By B. Crawford
ShopTalk! is proud to have supported the age-old skills and resilience of leather craftsmen for the last five years. In this, our yearly anniversary issue, it is only fitting that we reach back into our own heritage and shine the spotlight on Ty Bowman, a craftsman whose story was told in our December 2018 issue, who continues to honor the tradition that so few follow in modern times. Ty is the founder and chief honcho of Lifetime Leather Co. in Arizona. Ty’s story is one for the silver screen, or at least a silver-trimmed workbench. You’ll see why as you read on.
Ty Bowman stands at the center of his 3,000-square-foot industrial workspace in the San Tan Valley, east of Phoenix. He is well-built, with a trim beard and long black hair pulled back under a gimme cap – laid back, but all business. His eyes burn with an intensity that can only come from more than a decade of building, rebuilding and re-rebuilding his business, Lifetime Leather Co. It is indeed the work of his lifetime. Today, Ty can look around his workspace and say with confidence, “I’m definitely not nervous.”
Ty’s workshop reflects his personality and his appearance. It is clean, well lit and airy. There are large tables for cutting and imprinting, three sewing machines and a generous shipping area. Rolls of top-grain, American manufactured leather sit on metal shelves, near a huge American flag hanging from the wall. Ty says, “We are red, white and blue – as hard core as you can get.”
The stand-out feature of the workshop is a battered oak desk. The desk is scratched and stained, with rows of carving tools, knives, an overhead clamp lamp and stickers, including the classic “Tips Are Appreciated.”
“My uncle made that desk from scratch when he was 60 years old,” Ty says. “I always loved it. It was in my parent’s storage for a long, long time, so I finally stole it.”
“When my uncle found out I had jacked his desk to do leather work, he was like, ‘What, you took my desk? Look what you’ve done to it!’ It had leather stain all over it.”
Ty says his uncle has finally gotten over the shock of his stolen desk. “I joke with him; the desk has found it’s true purpose…it’s the core where it all started.” And continues. Ty and his crew still use the desk every day for hand stitching items.
Next to the old desk is a wall of Lifetime Leather curiosities. Ty’s sister worked with him for about a year, when she was seeking her own path. “She was painting just for fun and I liked her paintings, so she gave me a bunch. Then my wife painted one and then friends and family started giving us pictures and stuff to put on the wall.”
One of the most impressive wall decorations is a 12-foot-long diamondback rattlesnake skin. “I was riding my golf cart right outside the workshop and a big giant diamondback comes out, and I was like, whoa,” Ty says. “We took it out and skinned it, put it up on the wall.”
Amid the paintings and rattlesnake skins is an old piece of leather, a remnant of the leather couch Ty rescued from the side of the road, the raw (really raw) material he used to start his business. A trashed leather couch? Yup. Ty knows his business from the dumpster up.
Ty started working with leather when he was in the Boy Scouts. Rhett Bowman, Ty’s father, was a scout master. “Even when I was not in the scouts, I was in the scouts,” Ty recalls. When Ty was 13 or 14, he got into leather work and made “mountain-man type stuff,” like walking stick covers, leather drawstring bags and pocketknife sheaths. “I made a cool shoulder bag; that’s when I realized I had a talent for leathercrafts.” Ty even earned his Eagle Scout badge, before his life crashed to the ground.
When Ty was 15 years old, he went ziplining with his father on the shores of Lake Powell. As Ty sped along at 20 miles per hour, his rigging slipped from the cable. Ty fell about 30 feet and slammed into the sandy ground. Ty broke 18 bones in his ankles, legs and feet. “Some bones literally flew out of my skin,” Ty says.
Luckily for all of us, an emergency medical technician enjoying the view of Lake Powell from the deck of his large yacht saw Ty’s horrible fall. He sped to the shore, stabilized Ty’s condition and raced Ty to a helicopter landing strip. A short time later, Ty was at the Flagstaff Medical Center in Arizona. The medical man, and the speed of his yacht, saved Ty’s legs and possibly his life.
Rehab and recovery were slow going. It took three years before Ty could walk again. “I was about 18 when they didn’t have to do more touch-up surgery and clean up scar tissue,” Ty says.
Ty’s family was by his side during his recuperation. He continued doing the leather work that he had learned with his dad. His mother, Colleen Bowman, introduced him to calligraphy and cooking, activities that helped restore his creativity and his soul, while his body healed.
