Today we are talking with Jen Guarino, CEO of J.W. Hulme. J.W. Hulme has been making quality goods in Minnesota since 1905.
Can you give 50 BUILT readers some background on how J.W. HULME Co. came to be, what has changed over the lastcentury, and your product offerings?
John William Hulme founded J.W. Hulme Co. in 1905 as a tent and awning maker. By 1917 Hulme was making tents for American soldiers fighting the Great War. After World War I, our company began to apply its fastidious approach of purposeful design and construction towardsproducing awnings for the homes of St. Paul’s elite. Such was the demand for Hulme’s hand craftsmanship that the company’s product offering grew over time to include leather and canvas sporting bags and accessories. Distinctive Hulme bags became a must-have for the serious outdoor sportsman. As J.W. Hulme flourished it concentrated solely on making bags, including private label bags for other prominent companies. In 2003 we did something extraordinary. We purposefully reduced its operations and stopped producing private label bags. We refocused all hands on quality over quantity. Instead of replacing workers with machines or shipping work overseas, we renewed and strengthened our commitment to making superior goods using premium quality and American craftsmanship. It paid off. Sales have grown four fold since 2009 and J.W. Hulme’s distinctive bags can be found at national retailers such as Barneys New York, Brooks Brothers, Allen Edmonds and Anthropologie. Today we employ 42 people; 24 of which are skilled artisans.
Can you put into the words the pride that J.W. HULME Co.’s employees and craftsmen have for the company they work for? How critical is it to have true American craftsman working on your products as opposed to relying on foreign factories?
Hulme’s iconic character and passion lives through its products. Every bag and accessory continues to be individually hand crafted by American artisans. Top grain leathers are all sourced from US tanneries andhand-cut by masters using steel dies. All hardware is solid brass. Threads are unbreakable. Zippers maneuver fluidly. Leather edges are hand-dyed. Linings are meticulously matched and hand-sewn. Designs include unexpected features such as key leashes and hidden pockets. Every detail is important and every piece is personally inspected. Our artisans take tremendous pride in their work. If you speak to anyone of them they will go on and on about how they do what they do in explicit detail; with real passion.
What kind of impact has J.W. HULME Co. had on its surrounding community for over a century?
Our artisans span two generations. Some master artisans have been with us 20+ years. They are passing down their expertise to our newest class of artisans that are in their early twenties. We have gone an extra step to ensure the trade stays alive by forming a group called The Makers Coalition. We have partnered with a local non-profit and tech college to begin an industrial sewing certificate program. It begins January 2013.
We believe manufacturing in the United States and are not looking to change that. The benefits are many:
• We have much better control over quality of both material and craftsmanship
• We can offer quicker lead times
• We can be quicker to market with new products since design and manufacturing are under one roof
• We can provide much better customer service on products made here
• We provide good jobs
• We are a source of pride for our community
Minnesota is home to so many iconic American companies who still manufacture their goods in the state and the USA. Is there a sense of community among fellow Minnesota businesses?
Absolutely! I started in the fashion business over 25 years ago. Never have I had the pleasure of being surrounded by such a collaborative support system. We are all each others fans and don’t see ourselves as competition but rather a group of proud companies doing great things.
How important is the Made in America process to your brand image? Do you market your products as Made in USA? Would J.W. HULME Co.’s authenticity and history be seriously compromised if you resorted to cheap foreign manufacturing?
I think being authentically made in the USA is at our core. It is in the products from the way we approach crafting each bag to the materials we use. By default it is what gives our products an independent American aesthetic. I just don’t think this is something you can make happen off-shore. The soul of the product would be missing. We aren’t doing this out of a patriotic philanthropic duty as much as because we can and so should make our quality products here. The fact that it also makes us a job creating small business is the icing on the cake. The fact that we’ve become a guardian to preserve an American trade is the ice cream with the cake.
If you could tell our readers one factor that is the greatest threat or advantage to keeping things made in America, and allowing companies like J.W. HULME Co. to succeed, what would it be?
THREAT: Skilled labor. That’s why we are actively doing something about that with The Makers Coalition
ADVANTAGE: Being in better control of quality, speed to market, delivery and customer service.
Thank you so much Jen, another great American-made story. I really appreciate your time and perspective!