Goliger Leather Company is enjoying a surge in 2021 sales
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Cheryl Rifkin, owner and operator of Goliger Leather Company, Inc. of Ventura, California, has been working with the successful business for over 30 years. “I run the company — everything. I do the books, process the orders, do the invoicing, answer the phone, do collections, check the inventory and figure out how much to order,” she said.
But Rifkin, 66, did not always run the successful family business singlehandedly. Seventeen years ago, unforeseen change came cloaked in shock and loss. Michael Rifkin, her husband of 20 years and then company president, died suddenly on December 5, 2004, at the age of 44.
“We had bought the wholesale leather business in 2000, from Michael’s dad, Marvin Rifkin, who had bought it from Bernie Goliger,” Cheryl recounted, as she re-stitched pieces of the past that are an integral part of the fabric of her life.
“Michael was a crew chief in the (U.S.) Air Force in Japan. He served about seven years. He worked a lot on C-130s,” she said of the Lockheed “Hercules,” a military transport aircraft. “And, he had traveled the world. He came home from the Air Force around 1980.”
Around that time, he and Cheryl met at a community college in California. By then, he was working with his dad, and like her, wanted to benefit from more education. She had two preteen girls, ages 10 and 11. She and Michael married in 1985.
Before long, she was fully involved in the family business. “I had been doing the office work long before he passed away,” she said. But now, the amount she had to take on and learn was overwhelming. “I didn’t do inventory. And, he did all the advertising. He was a go-to leather man.”
She’d be the first to tell you, however, that she didn’t rebuild her life or shoulder the weight of running a leather business alone. At her darkest hour, help arrived.
First, real strength grew from the fruits of Michael’s years of dedication. His unique character, energy and know-how were terribly missed; yet, he had left behind a living legacy — a well-established leather business. And when he died, Cheryl already had put in good years with the company, working alongside her husband. “I’m so grateful that I was part of his life and that he was part of mine, forever,” she said.
Moreover, Michael’s parents, Marvin and Judy Rifkin, who shared Cheryl’s grief, offered loving and practical support. “Marvin helped in every way possible. He did all the inventory. I was blessed. I still have my husband’s family. I have wonderful in-laws,” she said.
Then, Carlos P. Williams, a young man in his late twenties, stepped in to help Cheryl, his former mother-in-law, by taking on warehouse work. “When Michael died, Carlos came right here to help me without a question. He is the father of two of my grandchildren. He is family,” she said.
At the time, Carlos was in-between construction jobs. Now, his aim was to keep Goliger Leather’s roughly 5,000-square-foot warehouse running smoothly. “I was new to leather,” he said. “I was only supposed to be helping out for a few weeks.”
Diligent and self-motivated, he dove into the task. He began to take “crash courses,” as he called them, consulting with expert leatherworkers and toolmakers. He also did a tour of Hermann Oak Leather of St. Louis, Missouri, a tannery that specializes in traditionally crafted, vegetable-tanned leather. “We went together to see how the rawhide is tanned and finished,” Cheryl recalled.
“I educated myself about leather and tannage — anything the customer might want to know before buying leather,” Carlos added. “Cheryl didn’t know much then about the warehouse.” And at first, neither did he. “I stepped into a whole different world. It was exciting, but there were mixed emotions. A few weeks were rough, but the orders never stopped,” he remembered.
And then, the leather industry itself reached out to help.
“After Michael died, the outpouring of people in the leather business was unbelievable,” she said. “I was offered a crew to come help me, from leather competitors! And Hermann Oak sent out one of their top people to help with the warehouse — getting hides ordered and getting shipping done. Everybody was sincere.”
Today, the passage of time has deepened her perspective. “Michael lived to see his first two grandchildren. Now, there are four grandchildren, ages 22 and 20, and 12 and 8 — two from one daughter and two from the other. He loved his grandchildren. . . .With Michael, no matter how many years we had together, it wouldn’t be long enough.”
A SURGE IN SALES
These days, Cheryl’s busy week begins when she leaves her single-story, four-bedroom home in Santa Paula, located only five miles from the beach, and drives the 15-mile commute to the Goliger Leather workplace in Ventura.
She arrives at her office before 8 a.m., accompanied by her two dogs — Ryder, an overly active, 8-month-old golden retriever and the more philosophical Addison, a 10-year-old chocolate lab. “To be honest, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my dogs. They’re my thing,” she said.
The upholstery leathers her business offers are sold to people in the trade, she explained, such as custom furniture makers or car interior restorers. “We’re wholesalers. We don’t sell upholstery leather to the public. Saddlemakers are always welcome to come into the warehouse and check out the hides.”
Her business supplies thousands of designers and upholsterers across the country, she added. “But international leatherworkers are not as much into upholstery; they’re more into veg-tan tooling and saddlery leather,” she noted.
Goliger also offers 12 types of veg-tan leather from Hermann Oak, including skirting, English bridle and natural tooling leathers. “We only sell grades A and B (#1 and #2). The best of the best. We do not grade our own cowhides. Hermann Oak grades them,” she said.
“Money-wise, upholstery sales are our biggest profit item. And we don’t sell to the big manufacturers. They go tannery direct. They can work with hides that have more flaws and they buy hundreds of hides in each color at a time. Big manufacturers can sort hides for specific cuts for their furniture. But, when someone is making one custom-designed sofa, for instance, the designers need the cleanest hides possible.”