“My mother is like Martha Stewart,” Ty said, “a really talented baker, caterer and florist.”
In 2007, Ty settled down in the San Tan Valley, met a girl named Shaina Robinson and married that same year. With a young wife, a growing family and a GED, Ty faced a host of challenges. “We were living in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Mesa. I was working part-time at Home Depot. We were dirt poor. It was bad.”
As Christmas 2009 approached, Ty had no money for gifts. He was driving along wondering what he was going to do, when he had a vision, or at least a solution, to his immediate problem. “I saw this leather couch tossed out in a yard. Before I knew it, I was at the owner’s doorstep asking if she wanted to use that couch for anything. My question weirded her out, but she let me take it.”
Ty hauled the couch home. The leather on the back of the couch was still in great shape. “I started making stuff out of it— key chains, bracelets, wallets, handbags, all sorts of things.”
Ty got really good at salvaging leather couches and at making leather goods. He began selling on Esty. “I started to make more money selling leather items than I made at Home Depot or working with my dad’s construction company.”
Ty’s business looked so promising that his wife Shaina decided to turn down nursing school in order to work with her husband, “It was like when the Vikings burn their ships,” Ty says. “This was it! We both decided this was going to work and it just worked,” he said.
When we profiled Lifetime Leather Co. back in 2018, we asked Ty what challenges he saw in the future. Ty said, “Lots of competition. Our niche is growing like crazy.”
In 2018, Ty didn’t see the Covid tornado circling just over the horizon. But then again, nobody did.
“When Covid hit, business shut off like a light switch,” Ty says. “I mean it just died.” Ty and Shania had burned their ship. They were committed to their business, but they realized they had to change course to survive the Covid storm.
“When the lockdown started,” Ty says, “I just had this feeling…face coverings, masks.” Ty checked out his hunch. He visited every hobby store from Flagstaff to Mesa and found that they were all sold out of elastic, a key commodity for mask making. Ty jumped on the internet and bought every inch of elastic he could find. “I think I bought 10,000 yards of elastic.”
Ty made prototype after prototype and finally settled on a heavy-duty design with a removable filter. “We sent 500 of those masks to New York, where Covid was really bad. People were so grateful. They appreciated the quality of our work.”
To keep up with demand, Ty bought four heavy-duty, computer-controlled sewing machines, the last ones on the market. When mask mandates hit, there was a run on fabric. Ty partnered with an entrepreneur friend who owned a specialty tie making business. No one was buying ties, so Ty used his buddy’s stain-proof fabric to make his masks, printed in a wild variety of designs: everything from tie-dye to a more professional look for doctors and nurses.
“The orders came in like crazy. It was like a fire hydrant. We’d open up for orders for an hour or two, and then we’d have to shut it off. We were all sold out.”
“We were able to fill a niche that no one else could fill,” Ty says. “I never want to sell another mask again though.”
But Ty could not stray far from his love for leather. Still, Ty and his team had to think outside the handbag to boost their business. “We really put a lot of thought into, ‘Well, what can we do to bring value to people?’”
The answer to Ty’s question was running around his house. “I’ve got kids and they were really bored. So, I thought, ‘What about kits for making leather goods at home?’” Ty and his team came up with a Quarantine Kit, with all the materials necessary to make a high-quality wallet, complete instructions and an online instructional video.
“So, this was like introducing leathercrafts to a new generation. Kids and their parents could make the wallet and be proud of it. And the quality would last a lifetime. When they grew, they could say, ‘Oh I made this wallet when I was a kid.’ We didn’t make money, the price just covered the cost of materials, but we sold a bunch of those kits.”
With their masks, their kits and their continued production of excellent leather products, Lifetime Leather began to get some national attention. CNN featured Lifetime’s men’s toiletry case as one of its “25 travel gifts you’ll love to receive,” perfect for “the dapper traveler.”
Then in October 2020, Ty got an unexpected email. The email informed Ty that Lifetime Leather was being considered as the company to represent Arizona at President Trump’s Made in American Products Showcase at the White House. “It came out of the blue, like a total surprise.”
Ty was even more amazed when he got the call confirming that Lifetime Leather had been chosen as the single company to represent Arizona at the Made in America event.
