A Life of Climb Podcast Episode 6 – Burns 1876 Braydan Shaw on Staying Ahead of the Curve Through 145+ Years
Burns 1876 CEO Braydan Shaw shares how he balances 145+ years of company tradition with a relentless spirit of innovation. Plus, Braydan discusses how viral TikTok videos and a spot on the hit TV show Yellowstone have brought Cowboy swagger to a new generation.
Discover how the company has:
- Found a new and distinct customer base in recent years
- Repeatedly innovated while staying true to company vision and long term approach to success
- Encouraged their team to challenge one another to avoid groupthink
- Built a thriving and collaborative family business due to “supportive diversification” and communication
Braydan Shaw (00:04):
“If you’re not green and growing, you’re ripe and rotting,” really speaks to forward progression. You can’t just stay the same. We’re a company that’s pivoted many times, and that’s how we’ve been able to stay in business, now knocking on the door of seven generations.
Sam Reese (00:23):
Hello, this is Sam Reese, CEO of Vistage. Welcome to another Life of Climb podcast. I’m here today with sixth-generation president of Burns 1876, Braydan Shaw. Braydan, welcome.
Braydan Shaw (00:36):
Sam, thank you. I’m honored to be here and to visit with you and tell you a little bit about our Burns story.
Sam Reese (00:42):
I know that this has been a generational success for you. Tell us just a little bit about the business. How did Burns start?
Braydan Shaw (00:50):
The Burns story really is the story of the spirit of the West, and our founder Miles was born in a wagon in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Sam Reese (01:01):
Company established 20 Years before Utah became a state
Braydan Shaw (01:02):
Yeah. And then migrated to Utah, and we’ve been there since. So he struck out on his own, and took his father’s name at about 13 years old, and doing work as a day work cowboy, so he basically did ranching activities. And all this time, he was honing in his leather skills, and he saved up enough money, and right by the gateway to Capitol Reef, a little community called Loa, he set up Burns Harness and Blacksmith’s Shop. And that’s really how we got our start, and that was in 1876, so still 20-some years before Utah was a state, we were established. So our family has always been very entrepreneurial, willing to pivot, and move, and adjust as things change, and always seeking to do better. That’s really how we got our start, and we had a successful harness and blacksmith business, and my great-grandfather was actually the first person in Salina to ride in an automobile as they came through town.
Innovating to stay relevant with the rise of the automobile
Braydan Shaw (02:05):
And naturally, if you’re making your living with work harnesses and saddles, the automobile industry is going to be a game-changer. And it was really the automobile industry that sustained our business. Until about 2011, it was the biggest sector in our business, and that was just noticing something new, noticing there was new problems, and solved them. My great-grandfather Verne invented what was called the pickpocket, which is a collapsible storage pouch behind a truck seat, and had that patent, and sold it all over the country. And then his son and my grandmother purchased the business after my grandfather’s military career, and she actually invented automobile seat covers.
Sam Reese (02:53):
Braydan Shaw (02:54):
Yeah. Really creative lady. Super intelligent. Really only an eighth-grade education, but had an amazing imagination. And my great uncle came in looking for a blanket that we used to make saddle blankets from, and he was going to take this blanket and lay it across his truck seat, because back then, automobile seats were made out of vinyl, so they were hot in the summer and cold in the winter. And she says, “I can do you one better.” And she used her imagination, and the first seat cover was built, and he worked at an auto dealership, and the first 12 were sold that day, and it grew to where it was 24/7, three shifts of sewers, and they were sold all over the nation, and she ran that part of the business until she retired in 2011 and we sold that part of the business.
Sam Reese (03:47):
When did you first hear of this story? I’m just wondering as a kid, growing up in the family.
Keeping history alive through storytelling
Braydan Shaw (03:52):
Our heritage is very important to us, and we can learn a lot of lessons from our predecessors. So that’s been a big part of our culture, is retelling those stories. And when we have problems, we’re able to lean back on our ancestors and find answers. Very much keeping that history alive and telling those stories helps us have gratitude for the past and put things into perspective.
