Andy Barta gained expertise in the business from the toughest of teachers
By Lynn Ascrizzi
After working for 55-plus years in the hide and leather business, Andy Barta knows a thing or two about weathering the ups and downs of the trade. His hands-on confrontations with adversity and his knack for bouncing back with fortitude, began for real in December 1955, one year after his father had launched the rawhide enterprise, George Barta Hide Company in Petaluma, California.
That year, severe floodwaters swept through the region. “We had to get into swimming outfits to fish out hides from the Petaluma River,” Barta, 75, vividly recalled. “The river was not far from the warehouse.”
At the time, he was just nine years old, but the sudden crisis revealed his dad’s strong-willed character. “He was very determined. A couple of years later, my father found a good niche in sheepskins. He knew how to grade them. He had customers in Europe and got into the export business.”
George Barta is a native of Budapest, Hungary. In 1948, he fled the country’s dire economic and political situation with his wife, Anna, and their two sons, two-year-old Andy and his younger brother, Leslie. The family first retreated to Austria. “In post-WWII communist Hungary, a small hide business like my father had there couldn’t survive,” his son explained. In 1951, the family gained entry into the United States. “I was only five years old,” he said.
His mother, Anna, was a Holocaust survivor. During the war, she spent a few months in Auschwitz. She had been studying to be a doctor and since the Germans were short on people who knew medicine, she was assigned as a medical officer for a work camp. “She was able to make her way,” Barta said.
Coping with his father’s uncompromising nature, coupled with the discipline of working in the hide factory, remain deeply etched in his memory. His first jobs in the family business in Petaluma began with sweeping floors, hanging hides in a drying room, learning hide salting techniques and how to grade hides. “I was trained to do that from age 10. My father told me, ‘If you’re going to be a boss someday, you have to know how to do things from the bottom up.’ ”
By the early 1960s, his father expanded the company to include the cattle hide business with Japan. But his U.S. hide company could not deal directly with Japanese tanneries. Instead, transactions had to go through Japanese trading companies. That worked out all right, for a time. But as the trading companies became well known internationally, U.S. meat packers began to deal with them directly. “It cut into our business,” Barta recalled.
LIFE WITH FATHER
By the time he was in high school, however, the family enterprise was doing well. He attended the University of Pennsylvania and in 1969, earned a degree in political science. “After I finished college, I had a job working full time for my father,” he said. But, working with his dad was not easy.
“When you have a demanding boss, you can’t be too relaxed at any time. When he asked for something, he wanted it done immediately. He lived in San Francisco and always came to the warehouse. If I didn’t get everything done by the time he got there, he definitely showed his displeasure,” he said.
“On the other hand, I used to get paid about $5 per hour. To me, that was so much money, I didn’t know what to do with it! Today, people would laugh at that amount. But back then it was good money. There was a time I used to work seven days a week. My father did appreciate that. He understood the value of work.
“I’m much more easy going,” he added. “He was a perfectionist. But he also had a good feeling for business. He was well respected by the people he did business for. He had me get involved with other tasks, like overseas customers. For instance, he didn’t understand the principles of doing business in Japan. I’d be dispatched to go and take care of it. It was very interesting to go overseas and meet different people with different backgrounds and talents. I enjoyed my job.”
As it turned out, his ability to work successfully with his father, and knowing how to think on his own two feet, proved invaluable. Those skills came to the fore around the late 1970s, when business, in general, was taking a downturn. “I suggested, at the time, that my father could deal with other products instead of rawhide. A decision was made to get into the leather business. It was my idea,” he said.
The change turned out to be a positive one, but the shift to leather came with a daunting learning curve. “I didn’t realize that there was quite a big difference between how people sold leather and how they sold hides. Through it all, I managed to develop a good following of leather customers and suppliers. Call it OJT — on the job training.”
Then, there was Mother Nature to contend with, namely, the earthquake of December 1989. Barta was on an overseas business trip, when the magnitude 6.7 quake struck the San Francisco Bay Area. His brother, Leslie, was at the company warehouse when it hit.
“My brother told me the building was shaking like Jell-O.” But, the single-story, concrete warehouse had been made as earthquake proof as possible. “We had it built that way. It held up with no damage,” he said. Being prepared paid off. The major quake took 63 lives, injured 3,800 people and caused $6 billion in property damages.
IN THE WAREHOUSE
Today, Andy Barta is president of the wholesale/retail hide and leather business in Petaluma. It was renamed Barta Hide Company, after his father passed away in 1993, at the age of 81. “Officially, I became president around 1994. I had a lot more responsibility then.”
As the leather business grew, so did the city of Petaluma. “In the 1970s and ’80s, this part of Sonoma County was mostly rural,” he remembered. But by 2021, the city’s population had roughly doubled to 60,757.
Also rapidly changing was how modern technology transformed the way people do business these days, given the internet, personal computers, social media, email, smartphones, texting and the like. Barta, however, opts to keep things decidedly simple and low tech. “We’re a traditional company. I never got into email. We have a basic website. We sell by word of mouth and advertising,” he explained.
