Forbes | From Bees to Business
The Caltik brothers learnED about the relationship between craftsmanship and nature in their early childhood, when their grandfather taught them HOW TO BEE-KEEP. Daniel, the elder brother, got his first hive at the age of 13 and became the youngest registered beekeeper in Slovakia. It was while working with bees that he learned about finances and acquired a patience which would later help him to build a successful international leather goods and ACCESSORIES business. He named the business after his brother Benjamin and his beloved bees. Today, he and his brother are expanding, adding another brand, called Caltik Bros, to Benny Bee Leather. He is even considering, after years of hard work in business, returning to beekeeping.
Daniel was always more eager to explore than his brother Benjamin. „We didn’t have much money so the first long journey I made was by bicycle,“ Daniel says as he looks back on his childhood, „I always wanted to experience other cultures, it was always a pull for me. My cousin and I were passionate cyclists: we would take two weeks bike trips to Austria and Slovenia. I felt free. That’s why straight after finishing secondary school, I went to London for the summer. I thought I would get there and find work straight away. But it didn’t work out like that. It’s a completely different world and my English wasn’t that good then. I lived with 20 other people in one apartment and went through lots of different jobs. I was in a restaurant for a few days, then at a car wash. Every Slovak goes through the same things at the start."
It didn’t put him off though and although he came back to Slovakia to go to university, he still wanted to experience more. He had studied civil engineering in secondary school and the next logical step was the Technical University in Bratislava. He stayed for a year before he decided to go to Edinburgh. „I continued learning English in Bratislava by listening to the radio. One day I came across BBC Scotland. I liked it and after that it was the only station I listened to. The English was so northern – the accent fascinated me,“ Daniel says. He read up about Scotland and decided to have an adventure. Ten years later, he can still clearly remember his arrival in Edinburgh. „I went to Arthur’s Seat, the hill around which the city is built. I looked around – on one side was the old town, full of history, and on the other side was the sea. It was a defining moment for me. I realised then that I wasn’t going to be going back to Slovakia anytime soon. I followed that feeling and wasn’t let down. I guess I’m the kind of person who does that.“
Things weren’t easy in the beginning. He had only 500 euros which he had managed to save up and even missed the cut-off date for university applications. Daniel had lots of different jobs during the year: he was a barista and worked as a labourer before starting up his University studies again. „At first I made the same mistake andstudied civil engineering again. I thought that at home I hadn’t enjoyed it because the teaching was out of date. In Edinburgh it wasn’t out of date and I did quite well, but it still wasn’t my thing. So I went to look at a different faculty. The business campus was on a small hill, surrounded by a golf course, there was green everywhere and you could see the ocean. I guess I have a weakness for the ocean, because it always persuaded me to do something,“ Daniel laughs. „I applied to study business and that was that. Since then I haven’t made any mistakes and I found myself. Until then I had been still searching.“ The course was interactive and dealt with real projects. It was four years long and included the chance to do an internship and try a semester abroad as part of the Erasmus programme.
„I would spend every summer during Uni away somewhere. I traveled the whole of South and Central America, and lots of Asian countries. During my Erasmus stay in Amsterdam I came across a strong Moroccan community, and through them you can get flights to Marrakesh for a few euros. I had a free weekend and so I went there for a few days,“ Daniel smiles, remembering the journey that changed his life. On the second day in Morocco Dani went to the Sahara, where he met Hassan. Around the same age, Hassan worked for a German firm and spoke English well. „He had this black leather briefcase. It was massive, I noticed it immediately. I‘d never seen anything like it and I really liked it. You could see it was handmade. Through Hassan, I then met the person who made it and he took me to his workshop.“ Daniel quickly sketched a design for his own bag and the craftsman managed to make it before he left. After he returned to Amsterdam other students and even people in the streets asked Dani where he had got the bag from. He realised there might be some interest in a product like this. „It was one of those moments when everything comes together, when you know what you’re here for and what you want. I always had some kind of relationship with nature and handcraft. Handcraft has always impressed me, even more so in combination with business. I wanted a tangible product. From that moment on I was sure of myself. Not that I hadn’t been before, but this was different.“
