The rich smell of leather distinguishes luxury travel in cars and airplanes. Matching leather shoes and a leather belt can turn a shabby suit into a chic statement. Leather wallets […]
The rich smell of leather distinguishes luxury travel in cars and airplanes. Matching leather shoes and a leather belt can turn a shabby suit into a chic statement. Leather wallets usually outlast the money in them, and leather jackets are often passed down through the generations. The use of leather in our lives predates written history and while most of us take it for granted, every item of leather you possess is the end result of a journey.
Bovine leather, produced from cattle hides, is the most valuable by-product of today’s meat and dairy industry. Following the age-old ethical responsibility of not letting any part of the animal go to waste, the hides used to be collected from slaughterhouses and butchers. They were then sorted, trimmed and conserved and delivered to tanneries to continue their journey of becoming leather.
Over time, each step of the leather working process has become a craft of its own and we were fortunate enough to speak with A + B HIDES in Germany, a company where the process of categorising and sorting fresh hides is rooted deeply in their origins.
Maximilian Engelke, sales manager at A + B HIDES has been in the industry for his entire professional career and has an inside perspective on the business and the importance of its place in the industry.
As he explains, the company was founded in 2006 when Marc Aengenheyster (procurator), Toni Baltes (CEO) and his brother Karl-Josef Baltes (senior advisor), brought their family businesses together to form the current entity: A + B HIDES. It was a bold move that combined over 100 years’ worth of experience and brought a sophisticated and up to date methodology to this ageless sector.
“The company has quite a legacy behind it,” Maximilian explains, “the founding fathers Franz Aengenheyster and Toni Baltes (senior), began collecting hides from local German slaughterhouses and butchers just after the Second World War.”
The two founders would collect the hides each morning with their cars and take them back to their premises. Here they would categorise, conserve and then deliver them on to the businesses that formed the next stage. Over time the industry saw the centralisation of slaughterhouses and a decline in butchers thanks to a rise in supermarkets. To keep up with this development, the businesses changed from collecting hides in cars to collecting them in trucks with 20,000 – 30,000 hides being collected every week!
A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY
“A + B HIDES employs over one hundred people and we are really the first stage in the creation of leather,” Maximilian explains, “There is a diverse demand for leather and the leather that is used for automotive seats and airplanes is not the same that is used for belts, shoes and wallets. Our position in the supply chain is right at the start preparing them for a streamlined production within the tannery.”
Fresh, raw hides are collected from slaughterhouses and classified as to bull, cow or calf because the hides produced have different characteristics depending on age, sex and breed. After sorting they are put into a cooling system to halt the decomposing process. They are then weighed, trimmed and inspected to see if there are any visible defects on the hair or flesh. These specific details are all taken into account to manufacture a uniform product that ensures a continuous quality standard in later stages of production.
“The preparation of cattle hides for the industrial leather production is our main product,” Maximilian says, “This in itself is a science that needs to be learnt on the job.”
For international customers overseas or those that cannot align their production with the availability of fresh material, A+B HIDES has a custom-built salting procedure that conserves the hides, thus enabling long distance transport and safe storage without compromising quality.
In addition to that, wetblue hides, a semi-finished pre-tanned good completes their product portfolio.
Maximilian’s background is in frontline sales in the leather trade and thus complements procurator Carsten Cleven, who is Head of Sales at A + B HIDES. Together they expand the company’s global presence, through international representation at trade fairs and often directly through visits at the customers’ premises. It is an industry that runs on experience and knowhow and this is prevalent from front line sales all the way to the workshop floor.
“Our industry niche is quite specific and basic skills are learnt on the job,” he says, “Despite demanding conditions that result from manual labour with animal hides and skins all year around, most of our employees have been with us for a long time.”
One of the main developments that A+B HIDES are excited about, is their involvement in the traceability of leather hides and the finished leather pieces in general. This is a crucial element in the on-going industry focus to be as sustainable and forward thinking as possible.
“It is the responsibility of all businesses within the leather trade to take accountability for where our products come from. Be them raw-products like ours, or finished products from one of our clients,” Maximilian says, “By being able to trace the hide all the way back to the birth of the animal, we are able to establish where it was raised, fed and slaughtered.”
For many customers in the automotive and shoe segment this traceability is becoming increasingly important, as it makes the product leather more transparent.
HOW TO ACHIEVE THIS
“Over the last years we developed a specialised laser for this purpose,” Maximilian says, “At the slaughterhouse the ear tag code of the animal is attached to the hide before we pick it up. Once it is with us and hung the ear tag code is scanned and lasered onto the hide.”
Similar to a branding, the laser code remains visible on the hide throughout all stages of the leather production, ensuring full traceability.
Of course, this is only now being implemented. If it wasn’t for coronavirus the system would have been live and broadcasted to their customers since March 2020. But due to Lockdown it went live in July and has answered the request from many manufacturers who are relying on the accountability and traceability that these developments provide.
This is a small but essential part in an overall campaign that the leather industry are instigating throughout their supply chain. As one of the pioneers into this move A + B HIDES are effectively setting a standard that others in their industry niche are going to have to try and keep up with.
“You can’t hide from progress,” he concludes.
A+B HIDES are part of the OSI Group, the premier global supplier of custom value-added food products. OSI Group covers a whole range of meat and poultry based food solutions, including burgers, nuggets, chicken wings and many others. A+B HIDES works closely with OSI’s own slaughterhouses and their partners in the meat industry as well as other reputable suppliers.
Additionally, this year, A + B HIDES completed their LWG trading certification. The Leather Working Group is an international not-for-profit membership organisation for stakeholders across the leather supply chain that places sustainable business practices and environmental compliance as their core values.