An Interview with Thomas Martin

Tannery Martin is a ten generation family business in Germany which only produces Oak Bark Tanned Leather, and the final product is familiar to every shoe aficionados, the leather sole.

Oak Bark Tanned leather is so sought after that using Jon Rendenbach or J.F.Baker even becomes the selling point of many shoemakers. With super long tanning time in the pit, the leather is so abrasive resistant which makes them better than those Chestnut tanned leather sole.

Tannery Martin is not so well known, however their tanning time is unbelievably 24 months comparing to Rendenbach’s 9 months and J.F.Baker 12. Talk about what is the truly premium leather sole.

Thomas Martin works with his father to manage the business and it is a great honor to talk with him.

It is very hard to find any information about your company, what is the reason?

We have been in this traditional business for more than 400 years, and we have many long term customers. We just want to keep them happy and work for even longer, so we never think of promoting us and reach to more people.

And also in Europe everyone knows everyone, if someone needs our product, he just talks to someone he knows in the industry and he will find us.

It is said that you are a ten generation family business, it is very rare and how can you make it in this vibrant world?

Actually, the family don’t even know which year the tannery was established. The rumored year 1620 is just because that is the record mentioned our family and trade in the local church, but before that, the tannery was already up-running.

We just focus on one product and keep working with the long term customers, I think we are just lucky.

So many tanneries have been acquired by the luxury group, great tanneries are very sought after, has Tannery Martin faced the same choice?

No, we have not been approached by those luxury groups. I think the thing like Haas was taken away by Chanel is because they wanted their (Chanel’s) money to expand, but for us, we think the current scale is good and we have nothing to ask for. And this is a family business, we have no intention to let it off.

We are happy to keep the tannery at this scale as everyone bigger than us does not exist any longer in Germany. When you overgrow, you will have more troubles and something may be too big to handle and the industry shift has much bigger impact on.

When talking about oak bark sole, people only know JR in Germany and J.F.Baker in England, why Tannery Martin is unknown even to many shoemakers?

To correct you, many bespoke shoemakers in Germany are our customers. J.F.Baker is only seen in England, and not so common in other countries in Europe.

Rendenbach is famous because they put many efforts in promotions and looked for expansion.

Rendenbach put the leather into pit for 9 months, J.F.Baker 12 months, but you soak the leather for 24 months! Why so long and what benefits do you achieve?

To be honest, this process has been set for so long that how long the tanning process does not affect our production and volume anymore. Even I can speed up the tanning process, I cannot offer higher volume as other process will be the bottleneck.

Theoretically, longer tanning time can let the chemicals better enter the leather fibers and react more thoroughly. Our tanning process can achieve very good water and abrasive resistance. But we don’t say we are better than the other two as the tanning liquid is different and the bendability is different, choosing which one is the preference of the shoemakers.

Mountain of cruched oak bark for tanning agent.

Fruits of the oak called Valonea. Thats the part with most tanning agent from the oak.

People in classic shoes industry talk about the close of Jon Rendenbach, it is a sign that leather sole is not loved anymore, how do you feel about this decision?

I don’t think so, the high end dress shoe market will be there for a long time, yes, it is declining in Europe, and maybe climbing in China and Asia, but it will exist.

The problem with Rendenbach is two aspects. One is Mr. Rendenbach is old and not married and has no child, and his nephew would take his role according to the plan, but it worked not well. I don’t know how long have you been watching this industry, today’s JR sole is very different from ten years ago products as its heavy promotion and expansion, high volume request made them put more leather in the pit which is not supposed to contain so many. And when pandemic situation comes and the slow down of dress shoes demand, they feel the business is not so sound so chose to close it up.

Does the Pandemic affect Tannery Martin very badly?

Yes, huge effect. at the beginning of 2020, we saw the demand plummeted 95%, only 5% remained.

But we kept our staffs and made them shift. Since we built very solid financial foundation from previous years (so many years), we went through very easily.

How can people buy your product? especially not in huge volume.

As I mentioned above, many bespoke shoemakers in Germany are our customers and they don’t buy in huge volume. But shipping one pair is obviously not very economically right, as for foreign customers, it is absurd.

Most of our long term partners are distributors in Europe, also three in North America, and three in Japan. So buying from them is good.

Tell us more about your future plan?

To be honest, we have no plan. My father and I work in the tannery everyday, and we are happy with what we are doing and will pass it to my child, what more can I ask for?

Machine built in the year 1903.. and still up to date.