It was difficult at the start. Although he had a good base in technical drawing from secondary school and university, he knew nothing about leather. „During the summer I went back to Morocco for six weeks. I had a number of sketches prepared which were to be the basis for my first collection. I wanted the local craftsman to make it and I would learn alongside him as he did.“ He arrived during Ramadan, it was hectic and also one of the hottest summers of the last ten years. Temperatures went up to 46 degrees Celsius. He rented a cheap apartment on the outskirts of Marrakesh and during the day would draw sketches and spend time with the craftsmen. „Some of the designs were very specific. The craftsmen had the skills to make them, but not the right leather. It’s one thing to put together a briefcase but another to create a backpack that you can roll up. The leather has to have a completely different structure and character, it has to be more greasy. The leather traditionally made in Morocco, despite not using chemicals and being high quality, it quite dry and stiff.“ He realised that while they could execute designs, they simply didn't have the right materials and tools for what Daniel envisioned. „Communication wasn’t simple either. Nothing functions there on the basis of a contract and the political situation can change there at any moment. It’s a completely different culture. The price of labour is relatively cheap but you often find that you agree on something and then three days later you find out the price is different. You base your expectations on certain information and then you suddenly have to change your entire business plan. I learnt there that I wanted to have the entire production process under control and be in charge of everything from start to finish. Every step. That was in 2013. I don’t know where the time has gone since then.“ In Morocco he also found out what tools he needed. „You don’t need that much, you can manage basic designs with maybe 15-20 tools. You buy your first set, make 20 backpacks with them and the cheap tools get blunt and aren't sharpened easily. The price for quality tools is ten times higher. One fork, which is used to puncture holes in the leather, can cost 100 euros! They’re not mass produced so they cost more. You can’t get them in Slovakia, so we mainly use tools from the USA or the UK.“
After returning to Edinburgh he and his brother Benjamin, who had arrived to improve his English after finishing university, set up an improvised workshop in their apartment. They both became immersed in Daniel’s idea. They watched videos on craft techniques on the internet and tried to copy them. They learnt to sew by making credit card and passport holders. “We realized that we were doing quite well. The theory behind it isn’t that complicated, it’s more about skill and precision, paying attention to detail. As teenagers my brother and I made radio-controlled model airplanes and they had wingspans of about 2.5 meters. With planes, you can’t be a millimeter out here or two millimeters out there if you want it to fly. The centre of gravity is everything. We had to be completely precise. After that, making a backpack wasn’t that much of a problem. It was unbelievable how much that helped us, just like looking after bees...” Daniel recalls: “I wanted to be like my granddad and for the sake of one hive I spent the whole winter reading books about bees, expanding the knowledge I had gained from being with my grandfather. I wanted to know more, whether it was about the anatomy of bees or modern beekeeping methods. The following year, I expanded the hives by three families and in three years I was looking after 10 hives. I had to think ahead and adjust my finances so that there was enough to buy tools and sugar for the bees in the winter. I use the same strategic and long-term thinking in business today."
Daniel got the BennyBee brand up and running during his last year at university while Benjamin was drawn back home. „I was working on my thesis and at the same time putting together the business, seven days a week. 2014 was filled with the idea that this was going to be a business and I stuck to it. The backpacks started to sell, people liked them and nothing could stop me,“ says Daniel, describing the early days of the business. Instagram really helped with online sales and people loved the photography. „A friend of my brother is a well-known photographer for the BBC. He usually does travel photographs. A photographer costs a lot of money and we didn't have that much but he offered to help us out and spent a few days with us shooting. My brother and I modeled the first photos and later I managed to get a female friend of mine from Uni involved. She was a professional model and had even been in Vogue! Things started going well.“
Demand grew and the space in a three-room flat was no longer enough. Through an advert, Daniel was able to find a place in Edinburgh and employees. „At first it was just someone to help in the workshop, but he later became a craftsman. We currently have three employees and some seasonal workers. When they started none of them were qualified, but they’ve all learned since.“ The business is improving every year and turnover has grown 50% year-on-year since the firm’s inception. This year they raised prices after adding better quality metal to products. Most leather goods producers use the same type but the brothers‘ perfectionism and attention to quality meant they wanted to use something better. Daniel explains: „You buy a quality backpack and you get the same metal as on everything else. We did some research and found out that the best is pure, solid brass. We looked for years for a supplier in Europe but we couldn’t find one. Eventually we got someone in the USA.“ In addition to their own designs, they also provide tailor-made products. They can help with designs if a person has a general idea of what they want. For example, some customers may require a backpack made to fit and over-sized laptop or tablet and because Daniel and Ben are in control of production they can meet the customer’s demands. Tailor-made BennyBee products are mainly looked after by Benjamin in Slovakia where their new premier brand, Caltik Bros, is being set up.
