You don't have to be in the powerlifting game long to run across Pioneer Belts. In the last few years, their popularity has exploded. If you need proof, just hop on Instagram and you'll see some of your favorite lifters rocking a custom Pioneer belt. Where did they come from? How long have they been doing this and where did the idea for completely custom belts come from? We recently had a conversation with Matt Hadden, President of General Leathercraft Mfg. & Pioneer Belts, to get their full story.
What is the background history of General Leathercraft Mfg.?
My grandfather started the company in 1978 in Nebraska. Obviously back then he wasn’t working with computers, so he was basically a traveling salesman selling nylon and leather belts out of the back of his car until he opened up a manufacturing plant in Sidney, Nebraska. He ran that for seven or eight years until my father took over, and they moved the company down to El Paso, Texas.
Then the nylon belts blew up. Do you remember those guys at Lowes and Home Depot who would wear those nylon belts with suspenders years ago? My father got a contract to make all of those guys’ back supports. This was when I was still just a kid, maybe 4 or 5. In our El Paso plant we had about 180 full time employees with shifts 24 hours a day pumping out these nylon back supports. Then the science came out that if you wear a belt like that all the time your back and core use it as a crutch and your strength goes down, which can cause injury, and the nylon belt business pretty much fell out all together. We also had a stint where we were in the Cabela’s catalog for a while in the hunter’s safety section. We even did some boxing championship belts back in the day.
We’ve been all over the map as my parents weathered some pretty serious ups and downs. I have tremendous respect for them for being able to do that. Not everyone realizes how hard emotionally, financially, and physically it is to run a small business. My parents have had a great marriage. Just being married can be difficult at times. I can only imagine how hard it was during those hard financial times. My dad has always been the guy that puts everything on his shoulders. My hat is off to my grandfather and my father. They survived the down times which allowed the company to become what it is today. We’ve been going at this thing for 38 years now.
It sounds like this has been a family focused company ever since the start. Are your parents still active in the company?
My mother did our bookkeeping for the last 35 years and my father still comes in as what I would call my purchasing director, but they are both just now starting to retire.
How many employees do you have now?
We have 18. We are in a small town, so outside of the hospital, the city, and the school I think we are one of the largest employers in Coleman, TX.
So how long have you been at General Leathercraft? And what is your official title?
I’ve been back with the company for four years in April. I would be considered the president. That’s at least what is on my business card. I’m not the owner. My parents still own the company.
How would you describe your role?
When I first started at General Leathercraft my first order of business was to set up a website, to try to get our name out on the web. We had third party manufactured belts for some really well known companies in our industry for a long time. We helped put some of those companies on the map with their belts. So when I got back I automatically started thinking, “Why don’t we put OUR name on the map?” The Pioneer name. The Pioneer name has been around forever, but nobody knew it. So I started trying to get Pioneer belts out there.
We got into the Instagram and the Facebook pages. That was one of the first things I did when I started… try to get out there and get more exposure. When I started doing searches for powerlifters I found guys that were already well known on Instagram, and I just shot them messages. I said, “Hey look guys, we’ve been doing belts for a long time and nobody knows who we are. I’d love to get your feedback on them.” Most of those guys were all about a free belt. They said, “Hey sure, send me one.” Luckily our belts kind of spoke for themselves, even prior to doing all this crazy embroidery and dyeing and stuff. Everyone liked the belts.
Has your vision or role changed since you started?
I delegate a lot more now. My team is excellent at what they do.
I remember one thing that I said when I got started that I regret saying, but it kind of is constant motivation. My father and I had a meeting in the office. Sales were slow. This was well before anyone knew who we were. We were talking about what we could do to make our products better, and I remember specifically saying, “There is only so much you can do with a belt.” I eat my words on that every single day.
Do you still wholesale belts to other companies?
We are not just selling Pioneer belts. We sell lots of other belts. I have two full filing cabinets of those customers’ info still. They buy in bulk and we private label them, so we put their logos on the belts. Then they sell them as their belts. You’ll see every once and a while on our Instagram page we post a big stack of belts. Recently we had one where we knocked out 140 belts in a single day. Those were going to a separate company, and nobody really knows that we made them. The wholesale stuff is still just about 60% of our actual business. The retail Pioneer stuff that you see makes up the other 40%.