Customers can, of course, reach him by office phone or fax. He pointed out that when people call, they’ll get a person on the phone, mainly Barta. Or if they leave a message, they’ll get a call back. The company has no storefront for its retail sales, but customers can pop into his cavernous 7,500-square-foot warehouse, where they’re likely to meet the owner, himself, or his assistant, Manuel Maravillas, who has worked with the company for about 20 years.
Barta estimated that his warehouse has around 20,000 to 30,000 square feet of leather and hide inventory. But due to the persistent, Covid-19 pandemic, there are fewer walk-in customers, at least for now. “Some people are afraid to go out and buy leather, so they’ll sit at their computers and buy it, even if it costs more,” he said. “When I get walk-in customers, I direct them to the right leather. If they want veg tan, I have a place for that. Or if they’re looking for pig suede, there’s a place for that.”
And, he has on hand 20 to 30 kinds of leather, such as goatskin, deerskin, elk, buffalo, cowhide, exotics and more. “We keep about a couple of container loads of cowhide here at any time. We also specialize in hair-on leather and garment leathers for handbag designers. And we offer saddler leathers. We try to offer something for everybody.”
Customer interactions, in person or on the phone, tell him how folks are using the leather or hides they purchase. “For example, one guy wanted to make a handbag for his wife,” he recalled. “And, I have a customer who makes tool bags (carpenter’s bags). He buys scrap latigo in a certain weight or temper, that is fairly firm. He has found that the leather scrap products that he handles are quite popular. “A lot of the scraps are pieces that come from very fine leather. We have several thousand pounds of scrap leather. A customer in Tijuana, Mexico, buys scrap garment leather. They like it for belts.”
He also gets orders for oil-tanned leather from people who want to make chaps or other western-style items. “A lot of people with horses get saddles repaired, especially with veg tan or latigo. Hair-on-calf is used for making western-style handbags or for tying flies for fly fishing. Hair-on American bison hide is used for making rugs,” he added. Among a number of regular customers are four or five correctional centers, such as the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
However, he no longer does direct importing of exotic leathers. “It became very complicated. Too much paperwork. And, you have to pay custom duty. I leave that to people involved in importing. I source from people who deal with exotics.”
The past five years, he observed, has brought significant changes to the leather market. “For a long time, it was pretty stable from my perspective. I was able to buy deerskins, for instance, at a good price. About two or three years ago, prices went up. I started to have to pay twice as much. Latigo has doubled in price, or more. When I started this business, you could buy veg tan for $1.25 per square foot. Now, it’s about $3.25 per square foot. The upsurge in prices is continuing. The market is more volatile.”
Nowadays, veg tan is in demand, he said. “Certain other leathers, even lambskin — a nice, fine leather that is great for garments — is less in demand right now. Crocodile or alligator has gone up in price and stabilized at a high level. There’s a certain demand for that type of leather. On the other hand, there is printed leather. You can use it to make a nice belt, briefcase or handbag with a gator pattern.”
Because of his in-depth knowledge of the trade, Barta had plenty to share while mingling with friends and customers at various leather trade shows, like the Pendleton Leather Show held annually in Pendleton, Oregon. But now, he misses those events. Before Covid-19, he used to set up a booth at the Rocky Mountain Leather Trade Show in Sheridan, Wyoming, and enjoy the camaraderie of that event. This past winter, he decided to work out a plan to attend this year’s show in May.
When the pandemic first hit, the company had six employees. At this time, it’s down to one. Barta cited three reasons for the reduction: “Less business. And, it’s so expensive to have employees in this state, which has a high minimum wage (currently $14 per hour) that keeps going up all the time. And, it’s hard to get good employees — someone interested in the work and not just a paycheck. But I might hire one employee, part-time,” he speculated.
Nonetheless, he is encouraged to see that, despite the persistent pandemic, people are getting into creating items in leather. “America is a do-it-yourself kind of country,” he said.
But changes keep coming.
“Here in California, we’re under tremendous pressure from state and local governments, because they don’t seem to like hides or leather. The state recently put out a law to discontinue all fur businesses by next year,” he said. “And, we buy and sell furs.”
He is referring to the bill, AB-44, signed into law in 2019, by California governor Gavin Newsom. Basically, it bans the sale of new clothing and accessories made of fur — including mink, sable, chinchilla, lynx, fox, rabbit, coyote and other luxury furs. Exceptions have been made for cowhide, deerskin, sheepskin and goatskin. California is the first U.S. state to ban the sale of animal fur products. The law will go into effect Jan. 1, 2023.
Currently, the company’s fur sales make up around 10 percent of its business. “I’m not a major player in the fur industry. I have a small inventory of fur hides. I carry at least eight different kinds of furs and sell a few of them. And, I don’t want to put money into big inventory that depends on fashion. Recently, red fox fur prices went way down. Other years, red fox prices went way up. The fashion industry is very fickle. Hard to predict.”
Barta, who is already working past typical retirement age, has no one in mind who might step into the business, if he did decide to retire. “For the time being, I’m running the company. I enjoy dealing with most of my customers. I’m studying different options for the future, but for the time being, I have no plans to change things. If the right person came along who wanted to buy the business, I’d take it into consideration. But for now, I am enjoying what I’m doing.”
GET IN TOUCH
Barta Hide Company
Andy Barta, president
888 Lakeville Street
Petaluma, CA 94952