Levy’s Leathers Under New Ownership
Even in the tradition-steeped music products industry, life’s one constant is change. Though this is hardly news, some were shaken to learn that Levy’s Leathers, the industry’s leading manufacturer of guitar straps and gig bags, was being acquired by Gator Cases. Comfort was found in the symmetry of family-owned Levy’s being merged into family-owned Gator. And since the deal was signed in January, both parties have reassured Levy’s dealers around the world that all that has made Levy’s a beloved brand will continue.
Though best known for its comprehensive selection of cases and bags for the musical instrument, pro audio, and light & sound markets, Gator has begun expanding its product portfolio in recent years, most notably with the addition of its Frameworks stand and Rackworks accessories lines. The acquisition of a premium guitar strap and bag brand was a logical step in that process.
Levy’s product line features a huge selection of instrument straps, typically totaling around 3,500 SKUs. In addition to different types of leather including chrome-tanned garment and “boot” leather, veg-tan, suede, etc., the company offers scores of strap models made of canvas, hemp, polyester, nylon, rayon, and other textiles. Guitar gig bags and related accessories come in leather, nylon, polyester, and “tapestry” models.
With his sights set on retiring, Levy’s founder and CEO Dennis Levy was determined to find a buyer who would respect what he had built: the brand, synonymous with integrity and quality; the approach to manufacturing and values behind the brand; and the employees and community that had loyally supported that approach for decades. Several would-be “suitors” were declined. In Gator CEO Crystal Morris, Dennis saw something of a kindred spirit.
As luck would have it, that feeling was mutual. Having long admired Levy’s product designs and quality, Crystal was, she admits, “extremely excited” by the prospect of directing the brand’s next chapter. Her initial talks with the Levy family, and feeling that she had begun to know them made her even more confident that “it would be a great fit.” In a subsequent visit to the Levy’s factory in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, those positive impressions were reaffirmed the instant she walked into the building. “I immediately felt their sense of pride in their beautiful products,” she recalls. She was also struck by the “proud, detail-oriented, and extremely well organized” manufacturing team. “I absolutely love what the Levy’s brand represents,” she adds, “and I really felt that we could be a strong steward of the brand into the future.”
As their discussions progressed, the Levy’s team gained an equally positive view of Gator. Vice President Harvey Levy recalls that, when he visited Gator’s production facility in Tampa, he was “impressed with the way it ran, the team’s work ethic, and the fact that everyone was so dedicated to making a really good product. We’re all consumers,” he continues, “and we’ve instilled ‘If you wouldn’t buy it, we’re not going to make it’ in all of our people. We found the same attitude at Gator.”
Since Levy was founded, its namesake leather goods have been made in Canada, and Gator is committed to keep it that way. “In today’s world, it’s easier and cheaper to get many products made overseas,” Crystal observes. “But the Levy’s brand stands for craftsmanship. Part of being a steward of the brand is respecting how the Levy’s family set up manufacturing in a small town in Nova Scotia; I think Levy’s is the town’s third-largest employer. But, even if I wanted to have Levy’s straps made somewhere else, I couldn’t make them with the same quality, style, and finishing touches. They have 40-plus years of experience, and they really are making something special.”
This conclusion was made easier by the efficiency of Levy’s existing production facility in Antigonish (an-tih-guh-NISH), with its relatively low cost of living, infrastructure, and labor. Extolling Levy’s “excellent, stable workforce,” Harvey says the operation in Antigonish is “almost like having an off-shore supplier to North America in North America.”
Levy’s “legacy of craftsmanship” is a direct reflection of how the company came into being and the uncompromising standards of its leadership. Starting in 1973 “with a handful of leatherworking tools and a few hides of leather,” young Dennis Levy began handcrafting and selling leather belts, watchbands, gun slings, and guitar straps. Two years later, Jerome MacPherson signed on to assist. Around the same time, Dennis and his wife Cheryl invested their life savings to launch Levy’s Leathers Ltd. The line expanded and improved, and word of the handmade products from Antigonish began to spread.