Everyone knows Pioneer Belts, but the website is General Leathercraft Mfg. What’s the difference?
General Leathercraft is like the parent company. The Pioneer name came from my grandfather a long time ago. The Pioneer name has been around just as long as General Leathercraft. We sold the Pioneer Fitness line, the Pioneer Hunting line, and the Pioneer Sports line. They kind of went away for a while when we weren’t doing any of the retail stuff. It went back to just General Leathercraft so wholesalers could find us. I tried to revive the Pioneer name by picking it back up and running with it. They became Pioneer Belts rather than General Leathercraft Belts. General Leathercraft Mfg. still does a lot of different things. We do knife sheaths, we do rubber flooring for gyms, and we do therapy products. In those difficult times I mentioned earlier, my dad had to find different product options, and we’ve kept those options because it’s good business.
How did all this custom embroidery come about?
When we started getting a little exposure and people knew we made quality belts, I started getting these requests like, “Hey, can I get my name on it?” This lady from Canada emails me out of the blue one day and says, “I really want a pink belt with MUSCLE CHICK embroidered on it.” I can’t remember the ladies name for the life of me, but I’ll always remember that first belt.
I told the MUSCLE CHICK girl, “Look, I’ve never done this before, but give me a week or two. Let me make some phone calls and try to figure this thing out.” We live in a small town of 5,000 people here in central Texas. Randomly, I went to high school with a girl who opened up a little boutique embroidery shop here in town. So I went out and cut some suede to the size that her belt was going to be. I took it to the girl in town with the embroidery machine, and she embroidered MUSCLE CHICK on it. Then we put the suede back through production like a normal belt. So MUSCLE CHICK was on there, but the belt didn’t turn out very nice, not up to my standards. But it was the first one ever. She got it, and she loved it. She completely fell in love with it. She’s been one of our biggest supporters ever since.
I started bringing tiny little boxes with four or five pieces of suede to this lady here in town to embroider names on. Word started to get out. The weightlifting market, especially the powerlifting market, is so small and tight knit that word travels pretty quickly. Once word got out that we were embroidering on belts everything turned into kind of a blur.
How much has business grown since the embroidery was added?
When I started four years ago we had six full time employees. That was it. Now we are running 18 full time employees, and we are still coming in early and staying late. It’s been a wild ride. We are really excited that we have been so well accepted.
We aren’t growing out of our shoes though. A lot of small companies will grow too fast, and then they fold. With the experience of my father and my grandfather, I don’t see that ever happening to us. I read an article in Forbes magazine a few years back that lit a fire in me. It was giving the percentages of how many third generation family owned companies fail. That number was in the high 90%... nearly all of them. Obviously I don’t want to be one of those. I’ve had to step back and take in all the experience I can and learn from my father and grandfather. I’m not going to end up in that large percentile.
Where does the credit for that growth belong?
I almost hate to, but I have to credit a big portion of that to social media. It gives me the opportunity to talk to customers. With that social media we have been able to have that direct response from people. People get excited when they see their belts on Instagram. The customer feedback and our responsiveness to their suggestions is a big deal. Our customer service is unmatched in our industry in my opinion. I think it’s everything we do all wrapped into one that contributes to the success.
What’s your best guess on number of Pioneer Belts sold in the last four years?
100,000. That’s a guess off the top of my head, but I think it is pretty close.
Has it been difficult to keep up with manufacturing?
We’ve changed the process probably five or six different times over my four years on how we actually manufacture these belts. We are always trying to improve, and we use a lot of customer feedback. I send out free belts and sometimes they get into the right people’s hands and they give me real feedback. More than just, “Oh man it is so badass.” They’ll sit there and tell me, “The buckle is a little flimsy.” So we changed the buckles. They’ll ask, “Why do you just do one row of stitching?” So we offered two rows of stitching or three rows of stitching. The basic materials have all remained the same though.
