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In the bag: Couple sews love into every handmade product

🕐 7 min read

It isn’t business as usual for Dave and Suzette Munson.

The entrepreneurial couple own several successful companies in North Texas and in Central Mexico. Two of those enterprises, Saddleback Leather Co., a multimillion-dollar global retailer of luxury leather goods, and high-end leather handbag and accessory company Love 41, are online-only businesses headquartered in Keller. Both companies also have a philanthropic aim. A significant portion of Saddleback’s profits and all of Love 41’s proceeds help people in need.

“We don’t do business to do business. We do business to reach people. That is why we do what we do,” Suzette said. “We love people. We love to help people, educate people, train people. We knew right from the get-go our businesses would be a ministry.”

The Munsons, both Christians, consulted with the director of missions at Dallas Theological Seminary to determine where and how they should give back.

“He told us we should give to the three Es: education, empathy and evangelism. Those three Es have been our model for our giving,” said Suzette. “We are interested in changing peoples’ lives to better them in all directions – physically, emotionally, spiritually – helping those who are broken to heal.”

The couple support charitable causes both at home and abroad. Saddleback produces primarily briefcases, bags, wallets and luggage from a factory called Old Mexico Manufacturing that the Munsons own in León, Mexico. The plant employs about 240 workers – the company also has 70 employees in Texas – and does contract manufacturing for Saddleback as well as other leather goods retailers. The company provides free day care and after-school programs for employees’ children through a nonprofit called Noe. Factory workers also can enroll in complimentary parenting classes, marriage seminars, counseling sessions, computer classes and English courses. Other perks include free medical check-ups and medicine free of charge when available.

“We want the next generation to speak English and to have all the opportunities their parents didn’t have,” said Suzette.

Saddleback Leather also donates some of its profits to other nonprofit organizations such as JDRF (which fights Type 1 diabetes), Mercy Ships, Africa New Life Ministries (ANLM), Young Life and a handful of other charities. The company slogan is simple: “Saddleback Leather Company exists to love people around the world through making high-quality leather goods.”

“We don’t exist to make ourselves rich. We have another goal. Most of our money goes back to the community. We have found so much joy in giving,” Dave said. “People can buy yachts or vacation homes but you can’t buy the joy we give from helping people. We don’t brag about our giving but we do want to be the inspiration for others to give. We’re showing you can use your business as a way to give to others.”

Fulfilling a need

Before it began transforming other people’s lives, Saddleback Leather first changed Dave Munson’s life.

In 1999, while working as a volunteer English teacher near Mexico City, Munson discovered that he needed a sturdy bag to carry his books. He found a leather shop and asked the owner to make a bag he had designed. When he returned to the United States, he started receiving compliments on the bag. People wanted to know where they could get one.

“Everybody went crazy for it,” he said. “I went back to this craftsman and had more of them made.”

Dave peddled the bags from the back of his car, then moved to Juarez, Mexico, and sold them there and in neighboring El Paso. He rented an apartment for $100 a month, slept on the floor with his dog, and lived without hot water for three years so he could save money to buy more bags. Saddleback Leather Co. was born.

“Saddleback is the result of several years journeying across North America with my dog, Blue, to create bags and other products made to outlast their owners,” he said. “Our mission is quality and character. Buy-it-for-life is important to us.”

Saddleback began growing quickly. In the meantime, Dave met Suzette on Myspace. The two married and Dave moved to San Antonio, where Suzette worked for famed businessman and philanthropist Red McCombs, and began selling Saddleback bags on eBay.

“We couldn’t keep up with the demand so I quit my job and started helping him in the business,” Suzette said.

The couple launched a website in 2004, and in 2008 they opened their factory in León with their business consultant. They bought out their partner’s interest in the factory in 2014.

In 2010 the Munsons made their first trip to Rwanda at the invitation of Africa New Life Ministries, an organization founded to help Rwandans recover from the genocide of 1994. Suzette felt moved to provide more help to the people of Rwanda still suffering from poverty, hunger and disease. Five years ago, the Munsons launched Love 41, which is run by Suzette. The retailer’s name is based on a Bible passage from Psalm 41, which states “blessed is he who considers the poor.” Love 41 sells leather bags and fashion goods aimed primarily at women, with all profits going to assist ANLM and other charitable causes.

The company supports a free day care it opened after raising $65,000 in two weeks. Impoverished women, many of whom are orphans, former prostitutes and young mothers, bring their children to the center to learn English and to learn about health and nutrition. Women can take sewing and tailoring classes to help them make a living and provide for their children. Eighty to 90 women a day come for the sewing classes as well as to attend a beauty school.

“It’s been fun to see the people grow and to see them changing, to see them become healthier and more mentally and financially stable, to see children learning English and getting nutritional meals,” Suzette said. “It’s so rewarding to completely change someone’s world for the better.”

Love 41 also offers a child sponsorship program. Sponsors pay $39 a month to help a Rwandan child.

“That takes a kid right out of poverty and puts them in education and really far more than that,” said Suzette. She and her husband, as well as their 9-year-old daughter, Sela, sponsor several dozen children. Earlier this year, Sela started a candle business called Sela Scents and gives all her profits to sponsor Rwandan children. Both Sela and Cross, the couple’s 7-year-old son, are being reared to give back.

“We want them to be outward focused, to be aware of people around them, to be aware of the need around them,” their mom said.

To date, the Munsons have escorted more than 350 sponsors to Rwanda to meet their sponsored children. The couple host two to three trips a year to Rwanda – both Sela and Cross were babies when they started traveling overseas with their parents – and through social media the Munsons and their teams document their trips and help raise awareness and get other people involved in their efforts.

Moving forward

Love 41 grew 150 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to Suzette, as more people heard about it and learned of its cause.

Saddleback Leather has seen consistent growth year over year, with 20 percent growth to date from last year. The Munsons purchased a Keller-based shipping company from Dave’s sister earlier this year, and they have added a home décor line to Saddleback’s offerings. They anticipate “a very good Christmas this year.”

The Munsons are planning to expand both Saddleback and Love 41 from their ecommerce home to a brick-and-mortar store. They recently signed an intent to open a 10,000-square-foot space in the historic horse and mule barns in the Fort Worth Stockyards. The barns are being renovated into retail, restaurant and office space and are expected open next year.

The Munsons expect the move to a physical store to increase sales and raise awareness for their philanthropy while helping build their brands.

“People will be able to see our products in person,” Suzette said. “I believe next year sales will be even bigger.”

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