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Shinola expands manufacturing, creates jobs, opportunities to craft leather

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

In its first few years, Shinola’s watch manufacturing operation has made international news. Former President Bill Clinton even sports a few Shinola watches and took a tour of the factory. Last year, Shinola assembled over 50,000 watches; this year they believe they’ll get closer to 150,000.

“We simply did not imagine we’d have the success that we’ve had,” says Shinola CEO Steve Bock, who started the enterprise in 2011.

As Shinola rapidly expanded its watch movement capacity — from less than 10 people to over 50, from one assembly line to three — their suppliers struggled to keep pace. In May 2014, Shinola diversified the manufacturing capability of its 65,000 sq. ft. factory, located in Detroit’s Taubman Center, by developing a process to manufacture leather goods, especially watch bands.

Having a capable and elastic workforce, where workers with no experience in making watches, leatherwork, or bicycle manufacturing can quickly learn to produce high-quality products was essential to Shinola’s initial choice to locate itself within the city.

Shinola was looking “to find a city steeped in the right heritage of manufacturing, craftsmanship, quality,” says Bock. “Detroit very quickly became identifiable as exactly that… It’s a city that is recognized on a global basis — everybody knows Detroit, whether it’s from music or automobiles. For us to be a very small part of that city, for us to be situated there and have our factory there, and build a store there … is a huge positive.”

Bock says everyone he has worked with — attorneys, construction people, government officials — went out of their way to welcome Shinola to Detroit and help make the endeavor successful.

Shinola now offers a lifetime warranty on its watches, so making a quality watchband is imperative to their profit-model.

“It’s critical to the quality and the value of all the products we build that we have people who really understand what they’re doing,” Bock says.

To hire the leather craftspeople and manage the operation, Shinola brought in Paloma Vega, a 12-year Louis Vuitton veteran.

Detroit shocked Vega in two ways: Vega, native to Spain, and a long-time California resident had never seen snow before, and, she says, she was blown away by the versatility and passion of Detroit’s workers.

The leather arrives at the Argonaut building (home of the Taubman Center) in large unfinished rolls. Eighteen processes later, a small delicately-fabricated luxury watchband emerges. A different Detroit worker manages each step.

In a city with no tradition of leather work, Vega specifically looked for workers who seemed inquisitive and passionate; many of them had no manufacturing experience at all.

Kenyetta is patiently sewing the bottom layer of the band to the top layer. Before coming to Shinola, she had another sewing job — upholstering car seats. The process and level of quality in the work she says is vastly different.

“You wouldn’t look at a car seat stitch by stitch.” When she was young, Kenyetta played the violin. Now, she is using the fine movements she learned on the instrument to perform the intricate stitches on her watch bands.

Clint Jackson, a leather painter, and former autoworker, says working at Shinola, where the pace is considerably more relaxed than the auto-plant, is a breath of fresh air.

“Anything of quality takes time. You can’t just rush through.  (The process is) a little more personal (than making cars) — kind of like we are connected with the person wearing the watch,” he told the Michigan Citizen.

Tiara worked at Tim Horton’s before she got hired at Shinola. Now performing detail work at the very end of the line, she says, “I love seeing it all come together. It’s good for Detroit.”

Vega says the excitement and pride indicated by Kenyetta, Clint and Tiara is essential to making the kind of quality watchband that will last a lifetime.

In July, Shinola will expand again, and will begin manufacturing other leather goods, including journal and tablet covers, in addition to their watch bands. Vega says she will be hiring at least five more people.

“What we are constantly trying to do is find and introduce the ability and the capability back into the United States — always preferably in Detroit — to manufacture more of the component parts of the products we produce here,” Bock says.

“We’re very happy to have hired 250 people, but that’s not going to get Detroit out of the challenges it has… (We) need companies to come in and hire thousands of people. But, it has to start somewhere, and we’re very happy to be a little piece of that start-up process.”

People interested in working at Shinola, can view job opportunities at www.shinola.com/careers.

Shinola also welcomes the public to tour their watch and leather factories. To set up a tour, email customerservice@shinola.com, or call 1.844.744.6652.

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