Ten leather companies share how the pandemic affected their lives and businesses
By Lynn Ascrizzi
This past fall, we wondered how leather retailers and manufacturers have been weathering the infamous 2020 coronavirus.
To find out, we talked to a diverse sampling of the owners and operators of 10 leather companies, large and small, who in the recent past have kindly shared know-how, family histories, beautiful product shots and glimpses of themselves and their workspaces.
It would have been wonderful to have talked with everyone. But alas, time and space did not allow.
HARRIS LEATHER & SILVERWORKS
“The thing that changed for us, in the spring, was that we were shut down for six weeks as a non-essential business. During that time, many horse shows cancelled and there were no shows to go to. That put us in a hole,” said Phil Harris, co-owner with his brother, Eddie Harris, of Harris Leather & Silverworks, located in State Road, North Carolina.
Their company’s primary products are high-end, hand-built, decorative saddles, other artfully crafted leather goods and one-of-a-kind silver and gold products. Their bread and butter is the Quarter horse show industry.
“When things started to open up again in May, the horse shows were huge. Everyone wanted to see horse shows. But, as far as business was concerned, it was very strange. One week, a large horse show was just OK. The next one was great. The next one, just OK. In the past, sales-wise, things were always good across the board,” Phil Harris said.
He guessed that people were more focused on showing their horses, instead of buying, and that economic uncertainty played a role.
The really bad news came when the All-American Quarter Horse Congress, held annually in Columbus, Ohio, cancelled in July. “Usually it lasts an entire month and we’re there for four weeks. That show had been a mega part of last year’s sales. This (cancellation) hurt us tremendously.”
Fortunately, their second largest show, the NSBA (National Snaffle Bit Association) World Championship Show held in Tulsa, “was really, really good. It had a huge impact on the bottom line. But it didn’t make up for the Quarter Horse Congress.”
Adding to overall stress, the company had to close for two weeks. “We had an outbreak of COVID in our workplace. It’s the real deal,” he said.
The setbacks, however, prompted a resilient search for new venues. “We’re going to cross over to the U.S. National Arabian & Half-Arabian Championship Horse Show to be held in Tulsa, the last week and a half in October. We’ve never done this before.” And, he planned to do the Tom Powers Futurity, set for December 2020, at the new World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida.
“To be honest, we didn’t see much change,” said bootmaker Will Khadzhi, of COVID’s effect on their work at JK Boots in Spokane, Washington. Khadzhi is co-owner, with his brothers Tim and Jason, of the workboot company founded and run by their dad, John Khadzhi.
“From talking with our own suppliers, there hasn’t been much buzz. We personally, haven’t been affected. I don’t know why. Most of our customers are essential workers. That might be a reason. Our customer niche is linemen, wildland firefighter guys and farmers — people from all over, everywhere, who put in 10-to-12-plus hours per day,” he explained.
So far, the family business has had no problems with deliveries. “There have been some delays, but nothing major. Very minimal delays. Some of our suppliers have been short staffed,” he noted.
Did this year’s ghastly firestorms erupting in California and in Northwestern states, like Washington and Oregon, create record sales for the company’s firefighter boots? “The wildland fires appear to be a part of life and don’t affect sales,” he said. “It’s an annual thing that the Northwest has to deal with,” he said, stoically. “You have to stay a healthy person. The family is OK.”
LARSON LEATHER CO.
“The company did not lay anyone off. We have 13 employees — a very strong, loyal crew. We decided that we were going to keep our guys employed. We all have families,” said Eric Larson, who runs Larson Leather Company with his dad, Chuck Larson. Their corporate office is in Bedford, Texas; their 17,000-square-foot warehouse and showroom is in El Paso.
Larson Leather deals in exotics such as ostrich, shark, crocodile, stingray and the like. Products are sourced worldwide, from places like Zimbabwe.
“The biggest issue this year — we can’t get our exotics flown in,” Eric Larson said. “We normally airfreight. Most African countries had shut down international travel. By doing that, it limited in and out flights. We’re having to ship by sea, which takes a lot longer and is way more expensive. Sea freight is overbooked. It takes about a month to get things by sea. And, the cost of airfreight has more than doubled. Airfreight was way, way too expensive!”
Moreover, deliveries have been taking much longer. “Orders from Zimbabwe were delayed a month and half. We’ve missed a few deliveries. This created logistic problems for most everybody around the world. It’s becoming a nightmare. There is a lot of demand and limited options.
“We feel fortunate, though, that we’ve been able to ride this out,” he added. Their customer base is a big plus-factor, which includes mom-and-pop shops and small companies. “The pandemic has been very stressful on bigger companies, like big shoe factories, which had to shut down in mid-March. A lot of them, however, reopened around the first of August.”
