Article And Photos By: Chris Callen
Originally Published In The July 2016 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
Each and every July Cycle Source dedicates an issue to the American Manufacturers of this country under the title Buy American. Now, we don’t believe that this will bring upon enormous change, it’s surely not a ploy to garnish more advertising, but it is our way of constantly supporting the quiet resistance. To make people aware of the stories involved in the modern American Dream and that profit and ravenous Capitalism is not all that matters in the motorcycle business. Lately there has been a welcome trend, albeit in small parts right now, to bring jobs back, to do the work here, to buy locally first, or at least in the United States. People are starting to see the effects of two decades’ worth of out sourcing and they have begun to take control. Small manufacturers, mom and pop business are coming on strong and finding ways to compete again. To that end, we have a few things to bring to your attention in this small offering. First up is a little company with a great big reputation and an even bigger heart from Connecticut, Hot Leathers. Now, if you’ve ever been to a national motorcycle rally and bought an official rally shirt, the chances are you were in one of the many Hot Leathers booths at that event. They are packed full of biker E goodies and are generally the official merchandise supplier and sales point for most big motorcycle gatherings today. This, however, is not an overnight success or the reason we have decided to spotlight them in this article.
I’ve known Andy George, a near 30- year employee of that company now, for quite some time and have always considered him a good dude and fair minded in business. When I visited with him in Daytona to discuss a new program, Builders Row, where he was giving smaller business like bike builders access to his sales network, I thought even more of him. As we talked that day he mentioned another new venture to me that made me want to drive straight up to his facility and bring the story home to our readers. In it, he and Hot Leathers owner Jerry Berkowitz would launch an initiative to bring the manufacturing of their leather goods back into the United States and into their own facility. Why is this amazing you might ask… Well, simply put, there are so few companies that are willing to go out of their comfort zone when it comes to profits these days. Many will just take the best deal for the cheapest price and pass that on to consumers. With the Leather industry no longer tanning hides here in the USA over EPA issues that regulate that craft the system becomes even more lopsided and confusing. You see the US is still one of the largest suppliers of raw material to the global leather industry; we just can’t tan it here. The first step then being that US leather is sent out of the country to be processed and then either sent back for what many consider high-end operations to make US wearable’s, or made into wearable’s in other countries and sent back as finished product. Of course it can be sold back to this country for considerably less than a US manufacturer can produce it, and that’s the nature of what we call free trade today.
Unfortunately, these countries enjoy our governments weak trade policies while at the same time enjoying their own lack of similar environmental or humanitarian standards, giving them an additional advantage. You see, free trade is no longer all it’s cracked up to be. Especially when you consider that a Jeep Grand Cherokee that costs around $30k in the US can go anywhere from $100k – $180k in China, proving that their own ideas about free trade are much more conservative than our own. But I digress; this is an article about a company doing the exact opposite as the trend and bringing jobs and craftsmanship back to American Soil. We sat in Jerry’s office at their Manchester, CT facility, and got to hear the story of their humble beginnings. Back in the seventies, before Hot Leathers officially became a corporation 33 years ago, Jerry sold novelties, balloons and souvenirs at sporting events like playoffs for hockey, basketball, etc. Those early set ups were the rally point of entire cities to support their teams. He would deliver a bouquet of balloons dressed in a tuxedo, not because it was part of the grand plan to become the company that Hot Leathers is today, but because he would get paid twenty bucks to do it. Eventually they moved into shirts and that’s where it really started to evolve. In the late seventies and early eighties Hot Leathers started making their own garments and souvenirs. The world changes and you have to go with the flow Jerry says. They became a distributor for Harley’s Shirts in the early eighties when they first started offering their licensed shirts to companies like Hot Leathers and Hollobeck. Jerry would supplement the licensed product with their own apparel. Eventually they discontinued the Harley product and the focus became their own merchandise. Jerry is proud to say with a grin that Hot Leathers uses their art and their branded product. Eventually, and so long ago that no one at the company even remembers, they got the deal to be the official rally shirt and souvenir supplier. Ten years ago there weren’t that many rallies so I don’t think even they understood how that would change the face of their company. Jerry remembers making Laconia shirts and being open 24 hours a day for four days. No tent, just pouring rain with clear plastic over the tables. People would ride up at 3am and pick up a wet rag, ring it out, bring it over and pay for it. Back then they operated out of a house trailer with a door that had to be screwed on at night, rather than the bright shiny tractor-trailers you see at rallies today.
