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Flowing and Growing

Silver Creek Leather Co. is leading leathercraft supplier in the domestic craft store market

Greg Sartor started Silver Creek Leather in 2002. The company stocks leathers of all colors, textures, and types to use in manufacturing their Realeather products.

By Lynn Ascrizzi

You never know when a real opportunity will come knocking. It might even appear in the guise of a company closeout.

In 2002, Caldwell/Moser Tannery of New Albany, Indiana, in business since 1878, shut its doors. Among its employees was Greg Sartor, who had been working for the tannery for only two years. At the time, he ran its leather lace department and was a minority owner.

“Most of my customers were in the footwear industry, and while running that I added craft lace into the mix. We were making lace at the tannery and shipping it to Korea,” he recalled.

Typically, business shutdowns are devastating events. But Sartor allowed himself to be galvanized by the moment. Instead of seeing a company closeout, he envisioned a door opening. “It was an act of self-defense,” he said, candidly, of his 11th-hour decision to launch a new business as a leathercraft supplier.

His epiphany did not appear magically, like a rabbit pulled out of a hat. It was born largely from personal experience. Sartor had been a leatherworker since high school, so he had a hands-on affinity for the craft. Prior to working at the tannery, for about eight years, he was vice president of merchandise at The Leather Factory, a leathercraft supplier in Fort Worth, Texas.

“I was sitting at my desk with a bunch of unfulfilled customer orders,” he said, of his final hours at the tannery. Other contacts includedtanners he had worked with for years and customers who had sales reps from the craft industry.

After the closure, he acted quickly and bought raw materials and some of the tannery’s factory’s equipment. Before the year ended, he had set up a leathercraft manufacturing business with three employees in a small building in New Albany. One of the first products made there was leather lacing.

Today, Sartor is presidentof Silver Creek Leather Co., LLC., a full-line, wholesale leathercraft supplierbased in a 30,000-square-foot building in Jeffersonville, Indiana, a city set along the Ohio River, only four miles from Louisville.

The company was named after an actual stream, near Jeffersonville, called Silver Creek that flows through Southern Indiana into the Ohio. “It sounds real pleasant,” Sartor reflected, on why the name appealed to him.

ONE COMPANY, DIFFERENT BRANDS

Silver Creek Leather Co., a parent company, offers its products under two retail brands — Realeather and Speedy Stitcher Sewing Awl.

The Realeather brand includes a complete product line of leathercraft supplies: leather lace, leather stamps and punches, leather crafting tools, specialty hardware in a variety of finishes, decorative embellishments like conchos, thread, adhesives, needles, dyes and paints and jewelry components.  Also, smaller cuts of leather, in various colors, finishes and textures are sold as trim pieces, strips and in scrap bags, to fit different project needs.

The brand also offers nearly two dozen complete, all-in-one leathercraft kits designed for beginner hobbyists or advanced crafters. For example, a kit aimed at young crafters, called Discover Leather Craft, provides pre-punched, veg-tan leather parts and step-by-step instructions on how to make a flash drive holder, a visor, a wristband and a bag tag. 

“The best way to see what we do is to go into a Hobby Lobby store. The Realeather brand is carried by many of these,” Sartor said.

The manufacturer also supplies leathercraft products to Boy Scouts of America and to catalog companies like School Specialty, Inc., which offers a large selection of educational school and teacher supplies. For example, their catalog for creative arts and crafts products carries Realeather brand items, like the Cowhide Arrowhead Pendant with Suede Lacing and Key Fob kits.

Another of Silver Creek Leather’s product areas is Custom Leather Manufacturing. “We’ll make customized leather parts that are a component of leather goods, such as custom shoe laces, embossed patches and neckerchief slides for the Boy Scouts,” Sartor explained.

The company occupies a narrow niche, he noted. “Our product line in the craft stores is geared toward beginners or the general hobbyist,” he said, referring to folks who enjoy using leather in creative projects, such as jewelry making, home décor and macramé. “Advanced leather crafters buy our more advanced kits, lacing and tools through distributors like Springfield Leather, Weaver Leather and Oregon Leather.”

ADDING CAPABILITY

In 2018, Silver Creek Leather acquired the Speedy Stitcher from Stewart Manufacturing, Inc., of Poughkeepsie, New York. First patented in 1909, this handy little awl has not changed its basic design in 110 years.

The awl, along with its high-tensile, waxed polyester thread and diamond point needles, has become a traditional part of a craftsperson’s tool chest, especially for on-the-spot, fix-it jobs. Its product line includes sewing kits, replacement threads and needles.

“It’s a great little tool,” said Silver Creek’s digital marketing manager, Kelly Helstern. “Leathercrafters use it to sew heavy-duty material, like canvas boat sails. Or, they use it to repair tents and make quick repairs on things like baseball gloves or boat shoes.” The awl, designed to sew a tight lock stitch, is available across the globe in stores and online.

