When the leather industry in Fulton County faltered, Townsend Leather was the exception. It thrived and continues to do so.
Through its innovation and commitment to the community where the Kucel family founded the company over half a century ago, Townsend Leather has distinguished itself in the global market for custom, high-end, innovative leather products for a variety of industries. As it did throughout its history, the company continues to expand and reinvest in the local community while taking its place as an industry innovator.
Townsend’s success is due largely to the company’s ability to adapt to the changing marketplace. When it was founded in 1969, the company’s initial production dealt with finishing Argentine crust leathers for the garment industry. The process expanded to add tanning and coloring in addition to finishing all types of leathers for the garment industry including, cowhide, sheepskin, goatskin, deerskin, pigskin, and stingray. When the garment industry moved to Asia, Townsend shifted its focus to leathers for the shoe industry. This industry moved to Asia as well, so the company transitioned to coloring and finishing of leather for the aviation, architecture and design, and home furnishings industries. Currently, Townsend focuses their efforts on customization for these industries as well as other niche markets.
When Townsend was seeking to expand once again a few years ago, company executives made the decision to improve the community and set an example for other companies about what is possible, while meeting its own needs for additional space. “We could have looked outside of the county, but we wanted to help revitalize and reinvest into our area,” said Tim Beckett, senior vice president at Townsend.
Instead of constructing a new facility, Townsend’s staff searched throughout Fulton County until they found a building that could serve this dual purpose: provide the space the company needed while making a significant contribution to rebuilding the community. “We wanted to help, to be a part of the story of downtown revitalization, to make it a better place to live for everybody,” Beckett said.
Townsend’s search led them to the former Diana Knitting Mill, an industrial structure built in 1900 that had been vacant for 17 years. As an added benefit, the property was already near Townsend’s manufacturing building.
During a 13-month construction process, Townsend brought the former Diana Knitting Mill back to life, closely following historical site guidelines and reusing as many materials as possible, including reclaimed doors, wall tiles, and sinks. When they had to replace items, used items were the company’s first choice, and if not available, it purchased environmentally friendly products. During the renovation, which cost over $3 million, the building was outfitted with a new roof, electrical system, windows, HVAC system, and interior finishes. The City of Johnstown and the Fulton County Center for Regional Growth, working with Townsend, acquired a $1M grant from Empire State Development for the project.
“We could have looked outside of the county, but we wanted to help revitalize and reinvest into our area.”
Townsend transformed the 62,000 square feet of space into warehouse and office space for the growing company. It currently occupies 45,000 square feet and leases 4,000 square feet to a tenant. They are also looking at the possibility of bringing a restaurant into the building. “We decided that it’s beautiful and needed a little bit of love and charm, but it was definitely worth it,” Beckett said. They gave the building the name “The Stitch” because of its history of stitching and knitting and because it symbolizes how the company has stitched together its past and its future.
Part of the reason that the construction was completed so quickly was the comity between Townsend and local and state government. Beckett found government officials straightforward and quick to respond to questions. He also said that obtaining permits in Johnstown is an easy process. “It’s not done like this anywhere else,” he said. “We can have a conversation with all the governmental entities almost immediately,” he said.
Another reason why Townsend remained in Johnstown, even though only one percent of its market is in New York State and much of the leather business went abroad, is due to the workforce. “There’s manufacturing knowledge base here where people can work, and they understand and produce things,” Beckett said. “We have a very low turnover rate, and people like to work,” he said, noting that the company focuses heavily on employees and company culture.
Townsend has also taken advantage of offerings from the Advanced Institute for Manufacturing (AIM) at nearby Mohawk Valley Community College. They have used AIM’s programs for leadership training, lean manufacturing, cyber security, and AS9100 certification for companies that design and manufacture products for the aerospace industry.
Fulton County’s community-oriented atmosphere helps to create a high quality of living for Townsend’s employees, and Townsend embraces that community spirit. “We pride ourselves in the quality of our facility, of people, of products,” Beckett said. “We’re a part of the fabric of the local community, of making positive change, and that’s nice.”
photos courtesy of Townsend Leather