When the company opened its El Paso facility, masks had to be provided for everyone. Orders were delivered curbside in a front reception area. “A limited amount of customers have been able to come into the back warehouse to pick up a product. We pack and they take it away. Masks are still required,” he said.
Despite their best efforts, sales took a hit. “Our numbers are down by about 50 percent. Some customers are having a difficult time getting back to production level. But October is looking promising. As the weeks progress, it gets better,” Larson said.
SORRELL CUSTOM BOOTS
“It (COVID) didn’t really affect me at all,” said Lisa Sorrell, of Guthrie, Oklahoma. “I own my own building. I have no employees. I work alone. So, when all non-essential business closed, I didn’t have to close. I was still able to go to work.”
Although widely regarded as an award-winning cowboy bootmaker, these days, Sorrell’s business has shifted focus. “I do more selling of leather tools and supplies for shoe and bootmakers, than bootmaking. My supply business is mail order,” she said, of Sorrell Notions and Findings. “It has become full time in the last two years.”
Ironically, the pandemic’s need for social distancing gave her more time to create. “I was able to work on my cowboy boots without interruption. I don’t make as many as before, but I’m still making boots.”
So far, mail service has not been a big issue. “I use USPS Priority mail. It depends on the box size. I prefer flat-rate boxes. I have a pickup every day,” she said. A constant challenge, however, is finding sources for tools and supplies. “The pandemic made that harder and slower. Shipping has been slower, customs slower (importing) and production slower.
“Also, the supplies and tools that I sell are hard to find. But people are willing to wait, although, I try not to make them wait. Sometimes I’m their only source. I had to adjust to a slower pace. And my customers did too. I can’t say that I noticed more customers, but I was surprised at how steadily orders came in. I had presumed things would die, but they didn’t.”
HORWEEEN LEATHER COMPANY
“Our customers are driving the business,” said Arnold “Skip” Horween III, president of the Chicago, Illinois tannery, Horween Leather Company.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, when everyone went into hibernation, things came to a complete stop,” he said. “We’re not classified as essential. We don’t do military work. We don’t make surgical masks or gloves. On the other hand, we were allowed to work to preserve the value of our inventory. In a business, inventory is something you go to great lengths to not have,” he added, with characteristic dry wit.
“No one knew this was coming. It has been a huge adjustment. Some segments of our business certainly suffered. Now, large segments of our customers are partially back. The hard part is some customers stepped back and they can’t tell you when they will be coming back. We’ve encouraged lots of customers to visit us. But we haven’t had a visitor since February. Also, we’ve sent new ideas to customers. We’ve gotten positive responses, but they’re not going into production right now,” he said.
When the COVID outbreak began, the tannery had around 130 employees. “At first, we were stuck for a while at 50 employees, including myself. I was here every day. We’re back up to around 90 people. If we’ve needed materials, we’ve been able to get them. That hasn’t been a problem. But we’ve had a hard time getting some people to work who could make more money staying home.
“I usually go to work by commuter train. These days, I’ve been driving. We’ve had three coronavirus cases here. All have recovered. Before you come in here, you get your temperature taken. Anyone with a temperature is turned away and they’re not coming back without a COVID test. Face coverings are required, if you want to work here. I don’t expect you to like it, but it’s our present reality.
“It’s been up and down, month to month,” he continued. “You have to be diversified. To an extent, it’s an opportunity to sell to different industries. The sporting goods market feels strong, when compared to everything else. But I don’t think anyone is knocking it out of the park. But, so far, the sporting goods business is pretty good.”
In 2020, the Chicago tannery marked 115 years. “We were around during the first pandemic — the Spanish flu. Then, there was WWI, the real Depression, WWII, Korea, the Cuban missile crisis and the Sixties. It was not all cake and ice cream. We figured out how to get past it. Horween is built for the long run. We’ll find our way,” he said.
FAIRVIEW COUNTRY SALES
“We’ve had a busier summer than ever,” said Merle Mast, owner and operator of Fairview Country Sales, in Millersburg, Ohio. His family-run business distributes a wide range of BioThane® — polyester strapping that his customers use to make horse harness, pet collars, and much more.
“Our April was a little bit soft, but since then, we’ve been very, very busy. Sales were strong for pets and hunting supplies. We were busy with Easy Entry carts. BioThane® sales were up. And, the dog world was very good. People are spending money on collars and leads. They’re not vacationing.” He noted that fall hunting season has been bringing another uptick in collar and lead sales.
How did his workers fare? “We probably had it here,” he said, of the coronavirus. “In April, some of the girls had it. Some worked two or three days a week, instead of five. Since May 1, we were back full time. We don’t wear masks here. We’re a 9,000-square-foot building and 11 workers.”
