Horween Leather Co. | Founded in 1905 | 150 employees
IG: Arnold, you are the fourth generation of Horween now running the company. Tell us about the history of Horween Leather Company, a family-run company that is now 107 years old.
AH: The company was founded by my great-grandfather, Isadore Horween. He was an immigrant from the Ukraine who came here in time for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Because the stockyards were here in Chicago, leather was a big deal. At that time, there were a couple of dozen tanners. We are the last. At the World’s Fair, my great-grandfather, who came here with the idea of finding work, went down to visit the leather exhibit to see if he could make some contacts, and he met a gentleman there whose company was actually one of the companies putting together the leather exhibit. I never met my great-grandfather but, from stories I gather, he was a very confident fellow. So the gentleman whose workers were there said to him, “That’s pretty nice leather, isn’t it?” And my great grandfather said, “It’s nice, but I can make it better.” And the guys said, “Well, if you can make it better than that, maybe you can see us on Monday morning.” So he went and started to work for them. In about 5 years, he was the plant superintendent and, about 6 or 7 years after that, he went on his own.
The original tannery was called I. Horween and Company and it was located on Division Street, not far from Sheffield. It was much smaller than this and the original product was shell cordovan for razor strops, because in those days, pre-safety razor, you got to the point where you could grow beard and everybody got out a mug and a cup and a razor and a strop to sharpen it on. Around 1912, the safety razor came to be and that changed the dynamic. It was a paradigm shift. We started producing lightly softer leather that was used for other goods and footwear.
And then, in 1919, where we are right now, there was a tannery called Herman Loescher and Sons. The Loescher family had decided they were not going to continue in the leather business and my great-grandfather closed on this property on January 1, 1920. Because he had two sons, his original idea was to have a facility for each, but that turned out not to be so efficient. So about five or six years later, they moved and consolidated everything up here, adding on over the years. Where we’re sitting now, what people here refer to as the new building, was built in 1941. The oldest part, where our hideout is now, is pre-1900. We have converted part of it to use it as a floor because it used to be pits. We had to do some repairs on the beams and contractors did not want to touch them because they didn’t know anything about them. There are really no drawings, so we decided to experiment and check out one of them. We rented a bunch of huge jacks and we jacked everything up. We took a beam out and started to dig down. That part of the building is on wooden pilings driven all the way to bedrock. The tops of those pilling, 100 and who knows how many years later, are perfect, they are absolutely perfect. That part of the building is the oldest and the original dirt floor has been concreted over.
Starting in the 1920s, with the addition of what became Horween Leather Company, we got into the cowhide business. It was a mix then of horsehide, horse butts at that point, for cordovan. At that point we moved into the cowhide business, which at the beginning was largely for work shoes. They also did some development into taking us into what people refer as mechanical or hydraulic leathers, which turned out to be very significant later. Those are leathers that are used for oil seals or gaskets. At one point, all the gaskets for cars were leather and they were wax-impregnated and then hot formed. Now, basically all of them are synthetic, because they are less expensive as well as more uniform to work with. But there is still a small business left of leather seals and washers, because there are some things that can’t be replicated in synthetic. The big seals that they use in a lot of the high pressure pumping applications are still leather. It’s counterintuitive until you think it all the way through. The leather seal, when it starts to fail, will leak and the synthetic seal will fail. So, if you are pumping at high pressure, you’ll have a moment from the leather seal that you will see it leaking and you can shut things down, while with the synthetic seal one minute is fine and the next one it’s gone. That was for a while the largest part of our business. Chicago Rawhide was in Elgin and we had a little truck running back and forth, a predecessor of just in time. At the peak, there was 6,000 hides a week. So you have a reference, right now that is as many hides as we make for everything at this point. That was one product at that time.
The cordovan business has expanded across the different generations. The peak of our cordovan business was probably about 50 years ago. We were the only ones doing it at that time and we were running about 11,000 shells a week. Right now, we are running about 6,000 a month, and we are the biggest that’s left, globally, doing that. So there has been a tremendous change, largely in the raw material. That’s pretty much what drives everything, it’s a pretty expensive raw material. And we also continue to use my great-grandfather’s process, which takes six months. There is a lot of aging and curing.
