Business

Overland Sheepskin Company celebrates 45 years in Taos

By Kathy DeLucas
For The Taos News
Posted 9/12/18

Maybe it was the mountain's way of calling them back. In 1973, when Jim Leahy and his fiancée passed through Taos on their way to Santa Fe, they had to return to retrieve the …

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Business

Overland Sheepskin Company celebrates 45 years in Taos

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Maybe it was the mountain's way of calling them back. In 1973, when Jim Leahy and his fiancée passed through Taos on their way to Santa Fe, they had to return to retrieve the gas cap they accidentally left on their bumper.

Instead of investigating potential colleges in the state's capitol, they decided to stay in Taos to make a living.

"They just fell in love with the whole environment that is Taos," says company vice president Jay Flint. "They just felt it was for them."

The Overland Sheepskin Co. was soon born.

Leahy and soon-to-be wife Leslie designed the coats with pencil and paper, sketching them by hand, cutting the patterns and stitching them by hand in their van.

"They'd make two or three coats, sell them, make two or three more, sell them and the business just kept growing," Flint said.

Jim Leahy's business was growing so fast that his father Jerry left his job in Iowa as a bank examiner to help. His mother Marge also stepped in. Jim's brother Roger graduated from college and moved from California to Taos as the family-run business took off.

In 1975 they opened another store in Omaha. Jerry and Marge toured the Rocky Mountains and opened more stores and did it without doing any demographic research, according to Flint.

"They just made it happen," he said.

In the early 1980s, before there was internet and before home desktop computers were the norm, the mail-order catalog became a major player.

"They did everything themselves," Flint explained. "They did the photography, the layout and hired a printer."

The catalog business took off. Roger returned to his hometown roots in Fairfield, Iowa, and ran the catalog business from there.

They eventually separated the two companies and Roger and his parents ran one half while Jim had the factory and production in Taos.

Now run from the headquarters in Iowa, the company today remains a family-owned business, employing more than 200 people mostly in its Rocky Mountain and Midwest locations.

"They based this whole business for 45 years on putting quality out there, charge a reasonable price and it will work, and it has worked," said Flint, who's been with the company for more than 30 years.

Overland is based on total customer service. Flint remembers an initial discussion on the company guarantee. Should it be money back in 30 days, 60 days, or 90 days? Marge emphatically placed her hand on the table, Flint recalls, and she said, "That's it. The guarantee is very simple--customer satisfaction guaranteed, end of discussion."

"I've learned over the years that's the smartest thing ever," Flint says. "If you tell people that, and they realize that you're not kidding. You're not going to ever let them be unhappy with their purchase. It gives them real satisfaction."

Flint says it's the repeat business that is the keystone. Many of the store managers have been with Overland for 20 years or more and see children of the customers who originally purchased an item many years ago.

The best words of wisdom Flint can give to local entrepreneurs: Don't cut corners and put quality in your customer's hands first. From a business perspective, he warns, be very, very careful of debt.

"Pay as you go," Flint offers. "The economy of a country like ours is always on a roller coaster. There are good years and bad years, and if you're not ready for the bad years, you're not going to survive."

Flint credits Overland's survival all these years with continued growth to their smart economic sense.

The past four decades has not been without its challenges, however. Software development was one of the issues they had to overcome.

"The market that we live in today," Flint explains, "is one where we need to be able to process sales in multiple venues, both the brick and mortar locations and the online presence." The company sells product both on its website, Overland.com, and maintains a presence on Amazon.

"The way we make that work is we use all 15 stores as fulfillment centers," Flint says. "We don't have to warehouse everything in one spot. We have software in place, so we can fulfill (orders) from every one of our locations."

Sheepskin products and leather remain the core product, but the inventory has expanded to meet demand. They now offer items ranging from purses and shoes to sweaters and other outerwear.

"Overland has our own design team," Flint said. "They are designing outwear and clothing pieces based on casual luxury."

"There is no substitute for hard work," Flint says. "Focus on what you do. Do it incredibly well, and success will come to you."

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