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EPISODE #015

#15 Harness Maker to Fashion Designer with David Freedman

David Freedman a 6th generation business owner stays true to the roots of the family business and innovates into the 21st Century.  Listen to hear his secrets to success.

https://freedmanharness.com/

 

 

Transcription:

Speaker 1:

From his first job flipping burgers at McDonald’s and delivering The Washington Post, Craig Willett counts only one and a half years of his adult life working for someone else. Welcome to The Biz Sherpa podcast with your host, Craig Willett. Founder of several multimillion-dollar businesses and trusted advisor to other business owners, he’s giving back to help business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs achieve fulfillment, enhance their lives, and create enduring wealth. The Biz Sherpa.

Craig Willett:

This is Craig Willett, the Biz Sherpa, joining you today from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’m pleased to have with me David Freedman, who’s a premier harness maker, saddle maker, and leather goods maker. He started out six generations ago. He’s the sixth generation in the family of harness makers. I hope you get a good flavor for what a good business family the Freedman family is, and particularly what David’s been able to do and innovate today. Welcome, David.

David Freedman:

Thank you, Craig.

Craig Willett:

Glad to have you as a guest today, and David hails from Toronto, Ontario, Canada and has also figured out how to have a business in the United States, not just on the road, but permanently. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about what it’s like to be a sixth-generation business owner.

David Freedman:

Well, that’s obviously a long-winded answer that I would come up with to answer this question. But it’s interesting to be part of a very old family business. And I think it goes through a lot of different stages. I’ve been on my own since ’91, since my dad’s passing, so quite a few years already. As a young man, apprenticing under my father for nine years, hearing about the family business, hearing about its movement from Europe to Canada and how my grandfather came over, and restarted in Toronto.

Craig Willett:

And so, where did they start in Europe?

David Freedman:

My grandfather came from Poland in 1910 to Toronto, and set up shop in downtown and his work primarily was for drays and street delivery wagons in the early 1900s. That was the—

Craig Willett:

Before the car.

David Freedman:

Before the car. And that was the mode of transportation and delivery and commerce, Things were moved around. And back then, people didn’t buy a complete set of harness for their milk wagon, or bread wagon, or delivery dray. They bought parts and pieces, and there was a lot of repairs. My father used to tell me as a young boy, he remembers downtown in Toronto on Center Avenue there’d be a lineup of these delivery drivers all around the corner waiting for my grandfather to open up the shop so they could come in. And it’d be to splice a rein, put a new piece in it, or repair a trace, which is the piece of leather that connects the horse to the wagon, or put a stitch in, or something to that effect or—

Craig Willett:

So, they could do their work for the day.

David Freedman:

So, they could get their work done for the day or pick up and go on. And I have these old logs, really interesting old log books. And it’d say “Borden’s Dairy. Splice a trace. Five cents.” “Repair up tug,” which is a part on the set of harness, “20 cents,” and totals it up for the month. It would be, total for the month is $23 or something to this effect. And I’m not even sure how—

Craig Willett:

In 1910.

David Freedman:

And beyond, I’m not even so sure how these guys carved out a living back then. But somehow they managed to carve it out and make it happen.

Craig Willett:

So, it’s definitely a trade that has to be learned. It’s not something you can just pick up and say, “Hey, I want to be a harness maker someday” and buy a business and be able to do it without skill.

David Freedman:

Exactly. My grandfather had an interesting thing happen to him. A gentleman by the name of Eddie Godfrey, who was English who worked in the Chicago stock yards, had an aunt that lived outside of Toronto in a small town called Bobcaygeon. And it was his only family in North America. So Eddie moved to Toronto, somehow found my grandfather, and they worked together for years and years. Because Eddie had worked in Chicago stock yards because he was from England, he knew the finer side of making Hackney harness, fine harness, carriage harness. And Eddie would be the man that would teach my father at the ripe old age of 10 how to make this fine quality workmanship and finer types of harness different than what my grandfather made from the street.

 

Back in those days, if you had a sewing machine or a harness stitching machine, it was a sign of laziness and poor quality. So, everything was done by hand and anything that was done by a machine in the daytime, the machine was covered up with a tarp so the old teamsters and drivers couldn’t see.

Craig Willett:

Oh, really? You were doing it by hand.

David Freedman:

Exactly, you weren’t doing it the old-fashioned way. So, Eddie taught my father all the finer points. My father tells me at 10 years old, he remembers Eddie picking him up, sitting him up on the bench, and my dad watching this all day long, watching Eddie work. I think that relationship with my grandfather lasted—oh, well into the—right through World War II, actually.

Craig Willett:

Really?

David Freedman:

Until Eddie passed away.

Craig Willett:

So, how did the family—what was the evolution like because then the cars came in. So the heavy duty work harnesses probably became less and less in demand to be made and to be repaired.

David Freedman:

That’s right. They became obsolete, just like the horse and the wagon as we knew it. And this was the only trade my father really knew. He was trying to make ends meet. He was trying to figure out what to do with his life. And he went to the first Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, famous indoor horse show after World War II, and was actually driving a cab. And he looked around and he saw American Saddlebreds. He saw Hackney ponies. He saw people with private carriages and coaches, and hunters and jumpers. As a visionary guy, my father was really bright this way, said, “These things are not going to go away. There’s going to be people that horses create value for and they’re going to want to do things with these horses that were different than my grandfather did.” And he had the skills and knowledge from Eddie how to make this harness—

Craig Willett:

And a love and a passion for leather, I’m sure.

David Freedman:

Exactly. With a grade six education self-taught to read and write—

Craig Willett:

Really, grade six?

David Freedman:

Grade six. So, a gentleman that woke up every morning and read the newspaper sort of start to finish, was interested in sports, but had a real passion for quality and emulating the past.

Craig Willett:

So, he was driving cab to make ends meet and he saw this horse show, and it inspired him to take—what step came next for him?

David Freedman:

He was working, doing some work and trying to make ends meet. And he managed to—he had a couple of friends that were in the Hackney pony business in the Toronto area. And slowly, through a couple of different barns he got bigger and bigger and bigger. He was introduced to the Armstrong family, famous family from the Toronto area that had ABC farms. They had a lot of Hackney ponies and horses. And—

Craig Willett:

And so, they had a lot of demand for harnesses like these to show.

