Entrepreneurs with boots Stock Show brings out creativity with a Western flair

Tom McCain makes horned toad figurines that do well in the home of the Horned Frogs.

Entrepreneurs aren’t just found in the high-tech industry or medical fields. Visitors to the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo can find the entrepreneurial spirit alive and well during the show.

Among the 200 commercial exhibits vendors, the 2016 product lineup ranges wide – a few returning or new samples being Krazy Goat Socks’ mohair creations, Nanny’s Best Oatmeal Goat Milk Soap among other soaps and lotions, Ramblin Trails Custom Boots’ new heavier-ostrich leather options and Elkhorn Trading Co.’s moose hide bags and elk antler lamps – and Horny Toad Connection Inc.’s metal jewelry for fans of the horned lizards.

In 1976, Vietnam War veteran, jewelry maker and metals smithy Tom McCain made and sold his first “Horny Toad” figurine, a lifelike though small image of one of numerous endangered horned toad/lizard species. It joined his lineup of turquoise jewelry and pewter and wax re-creations of many other animals. In 1980, Albuquerque-based McCain issued his first brochure that also included educating prospective customers on the plight of and efforts to save the horned toads from the fire ant invasion, habitat loss to land replanting in non-native grasses and pesticide use.

“Sales tripled in six months,” McCain said recently at his Stock Show booth, marking his 22nd year at the show. He now markets at six retail and four wholesale shows a year.

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In 1986, he dropped the other animals, focusing solely on figurines and jewelry in realistic images of several horned toad species. Hundreds of offerings have come out of his castings. He sells what he designs and makes, sharing an Amon G. Carter Jr. Exhibits Hall booth with Fort Worth-based artist Melissa Kohout selling her pen-and-ink drawings (often with water color washes) of the Horned Frogs (actually horned toads), featuring TCU-oriented themes.

At the 2011 Stock Show, after TCU’s upset win in the Rose Bowl, Kohout’s “The Prize” – her rendition of a victorious and defiant Horned Frog proudly sporting a red rose from its mouth – sold out repeatedly, the first 10 prints going in 10 minutes and then 40 more at nearly the same pace, Kohout said. “I was pretty giddy.”

McCain wasn’t surprised, the Stock Show being his No. 1 single show-retailing venue.

“If you had told me at the beginning what I was going to do and how successful it would be, I’d have said you were nuts,” McCain said. “The retail shows have delivered my livelihood for 43 years. I also supply a lot of stores.”

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Aledo-based Elkhorn Trading founder and former major aircraft manufacturing supervisor Larry Fanning said, “I make everything I sell. I don’t duplicate.” A rare exception has been a collectible jewelry piece. He also gives unique “re-modifications” of collectible guns.

Unlike McCain’s focus on a wide variety of creations based on a solo-theme, the horned toad with its varying looks by species, Fanning chose pioneer, Native American, Old West, nature and other rural themes for wide product variety. Retelling related history, he details his methods while manning his Brown-Lupton Exhibits Hall-South booth.

There and on his www.elkhorntrading.net website are displays of unique vests, shirts, other apparel, bags, costumes, custom knives (with handmade handles and blades), home furnishings, jewelry, lamps, chandeliers, bear carvings/sculptures, re-creations of Native American apparel and tribal artifacts, and more. He also makes bows out of Bois ’D Arc wood.

Using deer and elk antlers; deer, elk, moose, coyote and other animal hides and furs; steel and other metals; mesquite, tiger maple and other woods; buffalo and other animal bones and teeth as materials – he assumes unlimited options – Fanning said his variety reflects his dedication to never being repetitive or bored.

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Also an author, Fanning offers his books – including The Wild Ones: Law Men, Outlaws, Warriors and Lewd Women – hand-bound in buffalo hide.

“I’m fortunate to be able to do what I want to do,” he said, crediting his 34 years in the aircraft industry for giving him his startup opportunity for Elkhorn Trading. Fanning worked at both endeavors for 20 years, but went solo with his Elkhorn venture full-time 16 years ago, making his family “a good livelihood.”

“I would have done it sooner, 40 years ago, if I had known what I could do full-time,” Fanning said.

In 2010, Goldthwaite-area goat and sheep rancher Glenn Spenrath diversified vertically. He was already producing mohair and wool with his flocks and moved into the yarn and apparel sectors with the Krazy Goat Socks Co. Three contractors make the products to the Spenraths’ specs.

