Auburn plant keeps Americans laced up
Posted: Thursday, December 6, 2012 9:22 pm
By: Robyn Minor, Daily News
By ROBYN MINOR
AUBURN, Ky. (AP) — If you are wearing a name brand shoe with leather laces, chances are you are wearing a little part of Auburn.
“It would be easier to say what brands we aren’t in, rather than what we are in,” said Lisa Howlett, president of Auburn Leather Co. “We aren’t in Uggs, but we will be before I die.”
The country’s only lace leather producer and one of south central Kentucky’s oldest businesses is quietly toiling away to make its mark on the industry with the 1 million laces it makes each week. The company also produces laces for baseball gloves and lacrosse sticks.
Howlett said she can tell her company’s laces apart from those made elsewhere “because of their genuineness” and because the cutting machine marks are different than they are on most other laces, many of which are made from composite materials.
This year Auburn Leather will sell more than $20 million in shoelaces, and others are taking note. Howlett was recently named chairwoman of the board for Leather Industries of America.
“But I think our customers know more about us than the people in our (area),” said Ida Elliott, vice president of business development for the company.
Next year, the company, which has a coloring operation, Old Kentucky Leathers in Franklin, and a gasket division, Caldwell Gasket in Auburn, will celebrate being 150 years old.
Started in 1863 by Howlett’s great-great-grandfather, George Washington Caldwell, the business was Maple Park Tannery on the town’s creek.
Caldwell’s daughter, Ethyl Nell, married Lloyd Stanford Howlett, who started Caldwell Lace Leather Co. in Auburn in 1904. The company made leather products used for horse wagons and buggies.
In 1942, Lloyd Stanford Howlett sold partial interest in Caldwell Lace Leather to his son, William Caldwell Howlett, and to each of his grandsons, William Stanford Howlett, who joined the business in 1947, and Joe Richard Howlett, who joined the business in 1949. Joe Richard Howlett turned the company in the direction of making leather shoelaces.
The business left the family’s hands for two decades after Browning Arms and then later a private individual purchased it and dismantled it.
In 1985, Lisa Howlett left the health care industry, and she and her now-deceased father, Joe Richard, at auction bought back the building, which housed the leather company. For two years they had a noncompete clause so their 12 employees could just make western tack.
In 1990, the company saw an opportunity with the popularity of motorcycles and began making motorcycle accessories. But Elliott said that business fell off with the recession. The company sold off that division in June 2011.
Between its three divisions, Auburn Leather has grown to about 110 employees and hopes to expand.
Old Kentucky Leathers, where Howlett’s sister Pam Leach is director of continuous improvement, expects to add six employees following a $500,000 improvement there. The company received a low-interest loan from the Barren River Area Development District for the improvements, which will help expand production by about 28 percent.
Howlett also wants to add a finishing department in Auburn to do more spray finishes on the hides that drum dyeing can’t take care of. The company is developing multiple fashion colors for the laces. It started with just pink and now has many more.
That finishing department would be added to part of the building that houses the gasket company, where gaskets, which help prevent air or water flow in all types of industries, are made.
A new finishing department would probably mean the hiring of about eight more people, she said.
“We will look at doing that once we get the work done in Franklin,” Howlett said.
While machines are involved in the process, a lot of the work is manual.
“It has got to feel right,” Howlett said. “You can’t replace these people with a robot.”
When the hides come into the facility, workers such as Neal Hopkins inspect them, measure the length, gauge the thickness and look for such things as scars, cut marks or brands that would mar the surface of the hide.
Hopkins lays out how the hides have to be cut to produce the most product.
Cindy Burton of Auburn is the third generation of her family to work at the plant, and she’s been there for 19 years. “I really enjoy it,” she said.
Because the hides are expensive, about $150 after processing, little material is wasted. Even the thick, tough leather that covers the spine is sent off in shipping containers to India, where it is used in braided leather products, Elliott said. For now they ship their laces by plane, mostly to Hong Kong. Manufacturers return the shoes to the United States by ship.
Some of the shoe production business is moving closer to home in the Dominican Republic. If that’s the case, shipping the laces there will become a cheaper proposition.