David Freedman:

That’s right. But even then, they weren’t ordering complete sets. “Here son, make three bridles.” My dad would go back and make the three bridles. Three bridles, it’d be like an order for 50 sets today, especially for a one man shop. So, he got a lot of nice little orders like that. And then grew and grew and grew until he met some people from England named Frank and Cynthia Hayden—and this would be in the late ’60s and sort of mid ’60s—and they took his work to England, which—

Craig Willett:

Really?

David Freedman:

—brought him international fame right away because nobody overseas was doing this type of work.

Craig Willett:

Really? So his craftsmanship that he learned as a 10 year old sitting on the bench became world famous.

David Freedman:

Very quickly. And sometimes it’s a question of how many people are doing the same thing you’re doing and it’s also a question of who you know, not what you know. So, I think the combination of those two things took him international right away.

Craig Willett:

What was the purpose of the Haydens taking the harnesses to England?

David Freedman:

They were showing a lot of horses and ponies as well. They were deeply involved with the royal family, with a lot of coaching and carriage driving in England, and they also worked for an astute gentlemen in Amenia, New York named Chauncey Stillman, who had a lot of coaches and carriages as well. And they also worked for a family in Toronto, and they traveled the world working with Hackney ponies and horses for different people.

Craig Willett:

So, people saw his workmanship in Europe and all of a sudden they were sending orders back to your dad to make them.

David Freedman:

It didn’t take long, but it wasn’t enough business still.

Craig Willett:

Really?

David Freedman:

Just about sometime in the ’50s, nighttime Standardbred racing took off in Canada. There was no Toronto Blue Jays. There was no NBA. There was the Toronto Maple Leafs, and we had our Canadian Football League and that was it. So if you wanted to do anything other than going to your Sunday night bowling league, you had to go to Parimutuel betting, you had to go to the Standardbred or Thoroughbred races, and nighttime Standardbred racing became a big thing and he—

Craig Willett:

And they need harnesses for that.

David Freedman:

And they need a lot of harness. So, through the—

Craig Willett:

And heavy duty because that’s—

David Freedman:

That’s right. ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s he was building 1000 sets a year of this harness and supplementing the Standardbred business with the high-end quality of the Hackney and Saddlebred and some Morgan, Arabian business as well.

Craig Willett:

Wow. And now today you continue. We’re here at the US National Championship for the Arabian horses. So, you continue to go to the shows for Saddlebreds, which I’ve showed in before, and I use your harness and love it. And it’s been a key to my success. You taught me a long time ago that the harness, if it’s set right, should help do all the work because that’s where your leverage points are. So you’re not, as the driver, having to do all the work. But anyway, you go to the Morgan nationals, so you travel quite a bit to get to these shows. How did your dad—is this something you started to do? Or is this something your dad started to do? How did you get out of the shop in Canada and into the showroom at the horse shows?

David Freedman:

I remember this really distinctly, Craig. My father was a—he was a “just do it” kind of person. I remember we’d go to a few shows. We’d go to a carriage driving show and my dad went to Devon every year. Sometimes I went with him, and sometimes I didn’t, but on foot, never with a booth or a display. And I’d asked him in the early ’80s when I first came into the business, “What have you not done with this business that you always wanted to do?” Because I really didn’t want to rest on his laurels. And I’ll circle back to how he enabled us all to move ahead. And he said, “I always wanted to make handbags and belts and high-end leather goods. And that’s something that I have always wanted to do, I just didn’t have the opportunity to do it.”

So, I took the bull by the horns and started going down this road, and I’d met some people from New York City that have worked with Ralph Lauren. And they wanted to meet me. So, I said to my dad, “Hey, dad, these guys want to meet me in New York City.”

Craig Willett:

Boy, people that worked for Ralph Lauren, that’s quite an opportunity.

David Freedman:

It was an interesting opportunity. Now, cross-telephone conversation between our buckle supplier and their buckle supplier in England. And at that time, this buckle supplier had a little bit of a liquid lunch every day. So he got me confused with the guys in New York—

Craig Willett:

Oh, really?

David Freedman:

And he started calling me by this gentleman’s name, and it was a little bit confusing. So, I ended up calling this guy up saying, “Hey, we’ve got the same buckle supplier,” and we hit it off on the phone. He said, “What do you do?” I said, “I make harnesses, saddles, and et cetera in Toronto.” “Oh, maybe you can make belts for us.” Come on down in New York City and meet us. I thought, “Okay, that’s great.” So I went and told my dad, I said, “Dad, I met these guys on the phone.” And everything was phone those days. And my dad said to me something I’ll never never forget, which has been an interesting piece of my life. He said, “Just jump on the airplane and go meet them.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Just go buy a ticket and jump on a plane and go.”

Craig Willett:

And you’re like, “We’ve never done that before.”

David Freedman:

Yeah, we didn’t do that kind of thing.

Craig Willett:

We sit here and take orders and fulfill orders and ship them all over the world.

David Freedman:

So, I jumped on the airplane and bought a ticket and went down there. And those days, maybe I flew once a year, once every other year on family vacation or something like that, but it wasn’t like now where—pre-pandemic—when you’re on the airplane every other week. And he was so encouraging to reach out, go for what you want, and explore it that it changed my life and made me global quickly.

Craig Willett:

So, your vision became taking what your dad’s inspiration was. He was visionary to going into show harnesses and saddles and seeing this opportunity going from the old industry of commercial harnesses for work purposes to now something fancier. He had a vision also of handbags and leather goods. But he really planted that seed in your mind. So how did that meeting go with Ralph Lauren in New York?

David Freedman:

It actually went really well. We did some work for them for a number of years, private label. And we had a great relationship with those people. We did a bunch of different things in the private label corps. After my dad’s passing in ’91 when you’re looking at what you’re doing and where you’re going, I started to really struggle with doing anything wholesale. I didn’t think the margins were there and available to bank on all this handwork and hand labor that we were doing. And we were in a recession—’91, ’92—and I sort of stepped away from the entire wholesale business. I’d get phone calls from these guys. “Hey, Freedman, when are you coming to New York? What’s happening? What are you showing us? What do you have for us?” And I was more about, “Well, I’m going to retool here and figure out what I’m going to do in Toronto and try and make some harness.”

