By Eric Peterson | Jan 12, 2015
VP of Operations Jon Hastey and co-owner Blake Nielsen are leading the maker of belt buckles into the new millennium.
Some companies started with a bang. Johnson & Held is one of them.
Founders Chris Johnson and Peggy Held, "per the legend, were star-crossed lovers," says owner Blake Nielsen.
But Held's banker father demanded she marry a businessman, so she bought Johnson a belt-buckle business. "Then they got married, sold the company, and ran off to Mexico," says Nielsen.
In the years since, the company has collected all sorts of other folklore and tall tales, while making tens of thousands of belt buckles for customers ranging from motorcycle clubs to the White House, western wear shops, and a wide range of corporate accounts.
Since the buckles are always hand-cut and hand-engraved, the minimum order is one for a custom buckle. In fact, everything, from design to sandpainting to inlays to soldering, is done by hand.
Nielsen says Johnson & Held is the only company he knows of that offers sandpainted belt buckles. "We have Navajo artists who come in a few times a week," he says.
Ted Allsup owned the company after Johnson and Held flew the coop, and remains its primary artist. He starts with pencil and paper, and his designs are used as stencils to cut the metal.
Ron Heller bought the company in the mid-'80s and sold it to Nielsen and Chris Smutny in 2012. Heller remains with the company as VP of sales and Nielsen brought in Jon Hastey as VP of operations.
Smutny and Nielsen looked at several other businesses before buying Johnson & Held, "everything from remediation companies to other manufacturing companies," says Nielsen, a investment banker. "We wanted it to be something very straightforward and we could some straightforward make improvements."
It was a bit of a culture shock at first. "We had the California kid and the preppy Kenter," Nielsen says of Smutny and himself. (Nielsen and Hastey met as classmates at Kent Denver in the late 1990s.) "It's a far cry from the suits I normally wear."
After buying the company, the duo created a website, made a few process improvements, and sales doubled in 2013, then climbed another 20 percent in 2014. Hastey says the 2015 forecast is 40 percent growth.
Nielsen attributes the growth to online sales and a push into the corporate market. Most Johnson & Held buckles retail for $300 or more, but the company can make custom buckles for $100 each in volume. The most expensive one the company ever made was $2,000, a gold and silver replica of John Wayne's Red River belt buckle. "It was a crazy guy out of California," says Heller of the customer.
Artisanship makes Johnson & Held stand out. "What we fell in love with was the product itself," says Nielsen, adding, "Not much has changed on the production side."
So that still means taking piece of metal and crafting a belt buckle, step by step, by hand. "Our handmade process makes us different" from buckle makers who use molds, says Nielsen, commending the skill and precision of the employees.
"What's amazing about this company and what scares me about this company is our average tenure is 12 years," says Nielsen. "If you can find me a hand engraver tomorrow, we'll hire that person."
Challenges: "Finding salespeople," says Nielsen. "They're in demand. It's a special person who can sell [belt buckles] well."
And finding the craftspeople to make belt buckles by hand is also challenging. Hastey calls the requisite skill sets "hard to find and expensive to train."
Opportunities: The corporate market. Johnson & Held has made custom belt buckles for Vladimir Jones, Warren Transport, and Whiting Petroleum, but Nielsen sees potential for growth. He also sees an opportunity for more direct custom sales; one-off buckles start at about $300, with a $50 charge to convert the artwork.
Needs: "Cheaper metal prices," says Nielsen. "That can be really challenging for us." Buying local is a company goal. "We go out of our way to source from Colorado companies," he adds.