Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Belt buckles
J&H Buckles, founded as Johnson & Held Belt Buckles, has a long and romantic backstory.
After Nielsen bought the business with a partner in 2012, he set out to reinvent the company for the new millennium. That meant modernized processes, upgraded technology, and a new sales strategy.
"We have largely shifted to a direct-to-consumer model and away from a wholesale model," says Nielsen. "The vast majority of what we do is custom at this point, which was absolutely the right move. It puts the emphasis on design work and working with the customer and getting them the exact thing they want, which fits for us."
"That's really become our bread-and-butter business," says Hastey. "It can be birthday gifts, company logos, ranch brands."
The company transitioned from manufacturing at a company facility in Englewood, Colorado, to manufacturing with partners in Colorado, Indiana, and Mexico in late 2018.
Workforce issues underpinned the pivot to outsourcing: The talent pool -- which was previously often trained at correctional facilities in Colorado -- became a limiting factor.
"Our staff was not young," says Nielsen. "We worked with 50-some cutters trying to find the skill set we needed and ultimately we couldn't find anybody in Colorado to do what we needed them to do. That led to us starting to find another solution."
Hastey says "the vast majority" of inlaid buckles are made in Mexico, and cast products are manufactured at facilities in the U.S. "We work Mexico for our handcrafted product," says Hastey. "We work really closely with our craftsmen in Mexico."
J&H's partner is a second-generation family business near Guadalajara in Zapopan. Because every piece is handcrafted, the minimum order for custom inlaid buckles remains one.
"I'm always reluctant to say this too loudly," says Nielesn. "The really cool part about using our partners in Mexico is we get to put more time into each buckle. From a product quality perspective, we have been blown away. They're very good at what they do, and they can spend a little more time doing it."
In Colorado and Indiana, partner shops will cast custom buckles in lots of 25 or more. "It's different than the handcrafted work," says Hastey.
The pair keep the names of their partners close to the vest. "Our competitors start trying to use our guys," says Nielsen. "That's our secret sauce."
As buckle demand is largely tied to customer geography, expanding J&H's map is a priority. "We do awfully well in the Mountain West and the Southwest, but our sales in New Jersey are not as strong as I'd like them to be," says Nielsen.
Growth is all about finding new customers, he adds, and that necessitates a big push online. "We have largely made the transition to direct-to-consumer, but we're still a little behind the times. We still don't do a lot online. We're still an old-school business, but pretty soon we're going to have to stop being so old-school and sell stuff through a web page. That's never been a focus; we just aren't very good at it. The vast majority of our business is word-of-mouth, repeat business. . . . The next generation is much less likely to ask their friends where they got something and much more likely to be searching online for it."