By Lynn Ascrizzi
Like many a small enterprise in its start-up phase, ColsenKeane Leather, LLC of Charlotte, North Carolina, had a humble beginning.
“I began making leather goods in my screened-in porch. It was the first time I actually worked with my hands,” said company founder and owner, Scott Hofert. “There’s something sacred about working with your hands,”
At the time of his epiphany, Hofert was working in the cross-cultural, non-profit service sector. At first, he and his wife, Taryn, had been involved with a Virginia-based, international humanitarian organization. They traveled widely, serving in poverty-stricken villages and cities.
After returning to the states, the Hoferts settled in Charlotte. In 2005, he co-founded a non-denominational, spiritual community called Watershed, currently based in Chantilly, a Charlotte neighborhood.
He loved his life of service, yet, for some reason, “I was a little bit bored,” he confessed, during a TEDx Charlotte talk that he presented in November 2017. He wondered: “What’s next?”
He realized that he had always resisted working with his hands. But now, ancestral DNA seemed to be whispering in his ear. After all, in the 1920s, his great-grandfather started a jewelry business in Kenmore, New York, near Buffalo.Hofert’s grandfather built clocks and his dad, Pepper Hofert, is a skilled watchmaker.
It also occurred to him that he liked all things leather. So, he bought “a hide of leather and a fistful of tools,” and began doing leathercrafting at his makeshift home studio. “I learned from the culture and ethos of small business,” he said, referring to family influences.
That was 2010. During the day, he worked at Watershed. But, for three or four nights a week, he fabricated small leather goods, like wallets, belts and comb sheaths.That same year, then-Apple chief Steve Jobs introduced the iPad. Hofert bought one immediately and crafted a simple, hand-stitched leather case to protect his new purchase from scratches. At his wife’s encouragement, he posted the case on Etsy. It quickly sold. He posted more of his leather products. And they sold.
He moved his budding leather business to a 10×10-foot shed and hired a friend to help. Business grew even more, so he moved his enterprise to a workspace in the trendy Charlotte neighborhood of Plaza Midwood. He named the business after his two young sons — Colsen, now 15, and Keane, now 12. Things were moving up.
This year marks ColsenKeane Leather’s successful, first decade. A 10-year celebratory event is being planned for November 2020. Special events are also being contemplated for the spring-summer season. The company will provide details later.
Now, Hofert, 50, can better understand his father’s wish for him to join the three-generation family business. “I hope my sons will be involved in this business. The oldest works summers in the shop. He can sew and stitch. He takes friends over there to make wallets and belts. I have a longtime ideal that they will join in,” he said.
Today, the leather goods business owns a 6,000-square-foot facility in Elizabeth, a well-established Charlotte neighborhood known for its historic homes and gorgeous, big trees that canopy many of its residential streets. The business occupies 3,000 square feet of that facility, a space shared by its retail store, workshop, warehouse and shipping areas.
Interestingly, the retail store merges with workshop space. Customers can watch expert craftspeople building leather goods at their benches. “The retail and creation areas are together in one space. It’s retail and manufacturing, all in one,” Hofert said.
Altogether, 30 to 40 core leather products are made in the workshop. These include bags, satchels, backpacks, totes, duffels, clutches, attaché cases, wallets, checkbook covers, Apple watchbands, iPad cases, iPhone sheaths, mouse pads, desk blotters, dog collars, journal covers, key fobs, guitar straps, leather work aprons and much more.
About 80 percent of sales are made online through the company’s website and social media platforms. The wait time between a customer’s order and delivery is generally two weeks.
The retail area displays a sampling of everything the company makes in leather. And, as a result of partnering with local small businesses, the store also offers “provisions,” gifts like fine colognes, candles, soaps, hardwood cutting boards, bar tools, pewter hip flasks and jewelry.
“We’re working with fellow local businesses. We’re being involved with the community itself. That’s our ethos. We’re propping each other up,” said Bay Robinson, the company’s director of operations.