Craig Willett:

So, how’d you take it to the next level? I mean, you can sit back and continue to fill orders for your retail customers in your—with the reputation you had worldwide, but now I see, and our viewers will see what you have here a little bit later, but you have quite a display and quite a range of product. How did you decide to take that on the route?

David Freedman:

I think it’s a question of change over time and being cognizant of that possible change. At that particular time in my life, I had a business mentor. I’ve had many over the years that sat me down. My parents had passed away close together, 10 months apart, and I was pretty much down in the dumps in ’92. I didn’t know what I was doing. I really didn’t have a lot of direction or purpose. I’d just been married, and was trying to find a way to support my family.

Craig Willett:

So, you’re hitting the reset button in ’92. You’re going, “Hey, wait, I’ve got this business. My dad passed away. There’s a legacy here, a family legacy I want to preserve. Now I got to figure out what to do with it.

David Freedman:

And they’re big shoes to fill because my dad had this international reputation. So, it’s a question of, are you hitting the hard reset, or are you hitting the full reset? It was a question of what’s going on? And I had this business mentor—he was a real fashion Maven, he had a lot of retail stores. And he sat me down and he said, “What do you do for a living?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “What do you do for a living?” I said, “Well, I make harness, belts, handbags, small leather goods, men’s and ladies.” He said, “No, no, no, what do you do?” I said, “Well, I make harness and—” Wound off the same thing. And he said to me— and I was struggling at all of it. None of it was going really well. And international reputation for doing the best work around and being the best you can be, and here I am—

Craig Willett:

That’s a lot of pressure. So, that’s one of the things going from fourth, fifth to sixth generation. It’s hard because there’s a big shoes to fill, and it can be overwhelming.

David Freedman:

Very hard and very overwhelming. And after I said this over and over again to this gentleman, he said to me, “Don’t you guys have an international reputation for building the best harness?” I said, “Yes, we do.” Then he said to me, “What are you doing building belts and handbags? Nobody knows you in that business. That’s going to be a difficult business at retail to meet people, to get it out to the mainstream, nobody knows what you do, nobody understands the story.” And that sort of—

Craig Willett:

Let alone the cost to promote it.  If you have a reputation, then the cost to market this is considerably less than trying to get into a retail market.

David Freedman:

Exactly, and I was struggling. You’re in the middle of a recession, I couldn’t get paid by these retail stores. So not only did you have a hard time making the goods, then you couldn’t collect the money, and all these different things. So, that set me back and I let it all go, and then all these belts and handbags sort of went to the wayside, and—

Craig Willett:

And went back to the core of the family business.

David Freedman:

Right back to the core competency of the business. Luckily, in ’93, there was a world championship horse show in Gladstone, New Jersey for carriage driving, for driving two horses at one time, and it gave us a chance to again relaunch the company, reposition the company as what we did. And we filled our order book. So, we didn’t look back. Once we filled that order book, things started to really move on the carriage driving side, fine carriage driving for antique carriages, reproduction harness, really bespoke type work. And—

Craig Willett:

And there are some major competitions around the world in that.

David Freedman:

There are, there are, and we had some really good clients that helped us get all the best work that we could possibly get into the shop. And we had a small crew, I think we had maybe seven people working at that time in the shop, old artisans, most of them were inherited through my father, through inheriting the business. So, whether—

Craig Willett:

So, these were true craftsmen that knew the trade.

David Freedman:

And whether I wanted to do things my way or not, they were getting done their way. So, because they’re inherited. So, that’s just the way it’s going to be. So that’s sort of how it went.

Craig Willett:

So, it’s not like you can just go out on the street and say, “I need a harness maker and you put an ad in the paper. I can hire one.”

David Freedman:

Very difficult trade to hire skilled people for, and getting obviously more difficult as time goes by. We can hire different allied trades from the shoe side, from the handbag, or even jackets side.

Craig Willett:

And translate some of their skills.

David Freedman:

Some of them.

Craig Willett:

Right. But I think what’s really interesting, though, is that you went back to the core business, and I think easily, and it happens to all of us in business we think, “Okay, I’m going to try to be all things to all people and people like our stuff and there’s demand and when that demand goes away, really you have to look at what is your core. So, you were able to capitalize on that in the harness making business.

David Freedman:

And I wanted to learn all about it. Everything about this part of the business.

Craig Willett:

So, how did you go about learning it?

David Freedman:

Like everything else I do, I threw myself into it. I went to as many shows as possible, talked to as many people as possible, learnt a lot about antique carriages, and about all their equipment, equipage, and how these things should be harnessed and with what types of horses and all the appointments, and everything surrounding it. Read a lot of books, and it became very, very interesting. And that market was growing, so that was great at the time. We always had our finger on the pulse of the American Saddlebred and Hackney pony business, but they weren’t as key or in the forefront as they have been the last 10 or 12 years, or even more now, but—

Craig Willett:

Well, you said something really interesting too, that I’d like to follow up a little bit about and that is, you not only went to the show, and you got orders, but you said you had some good clients who made sure you got good orders. So how did that go about? Because it seems to me there’s a relationship here. It’s not just “Okay, we’re great harness makers, but we care about people.” Because you went out and taught yourself by talking to people. And that’s—sometimes we get stuck sitting back in our shops or back in our offices thinking we’re going to brainstorm and come up with the best idea in a vacuum, so to speak, and you strike me as an individual who has been successful, because you’ve lost yourself out there, exposed yourself to your weaknesses and your strengths, but put yourself in front of people. How did that go? You said some good clients, how did that come about in New Jersey?

David Freedman:

You’ve got to put yourself out there, like you said, and these people were spending quite a bit of money. And they’re taking a piece of your heart in respect to your workmanship, because you’re putting your heart and soul into this workmanship. So at that level, I felt that I need to have relationships where I got to know these people and their families and what they do and exactly what they were doing with this harness that we were building. You’re talking 20, 30, 40, 50, even $60,000 set of harness. That’s a big piece of time, and a big piece of your heart and soul and life. And I’ve gotten some great business advice over the years. Martha Stewart told me years ago—I was doing some work for her—she said, “Don’t take on a client that won’t take you to your next clients because that’s just a waste of time.”

Craig Willett:

Wow.

David Freedman:

And I thought, “Okay. So, if Craig Willett knows somebody, he can introduce me to somebody else that may need my wares.” And that’s how I’ve sort of built this whole reputation along.

