Ellerman builds successful ag businesses around key people
With the opportunities available in the world, one Colorado agricultural businessman said there is no better time to be a human or start a business.
“My generation has lived in a fantasy world,” 25-year-old Brit Ellerman told participants at the Colorado Farm Show in 2018. “My grandparents lived during depression and wars, and other things we have never seen. We need to grasp opportunities we have while they are available, because looking at history, it won’t be that way forever.”
On the path to becoming an entrepreneur, Ellerman has found people and relationships are the key to becoming successful in business. Ellerman currently owns two companies, Texas Saddlery, which is a consumer goods company, and Ellerman Brands. He would be the first to agree that relationships are what got him to where he is today. “At the end of the day, you have to take care of the relationships you have because it is the most important thing you have,” he said.
“You will learn a lot of things you didn’t know before and meet a lot of people you never knew that might be a big part of your future. It is important to build mutually beneficial relationships. The type of people you surround yourself with is really important. Find people who are authentic,” he said.
Ellerman, who is from Fort Lupton, Colo., went to college at the University of Wyoming, competed in rodeo, and graduated with a degree in business administration. His opportunity to own a business started with a conversation with a long-time friend, while he was competing at a roping in Arizona. Dale Martin started Martin Saddlery 20 years ago. A group of people had come to him with an idea for a glove company, and wanted him to invest in it. He knew a lot about leather and manufacturing, but he turned it down. That company went on to become a billion dollar company, and they bought gorilla glue and frog tape, Ellerman said. So now he wanted to start a company based on something people use everyday, and something he understood and could build that had a margin high enough to make a business of. “We also wanted to make a quality product with passion and a story behind it, so we decided on belts,” Ellerman said.
STARTING A BUSINESS
It was the start of Texas Saddlery. “In our business quality is important. It would make a Chinese manufacturer cry because we cut the belts out of the best part of the hide. We started with belts, which we would sell wholesale to the retailer. After we got started, we started building some custom saddles because I like to compete in rodeo and was interested in it. There is not a lot of margin in saddles, but it is something we are passionate about and use everyday. When we put a Texas Saddlery saddle on a horse, and people see them at rodeos and jackpots, they start to ask about them. It is a good way to market them and our other products,” he said.
Since starting the business in 2014, Texas Saddlery now has 120 stores and six sales representatives. They also have a shop in Texas.
“In our culture, cowboys are authentic. You can tell what discipline they are in, just by the way they look. Cowboys are real and you recognize those things immediately. It is important to share that in your business,” Ellerman said. “It is also important we share our lifestyle with the world. We started the business small and focused on farm and ranch stores. We had just a few accounts to see what sells the best and what kind of people are buying our products. The beginning of business is all about trial and error,” he said.
Mistakes are part of learning to do business. “When this opportunity came along, I thought I have my degree and know everything there is to know about running a business. Boy, was I wrong. There were challenges in production and managing people and managing money. I was thrust into all of this stuff, so I started leaning on people that were better at each thing than I am, and learning from them,” he said.
When he needed a line of credit, Ellerman went to nine banks before he found one to approve his loan. “It took all of those times of going through those processes, and having them say “no,” to learn the things I needed to know and find help,” he said. “From that, I learned to find those people who can supplement the things I wasn’t good at. I needed to learn how to read a balance sheet, but I didn’t need to become a CPA to run a business,” he said.
Ellerman said the first sales representative he hired taught him about employee management. “He was vested in the business, understood how the product was made, and knew how to sell it. When he left to go to a pharmaceutical company, I called around and got recommendations from friends and ended up going through four or five sales representatives. What I learned from that experience is it is hard to find good people, and if you do find a good person, you need to find a way to keep them. Everyone wants to feed their family, but more than money, people want to feel like they are important. You need to find a way to make people feel that way,” he said.
In order for a business to run, the foundation has to be built on relationships and trust. “Don’t be afraid to push the envelope and make mistakes,” Ellerman said. “There will be times you make mistakes no matter what.”
“Our industry is based on old-school values. We still have those core values that haven’t really been affected by the outside world. I think it’s important to show people that. I have found that a lot of things I have done in my life have happened because of business, have come out of the western industry, horses, roping and the relationships I have made there. The relationship aspect of your life and business are the most important, I think, personally, because it doesn’t matter what you do, if you have solid relationships you can make that happen,” Ellerman said. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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From June through September, John Etchart spends most of the day driving a tractor through hayfields below the mountains near Meeker in northwestern Colorado.