The relatively small business has 10 employees, including Hofert, its main designer. “I get on the bench, once in a while. Now, I focus on product design, customer service, procuring clients and organizing workflow,” he said. The work team ranges in age, from a woman in her early 20s to a man in his mid-70s, who has been with the company for nine years.
“We’ve got four amazing, creative leathersmiths and two people helping with operations. We do a ton of custom work. We’ve got a big order coming through for dozens of bags,” Hofert noted, this past February. “To pull that off and make it happen, you have to have the right machinery, inventory and space in place, and the workflow working smoothly. Being inefficient can be expensive.”
A HIGHLY CUSTOMIZABLE LINE
ColsenKeane products have a distinctly identifiable, straightforward rugged style. Goods are generally made of thicker and sturdier leather than typically used to create handbags and other products.
“A lot of leather out there is sophisticated. Ours is over-engineered by design. It has an aged quality. It’s casual. Somehow, rugged manliness can be expressed in the corporate workplace with our bags, where men have to wear a white shirt, suit and tie,” Hofert said.
For example, their Crazy Horse leathers are rubbed with special-purpose waxes, giving the cowhide’s tight-grain pattern a distressed, “antique” patina with the look and feel of an heirloom. “It easily responds to touch,” he explained. “The leather changes color and texture.”
Not surprisingly, about 65 percent of their customers are men, ages 35 to 65. A specially designated women’s collection offers a more subtly refined line of bags, totes, clutches and more. Yet, the products still embody the company’s signature look.
“We have a significant number of women’s goods. That’s a strong part of our business. Women also like to purchase gifts for the men in their lives. Our clients include educators, university teachers, professors, engineers, architects and people who spend time outside, enduring the elements,” he said.
Besides Crazy Horse, over a dozen, creatively named leather types and finishes are offered, such as Scotch Grunge, described at the company website as, “a veg-tan cowhide packed with waxes and oils, which makes it easy to wipe off rain, dust or snow.” Another example is Glazed Tan, described as a dense and supple, “full-grain buffalo hide with an almost crackled finish,” that is “insanely durable.”
Descriptions of these and other leather variations are posted at their website under Our Leather. (Scroll down to Our ColsenKeane Leather Library.) Since most people are not that well-versed in leather lore, the descriptions can help prospective clients make an informed decision. Leather swatches can also be requested.
Products are mostly built of cowhide sourced from U.S. tanneries, like Horween Leather Co. and Wickett & Craig. “We work hard to find tanneries. Some leather is sourced internationally. We do a lot of buffalo hides from Turkey,” he said.
Some customers, who fly into Charlotte for a business meeting, stop by to shop. They can touch and see the leather, take all their items out of their own bag and try ColsenKeane’s. Or, they can schedule time with a leathersmith working at the bench, who can walk them through the leathercrafting process.
In the company program, Build Your Own Bag, “customers can actually take part in making their bag in the workshop, to their specs, cutting and stitching as much as they want, rolling out leather, punching holes, putting buckles on straps. Some spend three to five hours doing leather crafting,” Hofert said.
Operations manager, Bay Robinson, 28, fields client questions, works on custom projects, draws up designs with customers and makes sure customers are happy, he said.
“The vast majority of the bags we sell are highly customizable,” Robinson added. “Not many companies offer that level of custom work. The customers benefit from that.”
A significant portion of that customization is created through direct, personal, and sometimes, hands-on customer input. A customizing section can be found at their website. “Every week we do a variety of custom work for our clients, like adding side pockets, inserts and dimensions,” Hofert noted.
Robinson, who grew up on a farm in Georgia and has a great love of equestrian tack, riding, training horses and dogs, and doing yoga, has observed that those who customize their leather products want to be creative in their everyday lives, but are stymied by the demands of the work day.
“They’re doing the 9-to-5 circuit, and by the time they get home and do dinner — blink — they have to start all over again! They may be banking executives or lawyers, people who do important work, but who can’t get as creative at their job as they would like,” he said.
