Whenever a business has been around for more than a century, it must be doing something right. Doug MacPherson’s great-grandfather, George MacPherson, started Montana Shoe Co. in Butte in 1908. Butte’s population had grown to nearly 100,000 during the years surrounding World War I, as the Mining City swelled to meet worldwide demand for copper.
By 1916, George MacPherson expanded the business to include fixing harness leather for the mule trains that toiled in the mines. That company evolved into Montana Leather Co. at 2015 First Ave N. in Billings. The business includes a leather warehouse, a retail leather supply shop, a horse tack and supply shop and an online store.
Here, MacPherson talks about a historic business that’s not afraid to change with the times.
Over the years, leather has evolved from a utilitarian material to one that’s increasingly associated with high style. Is leather’s fashion-forward image contributing to an increase in sales in recent years?
To some extent yes, when referring to the fashion/garment leathers. We are seeing an increase in custom footwear demand as more and more cheaply made imported shoes are all that you can purchase from retailers.
Are you aware of anybody still making leather garments in the United States?
Yes. They are mostly smaller businesses with few or no employees. They are offering unusual or niche products. One here in Montana is Buckskin Clothier of Kalispell, www.buckskinclothier.com.
Fur prices have skyrocketed over the past few years, and apparently demand from China is driving it. Does demand for leather move in parallel with fur, or is there little correlation?
Leather and fur are two separate markets, but pricing can be affected by similar or common influences. The word is that Chinese exports may have declined in recent years, while hide and fur imports have increased. The Chinese are buying shoes, leather goods and cars with leather upholstery. The Europeans also are buying heavily in the U.S. hide market.
How has your Web store been doing since your roll-out about a year ago?
Web sales continue to grow. Leather sales lead all other categories of product despite the fact the customer is unable to touch, smell and see their particular purchase. I have to give credit to our web master for producing a nice website that reaches a national and international audience.
My brother was extremely proud of the wallet he made in seventh-grade shop class. Sadly, that was the end of his leather working career. What percentage of your sales are to hobbyists?
Hobbyists and crafters make up three-quarters of our retail sales.
Billings has several accomplished saddlemakers. Have you noticed anybody getting into that fine craft?
New customers are the life blood of any business. We continue to see a strong interest in learning this craft. The Montana Horseman Saddle School of Belgrade graduates 10 to 12 students per year alone.
The decline of the shoe repair businesses has been pretty well documented. Is there any indication that younger people have taken an interest in this time-honored trade?
Products have gotten less expensive, pushing a disposable society into many industries. Yet shoe repair has retained a “foothold” compared to other repair industries. While the demand for shoe repair is not what it once was, people who purchase quality boots or shoes can have them repaired for a fraction of the cost of a new pair. When you have shoes you love, you want to extend their life as long as possible. Quality-made footwear lasts longer and on the whole fits better and is therefore more comfortable.
How does somebody learn about leather craft? Do they apprentice? Are there classes?
Many of the repair professionals take on apprentices, or the craft can be learned at trade schools. Go green, re-sole, re-heel, repair your shoes.