“When I saw the list of companies that were chosen from other states, I was like, wow. There was Tyson Chicken, Lockheed Martin…massive companies. We were selected because they liked our story.” The showcase included two days of exhibiting products in the White House, a tour of the White House, a 15-minute meet and greet and a photo shoot with President Trump. “We were on cloud nine.”
Ty and his team went to work. They made products for everyone at the White House, a satchel for President Trump, handbags for the First Lady, items for the Vice President and the whole White House staff. They designed a booth for their two-day set up, filled with a wide range of products including totes, dopp kits, watch straps, key chains, computer cases, and specialty items like a White House valet tray and White House key chains. “It was a crazy, mad dash rush.”
Ty had everything packed and loaded and was actually on the way to the airport, when he got the call. Trump had been diagnosed with Covid. The event was postponed indefinitely. This was October 2020. The rest is history.
“That was a real heartbreaker, man,” Ty sighs. “That was a hard one to roll with.”
Ty did roll with it and today Lifetime Leather is busier than ever. His wife deals with overall marketing strategy, tax planning and other big picture issue. The five Bowman kids participate in the business as well, even though the oldest one is only 12. “They are awesome,” Ty says. “Sometimes you think kids aren’t too capable, or that some things are beyond them, but have you ever tried putting together one of those intense Lego sets? The kids help out around the shop. They sew and do a lot of stuff. They actually do really well.”
And then there’s the family dog, a really big German shepherd. “He lays around in the air conditioning and does nothing,” Ty says, “except he terrorizes the delivery drivers.”
Ty and his family are always looking to expand their product line to meet customer demand. “We have a LOT of products. We make everything from men’s and women’s gifts, grad gifts…pretty much anything you can think of.”
“What’s so great about our company is that people will email us and say, ‘Hey, can you make this?’ and I will say, ‘What is that? I didn’t even know it was a thing.’ So, I look it up and then I realize it’s a thing, and we start making it. That’s what’s cool about leather. It’s so malleable.”
Ty enjoys the process of seeing the next new thing move from an idea to a final product. “It takes five or six prototypes to get a real winner. It can be a frustrating process, trial and error, trial, and error. It needs a tweak here and a tweak there. You have to do it all over again, but when you finally get it just right it’s really rewarding.”
Right now, Lifetime Leather is launching a bunch of new products including a circle bag, a new redesign of their best-selling totes, a passport holder with room for a Covid vaccine card and brand-new line of luxury watch bands. Ty is not going to change his overall style or quality. “A lot of our competitors that we started out with are phasing out their lifetime guarantee. But we never will.” Lifetime Leather will always stand behind its lifetime warranty.
Part of Ty’s success is due to the fact that he has always had support of his family. His parents and most of his siblings live nearby in the San Tan Valley. Running a small business is almost a family tradition. “My dad right now is crushing it with his construction business. Everybody in my own family has like their own little gig.”
Ty has made quite a journey, from a stolen oak desk to the White House – well, almost to the White House. Ty’s secret to success is really no secret. To anyone who wants to start a business, Ty says, “Start where you are with what you have. Where you are and what you have right now is enough. If you have the desire and you want to work hard, you can totally do this. There’s nothing special about us. It’s just the work and the desire. And you will be astounded how fast things will start working for you.”
Ty enjoys mentoring his workers as well as his fellow entrepreneurs. He sees Lifetime Leather as a good launching pad for life. He wants his crew to start with what they have, learn some essential skills while they are working with him and then move on to realize their own dreams. “I spend a lot of time mentoring other people, helping them out, helping them set goals. That’s my real job, coaching.”
Ty has had a number of mentors who have helped him out over the years and continue to help him out. In addition, he and his family are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Faith is part of his life and work.
“Without faith you can’t do anything. That’s like my bedrock,” Ty says. “My whole theory is that God owns everything and if he gives you something, you have to think, ‘What am I going to use it for?’ If you just use it to get rich, that will destroy you. But if you use what you are given in the right way, you will have the opportunity to serve more and more people.”
The world today is ruled by distraction, not dedication. It is much more difficult to filter out the latest attacks via the media assault weapons than it is to focus on one thing and do it well. Ty has managed to do that and plans to continue doing that as long as he graces this world with his presence and his creations. “Everything is so disposable in our society. But we make things that will last a lifetime.”