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  • March 28, 2023 6 min read

    For the love of leather

    A combination of hard work and very good management allowed Angus to turn his hobby into a thriving business.

    As a young lad growing up in the central-western NSW town of Coolah, Angus' ambitions didn't extend much beyond riding horses and chasing cattle. But when his stockman dad was injured in a workplace accident and a friend gave him a leatherwork book to keep him occupied while he was in hospital, his luck was all about to change.

    When Angus' dad got out of hospital, he gave the book to Angus along with 20 metres of kangaroo lace. He said if you want to earn some pocket money, you might as well have a go at plaiting. Angus was about eight or nine at the time and the most he could earn doing stock work was about $1.50 per hour. He quickly discovered that he could charge $5.50 for a hat band. 

    Little did he know that his hobby would one day open up the door to becoming one of Australia's best saddlers. These days Angus sells his saddlery and leather goods all over the world. His collection of saddlery includes custom made pure wool saddle pads, bridles, reins, breastplates, hobbles, lead ropes, spurs and spur straps.

    Angus says his happy childhood was rudely interrupted when he was sent to boarding school in Armidale. "I was only 10 and a bit on the short side, he recalls. "School and I didn't gel very well and I think I was bullied a bit." Nonetheless, Angus found he had an in with the girls from PLC and NEGS with the plaited bracelets and necklaces he made for pocket money. "It didn't fix the height issue, but it did start some conversations," he says.

    Angus and school parted company as soon as he was legally allowed and he took a stockman's job in the Riverina before heading west to a mining camp near Kalgoorlie. Even then his trusty green box containing his leatherworking tools and materials travelled with him and Angus spent nights in the camp knocking out belts and bands for his co-workers.

    "It was exploratory drilling so we were there before the mine," he recalls. "We were on the edge of the desert and I loved living out of a swag. You see more amazing things out there. I remember waking up one morning to find I was surrounded by thousands of blue daises that had popped up overnight. They were gone two days later, but I'll never forget the experience."

    It was three years via station jobs in the Northern Territory before Angus found himself back in NSW. In the interim, he'd registered a business name and formed a hankering to open a belt shop. Family and friends were unimpressed so eventually he succumbed to the pressure "to get a real job" and enrolled in a business course at the Orange campus of Sydney University.

    "That went about as well as school," he candidly admits."But at least I was studying when the ABN came in, so I got one of those. He was living in a share  house at the time and doing leatherwork in the mornings and evenings around Uni. He payed a bit more on his rent to use the garage as his workshop and borrowed a sewing machine from a friend's mother who used to fix tennis courts nets. Angus then found out he could apply for a $5,000 student loan, which he was approved for. He spent half on buying a proper sewing machine and the other half on leather. Angus Barrett was open for business!

    Angus says the first of many serendipitous encounters occurred when he introduced himself to Peter Lacis of Canobolas Canvas, who gave him a job making horse rugs.

    "By this stage the novelty of me bashing and banging out leather through the night in share houses was wearing a bit thin on my house mates," he recalls. "So I dropped out of Uni and went back to working in the mine, so I could afford to buy a house of my own. As soon as he saved enough money for the deposit he bought his own house and set up his business for real. People close to Angus shook their heads once again when he told them he was giving up a $90,000-a-year-job to concentrate on his own business. "I think I made $16,000 in that first year, but the next year, it doubled and doubled again the following year."

    Angus had been rodeoing as a hobby on weekends and once again was able to turn his leather skills to advantage making chaps and accessories for his cowboy mates. "Rough riders like to express their individuality as much as anybody else," he says. "So they love intricately carved leather belts and accessories and I was able to supply what they needed".

    By 2007, the business had grown to the stage that it needed its own premises and Angus moved to a dedicated workshop. While he was taking it to the next level, he also decided the time had come to increase his skills. Angus hired a workshop manager and took off to the States, where he talked his way into internships with two of the country's leading saddlers.

    Angus found Australian saddlers a bit reluctant to share their skills, but somehow he convinced Randy Severe, an awesome bronc saddler from Pendleton in Oregon, to let him work for him in exchange for the experience and bunkhouse accommodation. After about three months with him, Angus moved on to Wetherford in Texas where he stayed with and learned from, the US's premier cutting saddler, Joey Jemison. Angus took kangaroo rugs with him to sell, so at the end of the six months, he sold all his assets and invested it in hides and tools and headed home again.

    Apart from having learnt from the best, Angus says he also honed his business ethic in the States, using only the highest quality materials, design and manufacturing techniques and only ever selling products his own company makes. 

    A few years ago, Angus felt the need to take the business to another plane, so he headed for Europe for some more "work experience". This time he talked his way into Antares in Saintes, south of Paris, which in his opinion is home to the world's finest leatherwork. Angus won't pretend that they welcomed him with open arms but he just kept turning up every morning until they let him stay. There were some pretty icy stares at first, but he just kept saying 'Bonjour,Je m'applelle On-goose'. He worked on the women first, brought out his wedding photos and kept chatting in terrible French until they started showing him their special hand-stitching techniques. Then the men started to thaw and at the end of the six weeks, Angus had 35 saddlers training him.

    From there, Angus and Sarah spent several months and clocked up 17,000 kilometers in a hire car, following doors that kept opening for them. They went to a 13th Century tannery where they had all these pictures of the Vuitton family hanging on the walls. Hermes was another one of their clients and now Angus Barrett Saddlery is too. 

    Angus continued to the South of France and into Spain. His Spanish is even worse than his French, but he kept smiling and realised they both spoke "leather" and that's an international language according to Angus.

    Angus now sources his leather from different countries according to its purpose. He buys leather from the States for stamping and he buys English leather for its density and rich top grain and German leather because its incredibly strong.

    Although Angus admits it is sometimes difficult to comprehend that in a little over a decade he went from dreaming of his belt shop while ordering half a side of leather and buckles by the twos and threes to buying hides in lots of 50 and 100 and buckles by groups of 500 or 1000. Its his constant commitment to "taking it up a notch' that has ensured the business growth.

    The concept behind Angus Barrett Saddlery has never really varied. You will never be able to do what we do with an automated business. People say there will be a downturn in Australian manufacturing, but as the core of our business is hand-crafting, Angus is optimistic that the demand for our kind of quality will never die.

    Angus continues to manufacture the majority of his saddlery and leather goods  in Orange NSW, with small exception bought in from overseas which compliments his leatherwork (Robert Klaas Pocket Knives, Bits and Leatherman Multi-Tools).