Craig Willett:

And I know you’re not just saying that too because I’ve experienced it. I can walk in at any show, and you could be with a client or a customer, and you’ll always remember my name. And that makes me want to come back and makes me want to tell other people about your product.

David Freedman:

Yeah, I think on the retail side of meeting people and selling people, it’s still about relationships. I think the buyer experience is a little bit more than just pushing buy online. Sure, if they know what they’re purchasing, and they’ve purchased it before, that’s fine. But I think there’s more value in building relationship, especially if you’re building a reputation.

Craig Willett:

So, I can go online and buy these harnesses, and headstalls, and everything, right?

David Freedman:

And people do, all the time. And we are not ever surprised by the people that buy them because they’re people that we have already met at shows. They’ve already done their research.

Craig Willett:

Right, so some of your repeat is they know what they’re going to get.

David Freedman:

They know what they’re buying. They know what they’re going to get. They understand the consistencies and how they work here. And they are okay with the purchase, the product that they’ve purchased with that user experience.

Craig Willett:

So, David, one thing that our audience really is curious about, and I think they should be, is how do you deal with the customers? There’s so many options out there, you have competition, how do you stay ahead and stay foremost in the mind of your target audience?

David Freedman:

Well, that’s a pretty deep question. I think you—I think it all comes down to product. You still have to have the product. You still have to uphold your reputation and the values that are true to you and your family and your business because these businesses, these old family businesses, they morph and they change, but you have to steward this somewhere, whether it’s for yourself or for the next generation. We try to let the product do the talking in respects to building great products. We try and build products that people want, and we try and build products that are in demand. And I don’t ever profess to be a product genius in respects to coming up with products on the market that nobody has. I just make sure I keep my ear to the ground, and listen to our horse trainers, and listen to our industry experts that dictate what products the industry needs. And then I develop those products for the need.

Craig Willett:

So, you kind of go to the experts even in the industry. So, if I’m new in the show business, which I was at one point, and I’m sitting there trying to decide I need a harness for a horse because I’ve decided this is something I want to do, I may find you at a show, or I may talk to someone I trust who’s training my horse, and they may know you and your workmanship and say, “You really need to go visit with David Freedman. He’s got the right equipment for your horse.” Is that kind of how it is? I mean, how do you get people to influence people and drive traffic to you?

David Freedman:

It’s exactly how that is, Craig. And really, what happens is these trainers subconsciously know that my product is evolving. So, it’s easy for you to speak to your trainer and say, “Hey, what was Freedman Harness like 25 years ago?” And they could say, “Oh, it was good. It was great. But it’s different or better now.” And it may not be any better, but it may have morphed into a different type of product where it may be more user friendly, maybe we’ve evolved with the shapes and styles for the type of driving or breed are showing now, because these breeds evolve as we breed more horses. So, I think that that’s a key point in the first contact, and through one of your trainers, I wouldn’t have never met you and your family, if it wasn’t for one of these trainers. So, Jim Stachowski, in particular, and he puts a lot of faith and confidence in us that we will deliver excellence to you, which in turn delivers excellence to him, reliability.

Craig Willett:

I was driving and showing in it. I don’t know, I was using one of their older harnesses. May have been yours, may not have been yours, I don’t know. But as I started to do better and better, and I was competing at the national level for national championships, I started thinking, “You know, my dad always said you got to practice with what you play with.” And I’d go to the farm, and they’d always put this old work harness on. I’d say, “I’m only going to be in the show ring for four minutes to win a world or a national championship. I need to practice once in a while in what I’m going to really show in.” And you show in probably something other than you work your horse in every day, but it has a different feel. So, I thought to myself, “I need that.” And that’s where I got introduced to you.

David Freedman:

That’s right.

Craig Willett:

So, how do you—I mean, these are made well, and they’ll last a long time unless you have a really strong horse that can break one of these. So how do you continue to keep clients and continue to grow your business when you make kind of a lasting product?

David Freedman:

That’s a difficult thing. As you know, it could be a declining curve in respect to production. We don’t produce in the thousands, we produce more in the hundreds. So, it’s easy to maintain that level. But we still need a certain flow of newcomers coming into the business. We need new horses coming into the business. We have to hope and pray that you have one driving horse and then you’ll need another one, which means you’ll need another set of harness.

Craig Willett:

Exactly.

David Freedman:

Some of the reasons behind our big development recently into so many different products the last—I guess since 2010, 2006 really—has been to facilitate that need that maybe you need a saddle, you need a bridle, you need a brow band, your wife needs a handbag, you need a belt for yourself. Part of that circle of care—

Craig Willett:

On the handbag, you got that right. Last Christmas, I’m trying to think, “What’s unique?” And you have some unique—and our viewers will see this—you have some unique things that you’ve crafted out of some very good saddle leather and interesting colors. So, that was a Christmas gift last year.

David Freedman:

Exactly. Made your Christmas list, right?

Craig Willett:

Right.

David Freedman:

This has been it because it really is possible to sell you one product and then you’re gone. And whether you choose to stay in the horse business or not that’s where we have to make an impression to say, “If Craig leaves the business, how will we retain him as a customer? What else do we have to sell him?” And that’s sort of the short and long of it in respects to maintaining you and retaining you as a client. We’re hoping you stay in the horse business, obviously, and come back and buy more horse things, which you do. But in general, we’re thinking worst-case scenario, “What’s the cost of acquisition of a customer? And how long can you keep that customer? And what else can you sell that client?”

Craig Willett:

I’d like to talk—I think that’s interesting because we’ve talked a lot about harnesses but not a lot about saddles. I think I met you first not even on the harness, because my wife Carol needed a saddle and one of our trainers says, “You really need to go visit with David. He’ll have the right—he can—this saddle,” and they were showing us one they had, “will be the right one for you.” So, how did you go from harness making to saddle making?

David Freedman:

That’s an interesting story. Not long after I hit the reset on my lady’s belt and handbag wholesale business, because that was a faster moving business than the harness business, I found myself in ’95 bored. Like really bored.

Craig Willett:

Hey, these orders are great, but I got this big—

David Freedman:

I got great orders, they’re huge orders. The guys in the shop are building the orders. I’m doing the research, it’s all going along fine. But it got a little boring.