The Jeffersonville factory began manufacturing the Speedy Stitcher in September 2018. The company has no plans to change the awl’s historic design or parts.“We want to maintain and continue its production,” Sartor said.

“The Speeder Stitcher has brought new management to our production area,” explained sales manager Marty Meredith. “It was a whole new learning curve for employees. New tools had to be made and beyond learning how to make the product, they had to source the materials needed.  Now, everybody is on board, adding new capability to our business.”

That same year, the company also acquired certain assets of Auburn Leather of Auburn, Kentucky.These products, now part of its Custom Leather Manufacturing line, include saddle strings, belt lacing, rawhide leather laces and embossed specialty products.

This fall, the company launched a new website under the Silver Creek Leather name, according to Helstern. “Its purpose is to give a more broad view of the company and to direct people to its different areas,” she explained. 

Helstern handles online marketing activity. “I do digital channels, social media, manage and update websites, add new products and handle print advertising for the web. Half of my job is doing the e-commerce side of things. The main channel I manage is Amazon,” she said.

“Another big portion of Kelly’s work,” Sartor added, “is to support our dealers and distributors with the digital assets that support our products.”

Greg Sartor and Tom Brown have worked together for over 25 years. Tom is the leather expert and is responsible for assisting with the leather purchasing.

HOLDING THE COURSE

Silver Creek Leather purchased and moved to its current Jeffersonville facility in 2016,  “We’ve made a move or expansion every two to three years,” Sartor said, of his company’s 17-year history.

“Jeffersonville is growing. We’re in a booming part of the country, near an industrial park, an Amazon fulfillment center and other businesses. It really is a booming economy. People are spending money on fine jewelry, travel, houses and cars.”

Ironically, a time of prosperity typically heralds a lull in sales for leathercraft suppliers, he pointed out.  “I’ve been in the leathercraft business for 40 years. When a recession hits, leathercrafts do well. When the economy is not so good, people are at home, making crafts and selling them.”

As predicted, the current boom in the U.S. economy has slowed the leathercraft market. “Right now, the craft market is pretty flat and the leathercraft industry follows along with that. Leathercrafts appeal to a very small part of the population of crafters. Only 3 percent of crafters identify themselves as leatherworkers — someone who also might be a knitter, painter or woodworker,” he said.

Despite the current economic headwinds, Silver Creek Leather is holding its own, he affirmed. Ever the optimist, he prefers to underscorethe plus side of the leathercraft niche that his company occupies.

“We have placement in over 3,000 retail chains and craft stores,” he said, citing big box retailers like Michaels, Hobby Lobby and Jo-Ann stores. “Within the last five years, annual retail sales in craft supplies are about $34 billion. There’s lots of room to grow. To broaden our manufacturing capabilities, we’ve maintained sales by branching out into other industries and adding new machinery and talent.It’s one of the reasons why we added other industries, like Speedy Stitcher.”

Top sales come from the big box retail craft stores. “That is how people know our brand and become familiar with our products,” Helstern said.  

“Leather scraps are our top seller,” sales manager Meredith added. “We offer from 8-ounce to 1-pound leather scrap bags. Michaels and Hobby Lobby are our main buyers. We get a request for this all the time. We are serving leatherworkers and the hobbyist who has no background in leatherwork experience — somebody who wants to make some pretty earrings, wall hangings, leather pillows and the like,” she said.

Besides the United States, international sales are being made in countries like Australia, Germany and Japan,” Helstern said. “I have found Japan to be an interesting market. There are a lot of leathercrafters over there. They are detail oriented. The China international market has grown over the years, as brand awareness has spread.” 

AT THE FACTORY

Currently, Silver Creek Leather has about 48 employees, most of whom work in the factory.“We also rely on other sources for manufacturing and packaging. Roughly 85 percent of our goods are made or repackaged in the factory,” Sartor said.

The 12,000-square-foot Jeffersonville shop floor is chockablock with tools and machinery. The remainder of the large facility is dedicated to warehousing, staging, shipping and offices.

“We’ve got specialized lace-cutting machines, clicker and embossing presses, sewing machines, cutting and edge-finishing equipment. We’ve got quite a collection of cutting dies. We had to have special equipment built to wind the laces. There’s a lot of moving parts,” he said.

“Our people out in the shop handle an awful lot of leather,” he continued.They aren’t leatherworkers to begin with, but they get good with it. When cutting a piece of lacing, they have to be precise. It’s a high-skilled position. People work their way up. They may start in assembly or packaging work and move up to cutting leather.

A prolific manufacturer, the busy factory turns out thousands of diverse leathercraft items each month. Finished goods are also being made there, from leather belts to portfolios.

