A history of Gfeller Casemakers as far as I understand…
Roy Gfeller and his wife Mertie lived near Aurora Colorado in 1946. Roy was scraping by on a small acreage raising a few cows and doing part time saddle building and repair. He was an outgoing individual and made friends easily. Little is known about the ranching operation other than his desire to one day have his own place and raise purebred Short Horn Herford beef cattle. Much more information is available concerning his leather work. His journal contains details of saddle construction and most importantly shows an early disposition for purchasing only the best materials. High quality materials and attention to detail are to be vitally important in developing his future business as a Casemaker. His reputation for using only the best parts of the hide in his products will help to spread his work to every corner of the globe.
A geology professor nearby became acquainted with Gfeller. Upon learning of his leather working skills a special request followed. With a rough sketch in hand, he presented an idea for a belt pouch to be used by his geology students, in 1946. This pouch would be large enough to carry a standard field book (approx 4-1/2” x 7” x 5/8”), have pencil loops and scale pockets on the front panel and a flap long enough to protect contents on the inside and front panel. This prototype would evolve into the still produced FCX field case and became a near instant success. A wide variety of high quality Geoscience related tool carriers and protectors would soon follow. A ready market was found in nearby Golden at the Colorado School of Mines.
By the early 1950’s, the US Geological Survey with headquarters in Denver was busy with the inventory and development of uranium and other strategic mineral deposits. The rapidly growing force of geologists and field scientists required equipment for field studies. Roy Gfeller, aided by his wife and partner Mertie were suddenly swamped with orders for leather goods. Quality trumped quantity at every turn and established Roy Gfeller Casemakers as the source of equipment that could be trusted to provide long service in rugged use. Hammer Carriers, Field Belts, Compass and Field Cases with the Gfeller cartouche would be recognized at mines and exploration projects worldwide in a few years time. Gfeller produced specifications for field equipment would be adopted by the USGS for all leather items stocked in their supply depot. Astronauts in training for the Apollo missions to the moon would train for that longest distance exploration and rock sampling project with Gfeller gear.
From that chance encounter in Aurora a thriving small business grew. With little outside assistance Roy and Mertie hand-built leather goods for a quickly growing Geoscience profession. Roy maintained the ranching dream for several years through moves to Franktown, Colorado and Big Timber, Arlee and Polson Montana. Finally settling in the Spokane, Washington suburb of Trentwood in the mid 1970’s, he would focus on the Casemakers business from then on. Though his health declined in later years Roy Gfeller was at his bench building field equipment in the tradition of the western saddler until his passing in 1983.
The mid 1980’s brought a special challenge to Gfeller Casemakers. Though continuing to produce, the demand for field equipment had taken a nose dive. Reduced demand was due primarily to the sudden exit of major oil producing companies in the US and abroad from North American mineral exploration. The attraction of profit potential had drawn big-oil into mineral exploration and added hundred of geologists to a vast array of field projects. Their exit spawned an unprecedented downward spiral in geo-employment and the need for Geoscience field equipment.
Steve Derricott had experienced success as an exploration geologist and was looking for a career change in 1985. He felt there was a potential in the Gfeller Casemakers business that had not been developed. His idea was simple and he had the history of cyclic metal prices and exploration demand on his side. He knew that the reason for hard times at Gfeller Casemakers was due primarily to a down cycle in field crew employment. The historical response of mineral exploration activities to fluctuating metal prices suggested that an upswing in demand was to be expected. If he could acquire the business and learn the operations while demand was low, the Company would be poised to grow when demand returned. He believed the key to long term success, for the company, was to diversify before the sure to follow down swing arrived. With help and constant support from his wife Lori, the Derricott team rebuilt Gfeller Casemakers. They were fortunate to attract custom manufacturing work that solidified the business and spread the demand away from seasonal Geoscience to year-round contracts. Customers as diverse as electronics manufacturers and custom knife makers to the Military Academy at West Point New York helped to grow a diversified Gfeller Casemakers. Changing markets have challenged the company and new products have been added to the lineup.