Craig Willett:

Because you’re not at the workbench making them and fulfilling them. So you are the pioneer in the business trying to figure out what’s next.

David Freedman:

I’m a product developer. I really don’t like to get in the production line per se because the phone’s going to ring, it’s going to take me away, and I’m going to hold somebody else up. So I do production, I do product development, I do designing, I do things like that. Now, I’m the first guy to hop in if we’re late on a delivery because I know all the skills and trade, obviously, but—

Craig Willett:

But this is a great lesson for a lot of people in business. It’s so easy to get into the production or the day-to-day of the business that we forget to stay on the frontier of the business. And I think that’s something you’ve done well, so I’m anxious to hear what happened in ’95 when you were bored.

David Freedman:

This is an interesting story. So my late brother called me who was in the movie business, and he told me, “William Shatner is in town shooting a series.” And the series was called I think, TekWars. So, being the gregarious type of character that I am, I asked him, I said, “Where’s he shooting?” And he gave me the studio phone number. I called up and I got him on the phone and I said, “Mr. Shatner, it’s David Freedman.” He had no idea who I was. And then I said, “I built a set of harness for you last year for your fine harness mare, Eleanor Rigby.” He said, “Oh, yeah.”

Craig Willett:

So, there’s a connection on the horse level, right? The equestrian world is tight.

David Freedman:

I tossed it out right away, so he knew—he maybe didn’t remember me or knew exactly who I was, but he had a connection to me through my product because one of the trainers had bought it for him who was a good friend of ours, Melissa Moore.

Craig Willett:

Oh, wow.

David Freedman:

And he said, “Well, what can I do for you?” I said, “No, the question is, you’re in Toronto now, what can I do for you? Is there anything that I can do for you?” And he said to me, “I’d really—” It’s about three weeks before Lexington Junior League Horse Show, so it’s late June, and he said, “I’d really like to ride here. Is there a place you could take me riding on an American Saddlebred?” I said, “Sure. Let me get back to you.” And I hung up the phone. I knew nobody that had American Saddlebreds in the whole Greater Toronto Area, five million people. And I found somebody that I did know. Push comes to shove that it was somebody that we had also gone back far with, I just hadn’t seen this family in a lot of years. 

 

But anyways, I called him back, picked him up downtown, took him riding, and then on the way home from our afternoon together he said to me, “Can I see your shop?” I said, “Sure. It would be an honor.” Took him to the shop, walked him through, showed him everything. And he said to me, “Where—do you make a saddle?” I said, “No, I don’t make a saddle. I only make harness.” And at that point, that’s all I was really doing, fine harness.

Craig Willett:

Gotten back to the full core—

David Freedman:

Full core competency of the company. That’s all I was doing. And he said, “Oh, interesting.” And we left it. Three weeks later I saw him at Lexington Junior League. Now I have an established relationship with him. He came up to me and said hello, and again said he had a great time visiting in Toronto. And then he said, “You don’t make a saddle, do you?”

Craig Willett:

Again.

David Freedman:

Again.

Craig Willett:

Third time, you don’t want to have to say that.

David Freedman:

I said, “No, I am not going to answer this guy a third time.” I went home and I started thinking and working and developing. And a year and a half later at the UPHA Convention in San Diego in 1996 I launched my first saddle.

Craig Willett:

Wow.

David Freedman:

I said, “This opportunity is not going to knock a third time without me.”

Craig Willett:

And what was that like? I mean, you had to do some research. You didn’t just make any old saddle copy something, did you?

David Freedman:

Well, it was really difficult, and there were a lot more people in the saddle business in this market at that time. And I knew I could do the quality, and I knew I could figure out what to do from a manufacturing standpoint. I knew that I could figure out how to set it up for line production. I knew all of that, so I had the confidence in the actual— in the business side of how to manage it, but I really didn’t have any clue what I wanted for rider setup. I didn’t understand that this is a type of sporting good, and that the ultimate measurement would deal with performance of the horse and the rider. When you’re talking about horse sport you’re talking about rider performance as an athlete and horse performance as an athlete.

Craig Willett:

That’s right. And one can’t impede the other.

David Freedman:

One cannot.

Craig Willett:

It has to be in sync.

David Freedman:

And it took a little while, and if you speak to some clients they will say it took a long time. And it may have. I really don’t think I got it right—this is in ’96. I really don’t think I got it really right until 2009. It took a long time.

Craig Willett:

It wasn’t that far cry from what you did because it’s still leather goods. It’s still the next step through a harness to a saddle.

David Freedman:

Some of the—you can call it disease of an entrepreneur, next to a product developer along with a six generation old company is not resting on your laurels, try to improve, try to adjust. Even you can use the word augment to build the products better and better and adjust.

Craig Willett:

So there’s already a huge market for saddles out there, and how do you come as a newcomer to that and get people thinking, “Okay, harness maker, saddle maker.” How did you get your customers to start to understand that you do something else well, and that it’s something they need to consider from the other myriad of choices in the saddle.

David Freedman:

Honestly, that’s where having an international reputation really helps. Because people just dismissed not having a great quality saddle knowing that you had great quality harness. They just would never sit back and say, “Well, the quality won’t be good. It’s a Freedman.”

Craig Willett:

Wow.

David Freedman:

So, they knew the quality would be amazing. It was just a question of how does the actual product operate?

Craig Willett:

I guess going back to William Shatner’s question, it was almost intuitive. If you make leather harnesses, you’ll make leather saddles.

David Freedman:

Almost was.

Craig Willett:

And so, it was a complementary market right away.

David Freedman:

And it fit. I’ve spent a lot of time until last February just doing things within my core competency. When you think, “What can you do?” Well, it’s easy to say, “Anything leather.” I don’t profess to be a leather expert per se. But I know a lot about leather, I’ve learned a lot about leather over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time in tanneries—

Craig Willett:

You bought a lot of leather.

David Freedman:

I’ve sent a lot of leather back that I didn’t like.

Craig Willett:

Which is key too, making sure you have the right suppliers because your product needs to hold up.

David Freedman:

That’s right. So, anything that’s leather I always thought, “Oh, I could find a way to do it. If I can’t do it, I can figure out how to do it.” And again, back to my late father, he was a guy that just, figure it out, keep working, keep building prototypes, keep working at it, you’ll get it figured out.