As far as if it is a challenge or not, I have to quote my grandfather. He said, “Always stay small enough to care, but big enough to keep up.” We have taken that to heart. We’ve never had a problem keeping up. My longest time ever for a belt to be made from the date it was ordered has probably been six weeks.
You said materials haven’t changed, do you have special Texas cows that you’re getting your leather from?
We buy from a US based company that supplies Justin, Anderson Bean, and a lot of other boot companies. Cattle and leather goods are big businesses here in Texas.
Do you ever tell customers NO?
Our capabilities are constantly pushed, and that’s from customer requests. I rarely tell people no. I’ll mess up on three or four belts before we get it right, but I would rather eat the cost and learn how to do it than to have to tell people “No, we can’t.”
The one and only thing that I don’t like to do that all of my competitors actually do is the tri-color belts with three strips of suede. Inzer I know has a red, white, and blue for example. The reason I don’t do that is because the manufacturing process is extremely difficult to try to make look good. I can make a belt that will last forever doing it, but it doesn’t look good. I don’t like charging $250 for a belt that you’re not proud to wear. I won’t mention the names, but it blows me away when I see some of those other guys’ belts like that on social media. Even their pictures on their websites, the pictures that everyone sees to go buy them, are not good. I don’t look at belts just because of the colors. I look at the stitching. I try to look at it and get a feel for how they manufactured it. They look bad. It’s got to be the best they can do or else they wouldn’t post it on their website for everyone to look at. I can make a belt that looks just like those, but I wouldn’t be happy with it. I wouldn’t be comfortable charging the money. I wouldn’t want anyone to show their friends knowing that Pioneer made it. I wish some of our competitors would think that way.
Do you guys ever screw up on belts?
It’s kind of funny, every time we mess up on something, we learn. It’s like this dyed belt giveaway that we are doing right now. It has gotten crazy response. That came about because I failed to tell the guy that does our laser work that the laser was supposed to be up by the lever. So I had this blank belt with the logo in the wrong spot for where the customer wanted it, so I go back with my dye and paint it red. But then it looked kind of plain. So I had one of my guys take a look at it. I told him, “Make this thing look good. I want to fade it from the edges in.” He came up with this new look, and he perfected the process in one swoop. This belt was originally messed up, and now we’ve gained several hundred followers because of it. A lot of our mistakes, in one way or another, turn into gold for us. This one did.
💥💥💥GIVEAWAY💥💥💥 Alright y'all so I messed up a belt (logo in the wrong place) so my screw up is your gain! This is a Custom Hand Dyed Lever Belt in a size Medium (31"-40"). One of a kind look since I had my dude Kevin hand fade it, inspired by @mastodonstrength . ----------------------------------------- Rules: - Must be a follower - Must like THIS post - Must tag 5 friends - Repost using #pioneergiveaway14 I'll announce the winner tmrw around lunch so I can get out before the weekend! #pioneerbelts #pioneerpowerlifting
How do you stack up to your competitors?
I’ll say this about Pioneer… our lead times are fast. Our customer service is excellent. Their (other companies’) belts are still good. But I’m able to pump out belts that are just as good, if not better, in a matter of a few days. Theirs can take six to eight weeks. The custom order process gives us an opportunity to call, email, or direct message the customer through social media and find out exactly how they want their belts. If someone is spending $200 plus on a belt obviously we want to make it right. We want to make the customer happy, and we want to get it right the first time. If we don’t have a good idea what they are after, we get in touch with them, and I think people appreciate that.
Do you think Pioneer is on the radar for the big competitors? Are they worried?
I know they know who we are. I’ve talked to nearly every one of the other owners. They definitely know who we are. I don’t know if we are hurting their sales, but obviously it doesn’t really bother me if we are. Competition is healthy. The Inzers of this world have had a strong hold on this market for a long time, and Titan is right there with them. We’ve been making belts for the same amount of time as both of those companies. They have had that strong hold on the market, especially with old school powerlifters. Some of those guys would never switch, and that’s OK.
Where did Pioneer’s “cool factor” come from? It seems like you guys have some mojo going that your competitors don’t. Is it just the social media?
