Horween Leather Faces an Uncertain Future

Horween, supplier to the NFL and NBA, is making a bundle, but whether this fourth-generation tanner can make it to a fifth is anybody's guess
CEO Skip Horween wants to sell finished goods on the new Web site. BOB STEFKO

When Isadore Horween emigrated from Ukraine and opened a tannery along the North Branch of the Chicago River in 1905, he had plenty of company. Boats and barges piled high with hides tied up alongside two dozen tanneries to make deliveries. Today, Arnold "Skip" Horween III, a great-grandson of the founder, runs the very last one. It's a lucrative business, thanks to a virtual monopoly in a couple of niche markets, and Horween has plans to expand into e-tailing.

Making it to the fifth generation may be another matter. Inexorably, age-old trades are shipping out to such low-cost, less-regulated places as China, India, and the Caribbean Basin. Gentrification is hustling them along, particularly around Horween's North Side plant, where king-size plots of land are often worth more than the factories sitting on them. Horween, 51, also faces a challenge that transcends his line of work: getting one of his kids to take over from him. Horween says he spurns calls from developers to sell out. Still, he concedes: "Anybody who has an industrial property has a price."

Horween Leather occupies a warren of weather-beaten brick buildings on four acres, where Elston Ave. transverses Ashland Ave. Behind it is a concrete-mixing yard. On the other side of a nearby railroad viaduct are a new Best Buy (BBY) and Kohl's (KSS). Inside the plant, animal skins, trucked in from slaughterhouses in Iowa and Ontario, are hung out to cure like tobacco leaves. Fur is removed using a depilatory made from sodium hydrosulfide and lime. Hides are then softened in giant chemical vats, dried, and sliced into pieces for belts, shoes, bags, garments—and footballs and basketballs. The factory pumps in a citrus scent to mask foul odors.

In a hallway are framed swatches of Super Bowl game balls produced by Wilson Sporting Goods. Horween Leather has been the exclusive supplier to the National Football League since the 1950s—Isadore's son, Arnold, was pals with George "Papa Bear" Halas—and Chicago-based Wilson is its No. 1 customer. "They call them pigskins, but that's a myth," Horween says. Instead, footballs are stitched from steer hides, which are embossed with a pebble pattern to enhance the grip. National Basketball Assn. balls are also made from Horween leather.

"Everything to Order"

The Horween operation's other mainstay is cordovan leather, which comes from the hindquarters of horses. Cordovan may be the most expensive leather there is, and Horween is the only producer left in North America. Hides are shipped in from Quebec and France. Tanning requires six months, and it takes one butt cheek to make one shoe. Custom-made footwear by Silvano Lattanzi in Italy and John Lobb Bootmakers in England from Horween cordovan fetch up to $5,000 a pair. Skip Horween leans to more moderately priced $500 shoes from Alden, another customer. Timberland is Horween's biggest customer in the shoe business.

The company has been famous for its cordovan since Isadore's days. General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing was an early fan. During World War I, after Pershing was smitten by the cordovan boots one of his colonels was wearing, the general's staff requisitioned 15 hides from Horween Leather so his bootmaker could outfit the general in similar fashion. Documents from the purchase are displayed in the tannery's hall. "We're boutique producers," notes Horween, who took over as president from his father in 2002. "We make everything to order. We've always been this way."

Today, Horween Leather's 150 unionized employees process 3,000 cattle hides and 1,000 horse hides a week, yielding 120,000 sq. ft. of leather and, over a year, about $25 million in revenue. To boost that figure the company has developed its own Horween Famous Leather line, including wallets, belts, shoes, and watch bands as well as chairs made from football leather that could be branded with team logos. The products are scheduled to be available later this year at horween.com.

One day, of course, Horween will retire. What'll happen then? "It's an open question," he says. Horween's son, Nick, 24, is a chef in New York, and his daughter, Natalie, is a 17-year-old high schooler. "I hope I can do for them what my father did for me, which was to say: 'I'm not going to lie to you and say I wouldn't love to have you work with me, but you have to do it for yourself.'"

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