In terms of the side leather, we began our foray into sporting goods in the 30s and 40s. That was driven by the fact that my grandfather and great-uncle both went to Harvard. Their father said that they were going to get the best education in the land and that was the first college that he read about. They were both really gifted athletes and both played football. At that time, Harvard was a football power and played in the Rose Bowl in 1920 and won. Things have changed a little since then because they did not want their mother to know. At that time there was no TV and no radio, so it wasn’t that difficult to pull off. My grandfather, his brother and their two best friends played as the McMann brothers, A, B, C, and D. Very creative. But during that time, they met and got to know George Halas who was at the Decatur Staleys, a team that then became the Chicago Bears. They thought they could do a better leather. As Wilson Sporting was headquartered and manufacturing here, the Bears were here, and we were here, it was like a nice little R&D lab. They would come up with an idea, my grandfather would make the leather, Wilson would make the ball and they would take it to the Bears’ practice. We were one of multiple suppliers for a while but, by the 1960s, we pretty much had taken over. My grandfather and father came up with some of the advancements that are still at the core of the leather today in terms of the tannage, the coupling, and the feel. And we maintained that through until today.
Recently, I would say that this industry was largely exported, starting 25 years ago, much like other industries. The worst possible thing that you can do is be medium size, because the big guys are cheaper and the small guys do it better. So we were always the little guys and we were always the specialty guys. Starting with my great-grandfather the saying was that, if you can pick something and get to be really good at, then you will never be this big but you can probably do this well. So part of your charge then was looking for other little pockets like that, of things that were interesting and not so easy to do. While that happened, we certainly shrunk, but we were able to maintain ourselves. We have always been really conservative so we could shrink things down and bend down the edges, basically play some defense. We executed the last man standing strategy with the idea that someday there is a home for it. We were lucky, too, because our customers also survived and made it out the other end of the tunnel. Never underestimate the power of luck.
My grandfather was here the first 5 years I was working in the company, and my father and I worked together for 24 years, so the benefit of that was irreplaceable for me. 20 years ago now, we had a particularly good year. I am sure in all of your travels you have times where it doesn’t matter what you do, you can’t do anything wrong. And there are other times where you can’t do anything right. During that good year, my father called me into what is now my office and said, “I just want you to understand that you are not as smart as you feel right and you are not as dumb as you are going to feel the next time you are really slow.” Seven years later, we experienced the other side. When things are going really good, that’s the time to work really hard because that doesn’t automatically sustain itself. I think that’s a lesson we have taken to heart. It’s not that things are going to go away but it’s hard to sustain. But people do, that’s our nature.
We are also looking for something else that is a little bit interesting. Our process is not as fast and it’s not as easy, but that’s part of the attraction. We are never going to be everything for everybody and that’s ok. That’s why not everybody can do the job that John does. You have to be thick skinned enough for someone to go, “That price is ridiculous.” Yes it is. And here is why. We feel like if the only objection that you have to our product is price, then we have done our job. We have also been really lucky, because we have customers who have chosen to point us out as the source of the leather. But we are really careful to tell people, “It’s us in small letters and you guys in big letters.” Our job is to give you the best marble to do the sculpture with. We are not, by any means, trying to be the story. We are not the story. We want to be something that you can always reach out for right where you left it.
A while ago, we had a customer who was producing gloves and they wanted to splash our name all over. Actually, they wanted to have it all over the palm. We just wanted this little thing down the finger, that was totally cool for us. Our ultimate goal is to be that part of the resource. We are sort of a lumberyard, but we get to make the lumber. You are going to pick something out and you are actually going to do the making. We provide something that you can make into your vision. And we also want to understand what you want so we can get you what you want.
Sometimes people who work with us get a little surprised by us. We’ll go, “I think I understand what you want and here is somebody else who actually can do a good job of this because it’s not our thing. Don’t get me wrong, if you want me to try this, I’ll do it, but here is a guy who is really good at this. It is his specialty. Some day I’ll get a chance, but you should really look at this stuff, too.” There are different looks and feels that people want. It’s not right or wrong. You have an idea, and you want it to look and feel a certain way. Our job is to match what we do to your expectations. To the extent that we can do that, then we both have a success. When your eye sees something and then your hand feels it, because leather is a very tactile experience, do the two match up? If they don’t, you are probably not going to buy it. At that point, price is not the issue. Does it look, feel and smell the way you think it is supposed to look, feel and smell? If it does, then the value is there for you. People will buy the best they can afford if they can understand the difference.
This article is part of our Chicago Production series. See also our articles on Heritage Bicycles General Store, Threadless, and 37signals.