Rios of Mercedes, the legendary Rio Grande Valley boot-making enterprise, was founded in 1853. Over a century-and-a-half later, they’re still kicking. What’s the secret to building a business that lasts? We talked to Rios CEO and co-owner Trainor Evans for insight into this long-standing success. Read on for five important lessons on creating a company that stands the test of time.
- Make the best product you can. Here’s what you can expect from a Rios of Mercedes boot: stitching that, though delicate, doesn’t fray, supple yet sturdy leather, and soles that hold up in both city slicker and ranch hand environments. This is because at Rios of Mercedes, quality is a way of life. Rios craftsmen hand make every pair of boots with artist-like devotion, ensuring no boot leaves the workshop unless it’s perfect. In fact, Rios is so serious about quality that they hesitate to hire boot-makers from other companies lest they bring any “bad habits” with them. The result of all this? An extraordinary product. The payoff? Legendary customer loyalty, sales at nearly 500 retailers, endorsements by performance horse greats and musicians alike, and frequent commissions from fine Western wear retailers like Kemo Sabe, Pinto Ranch, and more. As Mr. Evans says, “you get out what you put in.”
- Also, be sure that product is useful. When deciding what to produce, heed this cautionary tale. Remember the cupcake craze from earlier this decade? Across America, candy-colored “cupcakeries” popped up on every corner. It seemed like a great idea – who doesn’t love cupcakes? – but the little stores have not lasted. We’re no experts, but we imagine that as the economy dipped and our health-consciousness grew, spending $5 on a cupcake suddenly seemed… impractical. This would never happen with cowboy boots. Here we have the second lesson from Rios of Mercedes: focus on a product that people will use for years to come.
- Adapt with integrity. This mantra has protected Rios throughout the decades. Here’s an example: For many years, Rios made most of its income by hand-stitching custom boots, a tedious and time-consuming process. Things were going well until the mid-1970s when a machine was invented that could out-stich even the finest craftsman in a fraction of the time. Good news for large-scale boot producers, bad news for Rios.
Rather than fading into obscurity, Rios of Mercedes surprised the boot world by buying one of the new machines (Evans swears it’s the only technology he’s ever known to do the job better than a human). With the machine on stitching duty, the legendary Rios craftsmen could devote their skills to all other aspects of boot-building. The result? Increased production without sacrificing quality. This change ultimately allowed Rios to create their other best-selling boot lines Anderson Bean, Macie Bean, and Horse Power Boots. By adapting their business model – not their product – Rios of Mercedes positioned itself to reach new markets and gain more loyal customers. Are you taking notes yet?
- Treat your people well. The average Rios of Mercedes employee has worked there for 18 years. By contrast, today’s average worker stays at his or her job for less than five years. Why do people stay at Rios for so long? Perhaps it’s the potent combination of loving your work and being recognized for it. The leadership at Rios has been known to name the individual who made a boot just by looking at it. Or maybe it’s the company’s pervasive family vibe. This is literal – Rios is both family-owned and given to hiring family members of current employees – as well as figurative. Communities become families when they share a common passion (in this case, boots) and spend lots of time together. Whatever the reason, the team at Rios of Mercedes is like a family, and families stick together over time.
5. Be a good guy. Talking to Trainor Evans, it’s immediately clear that Rios of Mercedes has its priorities in the right place. The company gives credit where credit is due: Evans named the Anderson Bean line after his mother and mother-in-law because he wanted to recognize their critical behind-the-scenes work. They give back to the town of Mercedes with steady employment and community engagement campaigns. And they don’t play dirty with the competition. In fact, to hear Evans talk of it, the boot industry seems downright chummy. It was Sam Lucchese of Lucchese Boots who warned Evans about the stitching machine. Later, the team at Tony Lama boots would pay in full for Lucchese’s medical bills when he fell ill. Rios of Mercedes keeps to the same code. If good guys finish first in the boot world, Rios of Mercedes is right at the front of the line.