Craig Willett:

I have another question along that line in marketing and trying to do it. How do you determine how to price your product? Because there’s a lot of time at a bench, and not everyone’s the same?

David Freedman:

No, that’s a difficult question to answer. First of all, I think like any product you have to decide what the market can bear.

Craig Willett:

Right, so what the perceived value is. So, David, one thing that’s always a curious question of our viewers and audience is, how do you go about pricing a product that really it’s hard to know how many hours are going to go into making a harness or making a saddle?

David Freedman:

Well, pricing products is a very difficult thing for anybody in manufacturing, anybody in business, and I think a lot of people leave out a lot of key components, especially around not so much what is your gross margin, and how much money you’re going to make, and what’s going to end up in your pocket or in your business? But more so—

Craig Willett:

Which is a key component, but there’s something more important.

David Freedman:

Yeah, how are you going to service this product? You own a business like this, and you know yourself, you see me out in the ring, in the warm up ring when you’re getting ready to go in and I show up. You’re like, “What is he doing here?”

Craig Willett:

Yeah, making sure the harness is working the way it’s supposed to.

David Freedman:

I’m just checking to see that everything’s performing the way it should be, and can we make it better, and what can I learn from this to make it better? Maybe that trip didn’t cost me anything. But if it came back for a repair that was a problem, or your trainer had a problem fitting and I need to make an adjustment, then there is a cost to service. Those costs are really hard to bill. I can’t send you a bill for $30 after you’ve spent several thousand. It’s just not my style. So you have to have the margins built in for your time, and for other materials and other services. Whether it’s a service of just coming out for a visit or actually doing work on the product.

Craig Willett:

Well, and that’s truly what you do. So, it goes beyond just, here’s my price, and my gross margin. I’m going to provide a service that is superior to potentially my competition. And I need to build in enough value in the perception of the owner who’s buying this that I can provide that without feeling like I’m nickel-and-diming them after the sale.

David Freedman:

Because we’re small in respect to actual product numbers going out—sure, some items we make hundreds of but we don’t make thousands and thousands of anything—I still have to work with the old theory of, “If you don’t make money on one, you’re not going to make money on 20 or 30 or even 100. And if margins are skinny in the beginning, they’re skinny at the end.”

Craig Willett:

How did you learn that?

David Freedman:

You learn that the hard way. You learn that the hard way. I did a job for a gentleman outside of Boston. It was a big eight horse hitch years ago. I never forget this, it was in ’96. And he asked me, “How much was the harness? How much is the harness?” And it was a lot of money. It was serious dollars.

Craig Willett:

Serious Canadian dollars, not US.

David Freedman:

No, yeah, this may have been US dollars at the time. I think it was in the ’60s, $66,000 or $68,000.

Craig Willett:

Not to scare everybody away. These don’t cost that much.

David Freedman:

No, no. It was a huge set of heavy horse harness, and I ran through the money in the shop—

Craig Willett:

Wow.

David Freedman:

—mostly in labor. I didn’t underestimate raw materials, but it was the first time that I’d done this type of job, and I ran through it by a lot. Okay? By 18, 20%.

Craig Willett:

Wow.

David Freedman:

And I delivered the harness. The gentlemen was very happy.

Craig Willett:

Of course, probably couldn’t get anybody in the world to make it.

David Freedman:

And he said to me, “Is everything okay? Did you do okay?” And I said, “I did perfect. And it’s fine.” And he said to me, “Great, thanks.” And I shook his hand and I walked away.

Craig Willett:

Wow. That’s amazing.

David Freedman:

Because it’s his—my pricing problem is not his issue. I gave the gentleman a price, I have to stand by the price, and I delivered the job. And funny enough, that gentleman made a phone call to people in St. Louis, Missouri, at Anheuser-Busch, and I ended up with the entire Budweiser contract from that.

Craig Willett:

Wow. So, that was really the cost of advertising.

David Freedman:

It was the cost of acquisition, right?

Craig Willett:

Yeah.

David Freedman:

Where my margins continued to remain skinny, but we did nice work for 10 years.

Craig Willett:

Wow, that’s great. What a great story. What a great lesson though. Fortunately, it wasn’t so big that it put you out of business because you had a stable enough business, otherwise, but you have to be careful.

David Freedman:

You always have to be cognizant of costs, of time of labor. Your OpEx, your operational expenses are not a moving target because you know what they are, and you can calculate them and spend enough time really defining, and measuring ups and downs in those expenses. But when it comes to labor, that’s another story, especially today.

Craig Willett:

In the crafts—especially in a craft like you have. What I love about what you did, and I think I’ve heard others that have been guests on our show say the same thing. And that is, “I don’t want to take the problems I’ve had fulfilling the product, and providing the service and make it my customer’s problem. I’m not going to tell them what I went through. I’m just going to deliver a superior product, superior service, and let it stand for itself.” And it comes back around.

David Freedman:

And that’s what they purchased. They didn’t purchase that you had a problem with the leather, you didn’t like it, you cut up a bunch and threw it away. That wasn’t their thing. That’s for you to take up with your own raw material supplier, even though it’s only the cost of materials, not labor, which is still significant, but nothing compared to the labor. They really don’t want to know about those problems. They want a beautiful finished good, finished product, and they want it to perform.

Craig Willett:

And I think that’s a great key to success. I appreciate that. You’re doing something also that’s unique now. I mean, we live in a different world since the pandemic and also since certain—the Patriot Act and other things that have been passed over the last 10, 15 years. You operate a business in Canada and sell throughout the world, but one of your big markets is coming to horse shows in the United States. So how have you surmounted this crossing the border and you’re bringing lots of goods, you’ve been pretty innovative there. So, I’d like our audience to hear a little bit about how you overcame an obstacle like that.

David Freedman:

Being small or large, I think is about—and actually making it through hard times, good times, all times in business is really about being nimble, and about being able to recognize opportunities. And taking those opportunities if you can. We saw in the early 2000s that as the business was really growing in the States, an international border, even though free trade was in place, there’s obstacles. It’s difficult. It’s difficult to ship to the end user. There’s duties, or not duties and taxes, but just brokerage services. There’s different costs that are involved with getting an end product to a customer.

