Byline: Holly Haber

DALLAS — Two weeks before Christmas, Jackie Hoegger got a call from Jerry Kohl, the owner of Leegin Creative Leather Products. Kohl wanted to make sure everything was alright at Hoegger’s Vive Paris specialty store in Wichita Falls, Tex., and to find out if she needed any more Brighton leather goods for holiday selling. That might not be unusual for a small operation. But Leegin is a $100 million company, and Kohl sells its Brighton line to 3,000 women’s specialty stores.
“He is probably the kindest, sweetest, most honest owner of a company I have every met,” gushed Hoegger, who is one of Brighton’s biggest accounts.”I look at him, and I just want to hug his neck.”
Hoegger isn’t the only specialty retailer with a professional passion for Kohl. The man has brought a new dimension to “customer loyalty,” with innovative marketing tactics that seek to give specialty stores the kinds of resources available to department stores, to educate buyers and sales associates — and to make selling Leegin’s products enjoyable.
“One of our good customers said to us that it’s fun to do business with us because we do business the way people used to — nice people selling nice things in a nice way,” said Kohl. “We don’t even go to New York. We just do our own thing.”
The results have been spectacular. The Brighton women’s leather goods business, launched in 1990 with about $200,000 in sales, did $40 million last year and is up 35 percent so far this year. Having started with leather belts decorated with silverplated buckles and hardware, it has expanded into handbags, watches, key fobs and wallets. The four-year-old handbag slice of the women’s business is expected to double in sales this year from $11.5 million in 1996.
Founded in 1970 as a men’s belt maker, Leegin did $97 million in sales last year and is projecting $110 million for 1997 — all at a “very profitable” rate, according to Kohl.
It is based in City of Industry, Calif., where its factory employs 500 workers. Leegin’s sales strategy for its Brighton women’s division gives marketing 101 a creative twist.
“I had a motto: Show up and show ’em,” recalled Laura Young, who joined Leegin as national sales manager for the Brighton division in 1991. “It’s just very basic, and of course it works. Once we were into it for a couple of years, I had to change it to show up and grow ’em.
“Then we evolved into doing seminars, education, product knowledge, and we added handbags.”
The strategy is to have a company sales rep call on each account every 30 to 60 days to check inventory, place reorders and show new products.
“The truth is that selling at market just doesn’t do it anymore,” Young asserted. “You have to call on the stores. You do more business, and the stores respect you more.” Brighton employs a staggering number of sales people — 80 — plus five regional managers. In Texas, its biggest market, there are 14 salespeople.
All are equipped with laptop computers that fire off “everything you could possibly want to know” about the store’s Brighton business, Hoegger pointed out.
“I can tell you every day what our salespeople are out doing,” Kohl said.”Yesterday, we wrote 454 orders, they took 119 inventories and sold $284,563. Sixty percent of what is ordered today is delivered tomorrow. We’re in the reorder business.”
But Brighton’s service goes more than a step further. The company designs quality display fixtures and sells them to retailers at about 75 percent of cost. It produces stylish catalogs for stores to distribute to their clientele, and communicates directly with Brighton customers through a postcard campaign.
“We don’t sell big stores, like Dillard’s and May, that have in-house visual merchandising and catalog departments, so we see our role as almost being those departments for our stores,” Young explained.
“I can’t say enough about them,” said Carol Moore, owner of Something Moore in Laguna Niguel, Calif. “As a supplier, they are at the top of customer service.”
And then there’s the icing, like contests for sales associates to win trips to Hawaii, Italy and Paris. Or a Valentine’s week blitz in which reps — who were specifically told to thank their accounts instead of selling — hand-delivered metal Brighton lunch boxes filled with chocolate-covered Oreos iced with red hearts — the Brighton logo. The Valentine’s week promotion tied merchandise sales into a fund-raiser underwritten by Brighton that netted more than $50,000 for the American Heart Association.
Brighton even hosted a week of day-long seminars last August at the Dallas Mart, at which buyers and sales associates from around the country saw how products are made, met and chatted with designers and competed for prizes. About 1,000 people attended, and Kohl expects twice as many when he stages a similar program this August.
One of the most popular exhibits during that seminar week was a room of displays describing how some of the most successful stores sell Brighton products. So this year, Brighton launched a promotion that calls for stores to describe their most effective displays, advertising, promotion, community service and sales tactics. The ideas will be shared among the retailers, and the best ones will receive trophies at an awards ceremony during Brighton Week in August.
This month, Brighton is also bringing some of its best customers to the Orient to see first-hand how the products are made.
Brighton’s latest tool to communicate with store sales associates is a monthly newsletter that discusses trends and offers ideas for promotions, such as a ladies’ night out during the basketball championships.
“We think the sales associate on the floor is the most important factor in the business because they are the ones that really do it,” Young said. “If they are not knowledgeable, then the message doesn’t get translated to the customer.”
Brighton wants that customer to recognize its brand just as she would Dooney & Bourke or Liz Claiborne. To that end, Brighton has registered each customer who bought a handbag since the inception of the line. Within three weeks of purchase, Brighton dispatches a leather coin purse embellished with a silverplated heart and a thank-you note to the customer.
“She says, ‘Oh my gosh! I never got a thank-you note for buying a bag!”‘ Young claimed. “We get thank-you notes all the time thanking us for thanking them.”
The company is also unusual in that it refuses to sell department stores.
“You can’t sell the big stores and the little stores,” said Kohl, who owned a specialty store when he was a teenager. “The department stores want something different from the small stores. In small stores, in most cases their name is on the front, so quality is most important. The department stores have a whole different list of priorities, and quality isn’t at the top of the list.”
And since specialty stores have much smaller budgets and inventories, Kohl said Brighton has no minimum order for belts and frequently takes reorders for a single belt.
The company prides itself on using top calfskin and silver or goldplated zinc hardware that has some weight to it. Most of its belts wholesale for about $22, with handbags averaging $85 to $100. Moore said the customer for a Brighton bag is the same person who’s had a Louis Vuitton or Chanel handbag.
“They identify with it very easily,” Moore noted. “They like the quality.”
Brighton has updated its line, which formerly was a rugged casual Southwestern style, to include classic styles. But the company’s strongest territory remains the Southwest, with the Southeast close behind. Brighton is working hardest now to develop the Northeast.
“People ask us if we sell in Europe and Canada,” Young noted. “We figure there are 260 million people in the U.S., and most of them don’t know Brighton. It may be a household word in Dallas or Atlanta, but it’s not everywhere.”
It’s also got some new products on tap, including a fragrance that should be out later this year called Heart by Brighton.
And he would like to do jewelry, but probably not this year. “We have so much to do right now,” said Kohl. “We’re having a good time.”

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