“We produce up to 50,000 yards of leather lace per day. The largest category we sell is leather lace,” Sartor said. Lace leathers include calf, different types of cowhide, pigskin, deerskin and goatskin. A variety of widths, colors and lengths are offered.

“We like to claim we make the best lacing out there. Our competition is not from the U.S., but China and India. Their quality is not as good as ours. All the lace leather we cut has been tanned to our specification. The process involves cutting very narrow strips, so the leathers used must be strong. When you cut leather 1/8_inch wide, it has to have tensile strength,” he said.

Generally, customer lead-time for most orders is 10 to 14 days, depending upon the order.An inventory of finished goods is kept on the shelf and replenished when needed.

“We’re always looking for new trends. We come up with many new ideas to keep our products relevant,” Meredith said. For instance, this year, the company designed a leather earring component, offered in simple geometric shapes, for the chain stores. 

To keep innovation growing, the creativity of company employees is also encouraged, she added. “We turned to our employees and asked if they had any ideas. Some had very good ideas and even came back with finished pieces.  We all share in the excitement of the delivery of new products, or in meeting our goals. We try to engage with employees and let them know that what they do matters. We couldn’t do it without them.”

Some employees have been with the company for more than 10 years. Yet, the current tight labor market makes employee turnover and hiring a constant.“We’re hiring all the time,” Sartor noted.“We’re competing with the Amazon fulfillment center down the street. And, the Louisville airport is the world hub for UPS and hires 2,600 people for seasonal work between now and Christmas. We have to keep competitive with the local workplaces.”

Positive growth often brings growing pains. For Sartor, one of the biggest challenges he faced occurred during a company expansion phase, from 2012 to 2013.  

“We made a jump into more retail stores. That couple of years, we probably added 1,500 more stores — maybe more like 1,800,” he said. “It was a big shift for us. That expansion caused one of our moves. We were making a commitment to our product line and to manufacturing, and needed to have enough people to sustain it.”

The way he sees it, the addition of new product lines, along with new machinery and talent, further broadens the company’s manufacturing capabilities.

“Our business is trending upward, especially for next year. We have been absorbing those couple of purchases we made in 2018, including what it took to bringtwo different businesses and equipment to the plant. Now, we’re equipped to go after more businesses,” he said. 

LEATHERCRAFTS FOR BOY SCOUTS AND VETERANS

One of the favorite private label customers of Silver Creek Leather Co., a leathercraft manufacturer based in Jeffersonville, Indiana, is the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), a 109-year-old, nonprofit organization with about 2.3 million youth participants and 1 million adult volunteers.

The business develops and sells leathercraft products to the Boy Scout’s national organization, which are distributed to their network of stores and camps. But, the company’s interest goes beyond a typical business transaction.

”We donate. We volunteer,” said company president, Greg Sartor, who in his youth was a dedicated member of the Boy Scouts. At age 15, he earned an Eagle Scout medal and badge, the highest achievement in the Scout’s BSA program.

Today, Sartor’s employees volunteer for the scouting organization at the unit, council and national levels. “We’ve sponsored the last four jamborees for the Scout’s leatherwork merit badge. Each year, between 35,000 and 45,000 Scouts are introduced to leatherworking through this merit badge,” he said.

Sartor said he is grateful to have worked for several years on Boy Scout educational material and products, with Tony Laier, former head of research and development for Tandy Leather. “He helped me work on the merit badge pamphlet and merit badge requirements, andalso helped designa lot of our(leathercraft) kits that are used by the Scouts. Laier’s wife, Kay, did the graphic work on many of the craft kits we offer.”

Another outreach effort on Sartor’s part is making leathercraft available to U.S. veterans.

“I got started in leatherwork, thanks to my father. During the Korean War, my dad got to work in a hobby craft shop at a U.S. Marine base in southern California.Leathercraft was one of the hobbies available to the men. In the post-WWII era, crafting became popular and was used in rehab for patients of VA hospitals,” he said.

For the past couple of years, Silver Creek Leather has sponsored annual workshops for veterans in Prescott, Arizona.“Over the years, we have worked with an organization called Help Heal Veterans (info@healvets.org),”aSocial Services charity based in Winchester, California.

Overall, encouraging Boy Scouts and U.S. veterans to create leatherwork projects, reflects Sartor’s personal and professional interest in bringing the love of this craft form to a new generation.

“Younger crafters want to make and personalize something of their own that they can’t buy in a discount store. They’re not getting that experience in school or having the satisfaction of making something tangible,” he said.

CONTACTS

Silver Creek Leather Co., LLC

5035 Keystone Blvd.

Jeffersonville, IN 47130

Greg Sartor, president

812-945-8520

Fax: 812-945-8521

info@silvercreekleather.com

realeather.com

silvercreekleather.com

Kelly Helstern, digital marketing manager

Marty Meredith, sales manager

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