Interview: 30 Minutes with David Munson, CEO of Saddleback Leather
Adventure, and the gear you take along for the ride never ceases to enthrall us here at GP. David Munson, CEO of Saddleback Leather Co. is a kindred spirit in that regard. Subsequently, we decided to sit down with him and pick his brain on everything from the best strategies for approaching world travel, to the role of brands in championing world causes, and how a good dog can come in handy when dealing with death threats from coked-up Federales. You’ll find his sage words on these topics, along with a few not-to-be-missed videos of the man himself in the full interview after the break.
Gear Patrol: What are five things you can’t live without?
David Munson: Do you want me to be real truthful? Air would be my first one. That’s the standard answer. But I guess I can’t live without… authenticity. My wife. God. Well I was thinking leather, because I have a little leather business. But that’s not more important than some things. Ok, I would say peanut butter.
If you stay in your comfort zone, you only experience what everyone else experiences.
GP: You have spent a lot of time living abroad – from Juarez to wherever your hitchhiking thumb can get you. What would be your ideal vacation?
DM: My ideal vacation. Like with my family, or with my brother? Here’s the thing – I love to go hiking up into the mountains far from everyone and just make own trail. Or I would love to spend five days with my fishing pole and a good book. But at the same time, I wouldn’t enjoy that if my wife and my kids weren’t along. So with my wife, I would enjoy exploring Australia for a month in a really cool Land Rover.
GP: “Your story” on the Saddleback website starts off with an altercation with a bull… but that still begs the question, how did you find yourself in another country, standing in the middle of a bullring?
DM: It all started when I said to my friend, who was from Canada, “Hey, want to go to Mexico?” He was like “Ya!” so we ended up in this copper town way up in the mountains, way away from everywhere: this place where all they do is make copper. So we go into this shop, and the guys there said, “Want to come see us working in the back?” And we were sort of like, “Ya, you bet.” They took us back into the back of the shop, where guys had sledgehammers, tools, everything. They were putting the copper into the fire, until it was bright red, then pounding it out, and there was a guy with bellows, blowing air, the copper was melting… it was really cool. Anyways, the guy gave a set of tongs to my friend, and he just started pulling copper out and taking over. He comes back and says “That was amazing! It was so cool to pull copper out of the fire!”
You know, no one ever experiences that… unless they go out of their comfort zone. If you stay in your comfort zone, you only experience what everyone else experiences.
A lot people talk about traveling, but few really do it. You know the trick to make sure that it actually happens? Buy a ticket. You decide Frankfurt, or whatever major city, and that’s it. In October you’re like, I want to go to Europe, so for Christmas, you just ask people to give you cash towards a trip. Just tell everyone “I need money” and then everyone chips in. Then your ticket arrives in the mail, and now you have to go, or else you just blew a bunch of money. So the trick to traveling is buy a ticket and you’re forced to go. Then you have a goal. On May 15, when school lets out, you know for sure that your flight is leaving. You know you have to have money, so you get an extra job, mowing lawns, or whatever you have to do, because now you know you don’t want to waste that ticket.
So for me, I just took a step, and I knew that God would take care of me. When I moved to Mexico everyone thought I was crazy – like, “you don’t even speak Spanish!” But I would never have gotten into making leather if I hadn’t been to Mexico. The trick is to step out of your comfort zone, and once you do, you realize that it’s not that bad. Then if someone says “Lets go to Guatemala,” you’re like “Ya!”
Once you do it the first time, then second time, it’s that much easier. You know that you can go, and life’s not that hard after all.
St Augustine said “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
As soon as you travel, your world is opened up.”
Adventure man – what other company CEO conducts product videos in the jungles of Rwanda, less than 10 feet away from wild silverback gorillas?
GP: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Was travel on your radar?
DM: No. Well, actually, I wanted to be like my uncle, and he was a major traveler. I also wanted to be like Indiana Jones. In our family, my dad would always go, “We’re leaving in the morning.” Where? “The Gulf of Mexico. Or New Mexico. Or Arizona.” … from Oregon. Mom would pack clothes and we’d get in the car and drive the next morning. I had no idea where we were going, and it was always a 1000-mile one-way vacation. I would just get in the car and go.