 

One of the things was our saddle and our handbag business. We just couldn’t see tacking on another $35 for customs brokerage to our customs broker to get a $300 handbag. It was over 10% of the cost on top of charging freight. We decided that we would open a retail store and warehouse in Kentucky, which we felt was mecca for the horse business, and we started a US Corporation, and get the business rolling in the States. Along with that came operating a business now in two countries let alone in four currencies. But now you have to deal with laws of other countries, and regulations of other countries.

Craig Willett:

Right. Employment and otherwise.

David Freedman:

Exactly, which I had to learn a lot about, which really did not align with anything in Canada including healthcare, which is a struggle.

Craig Willett:

Right. You’d think of being so close in border, and so friendly, that our ways of doing business would be similar, but not.

David Freedman:

Not at all. And luckily, my wife now, Nicole, had experience in the horse business, was looking for something to do. We came up with this idea together at a show that she was helping with, an Arabian show, and we opened up this little retail and warehouse in Midway, Kentucky, and started to get the business rolling. We were shipping pallets. One every other week, one every three weeks type of thing from Toronto down to midway, Kentucky. She’d unload the pallet—

Craig Willett:

So, all of a sudden you didn’t have to deal with customs brokerage.

David Freedman:

One time—

Craig Willett:

One time.

David Freedman:

One time brokerage for an entire pallet, so there’d be repairs. There’d be harness. There’d be handbags. There’d be belts. There’d be halters. There’d be all kinds of products on this pallet. It’d be crossing commercially, so it would be brokered in, and then she’d unload the pallet, ship out all the repairs, put some of these finished goods on the shelf, and we had ourselves a little bit of a retail experience going. People would come in. Of course, there’s a lot of American Saddlebred people in that area. So, we got some support right away. And with the notion of building a pick and pack operation that had a facade of a retail on the front.

Craig Willett:

Wow. That’s pretty innovative, so that you have people running the shop and also picking and packing in a warehouse.

David Freedman:

Which takes a different type of person as well because you have to have people that are dressed up that look like they’re there for retail, meanwhile you walk out the front door, and they’re in the back putting product in boxes and shipping it out. And then receiving, now was every week, so a lot more product, and that business really grew the last number of years. And it’s been really interesting along with having to apply for US visa. Funny enough, three years ago, Nicole and I got married, she moved to Toronto, and she had to apply for a Canadian work permit visa while she’s waiting for her permanent residency. She’s going to remain an American citizen.

Craig Willett:

And you had to get a work visa for the United States.

David Freedman:

And I had to get a work visa, which has to be renewed every few years for United States. Interesting, when you’re not used to the business climate, and somebody approaches you then you’re really skeptical. I remember I was stopped at customs one time, and the gentleman asked me, the customs officer, “What’s your status?” I said, “Status? I don’t know.” Married, single, I don’t know what to tell the guy. He said, “No, no, what’s your immigrant status?” I said, “I’m a visitor. I have a business in the States, and I’m just coming down to visit.” He said, “Well, who’s paying you?” I said, “Well, my Canadian company is paying me.” He says, “How do we know that?”

Craig Willett:

Oh, wow.

David Freedman:

Because I’m telling you that. But that’s not an answer for a customs officer.

Craig Willett:

That’s not what they want to hear.

David Freedman:

He said, “Well, we have something called the Patriot Act. Our president, Obama at the time, he says he wants to know who’s coming into the States and who’s doing what and where they’re working.” I said, “Okay, great.” So, apply for a visa, no problem. We got that organized, and have been on that visa, I think since 2008 or nine.

Craig Willett:

But now I think that’s the thing we have to look at. As much as we don’t like regulation, once you understand and comply to a degree rather than fight it, it makes it easy, and it’s not that costly. I don’t imagine your work visa is that expensive to renew compared to the business you do, obviously?

David Freedman:

No, I think it ends up costing me 15 or 1,800 a year, but at the end of the day—it’s funny you say that because as a Canadian, I always feel like I’m a little more compliant anyways. So, sure, they tell us to do this, we’ll do it. Even though there’s a lot to do and some hoops to jump through and a lot of paperwork to organize, it’s part of those regulations that have to be respected. And I would want my government—now, my governments because I’m doing business in two countries—you’d want them to know what’s going on.

Craig Willett:

What I think I see in you, David, is someone who really takes and can out of difficult circumstances go back and reflect and get a vision of how to take this challenge or difficulty or not wanting to say no to William Shatner that you don’t make saddles a third time to be innovative, and be able to hit that reset button and move forward with a vision and with a plan, being determined to see how you can make that successful. I think you like the challenge, don’t you?

David Freedman:

Yeah, I do. And I’m really driven by those challenges, especially if it’s something that’s interesting to me. Most of the time, if it’s interesting to my clients, it’s interesting to me. So that’s sort of what drives my boat, so to speak. I hear it once, I hear it twice, then obviously there’s a need. And if there’s a need, I feel that if I have the know-how, I will go through that door. And then of course, the entrepreneurial disease sets in and you will take it until you can’t take it anymore. Whether it’s there’s costs involved—giving up is a hard thing to do as an entrepreneur, as you know.

Craig Willett:

It is. But it also takes that because if you do give up that’s admitting failure right away without even trying. And so, there’s a bit of effort there. The other thing that I like that I think that you demonstrate well, and that is the ability to listen to the customer, and find your niche and really carve that finely. To really understand not just, “Oh, I’d like to have a saddle.” You didn’t just go out do any saddle. You did a lot of research. So, you really try to carve into what your niche is and play to your strengths.

David Freedman:

That’s my father.

Craig Willett:

Really.

David Freedman:

Do what you do, do it better than anybody. Do the best of your ability, just try your best, give it all you got.

Craig Willett:

And people appreciate that. When people know you’ve done your best, and you’re doing all you can, people will appreciate that because you’re putting heart into it. And you said that earlier, this is a part of you. And I think that’s what any good business owner would say about their business, it becomes part of them, almost their child, almost their baby. And it becomes very personal and very real. And therefore, the customer’s reaction to it is very important to you. How much does that motivate you?

David Freedman:

For me, it’s the whole thing. It’s that emotional experience and tying myself to a product, tying myself to a need, the drive, and more so because it’s really hard to attach a timeline to any of this development. You don’t know, is it going to take you six months, two years? We developed our first piece of apparel, it took two and a half years to develop. I put more time into it than some of our successful products. But the tenacity of wanting it to work and the time and effort and just be, and just—

Craig Willett:

And want it to be well received by your customer.

