An alchemy of space travel, old recipes and golf
Coping with today's rapidly changing technologies, markets and lightning fast communications has seriously challenged the ability of many leather businesses to prosper or even to survive. But an example exists of how three very different companies, recently allied, created a "virtual corporation" combining the needs and skills of a giant in the leather products market with those of a small, but aggressive leather and glove company and one of the oldest names in tanning history.
I wonder if I could give you the least idea of this place or the life people lead here. I don't believe I can in writing, nor even perhaps if I were to describe it in talking. It is so very different from England, and so completely an established thing of itself." These were the words of Charles Booth in a letter to his wife written in April 1878 from Gloversville, New York, where Booth & Company had purchased a tannery to serve the growing leather market in America.
"I am just back from the factory (llp.m. as usual) and have had a pitch-dark walk mitigated by flashes of lightning, without which, I should have with difficulty found my way, as there are only about six street lamps in the place, and lights from shops and houses are mostly out. The road is rough too, if you get off the track, which consists of plank footways. There are trees between the footway and the road, which latter is of a soft sandy consistency turning to deep mud after rain, and we have had a deluge".
This could easily have been written by John Widdemer of Bali Leathers, Inc. to his wife in Gloversville one hundred years later from India, where he now makes high performance leathers and gloves with his partner Naser Ahmed, owner of Naser Tanning Company in Vaniyambadi. It is a strange coincidence that in 1878, the year of Charles Booth's letter, Bali Leather's forerunner, Hilts-Willard Corp., was formed in Gloversville and began hand stitching Booth's leather into fine men's dress gloves.
Booth & Co. and Bali Leathers, Inc., out of touch for more than a hundred years, were reintroduced through the efforts of Michael Redwood, researcher and product developer at Titleist and FootJoy World-wide (TFJWW). Redwood holds the conviction that, under certain circumstances in the leather industry, alchemy exists by which several parts can combine into an alliance stronger than their sum as individuals. He states: "Today's companies are recognising that an increasing proportion of their technology is bought in and they cannot survive as an island. FootJoy know this is true for them, and for their suppliers. For real and sustained technical leadership companies like FootJoy need not only good suppliers, but suppliers who are willing to work as a team."
Dongola back in vogue
Redwood is also a leather industry historian. He has long been fascinated by an early process, developed at Booth & Companies Gloversville tannery in the midnineteenth century, to produce a product called "Dongola Leather'. The Dongola process, named after a town in Sudan where some of the raw skins originated, transformed goatskins, sheepskins and kangaroo, all supplied from Booth's world-wide procurement network, into a soft, fine and immensely strong gloving leather. FootJoy, the world leader in golf glove supply, Redwood reasoned, might benefit from a resurrected and modernised Dongola tannage, since softness and strength are the most important characteristics of golf gloves. Equally important is that the process is chrome free, an advantage that may become a requirement of many markets in the future. He turned to Booth and to Bali Leathers.
Fitting like a jigsaw
Like pieces of a puzzle, the parts of this unique alliance fitted together perfectly. Ken Chapman, present owner of Booth and descendent of its prior managers, still has in place Booth's raw material network to supply the needed pickled kangaroo and sheepskins. Its archives supplied the original complex Dongola formula. Bali Leathers in India was close to the needed sources of gambier twigs and bark, now long forgotten in Gloversville, and had been constantly experimenting with golf glove leather improvements. Some ingredients in the archaic formula were no longer available in their original form. Alum was, of course, available but the essential egg yolks and blood seasoning would be substituted artificially. It was obvious that the formula would need serious revamping to produce leather meeting the demanding standards of today's markets and yet retain the softness, thinness and great strength of the original product. The successful results of this collaboration, a silky leather almost twice as strong as is commonly used in golf gloves, which is now undergoing field tests, perfectly illustrates Redwood's thesis of consuuaive alliances. Three vastly different companies worked together to accomplish something none could have done alone.
TFJWW holds over 35% of world market share and has a complete understanding of what the ideal golf glove should be. They maintain extensive lab and field testing facilities for leather and gloves. Once a new product is developed and approved, their world-wide distribution channels assure its success.
Tiny by comparison with TFJWW Bali Leathers has achieved leadership in leather innovation for sports products. This began with an earlier alliance, with NASA (the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Working closely in 1970 with Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell, (by chance an avid golfer) and with the NASA Research Lab in Houston which was seeking better materials and gloves for space suit use, many exciting goals were reviewed for high performance products. Research to translate these goals to leathers eventually led to unique leather developments by Bali, including Tritan, Graflex and now Dongola.
The Tritan glove leather tannage was developed through another alliance with a comparative giant: Rohm and Haas. NASA had been seeking a lightweight microporous textile for Earth re-entry suits that would be breathable for comfort, waterproof and yet contain any alien microbes picked up by an astronaut in space. The Tritan process based on Rohm and Haas products, draws together the leather fibre network to resist water penetration yet breathe. This paralleled NASAs concept, with the added benefits of making the leather machine-washable and dryable. The process is now used in Bali's leather garments as well as in gloves.
Graphite for lubrication
NASA was also doing extensive work with graphite, a totally inert material, perfect for space applications due to its extremely high melting temperature and stability. Working with graphite textiles, its dry lubricating properties became clear to Bali and a patented, dry lubricated leather, Graflex resulted which is now widely used in the sports glove industry and has application for industrial uses and shoes.
Booth & Company, traces its origins to 1863. Its fascinating history includes a swashbuckling episode in which it played a leading role in the entry of the United States into World War I. Munitions, then prohibited by existing neutrality treaties, were secretly shipped from America to England as raw skin cargo under Bootlis manifests. (Booth at the time had a substantial shipping line as well as its leather business.) The Lusitania, sunk by a German submarine, caused the US to enter the war. On its manifest were large cargoes of Booth skins.
Risk taking on this scale is no stranger to a nineteenth century dealer in skins from some of the most remote regions of the world. Many of the networks, loyalties and relationships developed then have survived until today, providing one of Booth's greatest strengths.
The concept of three widely divergent companies, each with its special niche in the leather business, coming together as a "virtual corporation", made advances possible that without open and full co-operation could never have been achieved: a concept that might greatly strengthen the industry if old barriers of secrecy and distrust could be overcome and replaced by healthy alliances.
"This article was published in 'World Leather - April 1999'.
It was not written by me but represents how redesigning the past can create an exciting future."