AR Accessories Group, Inc. History

Address:
4300 W. Brown Deer Road
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53223
U.S.A.

Telephone: (414) 371-6600
Fax: (414) 371-6300

Private Company
Incorporated: 1915 as Amity Leather Products Company
Employees: 1,100
Sales: $64 million (1996 est.)
SICs: 3172 Personal Leather Goods

Company History:

AR Accessories Group, Inc. is best known as the maker of the Amity and Rolfs lines of personal leather goods. Amity and Rolfs billfolds for men and checkbook clutch purses for women are fixtures in department and specialty stores ranging from discount outlets to fashionable high-end shops. In recent years the company has made a big splash with its Macro Bag, a miniature purse that found a huge market among the fashion-conscious crowd that had previously looked to other brands. AR Accessories, known until 1996 as Amity Leather Products Company, is privately owned. It is based in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area.

AR Accessories was formed as Amity Leather Products Company in 1915, by Robert H. Rolfs. Convinced that he could improve upon the personal leather goods that were being sold at the time, Rolfs rented a room upstairs from Peters' Store on Main Street in West Bend, Wisconsin, and using his entire life savings of a few dollars, he began designing, manufacturing, marketing, and selling his line of leather accessories. With the idea that fine leather goods made excellent gifts, he wanted to give his company a name that reflected the friendliness of gift giving. He eventually found just the right word to communicate that idea: Amity.

Early Expansion

Rolfs incorporated the Amity Leather Products Company in February of 1916, with initial capital stock of $25,000. Within a year the company had outgrown its one-room headquarters. Rolfs moved the operation in 1917 to another West Bend location, the third floor of the Hangartner Building. By that time Rolfs had 15 employees. Later that year he established a sales office in New York, from where the company's sales force could better service East Coast accounts. By the following year Amity was again bursting at the seams. The company expanded into the first and second floors of the Hangartner Building, which provided enough space for a work force that had grown to 50 people.

With the entrance of the United States into World War I, Amity shifted its operations to wartime production. Under government contract, the company began making leather jackets for military use. Returning to civilian production at the end of the war, Amity found demand for its goods higher than ever. Business continued to boom, and the company's sales force grew to 20 people, covering the entire United States from coast to coast. In 1924 Amity built and moved into an entirely new building of its own, on South Main St. in West Bend, outfitted with state-of-the-art leather goods manufacturing equipment. The new plant was staffed by 165 production workers, plus another 13 employees to handle clerical duties.

At about the same time Amity was moving into its new home, the company also began advertising its wares in magazines with nationwide circulation. These early ads used a line that would become the company's slogan for decades to come: "If stamped Amity it's leather." The ads helped shift company sales, already brisk, into even higher gear. Another expansion of company headquarters took place in 1930.

Revolutionized Wallets During Depression

While the Depression emptied out a lot of wallets, it had no apparent effect on the demand for the wallets themselves. Amity continued to grow steadily during the 1930s, emerging during that decade as the largest personal leather goods manufacturer in the country. In 1932 the company introduced a new line of high quality billfolds named for its founder. The Rolfs line was an instant success, and within a few short years merchandise labeled "Rolfs" was being sold by more than 5,000 dealers nationwide. Two years later Amity acquired the LaGarde Handbag Company and moved it to West Bend, where it operated as The LaGarde Division. The handbag operation was later renamed the Rolfs Handbag Division.

In 1937 Amity introduced a product that changed the wallet industry forever. Called the "Director," this new billfold was the first to include a number of features that have since become standard. Among the new wrinkles that the "Director" brought to the wallet market were the secret pocket, spare key pockets, and the "Findex" for cards and photos. As the first billfold designed to hold anything other than cash, the "Director" can be largely credited with turning the wallet into the multipurpose container it is for most men today. The "Director" quickly became the best-selling billfold the world had ever seen and the design against which all subsequent billfolds would be compared.

