July 4, 2014 By Rick Barrett of the Journal Sentinel
It’s not often you hear about a company that still makes buggy whips, let alone halters and harnesses with a sewing machine from the late 1800s.
Yet that’s the case at Walsh Products, a century-old Brookfield company that makes harnesses for Standardbred racehorses, including entries from the first trainer in the sport to accumulate $100 million in purses.
Walsh, which has a 40,000-square-foot facility on Calhoun Road, has survived by staying in the winner’s circle and adapting to new markets, including exports that now comprise about a third of its sales and have increased 30% in the last two years.
Walsh equipment remains a fixture for Standardbreds — trotting and pacing racehorses that pull their jockeys in buggies known as sulkies. The company is widely known in North America and Europe for its harnesses that connect the horse with the sulky.
Today’s harnesses are lighter, stronger and fit better than harnesses from 20 years ago, according to Ron Burke of suburban Pittsburgh, the trainer of Foiled Again, the richest Standardbred in U.S. history with more than $6 million in career purses.
“I think it’s one of the reasons the Standardbred has gotten faster, just because the equipment has gotten so much better. … The Walsh stuff is quality made and fits real well,” he said.
California Chrome, the thoroughbred that won the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, wears a custom-made Walsh halter. Mostly, though, the company is focused on harness racing and show-jumper horses.
The company sponsors Laura Kraut, an Olympic gold medalist rider in show jumpers who lives in Oconomowoc. It also sponsors some of the world’s other top riders in that category, including gold medalist Scott Brash.
Old sewing machines key
With its skilled workforce of about 40 employees, and leather-handling capabilities, Walsh doesn’t make saddles.
The equestrian industry already has some amazing saddle makers, said company owner Thea Treiber.
A tour of Walsh’s factory shows the heart of its production line: four industrial sewing machines from the late 1800s. The machines, operated by a foot pedal, stitch leather pieces together with thick thread.
It’s a double-lock stitch, which typically isn’t produced by modern sewing machines, said Kevin Mleziva, the company’s chief operating officer.
“It truly sets us apart from anybody else you will find in the entire industry,” he said.
The 1920 city directory for Milwaukee listed 30 harness manufacturers, but the Great Depression and the introduction of automated farm machinery hurt harness sales and drove many of those companies out of business.
Walsh survived by finding new markets. During World War II, for example, the company made leather muzzles for gun barrels. In 1947, according to a Milwaukee Journal article, it began making harnesses for racehorses.
Now, with about $5 million in annual sales and 500 dealerships, the company has turned to export markets for growth. One of its largest overseas opportunities is Sweden, where harness racing is popular. The company also has pursued thoroughbred racing in Dubai, Treiber said.
She and her husband, Paul Treiber, acquired the company in 2002.
“We are spreading our wings more than we have in the past because, for one reason, we have found that people really like U.S.-made products,” Thea Treiber said.
The company hasn’t ventured into products where it would compete with low-cost manufacturers, in part because its leather goods are handmade.
“We have to make very conscious business decisions as to what’s realistic,” Mleziva said.
“We are not doing jobs of a thousand pieces where you can truly get automation. You can’t get a lot of efficiency by automating something when you’re only doing 20 or 30 pieces at a time,” he said.
Some of the company’s harness- and halter-makers have been engaged in the craft more than 30 years. They include members of the Hmong community.
“We could not do this without them. It’s definitely a valuable skill,” Mleziva said.
But even as fancy as the equestrian products are, they’re not terribly expensive in racing circles where horses valued at millions of dollars live on sprawling estates with heated pools for the animals.
The company’s most expensive halter sells for about $200, and a patent-leather harness with brass fittings costs about $3,000.
No worries if the horse puts on a little weight.
“Most horse products are adjustable in nature, kind of like a belt,” Mleziva said.
Walsh has a marine products division that makes buoys and channel markers in Brookfield, which seems strange for what’s primarily an equestrian products manufacturer, but the Treibers have an interest in sailing.
The company’s catalog also carries herbal creams and other products made by other manufacturers. And recently it began making leather dog collars and leashes.
“It makes sense because often people with horses have dogs. And we already have the leather, the machines and the wherewithal to make collars and leashes, so it was a very natural transition for us,” Treiber said.
Between rising sales in equipment for show-jumper horses, and dog collars and leashes, Walsh Products expects to double sales in the next five years.
One thing Walsh says it hasn’t done is launch a product line that’s of lesser quality to compete with companies that charge less for their horse products.
“We have talked about a second product line, and we have come very close to doing it as a matter of fact. … But Walsh is Walsh. We make the best, it’s who we need to be, and it’s how we have managed to stay in business 100 years,” Treiber said.