How to Succeed In Business

Hard work, agile business practices and savvy leadership have made Forest-based Moore & Giles a leader in the luxury leather industry for 80 years.

You don’t get very far into any conversation about luxury leather maker Moore & Giles without the word “evolution” coming up. We’re not talking about evolution in religion or politics, but about keeping up in a changing business, something the Forest-based company has done so well over the years that it could teach a seminar on going with the flow.

This year, the company, which designs and develops natural leathers for the residential interior design, aviation and luxury hospitality industries and retails its collections of leather bags and accessories, celebrates its 80th year in business. Still family-owned and led by chairman Donald Moore Giles—grandson of the company’s founder, Donald Graeme Moore—it has weathered a myriad of crises that would have sunk most businesses and today is one of the top three manufacturers in the residential and hospitality design markets. But it wasn’t easy.

Moore & Giles (originally known as Don Moore Sales) was founded in 1933 after Donald Graeme Moore was laid off from his job as a purchasing agent at Lynchburg’s Craddock-Terry Shoe Corp. Although Moore started his company during the pits of the Depression, his leather “findings”—articles and tools used in making leather goods—found a good customer right off the bat: Moore’s former employer, Craddock-Terry. That relationship continued as one of the company’s strongest until C-T folded in the early 1990s, leaving Moore’s grandson, Donald Moore Giles (son of Donald Moore’s daughter and son-in-law, W. Vernon Giles, a partner), to find new markets for the company’s leather inventory. So he took a risk.

Giles, a former VMI football player who grew up in Lynchburg and joined the company in 1966, the same year his grandfather retired at age 88, led Moore & Giles into the home furnishings industry, but not by selling the commodity leathers (leather that is mass produced) that were prevalent at the time (and volatile in their pricing). Giles sought out and sold leather with natural tannages and finishes—the kind with distinctive markings that develops a rich patina with use over time. This novel fashion approach to the industry paid off, and the response was immediate and enthusiastic. Giles and his team developed new sources for leather in Europe, South America and New Zealand and those sources led to international sales. The once-small Lynchburg distributor soon became an industry force that today has markets in 56 countries on six continents.

As the century turned, the company, which today employs 60 in its recently expanded 120,000-square-foot warehouse, continued evolving, adding architects and interior designers to its list of customers. High-end hotels and the airplane renovation industry also signed on.

“We learned two things from losing Craddock-Terry,” says Giles, 71. “One was that we were spending too much time with one customer. That was 40 percent of our business. The other was that measured growth is best for the company.”

Shoe manufacturing “went offshore a long time ago,” says Moore & Giles Vice President Tray Petty, 42, who has been with the company for 20 years. “We saw a decline from 60 customers to three.” But, he adds, the year after losing Craddock-Terry as its No. 1 customer “was our best ever to that point.”  

“Sometimes desperation makes geniuses out of you,” says Sackett Wood, president. “Don saw the shift away from shoes coming,” and the company’s “mindset changed,” explains the 48-year-old who first started working for the company in 1990. The first leather Moore & Giles developed for the furniture industry, says Wood, is still a top seller and continues as a hot commodity because of the company’s ability to respond to changing consumer tastes, especially when it comes to color. “We’re out twice a year at fashion shows,” he says, “and color is often the theme.” The company has more than 500 leather collections. “The color blue is on trend in Italy right now and also grays,” says Wood. “We’re starting to see a lot of interest in different shades of yellow as well.”

Six years ago, the company began designing and selling a wide variety of leather bags and accessories: camera straps, wallets, leather-care products, luggage, briefcases, belts, equestrian totes, work aprons, backpacks, gun cases and more. A growing market in shoe leather is slowly luring the company back into that business. “Today, a small pocket of domestic footwear manufacturers run these leathers,” explains Wood. “The point is that these leathers are attractive to a broad range of markets, not just upholstery, but also footwear, ready-to-wear and handbags. I estimate it has grown to five percent of our business in a relatively short period of time.”

Moore & Giles is constantly looking for collaborative projects and partners, explains Wood. “We reached out to our mixologist friend Jim Meehan several years ago to design the Meehan bag and roll-up, because we saw an opportunity to deliver a bag for carrying his tools that was both stylish, functional and hadn’t been done before. To date, these are two of our best selling bags.” The company also partnered with Bulleit Bourbon. “Last year, they approached us to design and make the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Woody Tailgate Trailer for Neiman Marcus’ fantasy gift catalog.

“The trailer was based on a similar design we created in 2011 with celebrated interior designer Brad Ford for DIFFA [Design Industry Foundation Fighting AIDS]. Brad assisted in the design process for both trailers, and we used Roanoke-based Silver Tears Campers as the fabricator. Since our primary business is selling hides of leather to designers, it was wonderful to create a unique finished product that highlighted our leather’s possibilities and generated a lot of positive conversation about our brand.”

“People know our leathers,” says Petty, “and they come back for them.”

Part of creating a good product is retaining employees says Giles, who explains there’s a good bit more to a productive employee than a fat paycheck (though he says they pay competitively). “All too often, businesses look at the front-end cost for employees,” says Petty. “We don’t lose people, so we don’t have to retrain and sacrifice that productivity. .… Everybody here has a voice. Ultimately, executives have to make the decision, but we listen. Groups tend to make sound decisions.”

Moore & Giles recently added a fully-equipped gym and a full-time personal trainer to its staff. Many of the employees—including the top execs—are former athletes who “are all active people, and they take care of themselves,” says Petty, a former wrestler. “There’s a basketball goal out at the dock. The guys throw the football around on break.”

It’s all part of the adjustment, the evolution. There’s no standing still at this company.

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