When ISA TanTec started in 1993, it was a small factory with five people. It has grown exponentially and today employs 1,750 people across five tanneries. “This is big in our industry,” Founder and Executive Chairman Thomas Schneider says.
“The idea behind our company was to create something sustainable. To create something that will leave a footprint in the tanning and the leather industry. That was my target, and I think we achieved that target.”
As a shoe-leather business, the company focuses on two main areas: outdoor performance, which includes brands such as Timberland and The North Face; and polished leather dress shoes such as Clarks. “We are mainly operating in outdoor performance, where we are the largest in the world to date,” Thomas says.
Twenty years ago, customers such as Adidas and Nike came to ISA TanTec asking for environmentally friendly leather. The company had to figure out how to make a low impact on the environment.
It had to control each step in the process, from electricity to water consumption. Thus, LITE (Low Impact To the Environment) was born.
According to the company’s website, LITE provides “customers with the knowledge of carbon and water footprint usage for each of the leathers we create; giving customers the ability to choose the product that is the most environmentally friendly, and with the lowest footprint”.
“When someone buys our leather, it’s like buying a refrigerator, where you get an energy guide on it,” Thomas explains. “We declare, for every square metre of leather, an energy guide and water guide. In the past 15 years, this has been well adopted. We have 12 brands now co-marketing with us.
“We even have a brand that stamps a certain category of shoes with our logo. Customers, like Everlane, will promote this on their website or some will put a tag on their products. ISA has been recognised as one of the top (probably the most) environmentally friendly tanneries worldwide.”
“We even have a brand that stamps a certain category of shoes with our logo.”
As a conglomerate of five tanneries across the US, Vietnam, China and Italy, ISA TanTec must work across continents and cultures as one organisation. “It’s not simple,” Thomas admits.
“For example, a Chinese factory and American factory have different working methods and cultures. We must align these cultures and get them on board, which can be difficult. We ended up sending people over from China to partially lead the operation there. It took a long time to find the right people who could work together with Asia.”
Due to the experience of acquiring factories in the US, it has been easier for ISA TanTec to establish the company culture in other countries. “With the internet nowadays, it’s much easier,” Thomas says. “And people like it. At the end of the day, we see progress in the US and Italy, and people like progress.”
Culture is imperative to Thomas. “If you have a bad machine, but a good operator, you can get a certain performance out of it,” he says. “If you have a good machine and a bad operator, you don’t get anything out of it. The key element in the company is human beings. The second is the equipment.”
Thomas believes that culture is a big part of employee retention. “Keeping people on board has to do with culture, with the environment you’re setting up,” he explains.
“Here in China, we give food to our employees three times a day. Paying more is an easy route but it is not always effective. The more difficult way is to create an environment where people want to stay. If this is the case, even if they could get paid a little bit more somewhere else, they will stay.
“Here, people know that they’re protected and can develop and that we are an environmentally clean and highly compliant company. They like to associate themselves with that and feel proud. Once you have people who feel proud of the company, you have achieved setting up the culture.”
“Once you have people who feel proud of the company, you have achieved setting up the culture.”
Thomas believes that a steady workforce is one of three columns on which you build a company, the other two being the supply chain and customers. “Over the years, you learn to build up a good supply chain, although it’s not easy,” he says. “You find customers who stay with you and become like business partners.”
Mistakes may occur in the process of developing a reliable supply chain, but Thomas’s perspective is not to give up but to fine-tune the relationship by building it step by step.
“For example, Tyson has been a supplier with us since the late 1990s, and it’s still the largest supplier of hides for us,” he says. “But in the US, we have another one or two suppliers, like National Beef, and that’s it. We also buy from Brazil.
“We go step by step with them to fine-tune everything, and since we have good supply partners, we can concentrate on making a good product and supplying this to our customers. Other tanneries may jump from one place to another, but they don’t build up a supply chain. They use different suppliers, which is time-consuming and doesn’t contribute to quality.”
A good reputation
There are many things Thomas is proud of: in life, it’s a good family; in business, it’s the company’s reputation. “I’ve found satisfaction in building a group of companies to this size and we will continue to work on this growth path; one that is sustainable and has a good reputation. We have a customer base and reputation with the supply chain. We’ve built a great management team. It’s not a one-person show like other companies might be,” he explains.
“We’ve built a great management team. It’s not a one-person show like with many other companies in this field.”
“I’m also an environmentalist by nature. The work we do here fits into that very well, so I’ve been able to do this for my whole life.”
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