Mast shared that he also came down with a mild illness for a couple of days. “It was not bad. I don’t know if I had COVID. To us, it seemed like the flu. One worker, who is off right now, has been sicker than the rest.”
As a whole, the large Amish community that he is part of, with its many businesses, is keeping busy. His goal for 2021? “Keep on going,” he said.
“Our business has weathered the pandemic extremely well,” said Kevin Hopkins, president of Springfield Leather Co., of Springfield, Missouri. The landmark company, whose long string of mall storefronts make up its roughly 30,000-square-foot commercial space, is geared to folks looking for the right tools and supplies to ply their leatherwork and handcrafted jewelry.
“Our sales never stopped, but only increased,” Hopkins added. “Our walk-in business had to shut down for a while, but the mail order side did so strongly, it was absurd. Our last four months have been record months. It’s stronger than ever. We’ve had spotty problems with supply, but that is correcting itself.”
Prior to the coronavirus, the company had 90-plus workers. “We went down to a very few for a brief period. Then, we consistently brought people back on.” This past fall, his business had about 85 employees, but he was searching hard for more.
“It’s very difficult to find help to run things for areas like the retail division, mail order and e-commerce. We’ve scheduled many interviews — most don’t show up. I’m hearing that from area businesspeople, all over. Various leather suppliers and vendors are saying the same thing.”
As of this interview, the city of Springfield was under a mask mandate. “Everyone who works here wears a mask. So far, no one at Springfield Leather has contracted the virus. We’ve had some people who thought they might have been exposed, but they tested OK.”
Meanwhile, the company has been introducing new products including dyes and finishes and a line of machinery to help the small business or leathercrafter. “Our industrial leather sewing machine business is going through the roof. We sold more machines, as of July, than we did the entire previous year.”
Does he ever take a vacation? “I take time off when I can. I play the guitar every day,” Hopkins said.
HERMANN OAK LEATHER
“When the coronavirus first hit, we furloughed our people for two weeks at full pay,” said Shep Hermann, president and CEO of Hermann Oak Leather Company, of St. Louis, Missouri.
“We wanted to take care of our people. We organized the plant so that everybody could come back and still be in compliance with CDC requirements. Springtime was very busy!
“The saddle market is strong. The tack market is hot — hot, and the holster market is strong. Tack is the strongest. Basically, we’re in the sporting goods market. The horse industry is sporting goods. People are staying at home, not spending money on restaurants or travel. Instead, they’re riding horses or doing their hobbies,” he said.
“The only complaint that I hear from customers,” he added, “is having enough people to make the extra orders that are coming in.”
His company has 70 employees. “Everybody came back after two weeks and everybody has been working hard since. We wear masks within six feet. Basically, everybody is going by CDC guidelines.
“We’ve only had a couple of cases of coronavirus for the whole company. A lot of our employees live in areas hard hit. Our people are very responsible, doing an exceptional job keeping all their coworkers safe. We have a marvelous team. We hold small group meetings three times per week. I work on a regular basis. I’ve probably been exposed to the virus. The best defense is exercise, fresh air and vitamin D,” he said.
Is there a silver lining to the pandemic? “I think the pandemic is bringing people back to the land and the pleasures of riding horses.” What is he most grateful for? “I am most grateful for the love of God and His son,” Hermann said.
Carrlyn Miller and her husband — award-winning cowboy bootmaker, Lee Miller —are co-owners of Texas Traditions in Austin, Texas.
“The pandemic impacted us, especially in the beginning,” said Carrlyn, who is the small company’s office manager. “We were under a mandatory shutdown. Austin shut down non-essential businesses. We furloughed our four employees. Lee and I continued to work in the shop. We had boot orders and were doing curbside pickup.
“One family had wedding boots made in April 2020,” she added, “but the people called off the wedding. They still wanted three out of the four boots, but we couldn’t watch them try them on. That first month was a challenge. We were never sure if we were doing the right thing. We had to hunker down.”
In early August, they could bring back workers. “In the beginning, some worked from home and some worked here. After about two weeks, we decided that wouldn’t work. We have a very small shop. We couldn’t handle five people in a small area,” she said.
By late summer, two of their employees were back working in the shop. “We use masks and hand sanitizers. And, we bought three HEPA filter air purifiers, on Amazon, that sanitize the air…two for the shop and one for the office space behind our house.
“No one, thank goodness, got sick,” she continued. “One of our former employees had a baby and is busy being a mom. The other started her own upholstery business out of her house.”
Their phone is quieter these days. “Right after we got put on lockdown, we had a lot of people call. But it has pretty much dropped off. Nonetheless, we have quite a bit of work. Some people who live out of state haven’t been measured yet this year. They aren’t comfortable flying. To get measured for boots, you have to be at our actual shop. That has been a challenge.”
The Millers have been married since 1985. How did they cope with the shutdown and social isolation? “It’s a good thing we like each other,” she said.