He recalled a recent customer who reached out with a specific bag in mind. “But he didn’t know the details — how the bag would come together. We walked him through the process and helped him create the bag from scratch, based on how it was going to be used.”
Sometimes, a one-on-one customer consult might involve five conversations, through email or in person, he added. “They might want to think about what they want. We work closely with our sales leads to help them create their own custom experience, which helps maintain customer satisfaction and grow sales.”
Hofert offered another example of their unique customer service. “A guy pulled up with his mid-70s, vintage BMW motorcycle. He wanted leather bags for the back of the bike that expressed age. So, we drew it out for him. The biker said, ‘Yes! That’s what I want.’ He got his bike bags three weeks later.”
Customizing products takes extra time and care. ColsenKeane products come with a solid price tag. Prices range from $20 for a key fob to $450 for a guaranteed-for-life tote in full-grain, veg-tan cowhide, and up to a couple of thousand for a limited-run satchel or bag.
“This is not a cheap process,” Robinson admitted. “This product will be a piece that customers will carry for a very long time and pass down — something to be excited about. It’s a buy-it-once mentality.”
“It’s slow fashion — an intentional, slow process done by hand,” Hofert added. “Fashion is typically quick production out of China. We have a slow, methodical process.”
The bottom line is, their accessible custom designing, combined with a personalized, welcoming customer approach, is bringing steady growth and winning kudos. “I continue to be amazed when clients send us Christmas gifts. One guy comes in with bourbon every year. People bring pies. Clients are very good to us,” he said.
Most sales at ColsenKeane Leather, LLC, of Charlotte, North Carolina, are made online through their website. “And people also call in. We don’t mind nurturing the process,” said company founder-owner, Scott Hofert. “Social media, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, is also helpful. They provide a narrative for the goods we make.”
Their retail store, situatedin the same large space as the workshop, accounts for about 20 percent of sales. “People who come in the door typically purchase key fobs, wallets or journals; online people order heftier items,” he said.
“We’re seeing more movement to the local sales shop,” he added. “Our local presence is growing. Being in Charlotte, we’re 20 minutes from the airport. People in transit stop by.
To encourage retail traffic, the business has come up with some creative enticements. “Towards spring, every Saturday morning, the store serves mimosas — champagne and orange juice. Visitors can hang around the benches and watch things made in front ofthem,” said director of operations, Bay Robinson.
“Always offer customers something new,” he said. “If they bought the wallet and the journal, at some point they’re going to go for the bag. Accessories keep customers coming back. A good 52 percent of our sales are return customers.”
Offering to put corporate logos on volume gifts, like leather iPad cases or satchels, has proven to be rewarding. Corporations that they’ve worked with include Subaru, FedEx and General Motors. They’ve also put customized logos on leather menu covers and coasters for local restaurants.
One of the recent corporate sales that the company scored was a large order for their #4313 satchels made of Crazy Horse leather, “a cool cowhide from a Wisconsin tannery,” Robinson noted.
“To advance, you need a highly-capable work force,” Hofert said. “For some reason, we have some of the best teams we’ve ever had. There is little turnover, good continuity and shared experience. The team works well together. They’re gifted and creative. Your best leather worker is a problem solver.”
When advertising, choose venues that target your customer profile, he suggested. “We have advertised in airline magazines. A lot of people who own our stuff travel. They’ll flip through a magazine. It’s been a significant way to communicate. An informed customer is our best client.”
And, he advised, “Whatever works today will not work tomorrow. Always plan for the next system.”
TO FIND OUT MORE
ColsenKeane Leather, LLC.
Scott Hofert, founder, owner
Bay Robinson, director of operations
1707 East 7th Street
Charlotte, NC 28204
Facebook — ColsenKeane Leather
Instagram — @colsenkeane
Hours: Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
(Evenings and weekends by appointment)
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