Sam Reese (04:20):
What I think is so amazing about your story is there’s no bigger example that anybody references when you talk about automobiles replacing the horse and buggy. I mean, that’s in every business class, everything you’ve talked about, yet you guys faced that dynamic head-on and actually thrived by turning your business towards the automobile industry.
Braydan Shaw (04:39):
Our entire business model changed with the advent of the tractor, really, because we were mostly harnesses, but as the Model Ts came through, they needed their tops covered and fixed, and trunks made, and we started doing all those things, and it just became a part of what we did. We’ve always had a working saddle shop and a working leather shop, but it’s evolved. The automobile industry has been a big part of what we’ve done, and what’s cool about the Burns family is each progenitor has been super supportive of the next generation, taking the business a different direction.
Balancing innovation vs. tradition
Sam Reese (05:19):
Now as the leader of the business, between this tradition that’s so ingrained, and the fact that you’re also an innovation-based company, how do you balance that innovation and tradition?
Braydan Shaw (05:30):
We have one simple lens that we look through: If it makes it better and faster, we do it. If it makes it faster, but not as good, we don’t do it. So that’s what we’re looking for. We’re really focused on making heirloom-quality products. So we want to be able to use the best resources we have available to build the highest quality product that we can. And it’s interesting for future generations, as the workforce is getting smaller, I think there’s going to be a little more automation in about everything. So finding that balance is probably going to be tricky for us as we grow and the labor force shrinks a little bit.
Sam Reese (06:14):
There was something else that really struck me on this quote, and this was the one from your mom, that said, “You’re either green and growing or ripe and rotting.” Explain this one to us. What did she mean by that when she used that phrase?
Braydan Shaw (06:28):
Yeah. I think it’s just that, “Keep moving forward.” Just trying to get a little bit better every day. We understand that there is no flat-lining. There is no pause. We’re a company that’s pivoted many times, and that’s how we’ve been able to stay in business, now knocking on the door of seven generations.
Culture of collaboration
Sam Reese (06:49):
What a great role model. When I see this culture of collaboration at Burns, it’s described as a campus environment. Can you tell me what you mean by that, and why do you talk about it that way?
Braydan Shaw (07:00):
We talk about our production facility as a campus-style environment. We’ve had many pivots, like I’ve mentioned, along the way, and one came in 2012 and 2013. We were a really large department store retail outlet, so we sold all other brands alongside of our brands. And at that time, we thought e-commerce was the way of the future and Amazon channels and eBay channels, and we developed an EDI to pull directly from our vendors into our channel and our lane. And about six months after that launched, our first manufacturer became our competitor, and then it kind of started … It was just a snowball rolling downhill.
Braydan Shaw (07:44):
And then we saw that this was going to be a race to the bottom, in things like work wear and other things that we carried, so we pulled back and we abandoned that part of our business, that department store part of our business, which was about 65% of our sales at that time. And we pulled all of our craftsmen into a 13,000-square-foot building that was constructed like a campus. So the silver shop, where the silversmith worked, was right next to the hat shop. Across the hallway was the saddle shop, and upstairs was the boot shop.
Braydan Shaw (08:20):
And we were able to collaborate, and we were really able to build this amazing team of craftsmen, that we have a six-month young ranch kid that’s interested in learning the craft, working alongside of a silversmith that’s been engraving for us for over 40 years. And we’re able to pair that knowledge with this youthful energy in a way that’s non-threatening for the older craftsmen. They know that their position’s secure with us. We give them accolades for those that they train up in the craft, and they’ve really, that’s part of our culture, is training the next generation. Sometimes they say our craft is dying, but for us, it’s living. We’re training it every day, and that’s what we mean by a campus-style environment. That they’re all right next to each other, they’re working with expert craftsmen, and we’re teaching a new craft every day.