„With regard to design, my brother and I had a different vision,“ Daniel clarifies. „But we both wanted elegance - Caltik Bros. represents a meeting of our differing characters and ideas. We came up with a product which wasn’t right for BennyBee – its shape is softer – and so we decided to found a second brand. This was in 2015.“ They inherited their grandfather’s house in Hurbanovo and decided to use it for production. They refurbished it themselves and Benjamin lives in a part of the house today. „We saw it as a good opportunity and I was ready to go home.“ the younger brother says. „We design the products together and I‘m responsible for the production operation of the Caltik Bros. brand while Daniel takes care of marketing and sales. We have one employee here in Slovakia and we work with another very good craftsman who has his own workshop. He does various prototypes for us. Production involves three of us, more or less, and a part-timer when there’s a lot of work.“Caltik Bros. currently offers eight different designs in four colours for men and two for women. Prices for Caltik Bros. products are set higher than those for Benny Bee because of the leather. „A backpack is made from leather cuttings. The bigger the cutting, the more expensive it is. When we make smaller backpacks from the BennyBee collection we use smaller cuts of leather. Additionally, the less flaws the hide has, the more expensive it is, sometimes twice as much, and that‘s reflected in the price of the luxury product.“ explains Daniel.
They personally met with many suppliers across Europe before starting work with leather producers in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Direct contact and relationship building was very important as the traditional tanneries work mainly for large-scale buyers. The leather is tanned in a traditional process without chemicals using oak bark tannin. This sustainable technique takes a number of months and is much more expensive than other methods. The focus is also on natural colours only. „At the moment, a completely natural leather colour – before it is dyed or tanned - is very popular. The leather we use patinas, its colour changes. It darkens in the sun and use and it acquires a unique character. People love it. They buy something and it changes with them as they grow older!"
The bag will last customers' whole lives. "This is also partly due to the brass rivets we use. We found that, even in instances where we had made a mistake during production, we couldn’t take the bag apart! Our competitors use copper rivets, but with some more in depth research we found that actually brass rivets are strongest. There’s only one supplier, based in the USA. They’re indestructible. We also sew with two needles so the stitch is equal and won’t come out - this is called saddle-stitching. The thicker threads we use are more robust and can‘t even be fitted into a machine.“
The brothers got the startup capital for Caltik Bros. mostly from profits from the Scottish brand. They invested 60 thousand euros alone into refurbishing the house. They began developing the new brand at the start of 2016, making prototypes. Caltik Bros. was officially founded in June and sales began on their own website in January this year. Similarly to BennyBee, direct customer contact is mainly through Instagram. „We’ve sold hundreds of items so far. There’s been a good reaction from people on Instagram and Facebook“ says Daniel.
Despite moving towards higher volumes they plan to keep production handmade and are already training more workers. „Schools for bag and belt makers and saddlers have closed, at least here in western Slovakia. We look for people who are skilled, have an attention to detail and are precise. Luckily, the rest can be taught. We don’t want to change our philosophy and slip toward industrial production, we want it to remain a real, traditional craft. We think it has a certain charm and, in today’s world, it is so rare. Abroad, especially, people appreciate it. The priority is to continue to grow in quality over quantity.“ Nonetheless, they are prepared to expand – they have space and plan to build additional workshops if there’s great demand. They currently have the capacity to take another six employees.
The brothers may be focused on the new brand at the moment, but they haven’t forgotten about BennyBee and are planning something very new. Having had only an online presence until now Dani is planning to open their first showroom in Edinburgh. „It won’t be a traditional shop that you go into, buy something and then leave. A craftsman will be making our products right in front of the customers‘ eyes. It will create a sense of community and connectivity to the craft. We want people to feel a bond with us, to value our products and identify with them. Not just materially, but in terms of the production as well. t’s important for us. The core of our philosophy is to create a product which is slow fashion and ecological“ Daniel explains.
With regards to Caltik Bros. it is also crucial to the brothers that the tag clearly state 'Made in Slovakia'. „There’s a neutral perception of Slovakia on the world market. People don’t know whether it’s positive or negative when something is made here. We wan’t to create something positive and give the country a good name. We also want to be completely transparent. The Caltik Bros. brand is made, designed and sold from Slovakia,“ Daniel explains. He pauses, thinking, then adds: „Maybe I want to give our country something back, pay back my debt for leaving.“