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Tanya Van Der Water of Buckaroo Leatherworks: “Have courage”

Have courage — It’s sometimes hard to say what you want and how you want it done. In my experience, sharing my vision can be scary because the fear of rejection is normal, especially when 50 people are watching and counting on you. As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To […]

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Have courage — It’s sometimes hard to say what you want and how you want it done. In my experience, sharing my vision can be scary because the fear of rejection is normal, especially when 50 people are watching and counting on you.


As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tanya Van Der Water.

Tanya is the CEO of Buckaroo Leatherworks, an Australian manufacturer of tool belts and accessories for tradesmen. Buckaroo saw overwhelming success in 2020, with online sales growing by over 50%. They run a team of over 50 staff, and are now taking the next giant step of entering the US market.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Of course! Buckaroo began from super humble beginnings, as a one-man operation from our backyard shed in Sydney’s South West back in the ’70s. After emigrating from South Africa, my dad Ken Van Der Water set up his small workshop dedicated to handcrafting leather small goods. A chance diversification in 2000 saw our family business move into the niche area of tool belt manufacturing. After studying fashion and industrial design, I joined the business at this time. After my dad passed away in 2012, I continued at the helm and aimed for global success, which we are fortunate to be enjoying today.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

When I first took over the business, I made countless mistakes. I thought I had to know how to do everything and quickly burnt myself out. After about 18 months, I realised that my approach wasn’t sustainable if I wanted the business to succeed. Our successes are what keeps me motivated, and seeing how many people swear by our products. We’ve also formed a family here at Buckaroo, and that helps keep us going through tough times.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

I did a lot of foolish things when I took my first steps as the official CEO. Not having my Dad to fix my mistakes meant that I learnt the hard way. I knew nothing about finance or general bookkeeping, so when I saw money come into our account, I didn’t know the money should obviously go towards paying our suppliers, wages, etc. Instead, I spent up big on staff presents and short courses, trying to get everyone all fired up for the new road ahead! I had no idea I was running us into the red. I’ve come a long way and now know that there’s always someone out there that knows a helluva lot more than me. I can be my own worst enemy.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Something that I think makes us stand out from the others is our strong values that we carry with us through everything we undertake. Family values are extremely important for me in leading Buckaroo to success, and we make sure that our staff feel safe and valued coming to work. We are all one big family, and this carries over into our communications with consumers.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

My Dad used to tell me, “don’t walk around like you know everything”, and he was right. Don’t feel like you need to take on everything by yourself. If there’s something you don’t know, find someone who DOES know. Accept help when you need it, and you can then focus on utilising your own strengths to benefit the business.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’ve been in the business for almost 20 years, and have been with my husband for the same amount of time. Until 3 years ago, he had a career separate to mine; however, these days we work together. His entry into the business meant that I had someone holding me accountable. I didn’t have that before. Suddenly, I had an aid right next to me that knew my strengths, knew my weaknesses and was really able to push me in the right direction. He challenged me to step outside of myself and look in on the business — develop a new culture, lead from my own position and not my Dad’s, which was always a default of mine. He saw things that I wasn’t able to see because of how involved I was in the business, so his input allowed me to identify my place in it, with increasing confidence

