The triple bottom line

Townsend Leather strives for excellence in its products, people, and environment

A selection of Townsend Leather samples are displayed. Townsend's leather products are made from the hides of German bulls, which are raised under strict environmental standards. (The Leader-Herald/Josh Bovee)

JOHNSTOWN — For almost 50 years, Townsend Leather has been one of only a handful of companies in the area still carrying the torch for the once booming leather industry in the Glove Cities.

For more than 30 of those years, since making the switch to aviation upholstery leather, they’ve been on their way to becoming a world-wide leader of the high-end leather market. Now under third generation management, the family-oriented leather company has continued to expand its reach, while all the while proving time and again that it is not your typical manufacturing company.

From developing state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly methods for manufacturing, to spearheading various community projects throughout the local area, to being named a top place to work by both the Albany Times Union and the Albany Business Review, Townsend Leather is out to show that there’s more to a company than just profits.

“We are real people. We’re not a faceless corporation. We care about the leather, we care about each other, we care about who we’re working for. [Townsend Leather] is a passion driven company, for sure,” Shawn Czadzeck, communications designer at Townsend Leather said.

Townsend Leather opened its doors in 1969 at the tail end of the Glove Cities’ golden age for leather manufacturing, with an eye towards tapping into what was left of the garment leather industry.

A display featuring leather samples and Townsend Leather product line advertisements. Townsend Leather makes high-end leather upholstry for airlines, yachts and hotels among other luxary items, and also provides the leather for New Balance shoes. (The Leader-Herald/Josh Bovee)

After Albert Kucel, its founder, was killed in a tragic accident in the 1980s, Terry Kucel took over the business and transformed it into the pioneering leather company it is today. By transitioning from the garment industry and focusing instead on high-end aviation upholstery leather, Townsend Leather became a niche market juggernaut that has continued to expand and evolve, becoming the premier company for high-end leather product lines in luxury yachts, hotels, and aircrafts.

“We have the best people making the best leather. We are really dedicated to quality in our process,” Czadzeck said. “We are constantly reinventing what people are expecting leather to be like. We are sourcing new techniques, we are using the best quality materials and then finding the best way to process them so that we make leather proud and make our customers happy.”

Asked what allowed Townsend Leather to outlast much of the downfall of the area’s leather industry, those at Townsend give the credit to Terry Kucel’s prescient attitude towards his product, his community and his workers.

“When everybody was looking at outsourcing, going overseas and saving money — because globalization was happening and off shoring — Terry was like ‘how do you reinvest back into the business and our people?'” Senior Vice President Tim Beckett said.

The answer, according to Beckett, was a “triple-bottom line” model of business implemented by Kucel in the 1980s — a model that has persisted right up to the present.

Two large leather drums used for drying hides. (The Leader-Herald/Josh Bovee)

“You’re looking at everything from profit, people and environment,” Beckett said. “It’s holistic. Basically, you live where you work. Take care of your building. Take care of the machinery, and take care of the people. Because the people are what make leather. If you take care of them you’ll make a great product.”

“We’re not just looking at output. We’re not just saying we’ve got to get this out the door,” Czadzeck added. “We’re saying we’ve got to do it in a way that makes all of our people happy and makes all of our customers happy. It’s a care for the environment, it’s a care for the working product and it’s a care for our customers.”

That “triple-bottom” line model is readily apparent in much of Townsend’s work. Townsend’s high-quality leather has made its way around the world, and includes such high-profile accounts as the leather upholstered seating on Air Force One and the leather used in New Balance shoes.

Not only is Townsend making a top-of-the-line product, they are committed to ensuring they do so in a way that is environmentally sound. Where once the leather industry was known for its unscrupulous disposal of harmful chemicals in the environment, Townsend is quietly committed to undoing those conceptions while also distancing itself from the leather industry’s unsavory past.

“It’s a hard topic because it’s a huge industry and it’s really multi-faceted,” Czadzeck said. “So there’s certainly categories or areas that aren’t doing great things. But we have strived very hard to not only do great things ourselves, but do so great that it pulls the industry up. We feel very, almost personally offended in a way of tying that history to what we are doing because we are not a part of that. We are making a positive impact environmentally [here] and beyond Townsend.”

