An Interview with Dave Munson, Founder of Saddleback Leather, United States of America
Texas-based husband and wife owners of Saddleback Leather, Dave and Suzette Munson, built their leather goods business by prioritising the highest quality for their products, treating employees and colleagues like family, and dreaming of expanding their business so they can increase their global philanthropic efforts. Saddleback Leather is an unquestionable runaway success. The business that started by selling handcrafted leather bags on eBay now has a major production facility in Mexico and headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.
Saddleback Leather’s philanthropic arm “Love 41” puts its proceeds towards supporting humanitarian efforts.
The fact that philanthropy is woven into the DNA of everything Dave and Suzette do is a significant part of why Saddleback has such a loyal and devoted customer base. And their efforts to inspire other businesses to follow in their path are gaining traction.
In a conversation with Tharawat Magazine, Dave Munson discusses the early beginnings of Saddleback Leather and how he came to develop his unique corporate philosophy.
How did your entrepreneurial journey begin?
When I was 28 years old, I went down to Mexico to volunteer to teach English at a school. When I got there, I realised that I needed a bag to carry my books. So, I was looking around, and I couldn’t find anything. But, I found a guy who made bags. So I sketched out a bag, and he said he could make it for me. It was just a crude sketch with the required dimensions.
I got my bag made. Suddenly, everywhere I went people would be very enthusiastic about it. And so, after a year of teaching English, I went back up to Portland, Oregon. Every day people were stopping me, tapping me on the shoulder, ‘Hey, where can I get that bag? Where can I get that bag?’ I thought, ‘Hmm, I bet there’s a business here.’ That was the beginning of Saddleback Leather.
Is that when you began production?
I thought that selling some of the bags on eBay would provide me with enough funds to continue working as a volunteer with underprivileged youth. I’ve always worked with at-risk youth. After a while, I ended up in Juarez, Mexico. It was just my dog and I. I had a black lab named Blue. We slept on the floor in this concrete place and lived like that for three years. All the money that I would save from not paying rent, and utilities and stuff, I would deposit in a bank account for this father and son business further south in Mexico. They would make more new bags and send them up to me on the bus. I would take them over to El Paso and sell them on eBay.
When did the operation expand to include members of your family?
Pretty soon, I started selling too many bags. I couldn’t keep up anymore. I asked my father to help me out to put some bags online and sell them. That’s how it started to become a family business.
Round about that time I also met Suzette. We got married five months after we met and she has been on this journey with me ever since.
When did you realise it was growing beyond just a mail order business into something much larger?
Demand kept on growing. We got the factory for Saddleback Leather going in 2008 after we moved down to Mexico. My Dad and Suzette’s Dad started working with us. They were both, selling on eBay, and shipping the bags. Then her sister came on board for customer service. My sister joined us as well.
Everybody used to work from home. In Oregon, Georgia, and Florida, New York, and California; everyone worked from all over the place. Soon we got to the point where we had to anchor our operation in the US and have everyone working from the same location, so we moved to Fort Worth, Texas.
How does it operate right now? What’s your current role in the company?
I am the CEO. I have my leadership team around me. We’ve got people for operations, finance, marketing, and IT. When I need wisdom, I have competent people around me. We have about 65 employees here in the US working for Saddleback, and about 200 people in Mexico at our factory. There’s no brick and mortar store. I’d like to, eventually, open one. But, right now it’s just not the best time. We can hardly keep up with production for what we’re doing.
Can you tell us about how your mission to help people, not just abroad but also within your own company, manifests itself in how you operate?
We believe that people are valuable and that true joy only comes through relationships.
We underline this in our daily business operations. For instance, we have opened our own daycare. It has made a huge difference to some of our employees. They no longer feel like they have to choose between having a job and being a parent. It makes all the difference. It’s life changing. It’s a more permanent happiness than what you might feel by buying a new boat or a vacation home.
An important reason why people buy our bags is that it represents part of who they are. I think they sometimes even identify more with our values than with the products. We have a powerful, loyal group of people that buy everything that we make in every colour. One customer showed me his collection. He told me he felt that how we did things and how we made the products represented him.
How tricky was the transition from a guy who sells leather bags one at a time on eBay to CEO of a multinational company?
I hired a business coach. I had met him in Rwanda. There’s a non-profit that we work with. They hired Larry Briggs to come on in and coach the organisation, the leaders. He did and, it helped them out. So one day I just called him up and said, ‘Hey, I need someone to walk me through this. Because I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s gotten too big.’
He taught me to ask the right questions and some of the fundamentals of business, like knowing my people and understanding what their jobs require.
At any point in this process did you ever get overwhelmed and think ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’?
You know it is funny. I have said it in the past, but not anymore. The reason is that we’re having more influence with what we’re doing now. Let’s say one year we’re able to give away 10 million dollars. I mean, that would be wonderful to be able to give that much away. But what if through our influence we were able to get 1000 companies to all give away a million? That would be a billion. And so, what if we could permanently, every year, be giving away a billion through our influence? I think it’s become a bigger mission than just ‘I want to help these people right over there on that street.’ Or, ‘I want to help in this little city.’ It’s becoming more of a global mission. And the more of an audience we have, the bigger the megaphone we use, the more we can do that.
Are you starting to see things move in that direction?
We’re getting the word out. There are people who have written to me and told me their company is also doing business differently because of what they’ve seen with us. They give to charity and have everything focused on their philanthropic goals. It is very fulfilling to witness.