Blake Nielsen '05 and Chris Smutny '05 stake a claim in the custom belt buckle business with an entrepreneurial spirit honed at Oxy
By Dick Anderson | Photo by Glenn Cratty
If Io Triumphe Capital sounds like the name of a holding company forged in the dreams of a couple of guys who worked with the Blyth Fund at Oxy—the student-managed investment group that handles a small piece of the College's endowment—you'd be right. But who would have imagined that such a company would manufacture belt buckles that have adorned the waists of two U.S. presidents named Bush, an actor who played George W. Bush (Josh Brolin), and the enduringly (if inexplicably) popular Kid Rock?
From rodeo riders to rock stars, from motorcycle clubs to the military, Johnson & Held has carved out a niche in the custom-buckle business with a clientele as colorful as its hand-crafted wares, including San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, country music outlaw Merle Haggard, and the crew of just about every Star Trek movie starring the original cast. (Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, so prized his buckles that he asked J&H for a replacement when his second wife. Marcy, got them in their divorce.)
"There's something awfully cool about seeing raw sheets of metal going in, and watching these craftsmen and the pride that they have in their work," says Blake Nielsen '05, who acquired Denver-based Johnson & Held with his classmate and now business partner, Chris Smutny '05, in March 2012. "It was easy to fall in love with the company."
But belt buckles may be just the beginning. "Blake and I have this investment thesis that there is a generation of business owners who are ready to retire and to hand over their businesses, but maybe their children aren't interested," Smutny says. "We think there is a potential opportunity there."
Nielsen and Smutny became fast friends at Oxy. They met as freshmen in Braun Hall, took their first econ class together, and even had a bet to see who would finish their final exam first. "Blake raced through his final," Smutny says. "I think we agreed that it ended in a tie," Nielsen says.
Although their paths diverged after Oxy—Nielsen went to work for an investment bank in Denver, while Smutny took a job at Yahoo!, followed by a succession of advertising positions at other Internet companies—"We both wanted to do something that was more tangible than pixels on a screen or moving dollars," Smutny says. About four years ago, they started talking about buying a company together.
The business they identified was founded back in 1978—a product of "the crooked dreams of Wild West outlaws," as Johnson & Held's website tells the story. A group of unwitting investors was conned out of its seed money through the promise of riches from the sale of high-end, hand-crafted Western gear. The crooks got their comeuppance, but investor Ted Allsup believed in the idea behind the company so much that he went looking for new investors. He found an unlikely pair in star-crossed lovers Chris Johnson ("a young, penniless kid from the Bahamas drawn to the West by adventure") and his wealthy fiancé, who used the Held family money to bankroll the buckle business, placate her father, and get married.
A short time later, the newlyweds rode off into the sunset for parts unknown, leaving their namesake enterprise in the hands of Allsup, who ran the company until 1987, when it was purchased by Ron Heller. He used his contacts in the rendering business to build a customer base in the livestock industry and rodeo circuit, eventually expanding into fairs and expositions. Over the years, Johnson & Held sustained a small but profitable operation, selling about 3,500 buckles a year to both retailers and custom-order clientele.
With his sons' healthcare needs demanding much of his time, Heller decided it was time to sell. Johnson & Held had been on the market for about a year when it caught the eye of Nielsen. He brought in Smutny to tour the operation for himself, and had a buckle made for his partner with a silver engraving of Smutny's daughter's foot. "We took the footprint off the birth certificate and put it onto a belt buckle," Nielsen says.
Some months later, Heller sold the company to Nielsen and Smutny, while retaining a 5 percent stake in Johnson & Held. Their first order of business was introducing a dose of e-commerce knowhow to a badly outdated operation. "This is a company that didn't have a website, didn't take credit cards, didn't give their sales team email addresses," Nielsen says. "The first year, we grew over 10 percent, and it wasn't because we were geniuses. It was us bringing new energy and additional people and some technology."
In a typical week, J&H takes up about 10 hours a week for both Nielsen and Smutny. They leave the day-to-day business in the hands of Heller, who handles the sales, and Jonathan Hastey, who runs the operations. But when the Western and English Sales Association's apparel and equipment show rolls around each September, the co-CEOs spend a full week in Denver, soaking up the Western hospitality and even sidling up for beers with their main competitor, Montana Silversmiths. "It's an amiable group," Nielsen says, noting that the show accounted for about 5 percent of annual sales last year.
As Nielsen and Smutny see it, Johnson & Held fills a void in the marketplace for affordable, innovative commemorative ware. "We can do a one-off buckle or a run of five really easily," Nielsen says. "People like to show their company pride or their school pride."
Look closely at the photo on the opposite page, in fact, and you'll see that Smutny is sporting a shiny buckle modeled after Oxy's own centennial seal. With a business named after the College's rallying cry, that's putting your money where your mouth is.