What A Belter!
In a market flooded with cheap imports, Buckaroo Leather Works in North Wollongong, NSW validates why being Australian-made and a high-end product has propelled them to become global leaders. By Nic Hogan
When Ken Van Der Water began manufacturing leather apparel back in 1971, his business model was to make the best quality leather products on the market. “My dad never compromised on quality, and making premium-grade leather products is still our mission to this day,” says Buckaroo Leather Works owner Tanya Van Der Water. What began as a leather apparel business has evolved into a market leader in the tool belt market. “We entered the tool belt market purely and simply because we make products based on items people require. So our background is in design more than anything and coming up with solutions that meet our customer’s needs,” explains Tanya. “In fact it started because we were approached by tradies who wanted a better process belt—something that was comfortable. At the time, there was no offering for a tool belt that could be used across the trades, there was only your basic all-in-one carpenter’s belt.
“My dad was approached by not only carpenters, but also steel fixers and scaffolders and other tradies. He saw there was a need to be able to create an individual belt—to make up your own belt going by your specific trade. So our offering to the market is providing a belt that allows you to modify your belt with all the tool holders relevant to your trade. We don’t dictate what items you should be carrying. In fact, we sell the belts and the tool holders completely separate from one another, so you can pick and choose what you want to be carrying depending on your trade.” This was a revolution in the tool belt market. “A build-your-own belt concept was very unheard of at the time, and actually, still to this day, it’s pretty rare,” says Tanya. Because of the uniqueness of the product, one of the challenges Tanya faces is educating the market. “We’re still having to educate people on the concept, so even over 15 years later, we’re trying to teach people the benefits. Even though, we’re well-known in Australia, (we’re the market leader here,) for new stores coming on board and reselling our products, we have to start from scratch with them as if they’ve never come across this concept before. And we’re still surprised that people don’t know this type of belt exists they’re so stuck on the traditional tool belt and can’t see outside of that.” Often what appears to be a simple solution essentially has many layers. “It appears to be a simple solution, the challenging part of it though, is to do it in a very high quality way. That’s where we are very different from the other offerings in the market because, for us quality is paramount.”
Core to Buckaroo’s business model is ongoing research and development. “We’ve done a great deal of experimentation over the years with the materials we use. Although we specialise in leather products, we’ve also incorporated other high performance materials in with leather. And that’s what makes our products last even longer. Traditionally leather is very strong, yet for some conditions our products are exposed to, leather just doesn’t last. So we’ve had to look outside the square and couple leather with other high performance materials. Our products are still 100 per cent Australian made. We make everything here ourselves, which obviously gives us that quality control, but has also allowed us to do a lot of testing of materials over the years. We’ve replaced what was traditionally leather with materials that aren’t necessarily used in this industry,” says Tanya.
Innovation is constant at Buckaroo and Tanya is always on the look out for new ways of doing things. “Loads of ideas happen by accident, or by going out to the field and seeing what’s available and seeing if it can be incorporated into the type of product we make. For example, a lot of our materials are used in completely different industries, such as those associated with foods. We use food-grade materials because they are very safe, very hygienic and very strong. We’ve investigated all different industries we’ve looked at the equestrian industry, which has always traditionally been very focused on leather. They’ve had huge changes in the last 10-15 years, and now there is very little leather used in that industry. So in some instances we follow trends like that.” Having said that, Tanya confirms leather will always be the main component of their business. “Always, because not only is that where our expertise lies, but that’s where our passion lies as well. We want our products to be the best quality that they can possibly be. If that means replacing some of the leather with better performing materials, then we will. We are not going to stick to leather just because traditionally that’s all we know. At the end of the day, we want to be putting the best possible products to market.” And while they may have called it by another name, constant evolution is a daily occurrence.
“We’ve never really seen it as research and development, but we’ve always just innovated in that way. We’ve always seen it as bettering ourselves. We always wanted to create better products and longer lasting products.
We never look at taking shortcuts ever. So for us, R&D is a natural part of what we do. We see ourselves as always competing with ourselves. We try to make sure that year on year we are bettering our products using better materials as they become available, making our products safer for the user and always adding to our range. We are constantly designing new products— something that is our point of difference as well.”
Recent media coverage alerts to the fact of a global leather shortage. “Working with leather can be difficult in that it is obviously a by-product of the meat industry, but it’s also a product that’s in very high demand in industries that aren’t necessarily linked to ours in the automotive industries for example, even in aviation. They’re moving away from vinyl seating and going back to leather now. Things like that put a lot of pressure on small-to-medium businesses like ours because we are then, unfortunately left behind. And at the moment, the biggest demand for leather is coming out of China. So, we need to look at more efficient ways of producing in order to absorb these higher costs.”
Passing the increasing production costs onto customers is not on Tanya’s agenda. “We don’t want to be passing these costs on to the consumer because one, it’s not good business practice and two, it’s not fair on the consumers that have always been so loyal to us. And to the people who are interested in our products, we don’t want them to be deterred by the fact our rising costs are because of the leather industry, that’s just ridiculous. Now for us, it’s all about looking at more efficient ways of being able to manufacture so we can absorb all of these cost increases.”
Tanya is investing $500,000 in upgrading their current manufacturing equipment to keep up with demand for Buckaroo Leather Works merchandise.
“We are looking at upgrading our facilities to be able to increase our scale of production. We will manufacture the same level of quality but at a cheaper cost. That does involve having to design our own new machinery, but definitely not to replace manual labour we will never replace manual labour with machines. It’s all about making everybody’s job easier.” Staying true to family traditions is the only way forward for Tanya. “We’re very much committed to continuing to do it in the way we have over the last 40 years. We don’t see any reason we can’t manufacture our products in Australia now and in the future. We wouldn’t have it any other way because at the end of the day, it’s by working the way we do that we can create premium high-quality products.”