So far this year, the bestseller is midweight tooling leather. Also popular, a lightweight 9/10-ounce skirting leather. “It can be used in other parts of the saddle, but it dyes the same as heavier skirting,” she explained.
Goliger Leather’s order volume is about 15 per day, she estimated. “We’re a little company. We did very well in 2020. It started off slow. There weren’t a lot of horse shows and a lot of businesses were down. But it picked up. Last year, however, was better than 2019, when I was dealing with stage-1 cancer. I had an excellent prognosis. Now, I’m fully recovered — doing fine. It was just a ‘hiccup.’ After chemo, I went to work.”
This past spring, despite a number of trade-show cancellations, a sudden surge in 2021 leather sales almost caught the company off guard. “It has been insane. There are a lot more orders of upholstery and saddle leather, and veg-tan. It’s hard to keep up,” she said.
One greatly enjoyable part of the business, she added, is when she and Carlos get to see what customers make, such as leather handbags, tooled items, briefcases, small luggage, trays and more. “We have a customer in California who makes custom café racer motorcycle jackets and old-style, Los Angeles police department (LAPD) leather jackets. And, two local customers make leather hatbands and hats.
“I sell to the creators. The minds of these people amaze me because I’m a number cruncher. They are so creative!”
INSIDE THE WAREHOUSE
Carlos P. Williams, 44, warehouse manager for the nearly 5,000-square-foot facility, began to work at Goliger Leather in 2004. He also does leatherwork on the side and built a workshop there for that purpose. “I’m hands-on with leather in the warehouse,” he said with enthusiasm.
Most orders for the business arrive via phone and email. “We sell to every state in the U.S. and also to out-of-country places, like Canada, Mexico, Japan — all over the place,” he said. “We deal with 20 types of tanneries from all around the world, including Italy, South America, Austria, Germany, the UK and Australia.”
Customers often request leather samples. “I’ll cut up samples, give it to Cheryl and she sends them out,” he said. Fulfilling people’s custom requests, however, is far from simple, he noted. For one, the wholesale company offers 50 to 60 types of upholstery leather. And, in that upholstery category, at least 600 different colors are available.
“Keeping track of all of that can be a nightmare,” he admitted. “Let’s say a customer wants a certain shade of purple leather for a chair. Then, there are all kinds of leather textures and finishes. They might want their leather pebbly or super-smooth, highly glossy, treated with Scotch Guard or buttery soft.”
If customers are really critical about the shade of color, he’ll contact the tannery, have them reserve the amount of footage needed, take a sample of the hide they’re matching and send it for the customer’s approval. “It takes time,” he said.
Fulfilling special orders can also be a finicky task. For example, one customer wanted chair leather that matched the originally white, but now grayish cream color of the 80-year-old chairs he was redoing. The company contacted a customizer to hand finish the leather. “All custom colors are contracted out. We don’t do any custom leather finishing. We send it to a finisher back East,” Cheryl said.
This past February, she received a remarkable order for auto upholstery. The customer needed the leather to restore the full interior of a 1937 Bugatti convertible, a legendary roadster still coveted by a certain breed of collectors. (In 2016, a 1937 Bugatti 57S sports tourer sold at auction for a record $9.8 million.) The Bugatti’s upholstery leather was dyed in New Jersey and installed by a restoration company in Ontario, Canada, she said.
“Another customer is coming in to pick up hides for the interiors of two 1957 Chevys. These cars can be valued at around $100,000 each when finished,” Cheryl said this past spring.
About 15 percent of company sales are made from warehouse walk-ins. “Some people will drive two or three hours to pick up their hides,” Carlos said. “Basically, I’m greeting customers who come in and helping them out. Our main goal is customer service. I know customers’ families — how they’re doing. We become phone friends over the years. If their order is not what they wanted, they can send it back.”
“We have people here every day,” Cheryl added. “Everybody loves Carlos. He does more of the customer service and is great with people. He takes time to learn what people need. Every hide is hand pulled. He never takes from the top of the stack.”
Customers, she explained, want to know the idiosyncrasies of the leather they aim to purchase. “People need to understand how the leather is going to react. Some leathers stain easier than others. Not all leathers are ‘pizza proof.’ ”
Then there’s shipping and receiving. “We ship basically with FedEx ground or FedEx air. We get a better discount with FedEx ground, rather than USPS or UPS. But I will ship all three. I figure what’s going to save a customer’s nickel. I check the rates on all three,” she said.
“We have packages coming and going every day,” Carlos added. “We also have freight trucks rolling in with Hermann Oak Leather. Sometimes pallets weigh anywhere from 700 to 1,000 pounds, brought in with a forklift.” Once delivered, he’ll separate the bulky leather bundles, unwrap them and stack them on shelves.
This past spring, he took a short hiking and camping vacation. But soon he was back at the warehouse, multitasking — answering the phone, handling shipping, helping visitors and taking orders. “There’s always something to do,” he said, of the bustling workplace.
Goliger Leather Co.
1580 Saratoga Avenue, Unit A
Ventura, CA 93003
Cheryl Rifkin, owner, operator
Carlos P. Williams, warehouse manager