Tuesday, September 16, 2014 – by Jason Turner, Hoof Beats Magazine
This year, the Walsh Company, one of the elite harness manufacturing companies in the world, will join such American industry icons as Exxon Mobil, Johnson & Johnson, and Coca-Cola in celebrating at least 100 years of being in business.
According to Yale University professor Richard Foster, the average life expectancy of companies today is about 15 years, which makes Walsh’s recent achievement all the more impressive, but not surprising to those who use their products.
“It’s a true testament to the quality of their workmanship,” said trainer Tony Alagna, a longtime customer of Walsh and conditioner of champions such as Captaintreacherous and My MVP. “Nobody stays around for that long without putting out a great product.”
Excellence and innovation have defined the company since the very beginning, back in 1914.
James M. Walsh was a horseman and inventor in the early 20th century. Agricultural equipment of the day, including harnesses, was heavy and unwieldy, and it led to the creation of his “No Buckle” harness, a product so popular he eventually started a company to keep up with the demand.
“It goes back to your draft horses and plow horses that worked in the fields in the 1900s,” said Thea Treiber, co-owner of the Walsh Company. “You had these big, leather collars with buckles and James came along and created a harness with no buckles and everything had a snap.
“He produced the ‘No Buckle’ harness for about three years before the company was founded. People weren’t ready for the change and it took about three years before people started using it regularly for their horses.”
Unfortunately, Walsh was not able to enjoy his success for long. By the time he died in 1927 the “No Buckle” was already decreasing in popularity. His family took over the business for a number of years, but in 1959 they sold the company to a man named Arthur Elsner.
“With the emergence of the automobile in the early part of the 20th century the horse industry became less significant and the popularity of the ‘No Buckle’ began to diminish,” said Treiber. “Art Elsner came along and really got involved in creating harnesses specifically for the Standardbred industry.”
Over the next 60-plus years, Walsh built an unflappable reputation for quality and became the industry leader for harnesses.
“You can buy imitation equipment if you want, but it doesn’t last,” said Jody Jamieson, two-time O’Brien Award winner for Driver of the Year. “Walsh has been the best in the business for a long time. If you go anywhere you want quality, and that’s what Walsh is.”
“They’ve been around for as long as I can remember and most of the top horses wear their equipment,” said trainer Ron Burke, whose family’s involvement in the sport goes back several decades. “They have a great reputation.”
When Paul and Thea Treiber purchased the Walsh Company in 2002, they inherited a strong brand that was unrivaled in the Standardbred industry, but they also identified an opportunity to expand into other markets.
In the last 12 years, Walsh has diversified its production and expanded into jumping and English riding, show horses and Thoroughbred markets. They’ve even introduced a new line of canine products that includes collars and leashes.
They’re also targeting overseas markets. European sales have increased 30 percent since the Treibers took over, and they’re growing steadily in countries like New Zealand and Australia.
“When we first took on Walsh it was very focused on Standardbreds, and it always will be,” Thea said, “but we’ve also expanded to include other markets. In order to be successful, you have to continue to grow and find new markets, but we never forget where we came from.”
The Treibers, along with Walsh’s COO/CFO Kevin Mleziva, are also mindful of the history and traditions that helped make the company what it is today.
When Walsh was first founded, Milwaukee was known as the leather capital of the world, and the city remains an important part of the business. The company is proud to be a part of the local economy and has employees that have been there in excess of 35 years.
“We’re proud of our history and it’s important to us that we stay here,” said Thea.
The Walsh production facility is 35,000 sq. ft., most of which is broken up into task-specific areas, such as sewing, leather cutting, and a space for prep and shipping. Everything is produced in-house and most of the assembly, performed by Walsh’s 45 employees, requires just a few steps.
“Every product we make starts with a cutting operation,” said Mleziva. “Most of our products have one assembly step, tacking or gluing, and maybe two or three people touch it. With more complicated pieces four or five people might handle it, maybe 15 times.”
Surprisingly, Walsh still uses original sewing machines from the early 1900s in its production process, but it’s not frugality or sentimentality that keep these ancient apparatuses from retirement.
“The older machines can sew through materials a lot easier than the newer ones,” said Thea. “We have almost a proprietary stitch from these machines because of what we’ve created with them.”
But the Treibers’ high regard for the past doesn’t inhibit their ability to keep an eye toward the future.
“There’s always a suggestion for something different. There’s always a lot of research and development going on,” said Thea. “We want to make sure a new piece of equipment is the right fit for everyone.”
They also like to solicit input from their customers, which is one reason Paul spends a lot of time on the road, traveling to different events and meeting with horsemen.
“I’m constantly talking to trainers and drivers and we really value their feedback,” Paul said. “Maybe other people don’t like to hear about how their products can be improved upon, but we do. And a lot of times we act on it.”
Treiber said the growing number of European drivers and trainers now competing in the U.S. have also had an influence on their products. Customers like Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Takter, who come from different racing backgrounds, bring a fresh perspective to Walsh’s design approach.
No matter where their customers are from, domestic or abroad, Walsh has repeatedly proved itself to be markedly fluent in the universal language of customer service.
“One of the things that really sets Walsh apart is that we’re not a custom shop, but we’ll do what we can for our dealers and trainers out there,” said Thea. “A color combination, or size, we want to provide the best possible product to our customers.”
“Paul is a great businessman and a great guy,” said Jamieson. “Any time I need something I call him up and it’s in the mail the next day.
“It’s no surprise to me that they’ve been around for so long. If you build the best product, maintain the best product, the customers will come. People that have seen the Walsh product know that it’s a quality product and they keep coming back.”
On June 19, to celebrate their centennial anniversary, Walsh hosted a birthday party of epic proportions. Close to 200 people attended the event; vendors, customers, family members, and even the governor of Wisconsin made an appearance. Guests were given a tour of the facility, including the production area, and while the atmosphere was distinctly celebratory, it was also a chance for the Walsh family to show off the work they’re so proud of and to say thank you to those who have made it possible.
“We wanted people to get to know who we are and what we’re all about,” said Thea Treiber. “We’re really proud of our team and the employees we have here. None of our success could have happened without them. It’s important that they know that and our customers know that.”