Sam Reese (09:22):
It sounds like an apprenticeship model, right?
Braydan Shaw (09:25):
It is. Yeah. That was really prevalent in our industry until about the early sixties, and then it went away. As things became more industrialized and line manufacturing came in, things changed, and that went away, and we keep that alive.
Expanded customer base
Sam Reese (09:43):
When you think of the typical Burns customer, the one that is your loyal bread and butter, tell us who that person is.
Braydan Shaw (09:51):
So it’s changed, and it’s recently changed, but I’ll say we have two ideal customers. And our ideal customer on the resort side, so that’s really our heritage luxury brand, where we sell the high-end sterling silver and gold belt buckles, the hats, and the exotic leather boots. Our ideal customer there is [a] 60-plus-year-old male that grew up idolizing John Wayne, Hopalong Cassidy. They’re collectors of our stuff. They’re the clients that will commission $90,000 belt buckles or $80,000 saddles because that’s their nostalgia. And they’re really a core customer of ours. And in the horseman lane, which is still our largest sector of our business, the saddles and the tack for the horses, it’s equestrian athletes. So high-level equestrian athletes buy our saddles and compete in them. Those who make their living in the saddle ride a Burns saddle.
Sam Reese (10:58):
What a great brand, I mean, because it basically says for the brand it’s the best of the best, right?
Braydan Shaw (11:04):
Yeah. And that’s what we try. Everything we do is heirloom quality. We don’t want anything we build to end up in the landfill, and we want it to be passed down for generation[s]. I have my grandfather’s hats, and his boots, and his belt buckles, and they’re part of his persona, and that’s what I remember about him, and I’m able to keep those and pass those on. And that’s the kind of product that we want to build.
Sam Reese (11:29):
Tell me about some of the new products, newer goods and services that you guys have expanded in. What are some of the new areas over the last few years?
Braydan Shaw (11:37):
One thing, I said our demographic is changing a little bit. In the advent of TikTok, we’ve had several TikTok’s go viral and have millions of views, and we’re definitely reaching a younger crowd, and that’s mostly in the lane of the hats, the cowboy hats. Hats are big in fashion. We build hats for the TV series Yellowstone, which has been an awesome feather in our cap and has really helped the industry, and helped us specifically as well, because we were able to build a lot of that product. But we’re selling to the Gen Zers, if you will, and they appreciate quality, and they appreciate the story, the heirloom quality products that aren’t going to end up in a landfill. They’re more conscious.
Braydan Shaw (12:23):
So it’s been surprising to me over the past two years, how many $1,000, $1,500 pair of boots, or $600 hats we sell to young 20-somethings that really appreciate the quality, that don’t have as much disposable income, but they choose to buy our products, because they know that they’re going to last and they appreciate that they’re going to be with them on their journey. And it’s awesome to see that we have that next generation stepping up, that next generation of consumers.
Sam Reese (13:44):
These last two to three years have been sort of crazy for all of us as leaders. When you think about these last two to three years for you, in what ways have you seen yourself maybe grow specifically as a leader? New challenges, new learnings, new insights. What have you seen in yourself in these last couple years?
Braydan Shaw (14:01):
Through challenges, I think, is where we do most of our growing. It was really challenging. At the start of the pandemic, 90% of our business went away when our stores closed down. So we are a very high-touch product, and we had to adapt and do more online commerce. But through those challenges, we grew closer as a leadership team, and we got into better cadence as an organization with our meetings, with our structure, because we knew that we needed that. When all this information is coming from all different directions, we needed to stay focused. And so we really increased our meeting cadence and made them more fruitful and productive meetings, and that’s really helped us going forward.