Amity added another new product, the travel kit, to its line in 1940. This addition took place through the company's purchase of the Eiseman-Kaye Company, which was known primarily for making a kit called the "Fitall." The Fitall soon became one of Amity's anchor products. Two years later the government again asked the company to retool its operation for wartime production. As a leather goods manufacturer, there was plenty the company could produce for military use without making too many adjustments. Among the products Amity manufactured during World War II were leather handbags for WAVES, WACS, and Army Nurses. Meanwhile, company founder Rolfs turned his attention to hawking War Bonds for the U.S. Treasury Department, a task for which he was officially thanked by the president.

Postwar Boom Brings New Products, Big Sales

In the hope of capitalizing on the sense of prosperity felt by many Americans after the end of World War II, Amity announced, to great media fanfare, the introduction of the world's first $100 billfold. The billfold was made of a special leather and embellished with a solid gold bar suitable for engraving the owner's signature. By 1946 the company was ready to expand yet again. A new plant was purchased in the Wisconsin city of Sturgeon Bay. A year later another plant went into operation in that town. Amity's handbag and travel kit manufacturing operations were moved to Sturgeon Bay.

Amity's expansion continued into the 1950s, as the company added space and manufacturing capacity to its West Bend and Sturgeon Bay facilities. In 1959 the company built a new administrative office building in West Bend, adjacent to its South Main St. manufacturing and office compound. Robert Rolfs died in 1965, exactly half a century after launching his company. Although shares of the company were available to the public for much of its history, and employees were able to acquire additional stock though a retirement plan, the Rolfs family, including longtime chairman Tom Rolfs, remained in control of Amity into the 1990s.

Although Amity continued to dominate the market for mid-priced personal leather goods into the 1970s, competition from European and Japanese manufactures began to heat up by this time. In response, Amity set out to explore new markets overseas. In 1976 the company established an international division to market its products outside of the United States. Meanwhile, Amity continued to advertise regularly in general interest magazines like Look and Life, emphasizing the expert craftsmanship that went into the making of their products. Growth remained steady, and in 1980 the company again found it necessary to enlarge its West Bend administrative building.

The 1980s: A Time for Image-Polishing

By the 1980s the market for mid-priced leather accessories was worth about $450 million, and Amity remained firmly in command of it. In addition to competition from foreign firms, however, Amity was beginning to face pressure from the trend among domestic competitors, such as Prince Gardner and Buxton, toward moving production operations overseas to take advantage of cheaper manufacturing costs. Rather than follow suit, Amity chose to focus on promoting its quality rather than competing strictly on price. "We built our business on quality products," Chairman Tom Rolfs was quoted as saying in Adweek's Marketing Week, "and we don't think we can maintain that quality by going overseas."

Instead, the company launched its most aggressive advertising campaign ever. In 1988 Amity produced a series of full-page color magazine ads that focused heavily on craftsmanship, using the tagline "Good Things Last." The following year Amity switched gears in its advertising and, instead, began to point more toward their products' prestige and fashion values. Focusing on style rather than quality, the company hoped the ads would appeal to women, who made up 85 percent of the customers for Rolfs products, despite the fact that nearly half of the company's sales were of products used by men.

Since personal leather goods are notorious for being bought mainly on impulse--very few shoppers make a special trip to buy a wallet or purse--Amity also concentrated on the way its products were displayed in stores. It was Tom Rolfs who pioneered the vertical billfold stand that is now the standard way to display a billfold in a department store or general merchandise outlet. By the end of the 1980s goods bearing the Rolfs brand name could be found across the entire spectrum of dealers, from Sears to Lord & Taylor. The price range for Rolfs' women's products--the chief item among them being the Rolfs retriever checkbook clutch bag--was $12 to $51, while men's leather accessories--mainly billfolds--sold for between $10 and $38. To support sales, Amity provided these stores with detailed sales guides that contained merchandising suggestions as well as comprehensive product information covering materials and construction.

