Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Leather-care products
Owner Michael Cranwill is revitalizing a legacy leather-care brand founded nearly a century ago.
Since acquiring the company in 2017, it's been an uphill battle to rectify the business' affairs, which, according to Cranwill, had been wildly mismanaged in the immediately preceding years. "I consider it a 98-year-old startup," says Cranwill of his task at hand.
The company's origins date back to the 1920s in Oregon, where a bootmaker from Tennessee named A.E. Huberd set out to make his mark. In the course of his work in the Pacific Northwest, Huberd developed a shoe grease that won a following among loggers and boatsmen for its leather-preserving and waterproofing qualities.
And, as a distinctive blue can featuring an illustration of Huberd's face within the upper part of a boot, the product enjoyed popularity for decades. After Huberd sold the company, it was run by a father and son in McMinnville, Oregon, who had accounts throughout the United States as well as abroad in England, France, and Australia. Today, the company's cans, tins, and tubes from that era are collector's items and sometimes sold in antique shops. Cranwill recalls seeing a Huberd product in an antique store himself. "Doggone," he recalls thinking, "that's something that catches a guy's eye." (And although some of those cans say, "Since 1929," Cranwill puts the company's origins further back to 1921.)
In 2004, a new owner relocated the business from Oregon to Arizona. Then, in 2015, that new owner died. Cranwill, who had previously worked for 15 years for the Adams County Sheriff's Office, was enlisted by the executor of the estate to investigate the company's state of affairs. Let's just say that things weren't exactly on the level, to hear Cranwill describe it. Cranwill says the company was enmeshed within a web of intrigue, which he likens likens to "a Breaking Bad kind of scenario."
After studying the business' viability with the estate's executor, Cranwill agreed to purchase the company in 2017, saving it from extinction. It was a speculative buy, Cranwill says, but he "saw value in the product, [and] the [onetime] marketing of the product," which had enjoyed popularity far and wide. Cranwill says, "The numbers weren't really great. Things didn't look all that good. But it looked to be an opportunity to purchase a business that had some significant market presence -- [or] at least recognition. Maybe more recognition than presence."
The company's products still include shoe grease, as well as shoe oil, leather dressing, saddle and tack conditioner, and boot and saddle soap. Cranwill says the Huberd name is still "highly regarded."
"The product is so versatile," says Cranwill. "There's always something leather that someone has, be it boots or gear or saddles or tack or hats or dusters -- or even wood products. We've used a lot of our stuff on refinishing some fine wood furniture. It's not a new application: There's been natural waxes used as finishing agents on wood for hundreds of years or more. The product really doesn't have any boundaries." Softball enthusiasts use Huberd's on their gloves, too, he adds.
Although he'd never been a small businessman previously, Cranwill, 43, was a natural fit for the endeavor in certain regards. "I've been an outdoors guy my entire life," he says. "Leather saddles, stuff like that."
Today, Cranwill does the bulk of the work himself in a 5,000-square-foot building 30 miles east of Denver in Bennett, Colorado. "The equipment that we operate is still from [the early '40s]. The vat was designed in Oregon by Oregon Steel in 1944," he says. "It was like finding a time capsule that had been dug up."
Cranwill mixes the ingredients -- like high-quality pine tar from Sweden and beeswax from an apiary in South Dakota -- according to A.E. Huberd's original recipe, preparing 120 gallons at a time. While Cranwill is the one who now prepares and cans the shoe grease (using the company's vintage volumetric filling machine), he says of the company's original founder, "The genius was A.E. Huberd."
Cranwill's business hasn't turned a profit just yet. "It's been a pretty hard turnaround for us," he says. Still, in 2018, sales were "in the order of $350,000," with 12,000 units being sold. And Huberd products are now currently available in "hundreds of stores," as well as being sold online via Amazon vendors. "We have inquiries from all around the world every day," Cranwill says.
Along the way, Cranwill -- who's no business wiz, he freely admits -- has received help with writing a business plan thanks to a regional Small Business Development Center, and he's received a modest business loan from the Colorado Enterprise Fund.
Since Cranwill took over the company, there's been a lot to learn, a lot to rectify, a lot to undertake. There have been books to straighten out. International shipping to navigate. Product UPC codes to update. Trademarks issues to deal with. An Internet presence to develop. Materials and packaging to source.
Cranwill says, "It's been a two year battle -- but it's been a remarkable one!"
Challenges: "All the modern aspects of business," says Cranwill. "Internet. International shipping, international pricing, international marketing. The technical resources."
Opportunities: Cranwill says the big one is building on an already strong brand. "We have thousands and thousands of people who call us that know our product, [who] stop us on the street [when we wear a Huberd's T-shirt or hat]: 'Man, I haven't seen that in years! My grandpa used to use that. . . . I didn't even know they still produced it. Where can you get it?'" he says. "I think our biggest opportunity for this business is truly harnessing the technology of marketing and merchandising."
Needs: More hands on deck. "There's a lot of markets on Amazon that are available globally that would, maybe, even double business in a year," says Cranwill. "But the ability to navigate the technical sides of that are going to rely on the ability of the company to hire staff to make those things possible."
He declares, "There's only so much butt you can kick with one foot."