I think the product itself really speaks for itself. I battled with this throughout school. Everyone in my marketing class said, “If you’re going to brand something you’ve got to put your logo on it.” But when I came here, I didn’t want to put my logo on it. My whole vision was for people to buy a belt for them. Don’t buy my belt. Buy YOUR belt.
If a guy or girl in the gym has some hulk image or something funny on their belt, other people are going to be drawn to it like, “Dude, where did you get that thing?” Luckily enough with our customer service and our product being the way it is, a lot of positives come from word of mouth. A lot of people know us by that just as much as they do by our social media.
I have to quote this because it rang really true when I heard it. Andy Frisella, the owner of 1st Phorm, has a podcast called MFCEO Project. The Mother F*cking CEO. On one of his podcasts he said, “Do such a good job selling to a customer that he HAS to tell a friend. You turn one customer into two.” I kind of took that to the extreme. We want to make sure our customers are happy, and we want to make sure that they are so happy that they want to tell a friend.
You sponsor some of the strongest people in the world, how did that come about?
One of our sponsored athletes early on when we started the embroidery was Kevin Oak. This was before he held any records. He helped us out tremendously, and I have nothing but respect for Kevin. Recently we have parted ways, but he helped me and this business out tremendously. Him and Larry (Wheels) both lived in New York and trained together. I had made one for Kevin, and then Larry was looking for a new belt. So that’s how we got Larry on board.
A lot of these powerlifters sell online training and other marketable services. These belts offer great advertising for themselves and their businesses. Take someone like Pete Rubish. He is one of our sponsored athletes that we have made a lot of belts for, and he has gained a lot of traction on social media because of his deadlift… crazy popularity. On the back of his belt it has his PR Strength logo that he does his online training with. I don’t know if that is a primary thought for them, that it’s advertising for their businesses, but I think it is.
Do you follow your sponsored athletes’ powerlifting success?
Absolutely. I’m probably on Instagram 20 hours a day (laughing). I wake up in the middle of the night to answer questions sometimes. I don’t miss much.
How does that feel when you see these athletes you’re sponsoring breaking world records?
First off it makes me proud… proud for them and proud that they trusted us for their equipment. Those guys have been really good to us, and at that level I don’t think they are coming to me just so they can get their name on a belt. They are coming to us because our products are on par with what they are trying to do, which is break records. They aren’t going to wear a Valeo belt to try and squat 1,000 pounds. There are no contracts for our sponsored guys, but I take care of our guys. We take care of them in a way that they are happy with and we are happy with.
Are there any lifters that you haven’t seen in a Pioneer belt yet that you would like to?
That’s tough. I’ve got a lot of big time guys. We’ve got Pete (Rubish), Larry (Wheels), Kevin (Oak), Robb Philippus, Derek Kendall, all of the Lilliebridge guys, Tee Cummins, Maliek Derstine, Jay Nera, Jordan Wong, and there are multiple others. Nearly all of the Animal sponsored guys are in Pioneer Belts… I’d like to get Kade Weber. Put that in print and tell Kade.
It’s always really neat to see those rankings come out on powerlifting watch and looking through the weight classes. When you look at the top 25 I can count out 13 or 14 that are wearing our belts and it puts a smile on my face.
How about Huck Finn? It seems like he’s always up to some crazy shit, and wearing a Pioneer belt while he’s doing it.
I try to forget about that real custom one that we did for Huck. That belt was a huge pain in the ass. He wanted it to be like a WCW or WWE championship belt on the front. I did a bunch of buttons on the front where the buckle usually is, and it was not easy. I told him, “Don’t ask me to do this again.”
Huck has been good to us. He’s sponsored by a couple of other guys too so he’s not able to go just straight Pioneer, but we’ve made him a lot of stuff and he’s always fun to watch. He’s blown up quite a bit, and he’s wearing a Pioneer belt nearly every time he’s doing that stuff.
Are Pioneer Belts IPF approved?
Tell us about the IPF approval process.
One of the things that kind of bothers me, and hopefully it changes in coming years, is the politics that goes into these things. Money and power obviously are driving forces in the world. I don’t want to get too deep into that, but some of those other guys have been able to do things that I’m not able to do with IPF approvals.
