Don’t you wish your car had heated leather seats? If you already have them, would you ever go back to anything less? The growing demand for this driving comfort is the basis of business for Katzkin Leather Interiors.Customizing your car after it leaves the factory is an American tradition. Remember the hot rod in the Beach Boys song Little Deuce Coupe? That same Ford model was also commemorated in the film American Graffiti. The custom trim and conversion shops that souped up the Deuce Coupe are today catering to grown-up customers to give baby boomers the options they need.
“We sell almost all of our product through a network of restylers, which are really the next generation of custom trim shops from the ’60s and ’70s,” says Ron Leslie, director of OEM sales and marketing. “As those shops evolved, they started to service dealerships for things like mobile video, sunroofs, and leather interiors.”
In the past, a custom leather interior cost around $4,000 to $5,000 and took three to six months to deliver and install. Katzkin has put leather within reach of nearly any new car buyer at around $1,000 – that’s just $10 per month on a lease. The company ships its kits to the restylers, who install new leather interiors in a matter of hours.
“We have been developing an interior for every new car that comes out for the past 20 years,” says Leslie. “We have an interior to fit just about any car on the road and we can turn around a custom interior for that car in 24 hours.”
The company was founded in 1983 when Mitchell Katz began distributing high-quality leather hides to trim and conversion shops. Katzkin Leather Company soon provided patterns for popular car and truck interiors that were direct replacements for factory cloth and vinyl. This allowed new-car dealers to offer customers leather at an affordable price, creating a niche market.
In today’s after market, truck and SUV interiors are big sellers. Among the popular appointments is the General Motors bow tie logo, which looks cool on a Chevy truck seatback. Katzkin is the only company authorized to GM for this use of its logo. Other widely sought enhancements include embroidery, perforations, piping, and the hot, two-tone sport look that is practically a Katzkin signature.
Beauty is Skin Deep
Katzkin has become the leading supplier of custom, after-market leather interiors largely because of its huge selection, attention to detail, and ability to match colors. The company offers more than 70 colors, 500 different embroideries and more than 1,400 interior patterns.
Special projects include some fleet work and targeted promotions for OEMs. For example, Ford produced 500 special-edition Expeditions with interior styling inspired by Lakers basketball great Shaquille O’Neal.
“They wanted a really cool interior for Shaq and a special line so we did that,” Leslie says. “We are really well structured because of our ability to turn small projects around very quickly. For the OEM and their seat manufacturers, it’s more of a nuisance for them to make 500 interiors. For us, it’s a volume program and it’s good business.”
But the company’s bread and butter is selling one interior at a time to consumers when they purchase a new car. Most cars are available with a factory leather interior option but typically only on the high-end vehicle models.
“When you buy a car, if you can have the (basic) L model or the (high-end) XL model, you always want that XL model, but you want to pay the L price,” Leslie explains. “To get up to that XL model, you may have to add a bigger engine, alloy wheels, and a lot of other things that add to the cost. We give you the ability to pick the accessories you really want. So if you just want leather in your car or maybe a leather interior and a six-disc changer, the dealership can add the six-disc changer we can add the leather.”
A high-end mini-van might run around $29,000. But by picking and choosing upgrades, a customer can tamp down the new-car price to under $20,000 without sacrificing the creature comforts of leather styling.
The company’s quick turnaround means that a dealer can deliver a leather interior to car buyers in just 24 to 48 hours.
“We will ship orders same day. For example, we’ll take about 100 orders an hour, ship today, and have them on the restyler’s doorstep in New Jersey at 8:30 tomorrow morning.”
Katzkin gives customers what they really want while enhancing the dealerships’ offerings. “It’s giving them additional inventory flexibility on the lot because they can always change a cloth car into leather,” he says.
Of course, the whole shooting match hinges on the speed of Katzkin’s Montebello, Calif. factory. The production plant has to pull, cut, combine, pack and ship 200 pieces of leather, 200 pieces of vinyl, and 400 pieces of foam for each interior sold.
A precision, custom bar-coding system controls the 80,000-square-foot facility including cutting machinery and stamping presses with steel dyes – production equipment used in the garment and textile industries. Recent additions of cutting equipment have allowed the factory to move from a 12-hour operation to near round-the-clock production. But sewing remains largely a manual process.
“We still cut our interiors by hand because of the level of customization we offer. It doesn’t always make sense to cut them by machine,” he notes.
That New-Car Smell
Katzkin carefully selects and controls tanning of its Italian leather. As it happens, a leather auto interior also includes some vinyl. Domestically made vinyl is used on doors and parts that don’t come into contact with the driver.
“A typical interior has about 150 to 200 square feet of material and if you do it entirely in leather the cost of the interior package would put us out of the market,” Leslie says.
“The leather and vinyl have to be matched exactly in grain and dye color with no level of variation on either side,” he stresses. “It’s completely required because we’re doing new cars and anything less than new-car quality is not acceptable.”
Automotive leather is different from hides for other applications. Although other companies in the conversion industry may skimp, Katzkin does not.
“It’s how it’s produced using top grain leather. The top coat of the hide has more fibers and is stronger and more flexible when cut thinner,” Leslie says of Katzkin’s materials. Dealers and customers recognize the difference in quality, which adds value to the vehicle.
“We are the only after-market accessory that the Automotive Lease Guide has given a value to,” Leslie boasts. The publisher established its value for Katzkin interiors after extensive research on the auto auction block where cars with leather interiors were compared to those without. “Our value is right on par with what OEM leather would add to the vehicle and ours will hold the value.”
As a result of its uncompromising standards, the company has enjoyed more than 20 percent growth each year for the past 18 years. Still a private company, Katzkin projects it will produce about 90,000 interiors this year with sales above $40 million. In addition to its attention to quality, continued growth is a result of more carmakers offering leather than ever before.
“It’s ironic but the more leather that gets added by the factories, the more demand there is for our leather,” Leslie observes. “In the past, many cars didn’t offer leather, now more do so more people use it. Once they’ve had leather they always want it again.”