David Freedman:

Exactly.

Craig Willett:

And it’s another opportunity to expand your reach into the customers you already have.

David Freedman:

That’s our success, and I’m willing to—I really don’t think about my competitors much in respects to what they’re doing. I just wanted to do what our customers want us to do and have that available. And I keep going down that road, and I think we mentioned in a previous conversation together, I see that as a lot of roads still to travel at 56 years old. I don’t see that I’m coming to the end of my rope or end of my road.

Craig Willett:

I think that’s a key to success. It’s almost an oxymoron because they don’t really teach it in business school. They always say go out and measure the competition. And I think there’s something to that—

David Freedman:

You have to know what they’re doing, of course.

Craig Willett:

But you have to create your own path. And when you create your own path, you become a little agnostic to what your competition is doing because you know what you’re trying to reach to your customers, and you’re going to do it in a different way.

David Freedman:

And it may not be what your competitors are trying to do at all.

Craig Willett:

Exactly.

David Freedman:

Which is fine, also.

Craig Willett:

Right. So, it’s not copying somebody else that you’re going to get success, it’s pioneering your path because you understand your customers better than anyone else.

David Freedman:

Another one of my dad’s theories was, “Mind your own business, you got enough to do.” But minding your own business might mean minding the business, per se. I think you have to know what the competition’s doing. You have to know what the offering is, and sometimes that also drives a clear path to how to improve, how to product develop, where the hole in the market is. And a lot of those revelations of those holes come through competitive markets realizing there’s an opening in the sector for a product that has not been refined, redeveloped, may be the same thing we’ve used for 150 years or 50 years. And just it’s time, it’s just time. So, that’s what we do.

Craig Willett:

So you’re the chief R&D officer too.

David Freedman:

I’m the head R&D. Some of the R&D is a little more strenuous than other products. Some of it we go down we go, “It’s just not for us.”

Craig Willett:

Well, I’m anxious to get a tour here, and I know you have customers who’ve already been sneaking in, beating the path to your door this morning, and I appreciate you taking the time. But there’s a question that we always ask on the Biz Sherpa that no one can escape and that is what is your greatest failure, and what did you learn from it?

David Freedman:

That’s a—the greatest failure is not being able to trust myself through difficult times. Not being able, as you would say, to hit the reset when you need to, and maybe hanging on too long to some different things that we’ve done over the years where you really needed to either hard or soft reset.

Craig Willett:

But you had a passion for it, and you want to give it enough perseverance to see if it can work.

David Freedman:

Exactly.

Craig Willett:

So, what did you learn from that? How have you changed? How have you evolved to help do that more easily?

David Freedman:

I think that first of all, I think the pressure of taking over a family business and filling shoes of a reputation that you didn’t build is an unconscious moment in your life anyways. When I took over this business I took it over because I worked for my dad for nine years. I was with my dad for nine years, day in day out. So we really knew each other. I knew what he liked. I knew what he didn’t like and how to operate. But filling those shoes at 27 years old you have to be pretty unconscious, or really not all there because honestly in the ’90s, mid to late ’90s I look back, “Oh, my God, what have I done?”

Craig Willett:

Wow.

David Freedman:

Because I’ve taken on all of this, and I can not make it work his way. And that was probably one of my biggest lessons of what not to do. It’s just—I’m not my father, and my father wasn’t me, nor my grandfather, nor any other family member. But adjusting those business practices including all the human resources people involved. Whether they’re accountants, lawyers, or shop workers, or people in the office to get them to work your way, and the way that you need them to work with your style, and your acumen is different and not easy.

Craig Willett:

Right. So, you can’t be your dad, you can’t replicate that.

David Freedman:

You can’t do it. And of course, you don’t want the same thing out of life. So, there you make some mistakes, and you hang on too long. And mostly because of the uncertainty, mostly. Not because you just can’t see through it. You’re just not certain what to do. You don’t have the experience. Honestly, I didn’t know the left side from the right side of a balance sheet when my father passed away. I didn’t have to do that, my dad took care of that. I was in the back with the guys making harness, learning the trade, learning the business.

 

So you have to learn all of these things. And you have to spend the time learning it and learning it well. Whether you like it or not, still to this day, I find numbers painful. But I sit myself down and study and look at them every day until I like them, until I embrace them. And some of those pieces I wish I knew more about earlier on because they maybe would have carved an easier path to where we are today or maybe not.

Craig Willett:

But I think it’s through our difficulties that we learn the most, and we become even better at what we do.

David Freedman:

I had another business mentor along the way. He’s a very bright gentleman who was in the sporting goods business in Canada, and he said to me, “Freedman, life is research, and research is free.” I never forgot that—

Craig Willett:

Wow.

David Freedman:

—because you can learn a lot from a lot of people, and one of the reasons why I interacts so well with our clients, a lot of them are successful business people, they have a lot to offer.

Craig Willett:

You’re not afraid to ask.

David Freedman:

I’m not afraid to ask, and I’m not afraid to pay attention to them, and that intrigues me. That intrigues me, especially with a gentleman like you over the years. I’ve always asked you questions of oil and gas, different things you’ve been involved with, real estate, and watched you and your family learn and grow through this business, and obviously with others as well. Just it’s not a lot of people have that opportunity, but it’s an opportunity I urge other entrepreneurs and business people to take because it costs nothing, and you’d be surprised with the type of information and knowledge that you can build that adds to your own thinking and knowledge.

Craig Willett:

And it’s interesting, it falls within your own cadre of clients that you can get this mentorship or inspiration.

David Freedman:

You can always add and learn.

Craig Willett:

Great. Well, David, again, I really appreciate you taking the time at this show to be our guest, and to share your secrets to success. I think your story is inspiring, and the experiences that you’ve had really can demonstrate to a lot of business owners how they can be more successful. I appreciate that you would take the time today in the middle of a horse show—a busy horse show for you—to share your success with us.

David Freedman:

Thank you very much, Craig, for having us. It’s been a pleasure.

Craig Willett:

Great. This is Craig Willett, the Biz Sherpa. Thanks for joining us for this episode.

Speaker 1:

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