JOHNSTOWN - The Carville family expected winning the Fulton County Regional Chamber of Commerce & Industry family business award to be a somber event.
Hugh Carville, founder of Carville National Leather, and his son, Bobby, who now serves as the company's president, were still recovering from the death of Hugh's wife, Gerry Carville, who died April 20.
Right up until they appeared at the podium on the night of Jan. 19 at the Holiday Inn, they were both apprehensive about what they would say.
Milford Miller feeds cow hides onto the spray line Feb. 2 at Carville National Leather in Johnstown.
The Leader-Herald/Mike Zummo
Until Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Newport, accidentally told the Johnstown crowd how good it was to be in Herkimer County.
That gave Hugh Carville, ever the jokester, his opening. After Butler was finished introducing the family, he thanked "Senator Farley" for the kind words.
"That set the tone for the whole night," Bobby Carville said.
"I was able to get through it because we got off on a funny note," Hugh Carville said.
Hugh founded the business in 1967, when he left his job as a sales manager at a leather tannery in Newark, N.J. Gerry had been at his side since the beginning.
"When I told her I wanted to quit, she said, 'OK. Be happy,'" he said. "She was like that all her life. She had nothing but support."
Even after the first year when he made commissions of $3,000.
"She never said a word," Hugh said. "She never said I made a mistake."
She was right.
Hugh started his leather merchant business out of the basement of the family's New Jersey home and Bobby said he would come to the Glove Cities to oversee production. In the early 1970s, the family relocated to Johnstown, and he bought the former Knox Gelatin building.
With the purchase of the building, Carville National Leather went from becoming a sales operation to a leather manufacturer.
"The way that business came from humble beginnings in a basement to where it is today [made it deserving of the award]," chamber Interim President Terry Swierzowski said. "To keep that business here and producing leather and changing with the market and environment is a pretty amazing thing."
Today, Bobby said, Carville National is the third largest producer of boot leather in the United States. The company also produces leather for the apparel industry, upholstery for automobiles, non-military footwear and some aircrafts.
"We're a full-service contractor," he said. "We produce what the customer asks us. The customer brings in the hides and we process them to their specifications."
Despite the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., and even some out of their own facility after a 1983 strike, Carville National Leather has managed to survive.
"I'm satisfied that we're one of the few that are still in existence," Hugh Carville said. "The jobs have left America and you see that in the condition of America today."
Throughout their career, Hugh and Gerry, who served as vice president, ran the company together. Now, it's run by Bobby and his wife, Jennifer, who serves as financial director.
"It's a true family-owned, family-run business," Butler said. "They're deeply involved in the community affairs. They're so involved in the fabric of Fulton County."
Carville National is a second-generation family business, but Hugh never pushed his son to take over the company.
"He said 'love what you do, and I'll support it," Bobby said.
Bobby's first love was racing and he even lived at London for a short time before returning to Johnstown and giving up that dream in 1995.
"It was at a point where we had budget constraints," he said. "We had limited success in finding sponsorships."
There are key differences between father and son.
Hugh Carville never tanned leather. Bobby can, and "he has the ability to create things," his father said. "He must have gotten that from his mother."
Bobby had built his first go-kart, and Hugh said he regretted not pushing his son to go to an engineering school, until a professor from Rensselear Polytechnic Institute visited the tannery and saw some of the things Bobby built.
"He said to me, 'We couldn't have done anything for him. He would have been staring out the window bored. Some kids you just can't teach and I think your kid is one of those."
When Hugh retired from Carville National, he didn't go back very often, although he and his son discuss the business constantly. Gerry, who died at 81, went to the office every day until March 14, the day before she went into the hospital. Since she died last year, her parking spot remains empty.
"Mom will always have a parking spot here," Bobby said.
The company's future ownership is an open question. Since his father never pushed him back to the family business, he doesn't plan on pushing his two children into it either. His daughter is at a technical school looking at equine veterinary studies, while his high-school son loves airplanes.
"I want them to pursue their dreams even if it's not the family business," Bobby Carville said.
What mattered most to both Hugh and Bobby was making the chamber award about their mother's contributions.
Bobby called it a great tribute to her and said she would have been proud.
"It gave Bobby and I a chance to bring Gerry into the picture after losing her," Hugh Carville said. "It gave us a unique ability to talk about her. That meant more to me than anything. She was part of the company from the very beginning."
As Bobby steers the company for the foreseeable future, he prides himself on maintaining the company reputation his father left behind.
"I'll always see it as his business, and those are pretty big shoes to fill," he said.
Mike Zummo is the business editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.