Value Added: A business bound by craftsmanship and the bottom line
By Thomas Heath,
On a trip to London last month I wandered into a super-specialty store that sells handmade shotguns and rifles that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The store is James Purdey & Sons. The Purdeys cashed out decades ago, and the store is now owned by a holding company specializing in luxury goods. Purdey is the gun of choice for purists who like to bag their grouse or buck in high style. Pick your analogy: It’s the Steinway or Rolls-Royce of the hunting set. Artisinal guns.
A Purdey salesman, obviously in love with his work, gave me a glimpse behind the business. Purdey, for example, scribbles details of every sale — model, barrel size, and other stuff like that — into fat books that list every weapon the store has sold since it opened in 1814.
Purdey sells about 60 rifles and shotguns a year, so the staff has lots of time to document each sale. The guns are handcrafted by 25 specialists in a London factory. They take two years to make. The current price, as best I could make out based on the currency exchange, is about $150,000 per gun. The case alone (including its canvas cover) is $6,000. Most are sold to U.S. buyers, although some gazillionaires will walk in off the street and buy a Purdey with a credit card.
So what’s this got to do with Washington?
Purdey made me think of Rockville’s Distinctive Bookbinding & Leather Designs, one of those super-speciality businesses that employs craftsmen who practice a lost art. I am taken as much with the romantic, feel-good nature of such stores as I am the unsentimental, bottom-line discipline that allows them to survive.
Distinctive — like Purdey — has found a way to stay alive, and indeed flourish. Its loyal clientele returns year after year for Bible rehabs, customized calendar books, photo albums, bookmarks, desk sets and whatever else.
The driver is big clients such as corporations, celebrities, embassies, government agencies and plain folk like me. I spent $38 at Distinctive recently to have my name engraved on a leather overnight bag. That must be less than what Sean Combs spent for a seven-piece, white leather desk set.
Want to give out hundreds of leather copies of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations”? One New York City bank did — for $300,000. Want an ostrich-covered iPad cover? How about an alligator-skin desk set? The company even has London connections. It sells fancy leather “table planners” through Fortnum & Mason, London’s 400-year-old version of Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market. It once created family heirlooms from the shoe collection of a recently deceased mother.
I remember Distinctive when it had offices in downtown Washington, near Connecticut and M. Those closed several years ago. When I needed something embossed, I went pecking around on the Internet to find them. I got a call from the owner, Sarah Larson.
The company still has an office in D.C., which can be accessed only by appointment. It also has a showroom at its studio in Rockville. (She hopes one day to open a boutique in Manhattan.) Larson, 44, has owned the company for eight years. She is an ambitious, no-nonsense entrepreneur. She is, as one colleague of mine puts it, an “IC:” someone who “instills confidence.”
Larson was pretty wary about talking to me because she doesn’t want to disclose many details about her business. That tells me she does very well. I confess to a certain affection for fine leather goods, so I plowed on. Larson would only say the company is profitable on gross sales of less than $2 million a year. Larson has turned a profit every year save 2007, when Distinctive broke even.
Half of the revenue comes from “bookbinding,” an umbrella term that covers repairs (Bibles are the big ones) as well as customizing new books with inscriptions, covers and jackets. Think of taking a “Harry Potter” set and covering it in snappy leather and engraving your grandkid’s name.
The other half of the business is mostly specialty work, which can include anything from a high-end photo album to funeral home guest books. The cost to cover a book in special leather starts at around $180.
There are three full-time employees, not including Larson, and 10 part-timers.
Larson grew up in Friendship Heights in Northwest Washington, where her father was a civil engineer. She showed a knack for enterprise early on, selling candy in school and balloons on the weekends in local parks.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to own or do, but I knew I wanted to own something,” she said.
Larson skipped college and went to work in Europe, where she fell in love with specialty shops throughout Italy, England and France.
“I got exposed to quality goods, which I had never seen before,” she said.
After returning to the United States, she joined The Body Shop, a beauty-care store she remembered seeing in Europe. She worked there 10 years, including several in San Francisco.
She returned from San Francisco in 2002, and responded to a classified ad for a vague job at Distinctive Bookbinding.
She ran the entire sales side — and learned the business inside out. With commissions, she made a six-figure income.
At the time, the business was owned by Presidential Bank, which acquired the company when it went into default. Presidential tried sell the business, but when a deal fell through, it moved to liquidate. That’s when Larson jumped.
“By then, I had done the math and I said, ‘Would you consider selling it to me?’ ”
She bought it for less than $1 million, mostly from savings. Larson said she knew the company had a loyal and repeat clientele, which is the holy grail of business. But it wasn’t being run efficiently. So Larson became a turnaround specialist. She reduced overhead. She eliminated a warehouse in Lanham and moved to cheaper space in Rockville that was a quarter the size.
She also computerized the shop’s records and starting keeping leather swatches from clients on file.
“I am very good at organizing structures and selling,” she said. “The previous owners did not keep leather swatches. Everybody has a specific leather they own and lining they want. The client would say, ‘I want the same thing I ordered last year in the blue leather.’ We would say, ‘Which blue leather?’ ”
She changed vendors in search of less-expensive raw materials. She knew the most productive employees and kept them on. Full-time staff dropped from 30 to about three. The rest were part-time. She changed the name from Distinctive Bookbinding to Distinctive Bookbinding & Leather Designs.
“What sets us part is the ability to customize products,” Larson said.
That customization is a dying art, like custom-made shotguns. One Distinctive employee is a book conservationist who once worked for the Library of Congress. The conservationist’s talents cost $95 to repair a family Bible, work that can take four hours.
The nice thing about such businesses is that the end product is more than a commodity. Such sentimentality isn’t cheap, but it keeps places like Distinctive — and Purdey — alive.
For previous Value Added columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.