Health concerns take Utah native from high-end banking to exclusive leather goods
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SALT LAKE CITY — BYU grad Curtis Calder was a rising star at banking giant JPMorgan Chase, making a name for himself as an investment strategist, when a devastating diagnosis indelibly altered his career path.
While Calder believed the nagging back pain he was experiencing was a vestige of an accident he was involved in years earlier, a 2013 visit to his doctor would lead to a diagnosis of facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, a hereditary disorder that his mother is fighting and one that put his grandfather in a wheelchair 30 years earlier. And the doctor let Calder know that to continue in his banking position might be the worst path forward in light of how the degenerative disease works.
"My doctor told me I needed to consider re-evaluating the long hours I spent sitting in front of a computer at work," Calder said. "I continued working for another year after the diagnosis … but eventually was convinced I needed to take a medical leave."
It was on that leave, and looking for projects that included some physical activity, that he revisited a wallet design he had come up with by folding scraps of printer paper.
"I had a wallet I loved from Venice, Italy, and another that I found in a market in Tokyo," Calder said. "I tried to find the perfect marriage of the two, but was never able to track it down … so I tried making it myself."
The wallet design evolved into a hobby that he shared with his wife, and they eventually began making wallets and bags for family and friends in their tiny New York apartment. Then, a friend who happens to be a designer for Tommy Hilfiger was over for dinner and told Calder that he was on to something and could probably "sell the crap" out of his designs.
"Because of my banking background, we started thinking, ‘Maybe we do try something,’" Calder said. "Even though I had zero design background, I thought maybe there is a little entrepreneurial bug inside of me.
"I didn't realize it would become this massive thing, something I never even dreamed of."
While on leave, Calder dipped into family savings he earned via personal investments to buy some basic gear to elevate the hobby to a new business. The first $5,000 became $20,000 then eventually $100,000 as the momentum of the effort started taking on its own life.
While Calder's education and professional experience place him squarely in the world of finance, he is the son of an aeronautics engineer and fashion merchandiser, and the path he pursued for Anson Calder products are the marriage of a minimalist design approach combined with extremely high expectations for material quality. That led him to a relationship with a 500-year-old French tannery that produces a calfskin leather that Calder said is unlike any other product in the world. And, while it was exactly the material he had sought to create his signature wallets and bags, it pushed prices to a level that was out of his personal comfort zone.
"We started making the products with this material, but it led to pricing in a range I would have never paid before … like $100 for a wallet or $1,000 for a bag," Calder said. "I started considering if we needed to find something that could meet more of the market."
But Calder became convinced that the quality of the French leather, the way it ages and its durability could not be replicated by anything else. A series of Kickstarter campaigns helped reinforce his decision on sticking with the high-quality leather. And in January 2015, the company, which bears the name of his eldest son who was named after Calder's great-grandfather, officially launched.
Anson Calder quickly built a dedicated following, even though the company did not market or advertise the products. Word of mouth drove the business and the manufacturing continued to take place in the Calders' New York City apartment.
"It was insane," Calder said. "It was my wife and I and our four kids in a 960-square-foot apartment. We were fulfilling so many orders that once we got a shipment of eight pallets of boxes that we ended up stacking to the ceiling and ended up building a maze out of them. Our kids loved it."
In 2016, the Calders tried their hand at a retail outlet for the business and opened a store in New York City's striking Occulus transit complex. In 2017, they opened a second store in the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle.
City Creek General Manager Linda Wardell said the shopping complex was seeing more and more companies that built their customer base via online commerce, like Bonobos and Athleta and now Anson Calder, opening brick-and-mortar locations that were contributing to "growing those brand to a whole new level."
Calder said the Salt Lake store has done phenomenally and the company is looking to expand its physical locations to European and Asian destinations.
Brad Robinson said he discovered Anson Calder while browsing through City Creek one day this fall. He ended up buying one of the briefcases, which feature a customizable interior that can match a customer's needs with an assortment of storage solutions. Robinson, who runs a genetics testing company, said it was just what he was looking for.
"I travel about 90 percent of the time," Robinson said. "I was surprised to find this very high quality bag that was also very personalized. I was able to find every component I needed to make it work for me."
To see all the Anson Calder designs, visit ansoncalder.com.
*All images: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News, at the City Creek Center store in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018.