More than Exotics
By Nick Pernokas
When John G. Mahler started as a salesman for a heel company in Chicago in 1948, he couldn’t have guessed at the events that were happening on the other side of the world that would affect his family. In South Africa an effort was being made by local ostrich producers in the Klein Karoo region to revitalize the floundering ostrich business. Once the market was reestablished for meat, the next thing was to find a way to use the ostrich byproducts. By 1969, a local tannery had been founded in Klein Karoo to tan ostrich skins. The beauty of the leather made it very popular with the high-fashion industry. In the 1970s, the durable ostrich leather was found to be great for making cowboy boots and it took off in America. Political turmoil in South Africa made it difficult to obtain in the United States, but when it was, it came through John G. Mahler.
In 1978, John’s nephew, Chuck Larson, joined the John Mahler Company. Riding the wave of ostrich leather popularity, they sold exotic leathers, primarily ostrich, to the boot and shoe trade. In 1992, John Mahler passed away. Chuck and Dave Durland started Durland-Larson Sales, Inc. Eventually Chuck’s son, Eric Larson, joined the family trade. When Dave Durland retired, Chuck and Eric teamed up with a competitor and formed a partnership known as Kelly-Larson Sales. Now the company has morphed into the Larson Leather Company, with Chuck and Eric at the helm.
“What we’ve tried to do is go from selling exotics to being a full-line house for the boot and shoe trades and the belt trade,” says Chuck, vice president of Larson Leather.
Their offices in Bedford, Texas, include a showroom where a customer can check out their wares, but their warehouse in El Paso has a 17,000-square-foot warehouse and showroom facility, manned by five employees. A customer can look through the warehouse and see 50-60 color and finish combinations in the ostrich alone. Customers like getting to see the full inventory, rather than having a skin selected for them. Larson Leather does qualify what product that the craftsman intends to use the leather for, so they can direct them to the size and quality that will best suit the job.
“It’s a nice way to work with the customer. We can bring them in the warehouse before we work with them in the back. They may see something they didn’t know we had,” says Eric Larson, president, owner and third-generation Larson in the business.
Their primary customer (market) in El Paso is the booming local boot and shoe industry. Their customers range from the larger boot manufacturers to hundreds of smaller shops. Many buyers come across from Juarez, Chihuahua and Leon, Mexico.
“A lot of those customers like to come in the warehouse and they like to see what they’re getting, before we ship it down to them in Mexico,” says Eric.
“We have better quality, pricing and finishes than they can get in Mexico,” says Chuck.
Larson Leather sources their exotic leathers worldwide. Their ostrich leather comes from the largest ostrich tannery in the world, Klein Karoo in South Africa. The Larson’s relationship with them goes back to the 1970s. They obtain caiman from Columbia, stingray from Thailand and other leathers from England, Brazil and Zimbabwe.
“You have to go where the animal is to get the product,” says Chuck.
They recently installed a photo studio at the warehouse, so customers can immediately see new leathers and finishes on their website when a shipment comes in.
“There’s always something new available,” says Brenden “TJ” Grassmann, product coordinator. “We want people to be able to see what’s new. Business moves pretty quickly and we think we should keep up with it.”
Larson Leather is evolving into a broader scope of service. They want the customer to come to them for any of their leather needs in the trade, not just the exotic leathers.
When Eric Larson started working for the company in 1999, the primary leather they sold was ostrich. Since then, they’ve branched out to become a one-stop-shopping experience for the boot and shoe industry.
“We want to sell them all aspects of the leather, from soles, heels and shanks to upper leathers,” says Eric. “We don’t just do boots either. We supply the handbag, wallet and belt trades as well.”
This results in a large inventory. Larson tries to have enough available so that the customer is never in a bind on finishing their orders. For example, they stock 8,000 ostrich skins as well as 5,000 caiman crocodiles, in a wide variety of colors at any given time.
Larson Leather attributes some of their success to their willingness to sell one skin to a small shop, on up to a large wholesale order for a larger company. This creates more work for them, but they feel that it’s worth it.
“A big part of our business is our flexibility,” says TJ.
Larson Leather does numerous leather shows including Denver and the Wichita Falls show. They try to keep abreast of what the “hot” fashion colors will be, as well as the type of leathers that will be popular by talking to the boot makers there. They also keep up with what the fashion trends are in Europe through the Milan Leather Show in Italy. Generally, the hot colors in mainstream fashion there will show up in the United States, even in the western industry, in the next year.
The distance between Bedford and El Paso creates a lot of hustling on the part of Chuck, Eric and TJ.
“We are on a plane all the time,” laughs Chuck. “We take turns going down there for a few days every week.”
The Bedford headquarters offer them easy access to the DFW airport, which is convenient for national travel and also close proximity to some of their largest customers’ headquarters. El Paso, on the other hand, is an international city with its thumb on the pulse of the American boot industry. Both locations are an integral part of Larson Leather.
“This is, by far, the best year that we’ve ever had,” says Chuck. “The economy is good, there’s a bit of an Urban Cowboy going on around the world and we think we’ve built a reputation with our customer base, so that they come to us first for leather. That takes a long time to establish. And we take pride in it.”
To find out about Larson Leather’s many products, go to www.larsonleatherco.com, or call (915-592-0404 (El Paso) or 817-399-0044 (Bedford).
1812 Reliance Parkway
Bedford, Texas 76021