that would do everything: clean, condition, waterproof and give leather a beautiful luster. With persistent hard work, Jake and his friend used a combination of oils, creams and waxes and came up with the perfect recipe for their leather-care product; they named it Blackrock Leather ‘N’ Rich.
It immediately took off…people raved about the leather crème, telling everyone they knew about it. Imagine their surprise and delight by the success of their new product, concocted in the back of their store. Soon, Blackrock was being sold all over the United States as a proven alternative to soaps, oils, water repellents and other leather conditioners. Jake’s dream was realized.
“Blackrock is made following my grandfather’s recipe. With each jar of Blackrock, we’re carrying on his legacy. At the heart of our product is carnauba wax. Carnauba wax is a vegetable wax, obtained from the leaves of a Brazilian palm tree known as the ‘Tree of Life.’ Carnauba wax is the hardest and most resistant of natural waxes. We use it because of the protection it offers compared to other waxes. When used on leather, carnauba imparts a high luster and exceptionally brilliant, long-lasting shine.
We’ve been making this product the same way since 1976. Blackrock is made in small batches, to ensure it is of the highest quality. We don’t cut corners.” –Thomas Angelo
Life and Death
Grandparenting is a wonderful job; it allows you to love unconditionally and assist your adult children as they juggle their busy, full-scheduled lives. As grandparents you are not responsible for the day-to-day necessities of combing hair, brushing teeth, cleaning rooms, homework, teaching them about dangers and making sure they wash behind their ears.
Grandparents usually know just what to say or do to help mentor a young eager child and tend to teach children with a hands-on approach, allowing them to learn through activities.
Because of his entrepreneurial grandfather, Thomas has vivid, priceless memories of his youth. Jake invited his grandchildren into the back of the store to assist him with filling jars and shipping orders of Blackrock Leather ‘N’ Rich. Being a part of what their grandfather had produced, and seeing the products being shipped all over the country, gave them a sense of pride and accomplishment.
The grandkids worked several hours and would receive $20 for their contribution. Thomas recalls thinking, “WOW, 20 bucks, that’s a lot of money,” as he stuffed the Jefferson in his pocket. Thomas loved working with his grandfather in the Blackrock business; he was always willing and eager to learn more about how the business operated…dreaming that someday he would own the business.
Life is not always fair and unfortunately Jake became sick and was diagnosed with a brain tumor at an early age. This was difficult for the family, watching their hero struggle with poor health for several years.
Sadly in August of 2008, Jake, only in his 60s, succumbed to the debilitating disease, leaving Dixie and her family to carry on the Blackrock family business, without its founding father.
Thomas was just leaving his teenage years when he lost his grandfather; his grandmother encouraged him to continue with his college studies and graduate. For years Thomas had been advocating that his desire was to purchase the family business from his grandparents. So with the promised diploma in hand, Dixie sold the business to Thomas in 2012, four years after the death of his loving grandfather.
New Vision, New Energy
Thomas Angelo is extremely passionate and enthusiastic about Blackrock Leather. He considers it a point of pride that all of their products are 100% American made. The raw ingredients for Leather ‘N’ Rich are mixed in small batches at their facility in Nashville, Tennessee, to ensure it meets the highest quality standards. They use jars and lids sourced from a company in Chicago and, once filled, labels made in South Carolina are applied in-house. It’s a labor-intensive process. But at Blackrock, quality trumps quantity.
“The relationships we build with our suppliers and consumers matter to us. It is a legacy that we feel fortunate to be able to carry on. Our goal is to help others take care of their leather goods – to carry on their own legacy. Leather is an investment and with proper care, it can last lifetimes. We want to help people realize this.”
Small business owners have to wear many hats. Thomas has had to learn to be and do many things. He is skilled at bootstrapping, budgeting, reusing and recycling, and an eager learner that studies and works on his business every day. He alleviates stress by getting up early and trail running through the beautiful woods in Nashville…unplugged and away from people and business.
A millennial, Thomas brought the digital world to Blackrock. Prior to his takeover, the business’s marketing was strictly word of mouth. Now, Blackrock Leather has multiple social media sites, as well as a superb website that tells their story, explains how to use their products (including impressive before and after shots) and gives information on where to purchase the products.
Thomas has also ventured out and attends shows, which gives him the opportunity to meet clients and build relationships. He’s able to show how to use the products for the best results and learn the needs of end consumers. By attending the Custom Boot and Saddle Maker’s Roundup in Wichita Falls, Texas, he realized that they needed to extend their line to include a 16oz jar for the saddle and leather shops.
Thomas dreams big. He dreams that Blackrock becomes a household name “like WD-40®,” that there will be a jar in every household and all stores that carry leather-care products will carry Blackrock. He knows that his biggest obstacle is scaling his business with thoughtful, manageable growth. He knows that dreaming big requires time and commitment – two things he certainly has going for him.
Thomas, unlike many third-generation owners, is not looking to turn a quick buck by selling it off. His heart is genuinely devoted to fulfilling the “Big Dream” …the dream of carrying on the legacy that his late grandfather forged.