New Ownership and a Hot Bag in the 1990s

Amity eventually did move part of its manufacturing operation to the Far East, but much of it also remained in Wisconsin. In 1990 the company finished work on a design center--an extension of its West Bend complex--that housed not only Amity's design staff but an employee fitness center as well. Two years later the Rolfs family, led by Chairman Tom Rolfs and President Robert Rolfs, sold their interest in the company to a management group led by John Rozek, who became Amity's president and chief executive officer. It did not take long for the new owners to strike gold. In 1993 the company came out with its "Macro Bag," a sort of mini-purse small enough to wear under a coat, yet big enough to carry a checkbook, glasses, and other essential handbag items. At four-and-a-half by seven inches, it was described in promotional material as "a wallet on a string."

The Macro Bag became an instant fashion sensation, quickly outselling the clutch bag that had been Amity's anchor women's product for years. The company originally planned to make just 30,000 of the bags, but immediately after they were introduced high-end department stores all over the country were clamoring for more. Amity, previously known more for sturdiness than style, was suddenly trendy. The company ended up selling about 400,000 Macro Bags by the end of 1993, at $25 to $45 a pop. The Milwaukee Journal quoted Cathy Loid, a buyer for major department store company P. A. Bergner, as saying, "This (the Macro Bag) is the hottest thing to hit this industry in 10 years."

By the mid-1990s Amity was producing a wide range of accessories under the brand names Amity, Rolfs, LaGarde, and Vangarde. In 1994 the company purchased the Connecticut-based New England Accessories, acquiring in the process the license to make the Duck Head Apparel line of personal leather goods. New England Accessories also produced a line of belts and suspenders.

In 1995 Rozek was promoted to the new position of vice-chairman. He was succeeded as president and chief executive officer of Amity by Lawrence Slowik, who previously worked as an independent management consultant. The year 1996 was one of transition for Amity under Slowik. In June, Amity officials announced that the company would leave West Bend, the only home it had ever known, for a location closer to Milwaukee. It was hoped that moving to a new site closer to Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport would make it easier to serve the company's far-flung customers on the coasts and in other remote markets.

In August of 1996 the company announced that it had adopted a new corporate name, AR Accessories Group, Inc., marking the first name change in its history. Of the change, Slowik was quoted by Business Wire as saying, "We're very proud of the Amity name, but it is closely identified with only one of our product lines. Our new name ... better reflects both the current scope of the company's products and opportunities for future growth." By this time AR had 1,200 employees scattered among its Wisconsin production and distribution facilities, manufacturing plants in Puerto Rico and Ireland, and a national sales office in New York. The company also owned 75 Wallet Works factory outlet stores located across the United States.

Meanwhile, AR Accessories found a new location that suited its needs. The company sold its West Bend building to the West Bend School District and moved its corporate headquarters into a facility in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, a northern suburb of Milwaukee. From its new base of operations, AR hopes to continue to dominate the personal leather goods niche that it virtually created and has led for most of the 20th century.

Principal Divisions: Amity; Rolfs.

Further Reading:

  • "Amity Leather Products Company Changes Name to AR Accessories Group, Inc.," Business Wire, August 29, 1996.
  • "Amity Leather To Leave Its Roots," Wisconsin State Journal, June 22, 1996.
  • Bednarek, David I., "Amity Leather Bags a Best-Seller," Milwaukee Journal, October 31, 1993.
  • Davis, Anne, "Amity Runs in the Family for West Bend's Conrads," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 5, 1997.
  • Duggleby, John, "Challenged by Foreign Competitors, Rolfs Fights Back With Force," Adweek's Marketing Week, December 11, 1989, p. 28.
  • Gray, Jacquelyn, "Amity Makes a Big Splash With the Macro Bag," Milwaukee Journal, July 17, 1994, p. G8.
  • "The History of the Amity Leather Products Company," 40th Anniversary, Amity Leather Products Company, West Bend, Wis.: Amity Leather Products Co., 1955.
  • McKinney, Melonee, "New Halston Small Leather Goods for Fall '98," Daily News Record, November 7, 1997, p. 18.
  • Schuldt, Gretchen, "Wisconsin's AR Accessories Sues Former Shareholders Over Tax Payments," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, August 29, 1997.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 23. St. James Press, 1998.