GP: Have your kids had that same kind of adventurous lifestyle?
DM: Well my daughter Sela is four and my son Cross is two. Sela had ridden in 38 airplanes in her first year, but we slowed down after that, and Cross did 35 or 36 by two. So Sela especially, she’s been a lot of places – she has nine stamps in her passport, and Cross has eight. He’ll get new ones for Rwanda and Uganda, where we’re going this summer.
So they travel a lot. We bought really nice car seats for them because they spend so much time sitting in them. They’re just really good travelers.
GP: One of the ideas behind Saddleback is that the bags will be squabbled over by the buyer’s grandkids. How did that guiding principle come about?
DM: When I had my first bag made, I started thinking, “Man, wish I had gotten it made earlier.” That way I could say that I had it when I graduated from high school, that I’ve had it all my life, that I carry it all the time, whatever. So anyways, I had a bag made so thick and heavy that it would last forever, and have all these stories, and people will see it and want that.
I went to Europe, right when Saddleback starting to take off, and ended up in Switzerland. While I was there, I decided to buy a really nice pocket watch so that I could hand it down, and whoever I give it to, they can say, “This was grandpa’s or uncle Dave’s.”
I think that everyone just wants to be remembered. If you give money, it’s spent and gone, but bag tells a story, and people really appreciate that more. Man… I don’t crave legacy, but I have this backpack with legacy. That thing will tell a story. When I pass it on, my grandkid’s going to talk about grandpa Dave, running form Masai warriors. And like, that’s how he died [laughs]. It won’t be true, but that makes for a great story. I won’t lie to people, but the bags I make are just going to look like they’ve been ridden on the back of a rhino across Africa.
GP: What was all that about the Masai?
DM: My wife and I were just in Africa last summer, and we went way up in the middle of nowhere, to this Masai village. They still live primitively, like weaving sticks and building dung huts and living off cows, and have no electricity. These guys are known for being warriors, and they still use spears to keep lions away from their cattle. So I said, “How good are you with spears?” I hung my backpack on this tree, and they just laughed and laughed. All these Masai warriors threw their spears at my backpack, and none of them hit it. I thought they’d be better at throwing spears, but it turns out that if you throw your spear and you miss, you’re toast, so you only throw when you’re with more than four people.
GP: Saddleback is all about handmade, consciously designed products. How does design infiltrate something so utilitarian?
DM: A big part of design goes into it, but I try to make my stuff as functional as possible. Like the belts that go around the bag? Those can be used as a belt around your waist. Belts usually only need five holes, but mine have 24. You can use if for a dog collar, or use it for anything, really. So why just put five? And the holes go all the way to tip of the belt, while most belts start about an inch up. I just think that’s kind of wasteful. So if the bag is super full and you can baaaarely buckle it, there’s that last hole right at the end. And then the stitches… I didn’t want to just make a normal bag, I wanted something with texture and rough manliness to it. After experimenting, I found that nine stitches per inch gave a refined feel, kind of dandy. Seven is pretty tough, but five is really rugged. It looks stronger, rougher. Anyways, it took us forever to get it right.
All of these elements have their purpose. There is a hidden flap of leather inside the briefcase for hiding passports or money or whatever. It doesn’t even look like it’s there, but if you know about it, you lift, and there’s your cash. That’s just cool.
All these things give a little style. It’s the useful details that make it look good.
So I said, “How good are you with spears?” I hung my backpack on this tree, and they just laughed and laughed. All these Masai warriors threw their spears at my backpack, and none of them hit it. I thought they’d be better at throwing spears, but it turns out that if you throw your spear and you miss, you’re toast, so you only throw when you’re with more than four people.
GP: Take us on a tour of your design process.
