The pursuit of a leather guitar strap when Kevin Hopkins played in a band back in the 1970s became the first step toward him developing a multimillion-dollar company. It only took a few years running a leather store.
Hopkins, owner of Springfield Leather Co., made his first leather strap for that guitar – a process he repeated several times over after requests by bandmates. By 1976, Hopkins was assistant manager for Tandy Leather Co.’s Springfield store in the Country Club Center on South Glenstone Avenue. He worked for the company until 1999, when Tandy Leather announced it was shutting down. Hopkins jumped at the chance to purchase the Springfield shop.
He quickly changed the store’s name and focus – decisions he says moved the needle of the business for the better.
“We were able to change the merchandise line considerably because Tandy hadn’t made the best choices. They were going out of business,” he says, noting Springfield Leather Co. went from a primarily retail craft outlet to supplying leather craft supplies to customers nationwide. “We made changes there and immediately expanded the space.”
Initially, the employee count grew to 12 employees from five, with several family members, including his wife Becky and their two daughters among the staff. Today, the employee count has swelled to over 80.
“Everything has been pretty rapid and still is every single day,” he says, noting the company growth which last year hit a revenue record of $8.6 million.
The revenue target this year is $10 million, and Hopkins says sales are on pace, with e-commerce as the primary growth vehicle.
The retail sales floor is filled with wallets, belts and piles of leather pieces several feet long. Mixed in with the standard cowhide and pigskin is exotic leathers, such as alligator, ostrich and kangaroo. Off the sales floor is expansive warehouse space, as well as production shops, an order fulfillment area and departments devoted to sewing, beads, jewelry and laser engraving.
To accommodate its continued need for more production and warehouse space, Hopkins estimates his company has expanded six times from the original 2,400 square feet in the shopping center. Now at 30,000 square feet, he says Springfield Leather expands about every two years.
Through his years in the leather industry, Hopkins says he’s built solid vendor relations, including Hermann Oak Leather Co. in St. Louis, Cinema Leathers Inc. in California and Leather Machine Co. Inc. in Ontario, Canada.
Besides sourcing leather from North American companies, Springfield Leather also purchases goods internationally from Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and Spain.
Jeremy Thoene, a sales manager at Hermann Oak Leather, says the wholesale company has worked with Springfield Leather for nearly 20 years as one of its hundreds of distributors. He says Hermann Oak provides Springfield Leather with belts, saddles and holsters made from vegetable-tanned hides, shipping products to them on at least a monthly basis.
Springfield Leather is among Hermann Oak’s top 10 buyers, spending about $500,000 in 2017 and already eclipsing that tally this year, says Chris Costa, assistant manager at the Springfield store.
“They think outside the box and are innovative,” Thoene adds.
For example, Springfield Leather extends its offerings beyond leather sales and
production. Its retail area includes unique items such as shark teeth, quartz and stones.
Costa says stone and jewelry sales generate about $35,000-$40,000 per month.
E-commerce is a big contributor, currently representing about 35 percent of the company’s annual revenue, Hopkins says. Costa says the Amazon portion of sales alone is approaching $1 million. According to marketing research firm eMarketer, Amazon’s U.S. e-commerce sales are expected to reach $258.2 billion in 2018, up 29 percent from 2017.
“It’s huge,” he says. “The challenge of that is that it’s a different set of customers. They’re not the usual leather crafter who knows what he’s buying. It’s usually people trying something new.”
The company took notice about seven years ago of the e-commerce industry growth, Costa says, devoting several employees to that segment of the business.
He adds they don’t know the ceiling for its growth, and they’re just trying to keep up with orders.
Shipping volumes for all orders are in the 500 to 600 packages a day, Costa says, which includes all 50 states, Canada and overseas.
“Especially in the last five years, a lot of e-commerce has happened,” Costa says. “I attribute that to the handmade movement, so like Amazon, Etsy and eBay, those people on there are going to buy precise cuts of things to make finished goods and resell. A lot of people who are brand new to leather don’t want to buy it; they want to repurpose it. So we offer things like pre-cuts.”
For pre-cuts, the company has machines that essentially operate as a cookie cutter, Hopkins says, cutting leather into specific shapes, such as animals, states and logos.
With no signs of sales slowing down, that also applies to the owner. Even though a next-generation successor has been selected – daughter Lindsey Darnell, who manages the office and accounts payable will eventually take over, along with her husband and current General Manager Rusty Darnell – Hopkins says he’s in no hurry to retire.
“I don’t think Kevin’s ever going to leave,” Costa says with a laugh.
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