A custom order request for a calfskin notebook cover (2007) would prove very fortuitous. Not unlike the request to build a student geologists field pouch, over sixty years earlier, this notebook cover and its acclaim on the internet launched a demand for new items to new customers. Suddenly Gfeller Casemakers became the focus of blogs and tweets by customers that had recently discovered the profoundly functional notebook covers and personal leather products.
We are a stronger organization today because we have never departed from Roy’s insistence on premium raw materials, no nonsense designs and most importantly we enjoy our work.
I have been blessed with good friends, devoted family and a profession that sustains and fulfills me. I hope to keep at it for a long time to come.
Steve Derricott 3/18/2011
An Interview with Steve Derricott
What led you to purchase Gfeller Casemakers in 1985? Steve enjoyed some success as an exploration geologist. Most of his work was in the Western US. He worked on precious and base metal projects as well as uranium, coal and geothermal resource investigations. Gfeller field equipment was and is still the standard for field geologists and engineers. He enjoyed the challenges of the geologic exploration profession but wanted a more stable family life. Purchasing Gfeller Casemakers allowed him to stay close to the geology profession in the building of field equipment and enjoying some consulting geologic projects.
What drew you to the products? Steve used the products in his earlier work. He knew the requirements for the work environment, several of the Dealers for the Gfeller products and many field geologists and engineers.
Why were/are they so prized by geologists? Gfeller field equipment was developed with user input. The very first item was a belt carried field case for geology students. Basic design requirements were provided by a geology professor in Colorado, where Roy Gfeller was a part-time saddlemaker. Western saddlers build rugged functional saddles that are comfortable for both horse and rider, using the finest raw materials available to assure strength and safety as well as long life in the saddles. Gfeller successfully brought the quality materials and durable construction methods of western saddlery to geoscience field equipment. Field and exploration geology is a close nit profession and word of this new equipment spread quickly. Customer/user input provided ideas for several new products and the line soon expanded to include a variety of belt cases, tool carriers and scientific/engineering instruments.
The first field cases were built in 1946 and a complete line of field geology equipment was cataloged by 1949-50 when Gfeller relocated from Franktown CO to Big Timber, MT.
Have your clients changed over the years? When Steve and Lori Derricott purchased Gfeller Casemakers, Inc. they developed a business model with a goal of diversifying the product line. A conscious decision was made to avoid horse tack and sporting goods items. They believed the business would fare better and build a stronger product and customer base by focusing on niche market items. Ideally, these new items would be developed in response to customer input, just like the geoscience items, fulfill a genuine need to help workers perform needed operations in a more efficient and comfortable way. New items would use the same very high-quality leather and hardware. Construction techniques would continue to echo those of the western saddler. Functionality and uncompromising quality in materials and construction would always be maintained.
How have you diversified the product line while staying true to the brand? Historically, Gfeller field equipment and diversified product offerings have always leaned to functionality as the number one requirement. Then the item is built with only the finest available leathers, hardware and findings. We understand the raw material and the several construction techniques employed to build products that are functional, durable and esthetically pleasing. We love the work we do and take special joy in talking to customers and friends about their experiences with our equipment. We always have an ear open to suggestions for improvement on all levels. Our relationships with suppliers and customers span decades in many instances… we know each other well and work to establish and grow long term relationships.
What sets your products apart from more mass-produced leather goods? We build to need, apply our time-tested cost and pricing formula based on a standard cost analysis. Price reflects our costs and a fair margin for our invested labor, overhead and capital costs. We don’t build to a price requirement… we believe that is a surefire way to allow compromising of material quality and/or production methods into the business. We build it right, price it fair and let the customer make the choice. It has always been this way with Gfeller products.
What product(s) are you most proud of right now? It would be hard to pick one or even several products as we are equally proud of all our offerings. Our greatest pride is in the relationships we have built with customers and Dealers. They hold the future of this company.
What does the future have in store? We have maximized production in our current location. A planned relocation will allow room for limited expansion in our professional workforce with ample space to improve efficiency in operations as well as store front sales. We have some interesting product entries that will be offered near term and a list of new and classic products we will explore. We are very optimistic about the future of Gfeller Casemakers.
Gfeller Casemakers, Inc.
Meridian, ID USA