DM: Ok, so the iPad 2 case is a good example. I got an iPad the second day it came out, flew down to Mexico that Sunday night, and walked straight into our guys’ shop. He’s a really smiley guy, just the happiest person, but he really knows how to make things. Really smart. Anyways, I handed him the iPad, and said, “I want it to come around like this, and curve like this… etc. Can you make it happen?” And he just smiled like “Si senor!” and gets going. It took him the whole day, and in the morning, when he was finished, he gave it to me. It was ok. But I realized that what I had in my hand wasn’t really functional, so we started over again and changed and tweaked. That’s how I work. Tweaking. I used it for a while and ended up realizing things, like how the camera was getting blocked. So I kept making changes till I loved it, and that’s what I put on market.
Honestly, we have a lot of fans of our stuff, and a lot of them will buy anything I make. They have 25 or 30 things from Saddleback. Like, there was a medium sized backpack that I was going to make. I know I could have sold a bunch, but I didn’t like it, so I’m just not going to make it. I even did a few prototypes, and spent a couple of years working with them, but I still didn’t like it. So I just won’t sell it. If I don’t like it or don’t use it, I won’t sell it. The Kindle? I don’t use it, so I won’t make a kindle cover. It just doesn’t seem real.
GP: Does having lived in Central and South America shape the look or construction of your products? Or will they be affected by your move towards Africa?
DM: Nope. Not at all. I started out in Central Americia, but recently we’re all about supporting Africa. God uses us to love people around the world. He’s not going to reach down and give a hug, you know? Instead he uses people. These kids in Africa are just wandering in the streets, begging, and finally committing suicide. No one loves them. They have no one left. Their parents were killed, they’re four years old, and they just wander the streets, starving. So God reaches down and uses us to love on them, to make people more aware that there is a need out there. We try to get the kids in schools and sponsor them, or support diabetes research, or whatever it may be. God has given us money in order to love people.
So your question – is Africa going to affect the bags? No. But I hope that the bags will affect Africa.
GP: On one hand, your bags are pretty classic and traditional and unchanging, but where do you see the company heading in the future? Supporting more and more of these causes?
DM: That’s it. The more of that we can do, while maintaining really high quality and amazing customer service; the more people we can get off the streets, and get an education… that’s the goal. My wife was just talking to someone in Peru who deals with former prostitutes who have no money, can’t feed their kids, and so they turn to prostitution to feed their kids. Through this program, the women learn a trade and get a job, sewing or cutting hair, and now they’re self supporting. So maybe we’ll turn to Peru next.
But I really think Sudan is next big one, because of the genocide – and no one really knows what’s going on there. The government mows down whole villages because they don’t practice the right religion. Brutal. The Sudanese have told me that. Hundreds of thousands are being murdered there, so now little kids are just left wandering streets looking for food. So Sudan is the next big one.
The more of that we can do, while maintaining really high quality and amazing customer service; the more people we can get off the streets, and get an education… that’s the goal.
GP: Describe yourself in three words.
DM: Spiritual. Father. Son.
See below for a snapshot of Dave Munson’s life. Ok, not really a random snapshot, but this is where bag making gets real…
GP: Do you have any funny or interesting stories about becoming a premier leather bag maker? Something that’s not on your site?
DM: Do you really want to hear one? Like, a crazy one? Well, when I was living in this little town in the mountains of Mexico, this little town of 300 people, I had a real estate deal. I was selling land on the side for this really shady guy named Mario. Suuuper shady guy. I never should have gotten mixed up with this dude. I had this deal with a tourist group out of Mexico City, where I got a commission of 40,000 dollars, but it turned out that Mario didn’t want to pay me.
I was also working at a golf course, and there was a land deal going through on that. I told Mario, my other boss Carlo [at the golf course] wants part of this commission if it goes through. And Mario just looks at me and says “Don’t worry about him, I’ll just have him killed. We can pay a federale to come and throw him in front of a truck on the highway at night.” I was like, “Uh, ok. How much does that cost?”
“Two or three thousand. But this guy does the job, and he does a good job.”
I thought to myself Oooh man, this guy is shady. But I still had this contract and hadn’t gotten my 40,000. So I said, “Hey Mario, I like to have everything in writing, would you mind signing this paperwork?” and he just exploded, like “I can’t believe you don’t trust me, yadayayda.” Anyways, he wouldn’t sign.