Here is the history: I got ahold of a couple of guys with the IPF about three years ago before anyone knew who we were. We were just kind of starting to take off. I emailed them telling them I’d really like to get Pioneer on the IPF approved list. “Please let me know how to do it.” They emailed me back, “It’s going to be $5,000 per year per product that you want to get on this list.” At the time we had three different styles of belts. We’ve got five or six different styles of wraps. It was going to cost me $60,000-$70,000 to get on the list per year. I didn’t think I would be able to sell that much at the time. I said, “No, I can’t afford that.”
A couple years later when we started gaining some traction in the market I emailed them back. I told them we were ready to pull the trigger. Then they jumped the price up to like $10,000. I don’t remember the exact number, but it was nearly twice what they quoted me the first time. So that was going to be $100,000+ per year to get all of our stuff approved. That’s a lot of belts and a lot of wraps just to break even. I decided again that we couldn’t afford that. Then earlier this year I decided again that we would pony up the money. I said, “How do I get on?” They emailed back and said, “Sorry, submissions for new gear are closed until the end of 2018.”
When I talk about the politics I talk about companies like SBD, which I know is a big sponsor of the IPF. I understand that part of it, but they didn’t even have a belt out at that time. Then they come out with a belt and it’s already on that list. That’s what I mean when I talk about politics. I know they probably give a lot of money to the IPF so I understand it, but it’s a little disheartening that we aren’t able to get on, then a new product came out after that and it’s automatically on the list.
Will you pursue the IPF approval again in the future?
At the end of 2018 I will have to reassess on where we are at and how much it is going to cost. I’ll entertain the idea, but if it is crazy expensive I don’t know if I’ll do it. If you look at the membership numbers in the IPF, which I think is right around 20,000, and you double or triple it for people considering joining you’re looking at possibly 50,000 customers. But you have to divide those up amongst the Inzers, Titans, us, SBD, and the rest. There are a bunch of other companies. I’ll crunch the numbers when the time comes, but it may not make sense for us. It’s a monetary decision. Hopefully every company has to make that call and I’m not the only one getting charged $10,000 per product.
Your belts are made to last. Are you ever worried that everyone that wants a Pioneer Belt will get one?
Those are obvious worries. My dad and I have talked about that a lot. At some point, if we keep selling this many belts every year, surely everybody that wants one has got one, right? I think over time it has proven that is not the case. The customization options changed that. A customer could have one with a cuss word on it. They can’t wear that one in competition, so they buy one with their name on it. They are tired of suede, so they try leather. They have a prong belt already, so they buy a lever belt. They want two different thicknesses. There are customers out there that want all those different options. There are people out there that have seven or eight belts from us. Obviously those people have the disposable income, but over time a lot of people like to get something new.
What does Pioneer have besides belts now?
Pioneer also has a full wrap line for wrist and knee. We do leather lifting straps which have started to gain more traction. Pete Rubbish was breaking all his other straps, so we had to make something that would hold up for him when he’s deadlifting 900 plus pounds every week. We have a lot of other leather accessories that people don’t know about, like head gear for strengthening your neck. We also have dip belts. Everyone does weighted dips, but most are using nylon stuff. We do it with leather, and they will never break. We do all kinds of other custom stuff for our customers that we don’t even put on the website.
You work with the Lilliebridges on your wraps now, right?
The Lilliebridge wraps are a product that came from Ernie Sr. and me. I sent him all of my wraps that we had when we started and he didn’t like any of them. He liked certain aspects of many of them, but no one perfect wrap. So we tried and tried with multiple different samples (which all come from the U.S.A.) until we finally got it right. It was thick and stretchy but it didn’t have that cast hard feel to it. He fell in love with them once we got it right. We went and got 2,000-3,000 yards of that material and started making them for them. They helped us push them, and they’ve done well. They are a great wrap. Ernie is a treasure trove of knowledge. I’ve learned more from Ernie than any other lifter. There’s some real knowledge behind those wraps. We didn’t just find a piece of elastic and put their name on it. Ernie really believes these wraps are perfect for anyone.. from novice lifters all the way up to Eric Lilliebridge. It just all depends on wrapping them the right way.
What’s new in the works for you?