At first they started with a supplier for their goods who went out of business some time later. The original four color, automated screen-printing machine moved to another facility and that company eventually went out of business so Jerry just bought the equipment and hired their own screen print operator. From that point on it was steady growth throughout the years, which by the way hasn’t been easy. Jerry reminds us that today it’s all about the motorcycle show, selling a real product to real people. Back then it was show to show whether it was a state fair, a Rock-N-roll show or a sporting event. He eased back into his chair and laughed, exclaiming that some of the shows were strange carnivals and weird. Now, he continued, it’s still a carnival, much more sophisticated and you don’t have to set up next to the Ferris wheel, but it’s still a carnival. So years down the road they’re doing the official rally shirt for over 25 separate events like Sturgis, Daytona and Laconia bike weeks. Andy himself will attend eighteen of those. They have a crew that is on the road non- stop throughout the year and in spite of this being seasonal work, they pay those employees 52 weeks out of the year. This is part of the reason Andy believes they have many 10 and 15 year employees. Each employee has a job that they do and that’s all they do. If they’re a screen printer, they print. They never make people do multiple jobs, load trucks, take out garbage. Makes me realize what a dick my boss is.
Andy feels that the way they treat their people is a big part of why they have such a strong roster. So much so that he really couldn’t say that they’ve gone through a bunch of poor applicants to find a good crew. On our way through the three massive warehouse buildings that house their operations, we had a good long talk with Andy about the organization of a company with a 300-page catalogue. While there may be some advantage to machines like a robot inventory machine that selects items for orders, to them having the loyalty of the employees is key. To that end, the reason they have three separate buildings in the same industrial park is that instead of moving into one facility that would have taken them off the standard bus lines, making it harder for the employees to get to work, they stayed put. You just don’t hear about companies with consideration like that for their staff. The new leather facility is four miles away in the building that Hot Leathers started in a few decades ago. Within all those separate walls they have their ready to sell inventory, their blanks in one whole warehouse, shipping in another, and printing in still another. Even their catalogue is shot in house with employees as the models. It is a massive operation to say the least. Considering the amount of inventory, it would take to fill the bill just for Sturgis, you can see the reason they will start working on that event in September of the previous year, almost right after the rally ends from the year before.
Hot Leathers had been buying US leather and selling it online for about five years and while it was a good addition to their other wearables, bigger plans were in store for the brand. Their supplier for that arm of the business, Tony was getting ready to retire and they decided to bring it and Tony in house. With over 3,000 stores that they supply, they have the network to make American Made Leather work. If they could bring the production in house and control the quality and the rate of production, they could compete. So the plan was set to bring Tony and all his equipment into their facility and save a dying art. You see Tony is a cutter, that’s all he does; he makes templates and cuts leather. That’s the guy that figures out exactly how to get the most product out of a single cowhide, over 25 pieces an hour, by hand with a little knife and a room full of templates. Vests, Jackets, Chaps, if it’s gonna be made in house at Hot Leathers, Tony has cut it. This is a true art form and one that is seriously disappearing from our country. What they intend to do is bring one person in at a time and apprentice to both Tony and the other side of this operation, Marlene the head seamstress. Believe it or not, to make a good quality leather product the person that stitches it together is as much as an artisan as the man at the cutting table. In their leather production facility, they had maybe a dozen old industrial leather sewing stations set up with another dozen in the basement getting prepared. There were thousands of templates for products hanging everywhere at the ready to make Hot Leathers goods under their new “American Made” logo tags that will be sewn into each piece. In the end this is a process that may take years to come into any kind of high volume situation, but the point is they have set down the framework, made the commitment financially and have begun their plan to do their part for their community and the quality of the goods they bring to market, the American Way.