The next night I was at a wedding out in the street, a big party. At one point I look over and see Mario’s sons and this guy across the street, pointing at me, and I was like, Oh no, this is a really buff guy. They walk over and say to me, “Are you Dave?” I say Ya, and we start talking, and he offers me a beer. I was like “No, no, I’ve already had a couple.” He flipped, and kept saying, “You want me to kill you right now? Have a beer!” I was like Oh ya! It turns out, he was the federale, and he had researched me. He knew all this stuff about me – where I lived, my friends, everything – and Mario had hired him.
He kept saying to me, “You want me to kill you now?” Then he noticed the safari rack on my car, and said, “That looks like the kind of cars they have in Africa. I’ve been wanting to go to Africa so bad.” And I was like “Me too! Let’s go together.” But he kept saying I’m going to kill you and doing cocaine in front of me… It was rough. He had all these bullet holes in him, all across his chest. And I kept asking him, “Is Mario good for paying this?” and he was like, “Nah, Mario owes EVERYONE money.” He went on and on about how untrustworthy Mario is, saying “You’ll never get money.”
Then, all of a sudden, he sees my dog and he’s like “Hey, is your dog named Blue? My sister was just talking about dog named Blue!” So it turns out I had met his sister and her friends two weeks earlier at this party in a town a few miles away. We had talked about how great Blue is, and she liked me, apparently. So I was like “Oh ya! Your sister, I definitely know her! I would love to get back in touch with her! You never know, we could be brother in laws some day.” We really became friends, me and the federale, over the course of the night.
Finally, he said “Hey you need to take me back into town.” I was like, “No, I’m really tired and I’ve got to get going.” And he came back with, “I could kill you right now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just take me to town.” So we went to town (this was like three in the morning). While we were driving, I started thinking, how am I going to get out of this one. There was a hatchet on the floor of the car next to me, and I had it all planned out: I was going to crash my Land Cruiser into a tree, grab the hatchet, come to his side, then kill him. You know, if he was going to try something on me. This was a long long road. So I had it all planned out to kill the guy. But he was a federale. If you kill a fed, everyone is after you. So I was like worrying – do I decapitate him? What about the body?
Turns out, I didn’t kill him.
But we get back to town, eat some tacos, have a beer, and he’s like “Take me back to your house, I have nowhere to go. You have two beds in your apartment. Trust me, I know.”
At this point, we’re becoming friends but I’m still kind of freaking out. While he wasn’t watching, I went to the back of the Land Cruiser and just started pulling fuses out, and got through five or six, expecting one to be fuel pump. I thought, We’re in a public place, I’ll try and start the car, and then say “Oh well! I guess we’ll just have to stay here!” I got the tail lights, all the dashboard lights, the heater, everything, but my car started right up.
So we get back to my house, and he was so drunk and high on coke that he just lays down in my bed. I lay down also, and we’re like two feet apart. I was real quiet, and I did NOT close my eyes. I thought, As soon as he starts breathing heavy, I’m out of here. But the next thing I know, the sun is shining through the window. So anyways, we were friends. I said, “So it’s Sunday morning; want to go to church?”
Because his sister had told me, when I had met her before, about all these really painful things that he was going through. The night before, when we were laying in bed, I said, “Hey, Israel, man, you’re hurting inside, I can see it.”
“Ya, I am. I wanted to commit suicide, but I didn’t do it.”
“You’re lonely, man.”
“You don’t have any peace or joy in your life.”
“No man, I have none of that. I want that.”
So I said “Those things come when you have a relationship with God.” I shared with him, and before he fell asleep we prayed together that God would come into his life.
In the morning, I said, “Want to go to church?” He was like “Ya,” but he just snorted cocaine and took off. The next day, I went to Mario and made him sign the contract, that way it was in writing and he couldn’t just kill me.
That’s how I kept alive.
So I was doing that while getting bags made, working at golf course, selling the land around the course to Mexican tourists, and playing golf. With any extra money I was getting bags made. That’s how Saddleback got started. That’s the story.
GP: Be sure to check out Saddleback Leather to learn more about their outstanding leather goods.