5 Questions for Auburn Leather’s Lisa Howlett

Few know how to tie it all together like Lisa Howlett, president of Auburn Leather Co. Her privately owned Auburn, Ky.-based company is the only manufacturer of leather shoelaces in the U.S., and posted sales of $11 million in 2010, with expectations of $15 million this year.

Those numbers are a testament to the firm’s heritage. Howlett’s family founded the company in 1863 as Caldwell Leather Lace, and it was at one time the largest shoelace producer in the country. In 1980, her father, Joe Howlett, sold the firm to private investors, who later dissolved the business. Joe then repurchased the original Auburn manufacturing facility and re-entered the market in 1989.

Today, Auburn Leather’s customer base includes shoe brands such as Sperry Top-Sider, Wolverine, Timberland, L.L. Bean, Rockport and Clarks. “[They’re] my design partners,” said Lisa Howlett, who works with the companies to develop new lace colors, lengths and thicknesses. “A shoelace is not just a shoelace. If a company is using a leather lace, they’re making a statement. It’s part of the overall design.”

While Auburn Leather may not compete on price with foreign producers, the firm remains committed to maintaining quality. “We’ve been able to hang in because, very fortunately for us, many of the U.S.-based brands recognize or require that value-added product,” said Howlett.

Here, the exec discusses the trajectory of business and expanding the firm’s reach beyond its niche audience.

The shoelace market seems pretty cut and dried. Are there current shoelace trends?
The iconic colors are always going to be earth tones, brown and black. They’re the meat and potatoes. We’ve added fashion colors that come in and out season to season, and brand to brand. One brand develops a color, but we don’t share it with another label. We’ve developed some textures [such] as buff grains and nubuck. We’re doing some printed leathers. They look cute for a couple of seasons, but a [square] 9/64 40-inch brown [lace] is here year-in and year-out. It’s probably my No. 1 lace.

The boat shoe craze has been a boon to the leather laces business. What happens when the trend wanes?
Within the last few years, we’ve tried to expand our reach and redefine laces as a product that [goes beyond] boat looks. [Leather] laces can also go into boots. [Ours are] strong enough, so you can lace them all the way to the knee. And we’re now finding our laces in footwear that traditionally didn’t have leather laces. We’ve got leather laces in Australian [shearling] boots and round laces in men’s casuals.

How have you managed to remain 100 percent domestically sourced?
We have a plant in Franklin, Ky., that’s a coloring plant. Our hides are contract tanned. While we don’t do it ourselves, we provide the specialized formula for [added] strength. So everything made after tanning is processed by us. Owning our own coloring plant was one of the rules my father set down early. If we’re going to make quality shoelaces, we have to control our raw materials. A shoelace is really only as good as the leather it’s cut from, so he went to Florida and bought a tannery and relocated the coloring part to Kentucky.

How would you like to grow the business down the road?
For our lace business, we’re looking at expanding into sporting goods such as baseball gloves. We’re in discussions with [Wilson]. But with our leather business, we’re looking at expanding into other end uses. Our coloring plant can make leathers besides just laces. We’re looking at bag and case leather, and trimming leathers. Just knowing that some people have moved back to the U.S. with some finished goods [gives us more opportunity] to expand.

In a tough economy, what can manufacturing companies contribute?
We’ve got 148 years of manufacturing laces in Auburn, population 1,000. All other industries here have gone offshore. We try to participate in the town. We privately support the fire department. We need to be a good citizen; the town needs us, too. And we recently got an export excellence award for the south central region of Kentucky. [As for jobs], we currently have 110 employees. We anticipate the [boat shoe] trend continuing for the next few years, so we’ll probably have to add 20 to 30 jobs then.

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