Just this year we brought in the laser option. We brought in our dyed work on the belts. We brought in the work and gun belt option, which has went pretty well because it’s hard to find a good work belt. We put out a lot of feelers on our social media pages on new options and see what people end up liking. If they like it we just learn how to do it really well.
Sleeves. I really want to produce knee sleeves in the US. Sleeves are on my priority list as soon as we get out of the busy season. I have to buy a special sewing machine to do a tubular material, I have to find the neoprene that I want to use, and I still have to come up with the design. I still have a lot of work ahead of me, but that’s something I really want to tackle. Getting new products out on the market can be difficult with only 24 hours in the day, but we will continue to push the envelope.
You’ve mentioned the U.S.A a few times with your processes, is that a big deal to you?
Everything in this fitness industry is coming from Pakistan or China. I would venture to say that 90% of this stuff is coming from overseas. It irks me to no end when companies charge $50 for a product that probably costs $4 to get here from those countries. Those are business decisions, and I understand that. In capitalism money is king, but my grandfather, father, and I have always been proud to buy everything that we can here in the US. Nearly all of our manufacturing materials come from US suppliers. When you buy a belt from us you aren’t just giving your money to some company. You’re helping out our 18 employees and every other US supplier that we do business with.
Where do you see General Leathercraft and Pioneer in the next five or ten years?
I have aspirations to be the number one manufacturer of weight belts in the world. I would never advertise that title, but I want it. I’m going to stay hungry for that title. The powerlifting market will always be my home, but I do see us branching out more into other areas like CrossFit, bodybuilding, and Olympic lifting. As far as just sheer numbers, those three areas dwarf powerlifting. There’s a lot of money in bodybuilding. We are starting to get there in that market, but I’d love to continue to expand there. CrossFit is massive. Everyone thought when it came out that it was a fad and it would go away. It’s not going away. There are still boxes showing up everywhere. There’s one in my town of 5,000 people and classes are full all the time. We can have the product offerings to meet the needs in all those markets. I just have to figure out a way to get into them.
I want to keep employees happy. I want to keep costs low, and I want to keep lead times and prices reasonable.
What do you use for motivation?
I read a lot, not necessarily motivational stuff, but factual things I can find in my industry and in business that I can use. I use our competitors for motivation. I use other businesses that I’m not even affiliated with for motivation. A company that I consider a model for me to follow is Stay The Course Industries. They are an apparel company. This guy is a veteran, and he’s been awesome. He’s one of those social media guys that posts 90% about his products and the other 10% is military based, and it’s very inspiring. I have a big respect for the military. Those guys are unbelievable. For them to go out and put their life on the line for me to be able to run a company, it really rings true to me.
One piece of advice you would go back and give your beginner self?
Never underestimate myself. I know that sounds kind of big headed, but I’ve always underestimated myself. Just like when I was golfing. Looking back on it, I know I was as good as some of those guys on tour, but I just didn’t have the confidence. We just have to stay confident.
Do you powerlift?
Almost two years ago to the day I hurt my back deadlifting. I was getting ready for a meet. It was going to be my first one. Two or three months after that my back hurt so badly I quit going to the gym. Nearly all last year was a struggle in the gym. I completely quit going now. Since I hurt my back the gym has taken a back seat to family and business.
I think I was trying to compete for the wrong reasons. I did it so people would think that I belong in this market. Looking back on it, I don’t think that was the right attitude to have. I shouldn’t have done it for someone else. I should have done it for myself. I let my business motivate my powerlifting and it ended up hurting me. I get my knowledge and what to do in this industry from my father and our customers. Regardless of if I powerlift, I still feel like I make a pretty damn good product. People don’t actually care if I lift. They care if their belt works and looks how they want it. I’m plugged in with powerlifters that have way more knowledge that I could get if I powerlifted for 20 years.
Massive thanks to Matt for letting us chat with him about his awesome company. The Massenomics crew had a blast working on this project. We hope you all enjoyed reading it. Go check out Pioneer's website. Like Massenomics on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to keep up on all of our content. Sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of the page to stay up to date on all the new content we have coming out. Give our weekly podcast a listen, and check the apparel in our online store.