Leather Works Minnesota
A family business revives American craftsmanship
Leather Works Minnesota : A family business revives American craftsmanship
Leather Works Minnesota: A family business revives American...
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1999 was a big year for the Begnauds.
When Kent was laid off, he lost more than a job—he lost a community. His job was one of many that were eliminated when a leather manufacturer moved its operations offshore, an unfortunately common situation.
Rather than find another job, he and his wife, Lee, took a chance on an idea they’d been
considering for years. In opening their own leather shop, they became part of new communities they hadn’t even anticipated.
“This was something that [Kent] always wanted to do,” Lee said. “When you dream about doing something there’s usually a little risk involved. I was the one encouraging him to do it, and I would always say, “Well, let’s just try it. What’s the worst thing that could happen? We could just go back to our full-time jobs.”
It never came to that, but like many small businesses, Leather Works Minnesota had a slow beginning. Lee handled the business side, while Kent created leather items from a shop in their backyard. Over the years, they focused the product line on bestsellers like belts, wallets, and key rings. The Begnauds’ business plan was refreshingly old-fashioned: create simple, functional, handcrafted products of a quality that’s hard to come by today.
“I think we got into technology as a nation, and a lot of the manufacturing, the hands-on stuff, just went away,” Kent said. “I try to develop things that I think are practical. We find a need and we try to fill that.”
Protecting a dream is as important as pursuing one.
It never came to that, but like many small businesses, Leather Works Minnesota had a slow beginning.
“If we can help somebody else succeed, that relationship that we bond with them in doing a project together, it only comes back to help us later,” Kent added.
The shop continued to grow, taking over their basement and garage. To meet increasing demand, they hired their son Nathan as the company’s third full-time employee. But things really took off after a blogger snapped a picture of a Leather Works wallet at the Northern Grade market. The free publicity led to interest from other bloggers, which led to an appearance in Martha Stewart’s Whole Living magazine. Today, Nathan is in charge of the company’s social media presence, posting Instagram photos that mirror the brand—clean, simple, authentic.
“Now if we design something, we put it on Instagram and 29,000 people tell us what they think of it,” Lee said.
In addition to this online community, the Begnauds benefit from being part of a real-world network of like-minded tradesmen who share an unconventional business strategy: embrace the competition.
“One thing that we love is to help other up-and-coming leather shops. We have a lot of people that come here and ask if we would be willing to share our sources and any tips, and we love to help everybody,” Lee said.
This not only includes helping young entrepreneurs learn how to run their own business, but sharing equipment when another shop’s gear breaks down. That feeling of community, of cooperation and teamwork, is key to the shop’s success, not to mention what makes it all worth it.
“Being able to make this work, to be able to employ up to eight people a week. That’s awesome for us,” Lee said. “To create jobs in America—that’s something that we never thought that we’d be doing in the lean times. We thank all of our customers for that.”