While wife Kristal and 17-year-old daughter Alex Spenrath stay home to tend the goats and sheep, he’s the marketing arm, and like nearly all entrepreneurs, has a website, www.krazygoatsocks.com. Their socks debuted at the Stock Show last year.

One of the Krazy Goat Socks marketing slogans: “from the hoof to the foot.”

Among the one-of-a-kind Stock Show exhibitors, the 10-year-old Ramblin Trails Custom Boots produces custom “true made-to-measure boots” at its Fort Worth Stockyards site.

“It is a traditional thing, and a dying breed,” said Trey Castleberry, sales and marketing chief and partner with founder Clay Miller.

Being at the Stock Show is a must for a company with 60-70 percent of its customers being working ranch cowboys and rodeo cowboys, Castleberry said.

“We don’t advertise anywhere, with the exception of a Facebook page, and that’s it,” he said.

There is great demand for Stock Show exhibit space, reflecting its importance to entrepreneurs and other business operators, including some major retailers and corporations.

“We’re always full,” said Jay Blackmon, Stock Show & Rodeo commercial exhibits manager.

Indeed. Blackmon said the 2017 Stock Show & Rodeo commercial exhibit space is already selling out, with indoor and outdoor booth/sales space demand exceeding supply by hundreds of prospects.

Blackmon said she expects a welcomed boost to available exhibits space with the forthcoming new $450 million multipurpose arena facilities and plaza (expected to debut in 2020 or 2021). The Stock Show will rent the arena for its rodeo; some of its other space could go to exhibits.

That demand is also rising in part due to craft and antique shows dwindling under the competitive rise of antique/craft malls, stores and flea markets and especially online shopping via proliferating Websites while door-to-door selling continues to decline, according to current exhibitors. Entrepreneurs, they said, are filling the marketing gap with the perennial livestock and horse shows, other trade shows, rodeos, conventions and fantasy entertainment shows like the Scarborough Faire Renaissance Festival at Waxahachie.

“The door-to-door salesperson is a dying species,” said exhibitor Elizabeth Smith, an independent entrepreneur who added selling vanilla extract and other products of the 148-year-old J.R. Watkins Co. two years ago. Once common across Texas and the nation, the door-to-door J.R. Watkins salespeople “are hard to find now,” she said.

Many of these entrepreneurs have found their way to free TV exposure for their products; many rely on word-of-mouth advertising; some have tried advertising in nearly all communications media. Websites are prevalent.

More than once, Texas Country Reporter and morning television programs have featured Arvel Davis Boatner and his Nanny’s Best All-Natural Skin Care products. “I’ve never paid for TV,” Boatner said, a favorite among returning Stock Show visitors since his Nanny’s Best 1992 debut here.

An articulate and witty salesman, Boatner said, “I treat them (potential customers) like I want to be treated. I never once put myself above anyone else. Common courtesy pays dividends, and I never try to oversell. … That’s how I was raised.”

Boatner aims to find a need for his products for every booth visitor. If so, he proceeds to wash their hands (jewelry on) with his Nanny’s Best All-Purpose (cactus juice) Cleaner. “I never put a lotion on without washing their hands first,” he said, citing more skin care results that way.

“I fill that need,” he said, noting that he uses wit and humor to boost his selling chances. And the Stock Show, other livestock, trade and earlier craft shows plus in-house company break-room presentations have been big sales boosters, along with TV exposure, he said.

Hamilton-based Boatner and his family raise goats and make all their products – with no chemicals added — either at home or in a processing plant they partner in with other product makers. “I work every day,” Boatner said.

McCain also remains hands-on designing, making and marketing: “I do all the castings.”

He was already full-time in his business in 1973, earning his family’s livelihood with his turquoise jewelry, cast pewter figurines and jewelry, wax models and related products.

While dropping the other animal-focused products, McCain developed unique creations – all given authentic horned-toad likeness and his brand name – proliferated from figurines into scatter pins, earrings, necklaces, hood ornaments, bolo ties, zipper handles, belt buckles, key chains, hatbands and more.

An endangered lizard that many Texans, New Mexicans, Californians and others recall from their childhoods can drive a successful marketing effort, said Earl Palmer, a helper for McCain and former proprietor of The Hide in the Fort Worth Stockyards.

“Everybody loves horned toads,” said Steve Acre, a show marketing assistant to McCain and good friend, adding that education was a must for the marketing. “People want to do the right thing.”

While trying a few new products with likenesses of other lizard species, McCain advised one youngster buying any Horny Toad: “If you see one, be kind to it.”