Braydan Shaw (14:56):
Coming out of the pandemic, and as things have eased up, and the business has got better, we’ve continued those meeting cadences, and I think that’s really helped. It gave us time to pause and to spend more time on our culture, to really spend more time on our people and our people development, and that’s been beneficial for us. We’re coming out of the pandemic way stronger than we were when we went in, and that’s been a blessing. That’s one thing we didn’t expect, but it has been great.
Braydan Shaw (15:31):
The other thing that’s really helped us is being part of Vistage, to have a Vistage peer group that you can bounce things off of. We’re all in different industries and have different challenges, and when our business was struggling the most, it was nice to have that group of peers to rely on, and Jason, our Vistage Chair, has been very helpful navigating challenging times, and helping us really work on our culture. He’s been a great driving force for our increase and we’ve continued to stack our best months after best month these last 18 months. And it’s been an amazing journey, but out of that challenging six months, as we’ve became a lot better as a leadership team.
Sam Reese (16:18):
Love to hear that. It’s such a common thread from the people that have emerged stronger, the things you just walked through, Brayden, and especially this belief in doubling down on your culture and really believing in people. I mean, I think that’s what the pandemic showed so many people, is we can have our best plans, and processes, and systems, but it comes down to great people. Great people is what makes businesses successful, and I know we’ve had that same experience ourselves.
Sam Reese (16:45):
Tell me about this Yellowstone partnership. How did that come about, that partnership, and how has it paid off for the business?
Braydan Shaw (16:53):
A big advantage was the first three seasons were filmed in Park City, right? So it was filmed in our backyard. Working with the film industry, I found that they’re on a tight deadline, and we lend ourself to that type of schedule. We pride ourself in custom products, but we also have inventory. We have stock. So they can cast a character that afternoon, and we can have their four wardrobes made up by the next morning by 8:00. It was convenient for them and us, and we were able to build some really cool product that’s seen internationally, and it’s made a big impact on our business and the industry in general. It’s one of those things that’s really springboarded us to the next level and opened a lot of doors for us.
Sam Reese (17:42):
When you talk about your business, it’s had so many reasons for being successful, and I just love how you have things so grounded in tradition and story. I love that, but if you extracted that, you’d say, “Three reasons why we continue to win and will continue to win moving forward,” what would you say those are?
Long-term approach to success
Braydan Shaw (17:57):
I would say that being mindful of your surroundings and the landscape you’re in, and then being able to pivot. Our business has been able to pivot and progress, when if we would have still been harness makers and blacksmiths, we would’ve been out of business by the second generation, for sure. So seeing those opportunities and being able to pivot as we’re aware of our surroundings. And we’ve found some of our greatest successes in solving problems. The invention of the seat cover was just solving a problem. The seats are hot in the summer and cold in the winter. So that problem-solving ability, and being able to harness a little bit of creativity has been super helpful for us. And I think that as we’ve moved past the first three generations, we’ve been mindful and have seen value in a long-term approach. Having that foresight to understand that sometimes we definitely overestimate what we can do in the short term, but we underestimate what we can accomplish long term. And so I think those have really helped Burns thrive and continue to grow, as our surroundings, and our landscape, and the industry have changed.
Sam Reese (19:20):
That seems like a tremendous advantage, the way you just described about the long term, right? When you’re not thinking about just what happens during your tenure, or what happens in the next 10 years, when you have this view of the next six generations, you talk about the ability to solve problems, and being creative, how do you have the discipline to figure out which are the right problems to solve? There’s a million things you guys could be doing. What is the discipline that drives you to say, “That’s the one. We’re going to go spend time on it”?
Staying true to vision amid option overload
Braydan Shaw (19:50):
That’s probably the most challenging thing we face as a leadership team, is option overload, right? There are so many opportunities out there, and we’ve set a growth model, and we adhere to it. So we don’t want to jeopardize the past and future generations by going after something quick, so we really do look at it through the lens of, “Is it enhancing our customers’ experiences? Is it creating heirloom-quality products? And is it built in the spirit of the West?”
