Joe Lotuff is one of the two founding brothers of Lotuff Leather. Inspired by a desire for top-quality product and the tradition of American craftsmanship, he works to ensure the vision he's created for the company is realized through his team. Here, Liz interviews him about manufacturing, vintage cars, and the studio.
This isn't your first foray into business. How does that former experience inform what you're doing with Lotuff this time around?
Well, the first successful company was Berkshire Blanket. I was proud of the business, but it was difficult to see really good product that we helped to create and build in our Ware, MA factory moved overseas so as to keep the company viable and competitive. Berkshire was successful enough financially that with Lotuff, we can hold fast to our convictions and do what we want to do: make something really exceptional right here in New England. There has to be a real commitment on our part, and it has to be steadfast.
I'm a third-generation manufacturer- my family jokes that we have a tradition of training our children in manufacturing and paying them just little enough that they feel compelled to go and start their own business (laughs). So what I've always wanted to do in this business is to be known for making something exceptional. Something you can show your friends and that you can be proud of. That guides everything. Being proud of what we do and being proud of how we produce it.
How did you decide to get involved in the leather goods industry, as opposed to something else?
I became a seeker while I was at Berkshire, someone who recognizes that there's a difference between good quality and great quality, even though it's hard to put your finger on that difference at times. Like seeing a made-to-measure suit versus a bespoke one, for example. You have to recognize that with the latter there's a step...and maybe it's one or maybe ten...but it moves one beyond the other for the care taken in the product's creation.
I was looking for a leather bag and was having trouble finding one. What I was looking for didn't seem to still exist, and I thought, "Maybe there are other people like me, looking for the same thing." People said we'd have to be crazy to do this, because at the time the proven model was to produce cheaply somewhere else. It's those other seekers, looking for great quality American-made items, that allow this business to happen. Especially with the Internet- customers who research these things can seek, find us and purchase with a click of a button.
You're somebody who's very much into vintage cars. Can you say anything about whether or not this interest has influenced why Lotuff as a brand is dedicated to making the old new again, so to speak?
The nice thing about great old cars is that they touch a nerve every time you sit and turn the key. What you have now in cars is more like an appliance, but what you get in vintage cars is an experience. Pre-electronics, before ABS brakes and all these things, you had something real that depended more on the driver than on the vehicle. Vintage cars react to your input, as should our bags, and driving a vintage car with a well-crafted bag in the boot gives me a real sense of well-being.
And the construction, the leather, the wood on the dash, the thoughtfulness that went into the engineering of these cars, they're a testament to mechanical ingenuity. It's like a farmer who maintains his original tools instead of buying new ones, and this idea is appealing to me. Some things can be maintained indefinitely, and that's what I hope people will do with our products.
What's been the best change you've witnessed in the company from where Lotuff started to where we are now?
One of the best things about our company today is our commitment to production here in our own studio, and the best change is the growth of that studio through adding the individual souls who are committed to this process. They're inspired to do their best, and you can't pay someone to do that; it has to come from internal motivation and a sense of pride and care in one's work. Having my name on our product is a reflection on my family and on me, so treating people right is a must, and to see these people benefit in a positive way by working with us is what makes me the happiest. The act of making, and the positive effect it's had on the people. To me, that is happy change and happy progress.
There's a discipline to being successful in sailing, which is one of your favorite things to do. Are there any applicable lessons there for this business?
A sailboat, like a business, is a contained object. Every little component of it is part of a whole, and because of that you really have to be focused on every small detail all the time; it all makes a difference.
Building a compatible team that shares a desire to win, a strategic vision and a willingness to work for results is important, too. Before a sailing race starts, the result is, in a way, already mostly determined by the work that's gone into the preparations of the boat and crew. The same thing happens in a business: it takes shared strategic vision and thoughtful tactical decisions. The way you choose your team, your chain of command, dictates what you can do, and you all have to be passionate about it.
In both sailing and in business, you get trained to focus on details that others don't even know exist. In both, there are a hundred little things, each one variable, that when added together expertly, form a successful effort.