In 1979, Dennis asked his brother Harvey to take a break from his life as a touring musician and fill in for a departing cousin, who was one of just five employees. Though the “break” was meant to last for just two years, Harvey never left the company, and his ideas about guitar strap design—in particular its intersection with pop musicians’ identities and fashion—would eventually shape the company. Looking back, Harvey recalls those early days of loading his van with belts, watch bands, purses, key fobs, gun slings and cases, tool belts, dog collars, and guitar straps, and driving across Canada to pay sales visits at car dealerships (offering them custom-designed key fobs), hardware stores, clothing stores, pet stores, gun shops, music stores, etc.
Craft Perfected Over Decades
Over time, Levy’s developed a reputation for exceptional product quality and professional integrity. The company’s customer base grew as well, first locally, then across Canada, and eventually worldwide. Levy’s products are now sold in more than 80 countries.
Levy’s employs state-of-the-art sewing machinery, mostly made in Italy, including computerized stitchers and tackers. For products that are hand-stitched, and in any procedure that requires expert judgment, Levy’s taps what may be the category’s most deeply experienced workforce. “There’s no course you can take to make guitar straps,” Harvey explains. “The craft is learned through apprenticeship. We have little or no employee turnover in Antigonish, and our people know what they’re doing because they’ve been taught by people who’ve been doing it for 25 years.” This means that when Harvey comes up with a new strap design, they immediately know how the material will respond—“for example, knowing they have to back off the stitcher tension a bit for a soft garment leather to prevent it from bunching and stitching crooked. Our people pay attention to all those kinds of details; Levy’s has never cut corners. Jerome and Garrett [Murphy, operation manager] have taught everyone that any product leaving the factory has to be perfect.”
The company’s deep expertise and talent pool extend to its design work as well. Along with Harvey, guitarists inside Levy’s include Jerome, still heading up manufacturing; Glen Booth, North American sales manager; and Ted Burger, international and OEM sales manager (along with many members of the manufacturing team), giving Levy’s decision-makers an informed consumer’s eye for selecting the right color, pattern, and material combinations for the desired performance and visual effect.
Downsized Levy’s offices in Winnipeg will accommodate a sales rep and the company’s IT, data entry, and art departments. All leather goods manufacturing will remain in Antigonish. While the Nova Scotia factory will continue to supply all Canadian and overseas markets, Gator will stock Levy’s entire product line at its Indiana warehouse to serve U.S. dealers. Starting June 1, all U.S. orders for Levy’s products will ship from Indiana and be billed on one combined Gator/Levy’s invoice.
According to Harvey, maintaining two complete inventories, one on each side of the border, was “one of the great synergies we saw,” so that U.S. orders “easily ship the same day.” It will also help Levy’s handle any surge demand. “If we sell out of a particular SKU in the U.S., we can back-fill it from our warehouse in Canada.”
This development should yield immediate benefits to Levy’s U.S. dealers. As a Canadian producer paying customs fees, Levy’s has historically sent consolidated shipments to the U.S., which then get distributed to retailers, adding a couple of days to delivery. Harvey explains, “Dealers want suppliers to be able to drop-ship to their customers. Gator already has a drop-ship program, and that’s the way the market is going.”
Crystal adds, “Ultimately, it should only get better for retailers: easier for them to get product, quicker shipments, and reduced shipping costs by combining orders.” Any current Levy’s dealer will automatically become a Gator dealer as well, and in the U.S., their orders will flow through the Gator system.
Now that Levy’s Leathers is part of the Gator Cases product family, what can the two companies learn from each other? Harvey says that, beyond the obvious improvement in service to its U.S. dealers, “Gator is probably going to raise our productivity. Fresh eyes always help.”
Noting that case design tends to focus on functionality, Crystal suggests that Gator could benefit from Levy’s expertise in “the style elements of the straps that represent the players and help tell their story.” On the other hand, while still citing Levy’s “beautiful products,” she suggests that its marketing might have “counted on shoppers going into the store and feeling the difference. Today’s shoppers are using the internet so much to learn about products and make buying decisions. I think we can help Levy’s tell its story, especially to the online shopper.”
Dennis concludes, “Levy’s Leathers has been my life and passion since I started it 45 years ago. When the time came to sell, it was an emotional decision. Gator Cases, and Crystal Morris, made that tough decision easier. Crystal’s management style and vision for Levy’s is a mirror image of mine. My wife Cheryl and I have always considered Levy’s employees and customers to be our very large extended family. With Gator, these customers, employees, and the Levy’s brand are in the best of hands.”