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Saddling Up For Longevity

Diane Weaver Dunne

October 19, 2009

When George Washington was president, Smith-Worthington Saddlery Co. in Hartford was busy making horse saddles in Hartford.

Today, 42 presidents later, the company is still up and running, making about 250 customized and custom-fit saddles each year.

In business for 215 years, the company was founded by Normand Smith, who passed it down to family members. They sold it in 1928 to an employee, John Roberts. In 1954, Roberts sold it to another employee, Clinton Hanks, whose son, Curtis Hanks and his wife, now run the operation.

A lot has changed over the years, particularly when cars replaced horses as the common mode for transportation. Despite that major technological change, saddles are still Smith-Worthington’s business.

So is the hand-crafted aspect that gives Smith-Worthington its signature in the saddle industry.

“We’re the only ones in the world that makes [saddles] like this, to our knowledge,” said Curtis Hanks.

It takes about a week to make a custom saddle, he said.

Prices range between $1,200 and $4,600.

Measurements from both the horse and rider are incorporated in the production of the saddle.

The saddles are still made much same way that Normand Smith made them when he launched his company in 1794, said Curtis Hanks.

“If Norman Smith came back to life, he’d be very satisfied with how we make saddles. Not much has changed,” said Hanks, who added that there are no plastics in a Smith-Worthington saddle.

Although many enterprises go out of business when either technology or cultural trends dramatically reduce the demand for their products, Smith-Worthington stayed in the game over the last two centuries by making a number of creative adaptations, explained Ruth Hanks.

Horse blankets were redesigned and sold as car warmers, a needed accessory when the early automobile engines needed to be kept warm during the cold New England winters, she explained. Smith-Worthington hung in there by making car accessories and horse saddles for police and military horse patrols.

During the depression, despite the growing popularity of automobiles, Smith-Worthington employed hundreds of people at its plant in Hartford. Today, it employs four; it outsources production of the saddle’s steel reinforced wood trees in England and Argentina due to high American labor costs, but all customization is done at its Homestead Avenue facility. Curtis Hanks points out that all aspects of its outsourced production replicates its traditional saddle-making process.

Smith-Worthington has expanded its reach, counting more than 400 dealers in the United States and overseas. It provides a traveling library of 100 demonstration saddles to give prospective customers an opportunity to try out various styles.

The Hanks are also launching an online sales operation.

Staying in business has also required Smith-Worthington to drop some product lines and focus only on their best-selling items. It dropped its line of Western-style saddles because it could no longer remain competitive with the lower prices offered by some foreign saddle producers.

It now focuses on the style that its founder, Normand Smith, first made; English-style saddles that are hand-stuffed with virgin wool flock, hand-woven pure linen webbing that has been fire-stretched three times, and pigskin seats.

Although Smith-Worthington has expanded its market reach and utilized outsourcing as a way to lower labor costs, its longevity is credited to its faithfulness to a hand-made process developed two centuries ago.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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