A view inside one of Townsend's manufacturing buildings located on Townsend Avenue in Johnstown. (The Leader-Herald/Josh Bovee)

According to Czadzeck, Townsend Leather hides come from “free-range, grass-fed bulls from southern Germany where it’s as environmentally focused and socially conscious as you can get.” No portion of the hide is wasted, with scrap portions being converted into cosmetics and food products such as dog chews.

“Literally everything is saved to become a product or recycled somehow down the stream,” Beckett added.

Townsend also strives for environmental excellence by reducing or eliminating its use of harmful chemicals and through use of its own water treatment plant. Townsend Leather has even gone so far as to become an active member of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The USGBC is a nationwide organization through which members can help create “environmentally focused spaces” for various markets, based on a grading system.

“Everyone is looking at sustainability. Even more so in the last 10 years,” Beckett said. “But we wanted to make sure that we saw it coming from the markets that we work in to understand how can we get better with our chemicals, our process, our machinery. What can we do?”

But membership in nationwide organizations notwithstanding, Townsend’s real commitment is to its workers and the Glove City communities in which they live. Townsend Leather topped the Albany Times Union’s list for top medium-size business to work for, while being the only manufacturing-type business named. According to Human Resources Director Pamela Goldswer, the reason Townsend Leather receives such accolades stems from its commitment to not only make employees a part of the team, but to raise them up and guide them to their fullest potential.

A selection of sample leather products for potential customers. Townsend's finsihed leather products are fully customizable and can be made into a near limitless variety of colors and textures. An inventory of custom work is kept in a storage building at Townsend Leather. (The Leader-Herald/Josh Bovee)

“We have what I like to call wrap-around care for people,” Goldswer said. “All different ways for people to grow, develop, and challenge themselves to becomes stronger and better and all part of the family. I would say if you walked through here and asked anybody at any time what’s the most important thing in the building, they would tell you each other and making sure each other is cared for.”

“There is a sense of support and care and catching people when they need it, but it’s also this push forward to drive and challenge them,” Czadzeck added. “We’re not all just here hugging and holding hands all the time, although that’s a big part of it. We’re also here to say that you can do better and I want to see you do it. So what can we do to get you there?”

Townsend Leather will hold its third annual Wellness Fair this Friday. The employer sponsored, paid event for Townsend’s nearly 170 employees will feature over 30 vendors with a general theme of helping workers beat stress.

“We’re super excited about it because it’s bigger and better than ever,” said Tricia Martin, senior vice president of customer service. “We are focusing on the theme of beating stress, because unfortunately, no matter how wonderful it is to wake up every day and see people you love, stress just catches up with you.”

Banking and insurance vendors will be on hand to help workers deal with financial stress, while Nathan Littauer Hospital will feature an aromatherapy station. In addition to vendors from various outside local businesses, the wellness fair will also feature vendor stations run by Townsend employees themselves to showcase some of their own skills and passions, including a yoga station and a running station. The wellness fair will also include healthy food options and a volleyball tournament.

According to Martin, Townsend’s plan is to eventually open the wellness fair up to the community at large by next year.

“If all goes according to plan, we hope next year for our 50th anniversary, to do not only an anniversary party, but a community wellness event combined with the wellness celebration and make it a block party,” Martin said. “[We’d like to] invite the community itself in to meet all the vendors and services. That’s our dream.”

In addition to projects such as the restoration of Wandel Park in Gloversville and their Townsend Hugs initiative–an application program Townsend has developed for community members seeking support for various projects and causes–a community-wide wellness fair would be just one more way that Townsend Leather is looking to assert itself as a community leader.

“How do we make sure that we take care of this place and push it forward? Those are our values,” Beckett said. “We’re not going anywhere–and no matter what anybody thinks about the industry or what it is today, we’re still a cornerstone of these two communities. The Glove Cities, Fulton County–it’s a great place to work. And not enough people are saying it and not enough people are getting it out into the public. This is a hell of an organization. But this is a hell of a place to live. But we all have to work together to make it great.”

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