Blaine County Beacon: The Best Business Doesn't Feel Like a Business
January 22, 2020
After graduating from Chinook High School in 1996, Bobbi Jo Buck attended MSU-Bozeman from 1996-2000, eventually graduating with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Sociology. She then attended Walla Walla University's satellite campus in Missoula, where the focus of the program was advanced clinical practice. She graduated with a Master's Degree in Social Work (MSW) in 2002.
Her path to that degree wasn't a straightforward one, however. Before settling on sociology and counseling, she had several different majors-including art, literature, English, and nursing.
After earning her MSW, Bobbi worked as the Manager of Social Services at Northern Montana Hospital for a while. Following that, she performed in positions with Altacare and Golden Triangle Mental Health in Havre before becoming a director of the Center for Mental Health in Chinook.
While Bobbi was in Bozeman and Missoula pursuing post-secondary education and beginning her professional career, Larry Klingaman graduated from CHS in 1999 and went on to attend MSU-Northern from 1999-2004. He earned a Bachelor's Degree in Diesel Mechanics with a minor in Automotive.
Those were their advanced education and single life years, even though they started dating in 2003. When they realized that their interests and goals coincided, the couple married on February 17, 2007, and, in Bobbi's words, they continue to grow together.
Speaking further about those years, Bobbi added, "My education has provided a background for my life in general. For example, I volunteer on the Harlem Ambulance crew, so the skills I learned while taking nursing classes, as well as the skills learned in counseling, come in very handy. I also do some writing for the Bear Paw Livestock pamphlet as well as for our own websites, where I use skills from my English classes. Art classes help with designing labels or items for our leathercraft business, since I like drawing patterns or piecing patterns together."
Larry's education has played a major role in the couple's farming and ranching endeavors, as he is able to work on their equipment, which keeps the farm and ranch operational rather than in a stall while they wait on a mechanic to schedule repairs or have to haul equipment to a shop. Although there are still plenty of times when Larry has to concede and take vehicles in or gather more information on pieces of equipment, his degree has been priceless.
Also, because he is innovative and mechanically perceptive, Larry is often able to piece things together or use what's available rather than waiting for parts to be shipped, a process which can take weeks. With the ever changing weather and short growing season in North Central Montana, a period of weeks is usually not a viable option.
"Besides providing something to 'fall back on' if necessary, I think our educations have given us the confidence to take some fairly big risks, whether good or bad. They have also given us some skills to make navigating business decisions a little easier than starting from ground zero," Bobbi explained.
When asked what motivated them to start Ranchlife Designs, a leathercraft business, Bobbi replied: "Leatherwork just fits with our lifestyle. It didn't start out as a business, and actually it still doesn't feel like a business."
Because their leathercraft work is essential to the daily operations of their farm and ranch, the business began out of necessity. "Larry and every one of our children ride horses for pleasure as well as work. We don't have side-by-sides or four wheelers, so all their herd work is done on horseback. Riding requires tack, which is expensive and not necessarily always good quality, and if used enough, it usually ends up needing repair," Bobbi stated.
An avid horseman, Larry has used tack for years. Consequently, he knows why things are built a certain way and what design improvements might contribute to increased efficiency or longevity. He also has a grasp on what repairs are worthwhile versus when it's time to throw away something that is worn.
Larry's leatherwork learning began while he was in high school, and when the Klingamans moved to their current home, they converted the garage into a workshop and saved the money needed to purchase a leather sewing machine. "We had a wood burning stove in the garage and placed a big rug out for there for the kids to play on in the evenings while we worked," Bobbi explained.
Initially, Larry put Bobbi to work helping him fix various tack, and eventually he started building saddles for himself. Aware of his skill, others then began asking Larry to repair or to create various items for them. The rest, as they say, is history, and the business has just grown from there.
Bobbi is a designer and craftsman for Ranchlife Designs. Although leather purses are her specialty, she and her husband, Larry both create for the business. In fact, Bobbi attributes her leatherwork skill to her husband.
"Larry actually taught me and knows way more than I do about the craft, but we work together. I do the purses and he mostly does the tack. We use what's important to our customers for inspiration. So, we include names and brands in our designs," Bobbi explained.
Bobbi went on to describe how they especially appreciate clients who send pictures of what they like so that their interests can be incorporated into a piece that is uniquely personalized. For example, they had a customer that wanted handles and a fender made for a motorcycle. Because the individual was partial to Celtic themes, the Klingamans created a custom design that complemented the patron's passions.
In other efforts to put the customer first, after evaluating a piece of tack, Larry is able to give customers a choice on how much time and money they may want to invest in their product.
"We offer a great balance," Bobbi explained, "as Larry wants things to hold up well and I like them to look nice. Larry will add whatever is necessary for extra durability and I'll do a little extra to make something pretty."
While the Klingamans do offer some products that one or the other has completed individually, for the most part their customers purchase products that reflect their combined talents. "We both like to be creative; therefore, many of the pieces we make are unique to that article, whether that means adding a brand or using different dyes," Bobbi explained.
