Amongst the steely grey warehouses in Huyton, where all forms of business take place, there is a warehouse covered in drapes of leather.
Belts, bags and satchels cascade down the walls as a dedicated few huddle around their workspace and proudly carry the flame of “Made in England”. Born out of a garage in Huyton, this satchel first saw the light of day at Wembley in 1966 in a modest street stall. We don’t need to get out the history books to remember what happened that year. It hasn’t always been easy in a world where businesses have been packaged, chopped and sent off to the Far East to keep prices low, but The Leather Satchel persevered – and at one point they were the only company in the UK making satchels in the early 90’s. Today, they struggle to keep up with demand, ship their satchels to every crevice of the world and have the likes of Alexa Chung walking around with one. This is more than a story of a family business, more than a story about a beautiful and handcrafted satchel, it is the story of the underdog and how they should never be underestimated. We sat down with Keith Hanshaw, heir to the throne of The Leather Satchel Co.
The Leather Satchel Company is a great Liverpool family business. How did it all start?
It originally started with my Grandad. I remember I’d come home from school and he would be sharpening his cut-throat on a leather strap. He taught my Uncle Stephen how to make belts and other leather goods and that’s what ignited my Uncle to set up the company. It’s funny because my Granddad is called Crispian and Crispian is the Patron Saint of Leather Workers.
Stephen started making leather goods in 1960 when he converted my Nan’s garage in to a leather workshop. He used to travel the country in an old van that he converted in to a winnebago with these leather goods to try and sell them. He would go to music festivals, county fairs and he actually set up a street stall at Wembley for the 1966 World Cup.
It was here that a school teacher from Hammersmith was looking at his products and saw a classic leather satchel that my Uncle had made. The schoolteacher told him he needed 200 for his pupils. This was a big ask because he only had a small workshop in my Nan’s garage – so there was a number of conversations after that which led to a deal that this school would order 200 every year. He also pitched to a number of other schools to make satchels for them. From that initial conversation off the street he was able to go to the bank and get a mortgage for a property which could be a shop and workshop on Smithdown Road – we were there until 2006.
How did you get involved?
I was the Saturday boy – I’ve been working since my early teens. I started making bags when I was 14 and when I left school at 16, I came here. It got to the point where we were trying to compete with China and the business needed to cut back staff. There was an opportunity for me to go so I went into marketing and advertising. I then got in to computer art programming and I wrote some of the original software that Google and Yahoo use to interpret what’s in an image. I was always into tech so combining art with tech was ace.
I was then able to bring these skills I had learnt to the company and this is where I am now. I’m combining technology with digital tanning and laser cutters, and we are looking to bring in 3D printers. There are all kinds of things. So we are planning on how we can use these technologies for our business. No one else in leather craft is doing this. You have got to use traditional techniques and have an understanding of them as your foundation, but you can adapt machines to leather craft.
The leather satchel is such an iconic design. How long have these bags been around?
These bags are about 400 years old – probably older. Shakespeare writes about these bags in the play As You Like It; he talks about the 7 ages of man and he talks about the schoolboy with his leather satchel trudging to school. There’s photographic evidence from the late 1890s of this style of bag. Obviously before 1880 there are no photos but there are printed posters from the 1700s of a schoolboy with this bag. So it is a really old design. It has existed forever.
How can a family business like yours compete with big brands?
The only way we can do it is to provide a better alternative. If we don’t provide an alternative that is actually viable then we are never going to beat them. We can’t create another massive corporation, we have to create small companies with the right values that can compete and add value. Only then can we nip away so there’s no value in them anymore. If you have got a comparable price and you beat them on quality and service, there’s a personal connection. That comes down to looking after the team; it’s not about paying them minimum wage it’s making it so they can actually have a career. If you don’t allow people to develop within an organisation then you’re getting staff turnover, and staff turnover doesn’t create loyalty.
These values are based on Japanese values. The Japanese are very much into personal craftsmanship. Big organisations find it very difficult over there unless they have got the right values. We were recently with a Japanese company that had a 200 year business plan. We think about the next 4/5 years and that’s a good solid business plan! You’re not going to be around for the next 50 years if you haven’t got the right values and you always make sure that those decisions you make in business are based around those values.
We ultimately think the smart consumer comes to us. We’ve been making satchels for 40 years, they come with a 5 star guarantee and they’re probably a little bit cheaper too. They look at the reviews. We look after people.
Has it been hard being a “made in England” company?
In the 1980’s big brands were going to China and moving their manufacturing there – now everybody could afford these brands when previously they were really expensive. It was at that point British made leather goods really started suffering. We were struggling to sell satchels and bags so we diversified. We started doing belts, hats and whatever we could make. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s everything was dying – we were the last people making music cases and the classic satchel. We couldn’t compete – you could buy an Adidas branded bag for £30. We were more expensive than the other brands and there was a real buzz around those products which meant that we went out of fashion.
The lesson we learnt from that was to diversify – the leather satchel isn’t actually a school product anymore, it is a fashion product. We think of ourselves as a fashion brand now diversifying into fashion lines and that’s where we see the future of the business going; making belts, wallets, iPad cases. This is all low-tech stuff so you can’t really protect yourself in any way. The only way you can secure the market place is not through IP protection, but by a superior product and great service.
You have just won the Best Customer Service award and were up against the likes of Land Rover. How important is customer service for your company?
Not too long ago we sat down as a team and thought “what’s important to us?” For us, the term “customer” refers to everyone we deal with. We treat customers as though they are family – we hope to exceed our customer’s needs and expectations. We also believe that improvement is driven by seeing our business through other people’s eyes. Our ethics are at the heart of what we do and are more important than simply making money.
That’s how we all feel and we run our business based on those values. It’s what we refer to when we need to make a decision or if there’s a problem.
You do so much for the local area, tell us a little bit about your apprenticeship scheme
At the moment there’s nowhere in the UK where you can learn these skills. We are talking with a company called Skill Solutions which provide the apprenticeship for our apprentices to come here. They are going to set up a skill centre with us so we would actually be an NVQ authorised skill centre. The skills you need for leather making are very different from other stuff. The only place where you can go on a leather course in the UK is the University of Northampton because they have got their own tannery. Northampton is the only place where there is a real leather industry in the UK but it’s all shoe based.
What have you learnt on your journey?
Surround yourself with good people that know what they’re doing. If you’re looking to build something you can’t build it on your own. You’ve got to surround yourself with like-minded people. Even if you have got one person naysaying something you’ve got to block them out the picture.
It was incredibly inspiring and refreshing spending an afternoon with Leather Satchel Co. Not only because they are a local success story but because they all came from humble beginnings and haven’t lost the reason why they’re doing it along the way. Uncountable generations of the family work there and it is hard to separate the employees from the family at times. It shouldn’t be a unique selling point that something is made in our own country but it sadly is. It shouldn’t be refreshing to see people hand cut and make by hand rather than a machine churning out hundreds by the hour but it sadly is. At the end of the day, that is kind of what makes this business and product so special. It is personal, lovingly handmade in its most beautiful form and a reminder that we’ve still got a domestic spark. Head to their website to get one.