Keith Valley took the long road to being his own boss. And most of it has been traveled on horseback.
Valley is the owner, operator and only employee of Cowboy Saddlery and Interiors, with workshops in downtown Jackson and Wilson to create handmade, hand-tooled saddles and leather goods.
Getting his start as a teenager doing ranch work in Alabama and repairing his own saddles, Valley now spends most of each year putting together saddles and other projects for clients around the world. One saddle on his website, CowboySaddlery.com, is advertised for $12,000.
Moving to Jackson has meant taking experience from a job selling eyeglasses at an optometrist’s office to pay the bills and turning it into the savvy necessary to operate an unusual business in a climate that’s always changing.
Recently his acumen was recognized after the business started by his mentor, the late Don King of Sheridan, referred him to the organizers of the Small Business Revolution campaign. The campaign, run by Deluxe, is a firm that provides services to small business owners, and features stories of 100 businesses in each of the 50 states. Businesses are nominated by friends and neighbors and selected by the campaign. Valley and Cowboy Saddlery are the only Wyoming story in the campaign.
The notice is nice, Valley said, but as it is he has orders stretching into the next year. His detailed saddles take at least a month to make, including the time he tries to schedule to ride in the Tetons.
He sat down at his downtown Jackson studio this week to talk about learning how to be a businessman, what it’s like to fire himself and his journey from cowboy to craftsman. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
Q: Starting with the basics, how did you even learn how to make a saddle? What does a person do to learn that?
A: When I started developing an interest I was working horses, and eventually you break something and you repair your own and then you start looking at it and you realize that if you repair it enough eventually you have a whole new saddle made. So you tear it down and you build it back and I think for most cowboys, especially those who have gone into saddle making, that’s how they start, by repairing and then making your own rig kind of to suit their own size and height and then maybe to fit their horse better.
Q: So how old were you at the time you were doing all that?
A: I was about 12 when I bought my first horse. And that’s about the same time I bought my own saddle and then you start having to repair them, so as a teenager I was dinking around with saddles. Then I had a friend of mine as I got older working horses and running around a ranch out in Alabama. He had a saddle shop and his arthritis was kicking in so he asked me to help him carve some of the art. That spurred my interest and I saw where the saddle industry could be more reliable than training horses, a little bit more of a secure income. When I really decided to make it serious I moved to Montana.
Q: What brought you here to Jackson?
A: After learning how to make saddles I took a caretaking job here in town. Then Don King, who was a legend in the saddle-making industry, passed away in 2007. In 2008 they had a Don King memorial saddle contest. I had the saddle that I made up and my wife said, “You have to enter it, you have to enter it.” To me it didn’t cut it, but it won the show. And after that the business, it grew wings.
Q: So how do you operate here? What’s your set up?
A: Well, in the summer I rent a back room in Grand Teton Realty to do my work and I have a little bit of a showroom up here in the front office. In the winter I have a place in Wilson where I can keep an eye on my horses and get some work done. You have some saddle makers that are just hobbyists, but you really need to do it full time. You need to make a lot of saddles to make it efficient. Repetition is the mother of retention. I work for myself, too, and I work alone. The arguments are very dramatic. I fire myself every week at least twice because the insubordination is intolerable.
Q: Does the saddle trade go seasonally then, like the rest of the valley?
A: Actually, it’s the reverse of the way it usually goes here. I try to keep it that way, too, because in the summertime I want to be in the saddle myself, not working the leather. But if I have enough orders then I have to make saddles through the summers. I’m mostly busy through the winters basically. A lot of people, they’ll place orders and want the order finished before or right around the holidays and then January and February are kind of iffy, but the other big huge push is April with the tax returns.
As that snowballs, it brings business in and then before you know it you’re a year to a year and a half backlogged. Right now if you order from me, you’re looking at a little over a year.
Q: How did you go from being a cowboy working on your own stuff to doing this full time? How did you learn the business side?
A: You have to think in a business sense. As much fun and rewarding as it is to be able to ride your own saddles, you have to focus on the business end of things because you have to keep the light on. In my other life I sold an optometrist a horse when I was 17, and he said, “I like the way you sold me that horse. How would you like to sell glasses for me?” It was neat to work for him. That’s where the business side came in. Then I had a very dependable income in the optical field. The other side of that too, the optical, you’re working in hundredths and thousandths of a millimeter. Taking that really fine detail and incorporating it into saddle work, that was a benefit.
The business training, that was essential.
Q: Why not stick with the optical field? What led you back to saddles?
A: One of the classes I went to kind of guided me away from the optical industry. We were looking at a case study of a company who was getting really high revenue and profits for selling air in their bags of potato chips. That was how the business industry was and the attitude they were shifting toward in the optical field, and that just doesn’t set right. Selling air, that’s dishonest to me. One thing about the saddle business, it’s an honest industry. You can talk all you want to make yourself look as good as you want, to brag about, but your work speaks for itself. If you claim you can do something and you don’t meet that expectation, you’re stuck.
Q: Do you have any lessons about keeping a business like this open in Jackson specifically?
A: Keeping things real. I know guys who have come to Jackson with the mindset they’re going to get rich quick. They left quick. They just didn’t have realistic goals. For me, there are several things to think about. Not expecting to have a large local base. I have a few local customers, but most of my customers are out of Jackson. My customer base is big enough outside of Jackson that I’m not depending on a big base locally. If I had depended on the local business I would have starved or I would have gone to work for McDonald’s if I’d really wanted to stay. With all the dude ranches around town, I don’t even target them. They’re looking to keep a certain revenue level. They need something usable and workable that will take a person down on a trail ride, but you know that price tag is about $500 to $800. The trees for my saddles start at $700, so it would be like buying a Bentley to go for a go-kart ride.
Q: What determines the prices of your saddles?
A: One of the big things is the time. With a tooled saddle, I could make five plain saddles in the time it takes me to get that one done. So I have to make sure I’m getting paid a fair hourly rate. I also do more traditional work, with the wooden trees and the bottom layer is leather. There are some guys, not knocking any maker or label at all, who will experiment with cheaper woods or even plastic. I personally prefer the traditional way. It’s proven itself over hundreds of years and the proof’s in the pudding as they say. And then there’s your energy. You’ve only got so many hours, so many years in your tendons. So you have to price it accordingly, too. You have to think about retirement even though you don’t really want to think about slowing down. You have to because there’s scientific proof that your tendons are eventually going to make you.