Braydan Shaw (20:27):
And it is challenging to maybe pass on some opportunities, but every time we have, we’ve found a better opportunity, one that aligns with our vision and values better just around the corner. And we’re conscious of upholding the integrity of what our forefathers have built, so there are certain things we don’t put in jeopardy for a quick buck, and I think that that steady growth is important to us, so we’re able to do it our own way. We’re able to remain family-owned. We have a large family, extended family of team members that’s growing every year, and we’re able to do it at a pace that we can build this as a family.
Braydan Shaw (21:15):
We have a longer runway than some companies to upskill. If you start in the company as a basic laborer, and you have dreams of being in the marketing department or in finance, we have a runway and a path for someone to work into and to progress in the company. And our leadership team now is comprised of a team that I’ve worked with for … some of them up to 20 years. No one’s been on the team less than 15 years, and have a great understanding of where we’ve been, and where we’re going, and that kind of trust. The trust that’s built over time like that really makes us a good, cohesive team, and so far, whatever we’ve put our mind to be able to accomplish, we’ve been able to do. And having that foundation, we’re not looking to start a business to sell and cash out, or we have a really long view. Like you said, six more generations. “What are we going to do to set up the 12th generation to be more successful than we are today?”
Sam Reese (22:25):
Just from learning a little bit about you. I know you definitely have a lot of humility. Just listening to you in this discussion, you were talking about learning from others. I just wondered if there’s any other insights or advice, maybe along your leadership journey, you could pass on to other leaders that’s been helpful to you, as you’ve found yourself growing as a leader.
Braydan Shaw (22:46):
One thing I believe that has been a challenge for me, and as I’ve grown into my role, it’s now I’m at a role where I’m getting challenged less. And finding a way in our meetings and as a group to make everybody feel comfortable and confident to challenge me as a leader, I think that’s super valuable. We never want to have a meeting that we have just groupthink. So I’m always conscious about proposing a question or a problem and being the last to speak.
Braydan Shaw (23:24):
And I think that’s something that I’ve recently started getting better at, because especially when you’ve been in the business all your life, if you were to cut open my head and look down, hats and boots and saddles are what’s swimming around there. That’s all I know. So to be able to take those blinders off and to get different perspectives, and to challenge my team to challenge me, that’s been super helpful. And something that I’m working on and we’re working on as a group is that more open communication, that everyone feels free to share, and everyone has the opportunity to be heard, and is confident to speak up.
Tips for a successful family business
Sam Reese (24:06):
I have one final question. You’ve obviously got a very close family. You work together. How do you maintain that sort of harmony between all these family relationships and you’re so intertwined in the business? What’s the secret to your family, and making sure that you still remain a great family and a successful business at the same time, and you don’t let those relationships become difficult on either front?
Braydan Shaw (24:30):
Supportive diversification has been really helpful for us. I have two sisters in the business, and my parents are in the business still, and we all have our own lane, but we’re part of the same organization. My sister runs one of the largest Equestrian events companies called Burns Events, and puts on million-dollar barrel racings. And we’re intertwined. We’re able to work with each other and be supportive, but we’re not stepping on each other’s toes. My youngest sister is our VP of Marketing, and that’s her lane and her passion. So that diversification, so we all have our own role, has been important. And then communication. That strong communication, so there’s no hard feelings, and everyone feels like they’re able to be heard.
Sam Reese (25:20):
What a pleasure spending time with you. Just so thankful for you telling your story, and just a pleasure to learn more and get to know you a little bit. You’ve certainly are, you and your family, a great success story.
Braydan Shaw (25:32):
Yeah. Thank you. It was an honor to be able to share our story.
Sam Reese (25:38):
Thanks for joining us for this edition of A Life of Climb podcast. Friendly reminder to please subscribe or follow the podcast to get all the latest episodes, and please visit vistage.com/podcast for more resources to support you on your leadership journey.