Leather by any other name smells just as sweet

How Berman Leather Co. has stretched and shaped its business to fit the dream of each succeeding generation.

By Robert Berman

The smell of leather is so alluring that when visitors arrive at Berman Leather Co. they close their eyes and breathe in deeply, before even saying hello. That is the only similarity, however, between my company today and the Berman company that was founded in 1905. Each generation that has taken over has dealt in quantities of leather but has significantly altered the product line, in part due to economic necessity but primarily due to a new entrepreneurial spirit. And during each transition the outgoing generation has had enough sense, and humility, to encourage change.

The company began as Gordon & Berman, formed by my great-grandfather, Meyer Berman, and Ellis Gordon in Brockton, Massachusetts. In that era, shoe manufacturers cut the leather for their own soles, but they did a poor job. So Meyer and Ellis introduced a revolutionary concept: They would provide the shoemakers with soles of uniform grades and thicknesses. The new commodity was a hit. Meyer’s son Samuel soon joined the company, and later bought out his father and Ellis. He renamed his firm the Berman Cut Sole Co. and moved it to South Street, a nascent leather district in Boston, where we still operate nearby today.

Samuel’s three sons and his daughter all helped him expand in the 1930s, but World War II brought a crushing blow: All three brothers went off to war, and even their sister joined the Navy Department.

After the war the children went their separate ways, and Samuel saw he could not run the business alone. So he approached his son Ira, my father, the one son who had shown the most interest, and asked him to return. Ira had graduated from Dartmouth and his schoolmates were heading off to Wall Street. Returning to the family warehouse was not exactly in his plans. After some consideration Ira told Samuel, “Okay, I’ll take over, but I’ve got my own ideas.”

Ira believed that the future of the company was not in the manufacture of soles but in the sale of “uppers,” the leather used for the tops of shoes. This was a completely different business. Samuel was skeptical, but he realized that if Ira was to succeed it had to be with a product he believed in.

Samuel died a year later, leaving the 30-year-old Ira to run the business. Recognizing shortcomings in his knowledge of the market for uppers, Ira hired an experienced sales manager named Ben Simons, who became Ira’s “second father” and taught him everything he needed to know about uppers.

Ira’s genius over the next two decades was twofold. First, he bought leather from tanneries and factories in job lots—batches of mixed leathers—which was cheaper than buying quantities of separate leathers. And because he always paid his bills on time, Ira was often offered the most desirable leather before his competitors. Second, he could look at a piece of leather and usually know in his mind which of his clients would want to buy it. While other leather resellers like himself saw job lots as mass confusion, he envisioned specific pieces for individual customers. His warehouse was in constant motion, with leather lots coming in and being sorted, and hides going out to various manufacturers of uppers. Berman Leather became a warehouse where a buyer could walk in, pick out the leather he wanted, and be off.

Ira’s success resulted from his willingness to listen to the needs of every individual customer. This attitude was also responsible for opening an entire new line of business.

One day in the early 1960s a young beatnik in disheveled clothing walked in off the street, with a wife and baby in tow. He wanted to buy a piece of leather, for cash. Ira, like his competitors, sold in quantity and billed all his customers. He had never been offered cash for any sale but agreed to help the man. As the beatnik departed he commented that no one else in the leather district would even allow him in the front door.

The young man soon returned; he had quickly made a satchel and sold it, and was back for more leather. He had also told some friends about Berman Leather. Soon word of mouth created a walk-in trade of crafts people. Beatniks became hippies, the Vietnam War escalated, and leathercraft became the craze of the 1960s.

By 1970 my father was stocking leathermaking tools, craft books, belt buckles, and pre-cut sandal soles. The hippies, many of whom went off to college or traveled widely, often called for a catalog, but Ira didn’t have one. I was 17 years old then and deeply involved with my school newspaper. As far as my father was concerned, that qualified me to be an expert in direct mail. That summer he gave me a budget of $100 to produce a catalog. With the aid of a good copying machine, I made 50 of them, and returned to school.

The catalogs lasted only a short time. The orders poured in. Each year it was my summer job to create a new catalog. More orders came by phone and mail. My brother Roger joined the company to manage the growing leathercraft division.

I graduated college in 1976 and returned to take over the division, while Roger departed to get his MBA. Ira was now 55 and more than a little concerned that neither of his sons was showing an interest in selling leather to shoe manufacturers and others, as he had done for 25 years. He had already discontinued the sole cutting operation late in 1969. He also saw that tanneries were beginning to market directly to his customers. He knew it was a matter of time before his way of selling leather would be threatened.

I was not particularly interested in the uppers business, or even in selling raw leather by itself. I was intrigued by the direct mail business. In 1977 I inserted one page into our catalog that advertised wallets and leatherbound notepads. When the Christmas season hit, my supplier of those items could not keep up with the orders we received. My father and I decided to have molds made so that we could cut the leather parts for these items ourselves. One of our regular clients stitched the parts together, and we filled the orders.

The catalog items continued to sell, and we had difficulty keeping up with demand ourselves. But Roger returned in 1979 with new energy to develop this “finished goods” business. He got more suppliers, traveled to trade shows, and created a new customer base through mail order catalogs and retail stores. I managed the leathercraft division.

My father continued to sell leather as a commodity, but by 1984 he realized it was time to pass the torch. He knew Roger and I were interested only in manufacturing finished goods and selling leathercraft items by direct mail. He knew, too, that there was little future in selling leather direct to shoe manufacturers. But rather than fight change, he came up with a plan that would allow Berman Leather to continue but leave him with a meaningful activity after his exit: Roger and I bought the manufacturing and mail order businesses from him. He sold the warehouse building but kept all the leather, and spent the rest of his life selling it off to favorite customers.

Our family firm is still in the leather business, but we’re not cutting soles or selling uppers. Roger left in 1986 to pursue a career in real-estate and politics. My father, Ira, passed away the same year—like his father Samuel, too soon to enjoy the success of the next generation.

Today I own all of the Berman Leather Co. I oversee three distinct businesses run by six people. Our leathercraft catalog is marketed to school arts-and-crafts teachers, occupational therapists, leather shops, hobbyists, and small manufacturers. We import all the buckles and most of the tools and hardware, yet most of the leathers we sell are tanned domestically.

Our walk-in traffic is handled by expert staff people who give out advice as much as sell leather. We are Boston’s only warehouse leather store. Anyone can purchase leather for clothing, belts, holsters, footwear, dolls, even repairs.

Our finished goods business has grown tremendously from that single page of wallets and notepads. We sell a full line of briefcases, luggage tags, appointment books, and notepads to distributors who market them to corporations, and salespeople who sell to office supply stores and mail order catalogs.

Our company name and reputation have remained the same, even though our products are quite different. In Meyer and Samuel’s days, the badge of courage in the industry was that you had lost some fingers, or more, in the leather sole-cutting machines. But the real courage displayed by each Berman was to embrace the vision of the incoming generation and encourage it so the family business would prosper.