Thanks to a community newsletter, she became aware of the hardships many of her neighbors were going through. “I learned that 25 families in my neighborhood can’t buy food. A neighbor started a food bank at her house. All the neighbors contribute food and leave it on her porch. She sets out hand sanitizer and allows one family on the porch at a time. We take our donation over, too.
Whatever is left over gets distributed by Meals-on-Wheels. Nothing goes to waste. We want everybody to feel comfortable and everybody to be safe,” Carrlyn said.
JEREMIAH WATT PRODUCTS (JWP)
“The COVID crisis first came in March 2020, when a lot of things started to shut down,” said Colleen Watt. She and her husband, Jeremiah Watt, are co-owners of Jeremiah Watt Products (JWP).
JWP makes and sells finished equine products like horse bits and spurs. And, the business also sells hardware, buckles and conchos for folks who want to make their own headstalls and spur straps. And, it sells leather tools used to decorate headstalls and other projects. Jeremiah Watt is the company’s sole custom saddlemaker and silversmith.
“We had just done a show at the end of February — the Southwest Leather Workers Trade Show, in Prescott, Arizona. I brought a giant, half-gallon of hand sanitizer to the show. I encouraged everyone there to use it. It was a good show,” she said.
“But we were unsure how the pandemic would affect sales,” she added. “We had already changed our website to a new one. We wanted to make sure people knew we were still shipping and taking orders. We paid attention to what we spent, in case sales went down. We live outside of town. We don’t have a retail store. We just do shows. That February show was the last show we have done, to date,” she said, this past October.
The Watts, however, already had made plans to do the WRCA World Championship Ranch Rodeo, in Amarillo, Texas, set for Nov. 12 — Nov. 13, 2020. After that show, Jeremiah and his daughter, Nevada, planned to drive to Emporia, Kansas, to help the GRS Training Center (GRSTC) set up their new classrooms. Because of the pandemic, the engraving school had closed classes for 2020.
For over 30 years, Jeremiah Watt has shared his silversmith skills by teaching engraving at the renowned training school, which is a division of Glendo, LLC, based in Emporia. For 43 years, the company has been designing, developing and manufacturing innovative hand tools for the jewelry and engraving arts since 1977.
“The school should be posting its engraving classes for 2021 this December. They’re hoping to pick up classes again in March or April 2021,” Colleen Watt said.
“We have been blessed,” she added. “Sales are up. My husband’s designing mind has not shut off since COVID. It has been working overtime. During COVID, he has designed new buckles and new conchos — hundreds of designs. He also has two new spur designs and several new mouthpieces for bridle bits.”
Jeremiah Watt’s new product designs are scheduled to be shown at WESA’s International Western/English Apparel & Equipment Market, to be held Jan. 14 — Jan. 17, 2021, at the Dallas Market Center in Dallas, Texas.
“We’re doing well. We keep our immune system in check and exercise,” she said.
HARRIS LEATHER & SILVERWORKS
219 Pat Nixon Road
North Carolina 28676
Phil Harris, co-owner
Eddie Harris, co-owner
For saddle and saddle trade inquiries:
Instagram – @harrisleatherandsilverworks
Twitter — @HarrisLeather
Facebook — Harris Leather & Silverworks
YouTube — Harris Leather & Silverworks
36 East Wellesley Avenue
Spokane, Washington 99207
John Khadzhi, founder, owner
Will Khadzhi, co-owner
Tim Khadzhi co-owner
Jason Khadzhi co-owner
Facebook & YouTube
LARSON LEATHER COMPANY
1812 Reliance Parkway
Bedford, TX 76021
817-399-0044 (corporate office)
El Paso, TX 79935
SORRELL CUSTOM BOOTS
Lisa Sorrell, boot maker
217 E. Oklahoma Ave.
Guthrie, OK 73044
HORWEEN LEATHER CO.
Arnold “Skip” Horween, president
2015 North Elston Avenue
Chicago, IL 60614 USA
FAIRVIEW COUNTRY SALES
Merle Mast, owner, operator
3024 County Road 160
Millersburg, OH 44654
SPRINGFIELD LEATHER COMPANY (SLC)
Kevin Hopkins, president
1463 South Glenstone Ave.
Springfield, MO 65804
(Facebook, Instagram, YouTube.)
HERMANN OAK LEATHER
Shep Hermann, president, CEO
4050 North First Street
St. Louis, MO 63147 USA
Jeremy Theone, sales manager
Lee Miller, bootmaker,
Carlyn Miller, co-owner/office manager
2222 College Ave.
Austin, TX 78704
JEREMIAH WATT PRODUCTS (JWP)
Jeremiah & Coleen Watt
47069 Crump Lane
Coalinga, CA 93210