It’s been a big year for Chuck Bowen and the team at Blue Artisan Group. Just a year after opening their new factory in Leon, Mexico in late 2014, Chuck and the team launched their very own brand of leather goods known as Mission Mercantile. We spoke about how this new venture came to be, the inspiration behind it, and what’s next.
The day before Halloween was filled with mad dashes through the candy aisle of overstocked grocery stores in attempts to avoid trickery on All Hallows Eve. While many of us were considering the rapidly dwindling stock on the shelves of those temporary Halloween stores as our only means to costume contest salvation, Kyle Koster was taking time out his busy day to speak with me on life and his consideration of all things leather.
The road he took to start Range Leather wasn’t direct. He’s lived in Hong Kong, Mongolia, and Chicago on his journey, and now finds himself splitting his time between Spokane, Washington and Wyoming. He is a busy man, so we’re grateful we had a chance to speak with him at length on all things of life, leather, and the pursuit of happiness.
The audio of Kyle’s answers are included at the end of each question. The text has been edited from the audio for clarity in reading. As I interviewed Kyle at the Flour Mill here in Spokane, Washington, you’ll occasionally be treated to the background noise of passers-by as they do their shopping on a lazy Friday afternoon.
On a final note, we got so much material in this interview that I’ll be splitting it into a few parts to make it more manageable to read through (or listen to) in one sitting.
BL: How did you get started in the leather business?
KK: So, it’s a little complicated. I’ll give you a quick back story here. Three years ago I started a guitar accessory company and created a couple different locking mechanisms to quickly interchange your strap on and off your guitar and created that through injection molding, created a design. It’s produced in an injection mold; it’s a separate company. I was making a nylon strap.
Kind of the idea was, when you get customers, they would say, “Hey, I’d love a leather strap with your strap locks and your quick-connect system.” Kind of just started thinking about leather.
I started taking some lessons from this old cowboy at Tandy, kind of picking his brain, stopping in there. This was a little over a year ago, just coming in, just learning and trying things.
I just always had this fascination with doing something with my hands. I have always liked building, I have always liked design, and so I was looking for something tangible. So I thought, that would be a great way to make these leather straps and put them on a product we already have that we’re selling.
In January we ended up licensing that product out, the guitar accessory site out. It’s all licensed to a large company. It’s going to hit here at Christmastime. It will be public and get picked up through distribution.
So once I had this skill, then I could not technically make the straps. I kind of foresaw that, and it wasn’t going in a direction where I would be making the straps, so I just started making things myself, made a wallet, did a whole bunch of designs. I really enjoy designing, and just started using it.
Then I had some friends who said, “Hey, I’d love one of those.” It kind of just kept rolling. I gave some away, some more here. It’s actually our minimalist that we started with which we did the first Kickstarter for.
I was home last Christmas. I grew up in Chicago. So, of course, I thought I should go down to Horween just to see it. I took a trip down with my wife. We went to Horween and walked thru. They’re great. I was just so encouraged about their desire to work with small companies.
One of the guys, Johnnie, told me how Timberland was one of their first customers and struggled to meet purchase orders and stuff, and they worked with them and worked with them. Now they’re huge. He just has this desire to work with the smaller companies. They started Tannery Row that is their side if you’re familiar. It’s kind of like they’re focused on the smaller company side, but you can still get Horween leather thru them.
I was able to get a bunch of leather, came back and started. Pretty much since day one I have only used Horween leather, which is, pretty spoiled for that reason because I absolutely love it. I have seen some other stuff. It is super premium for anything you could find out there.
That’s just kind of how it started, and then we launched that first Kickstarter.
Listen to what Kyle has to say:
BL: What were you doing before you decided to devote your working hours to the leather trade?
KK: Absolutely. Crazy story. I graduated from the University of Illinois with a finance degree, still haven’t used it per se.
Right after I graduated I actually applied to be a youth pastor at a bunch of different churches, and I got a position in Hong Kong. I got on a plane and moved over there as a youth intern in a youth ministry. Lived there for 2 years, learned a lot about manufacturing. Living is crazy expensive in Hong Kong.
One of the families who hosted me had an extra room, and I was fortunate enough to be able to stay with them because it is crazy expensive for an apartment and stuff.
Anyway, a lot of what people do in Hong Kong is do logistics for someone who wants to make something in Southeast Asia, the US, or the UK. He works with a bunch of kitchenware companies as his primary. So I learned some stuff about that just kind of on the side.
I ended up moving to Mongolia (laughing); bear with me. Moved to Mongolia for just a short period of time.
The guitar accessory company is actually called Hogjim Guitar Gear. Hogjim is the Mongolian word for music. Kind of bridged that gap. I worked with some missionaries there doing food distribution and a bunch of stuff just for a short period of time.
Then I moved back to the States, moved back to Chicago. Kind of had that reverse culture shock going on after being abroad 2-1/2 years. Moved out to Wyoming. My cousin lived out there, moved in with her and her husband and their 4 kids. Got plugged into Wyoming really like that. Lived out there for a little bit. That’s where I actually started Hogjim, and everything, the LC is based out of there. My wife and I are going back there in December. We’ll kind of be in between Spokane and Wyoming for a little while.
Listen to what Kyle has to say:
BL:We discovered you through your Kickstarter campaign for the Range Mug. Have you used other Kickstarter campaigns in the past to help build your business?
Moore & Giles has been firmly entrenched in the leather industry since it was founded in 1933 in Lynchburg, VA. Currently, Moore & Giles employs more than 70 people in its headquarters in Forest, Virginia with representation in every major metropolitan area as well as strategic partnerships in England, Germany, France, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Moore & Giles designs and develops the world’s most luxurious natural leathers for leather upholstery, residential leather, …