At one point, the friend of a family member showed Bobbi a buffalo hide bag that she admired. "I came home and tried making a few purses with leftover leather scraps we had, making adjustments and having Larry show me different ways to attach handles and various embellishments, like fringe and lacing. My sister Ashley encouraged me to talk with the owner of The Key at the time, and she started selling on consignment for me. When she decided to sell her business, I started selling the purses myself."
What has surprised the couple the most about operating their own leathercraft business are operating costs. "There are hidden fees and little costs that add up everywhere, from extra time on projects to shipping costs. Even when we try to factor all of these in, we discover a need for an extra, unexpected piece, like a unique concho. We should be used to unexpected costs because they seem to come up daily in agriculture, but it's still surprising. It's also surprising how expensive the little things are-the smallest piece of machinery usually has the biggest repair price. The little embellishments-like a fancy buckle or lacing-can end up costing more than an entire side of leather," Bobbi exclaimed.
Another of their challenges is balancing the end result with the time and money available. This same challenge follows them in their farming business, where they have to decide whether to invest in a newer swather, for instance, one that would make the task of haying pass more quickly and efficiently but leaves them questioning whether that equipment pays for itself in the end. "We can make a stunning project with silver and lacing, but do we have a customer who will pay for all those little extras," Bobbi wondered.
Both agree that despite the challenges, one of the biggest rewards is creating a product with quality materials that will last. "Rarely do any of my projects turn out the way I envision them in my head," Bobbi said. "But I love the way they come together. Larry has quite a bit more skill, so he can plan something out that turns out just like it's supposed to."
Bobbi went on to describe yet another reward: "The more important reward is being able to work alongside family. Our kids get to participate in everything we do, from haying to riding to making headstalls. Sometimes it drives me crazy to see shiny new buckles on scrap pieces of leather that are cut unevenly and riveted together with some pretty rugged tooling, but at the same time, I absolutely love that my children are learning and that they have the confidence to jump in and make something of their own,"
The couple has five children: Emma, 11; Ethan, 10; Quirt, 6; and Sylvester, 4; their oldest son, Robby, is engaged in a business partnership with his parents called Top Crop Farms.
Because their business feels more like life than a business, the Klingamans aren't sure in what direction the business will progress. "In all honesty, we have quite a few 'irons in the fire,' so to speak. As is customary with agriculture, so much depends on the weather and the next sale. Those variables make life difficult to predict," Bobbi stated.
Although the couple has discussed the notion of opening a leather shop, it isn't where Larry wants to spend all his time. He likes leather craft as a hobby and a form of stress relief, something he doesn't have to worry about making money at or depending on to live. Leathercraft is the couple's creative outlet, giving them something to work on in the evenings and weekends.
So for now, the Klingaman's leatherwork will continue to be a project by project endeavor. The couple recently moved their workshop into their home's basement, a move which enables them to spend more time crafting. While the number of repairs and custom projects increases, they do as much as time allows.
This year, they are aiming for a display at the Seed Show. In 2019, they showcased their work at local events like the Shores Floral and Gift sponsored All I Want for Christmas event as well as the Fair Foundation's Holiday Shopping Extravaganza. The couple plans on participating in more local events such as these, mainly for the purpose of being able to answer questions face-to-face.
Bobbi and Larry were pleased with how they did at both events, especially since it was their first time at both. "Both events provided wonderful hosts and a fun environment to sell products as well as to talk with people about our 'story.' We only had leather products at the All I Want for Christmas event, and we sold a few small items as well as got some custom orders. Presence at these events allowed people to see our work rather than just pictures of it."
At the Seed Show, Ranchlife Designs plans to offer practical "bulk" items, like leather halters and some plainer headstalls. However, Bobbi prefers the custom work and making things for individual people. She insisted that she doesn't want their business to lose that quality. As far as purses go, Bobbi will continue to make one of a kind purses, so even if a person purchases one that's already made, that individual can be assured Ranchlife Designs has not made another one like it.
As Bobbi reflected on the growth and progress of their business, her sage advice reflects her training and education in sociology: "Learn to look for and emphasize not only your strengths but those of others. Sure, we have to know our weaknesses and to recognize the weaknesses of others, but too often people see weakness as a demon or as something to exploit rather than just as a part of being human.
"I think that's why Larry and I work so well together and enjoy our work. Even when times get tough and things don't go the way we project, we are each able to see when the other needs help. Or, we ask each other for help without feeling 'less than.' We can mess up and rally together to problem solve rather than to place blame. We can address a situation that isn't ideal and feel assured that it's not a personal attack, just something that needs improved.
"We hold one another to high expectations about helping others and being honest, good people. We keep each other focused on important things in life and our purpose of providing for our kids, reminding each other of this when things get tough-which is almost every day in agriculture! We value each other's strengths and individual goals, as well, and try to give each other space and support in our endeavors. While we started with very different goals and aspirations, we have ended in the same place, and it's been quite a fun ride, even if difficult at times."