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

A ”good” company to me is one that can maintain some sort of success and level of sales but isn’t necessarily taking new and innovative steps to grow and reach new heights. A “great” company is one that takes those necessary risks to make waves in an industry, as well as treating their employees well to bring them along for the ride.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Have courage — It’s sometimes hard to say what you want and how you want it done. In my experience, sharing my vision can be scary because the fear of rejection is normal, especially when 50 people are watching and counting on you.
  2. Be kind — It’s so underrated but leading from a place of care and kindness has been one of the best ways for me to also be kind to myself. It’s a natural part of how I like to operate now. Empathy and understanding go a long way when trusted employee/employer relationships need to be established.
  3. Have fun — I start and end everything with fun, no matter the process. I often think If it’s not making us smile then what’s the point? If there’s a problem to be solved, I make sure the people who love problem-solving are thrown at it. This way, enthusiasm remains at a high.
  4. Live the story — Creating your own authentic space within a competitive market means no one will be in a hurry to copy you, and more importantly, they can’t because it’s not their story. It’s my family story, my childhood, my struggles, my story. I don’t see any value in attempting to mold us to be anything other than what we already are, and that acceptance is powerful.
  5. Take the risk — Everyone takes calculated risks, it’s part of being in business. But there’s always that one big risk that can push you from good to great. Mine was moving my family to Canada for a year to establish our North American presence. It wasn’t easy, but it definitely was our gamechanger.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Sustainability is key for us, and long term vision is vital. Short term vision and not looking to see your place in the wider world may make you money, but I’m sure staff morale is low, and the pressure is on in those types of organisations. We all spend so much time working, and of course, work is a purpose that we all need, but applying added meaning to our day to day is especially important to us. Living and breathing our values and building a brand from the inside out is our small way of aiming to change the world and create a sustainable vision for the future. The value that we put on our staff and our quality processes give us a competitive advantage that our consumers can see in all that we do. Family is one of our company values for a reason — we hope that the way we treat each other in the business trickles out to the way we treat society outside of it. It’s also something that reflects our consumer’s values, which extends our purpose to beyond our factory walls and allows a significant point of consumer connection.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

It helps to find out what motivates you. If what motivates you is helping people, find a way to incorporate helping people into your business model, and you’ll wake up every day more motivated to succeed. Also, do things that excite you; take the risk, and you’ll have the outcome to look forward to.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

We have very regular business strategy meetings, where we discuss our current situation as well as the future situations we are aiming for and how we can achieve that. Forecasting is also essential for us as a manufacturing business, particularly during the unprecedented times caused by COVID.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

One of my struggles is, and probably always will be, exploring who I am through my business. I have brought so many of my weaker character traits into this business, and as a direct result, I wasn’t able to push it to its potential. Through personal development getting to know what makes me the person and therefore leader I am today, I have grown and shaped the leader and person I want to be tomorrow. Things like people-pleasing and a deep fear of rejection are so harmful for a business leader to carry. So, being able to move away from that has opened up so many opportunities for both myself and the business. I lead with a much clearer head these days.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

When we first began selling our products online, we didn’t have to do very much to gain hype and encourage sales; they just came in on their own. Now that we have the manufacturing capacity to produce much more product, we have worked hard to increase conversions. We are lucky enough to have a full in-house creative team that works on campaigns, shareable content and gaining brand awareness, which all help solidify our brand identity and establish solid relationships with our end-users. In turn, this has boosted our conversion rate tremendously.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Honesty and transparency are important for a brand to gain consumers’ trust, so we don’t hide anything from our customers. We showcase our employees on our website and let the customers know the faces behind the brand. We want consumers to relate to our values and our stories and understand that you are buying into an experience more than just an item when you purchase a Buckaroo belt.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

We have a team of people designated to providing high-quality customer service in a timely manner, so customers feel heard and acknowledged.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

We have a digital marketer on our team who handles all of our social media, and we’ve found that a mix between sharing our own content and reposting our customer’s content wearing our gear has been successful. We’re also very active on social media and engage with comments below our posts as well as messages on a daily basis. Of course, there’s risk with any form of public media, but in our case, it has helped to boost awareness of Buckaroo and connect us on a more personal level with our end-users.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Going back to the errors I encountered when starting out as CEO, it’s good to have a comprehensive knowledge of many things, but you don’t need to be an expert in everything. It’s in your best interest to ask for help when you need it and sometimes put your pride aside to prevent getting burnt out early on. Also, making a schedule for your daily tasks is super important to make sure you don’t drown yourself in too many commitments at once.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to make it mandatory for all businesses to have women’s and men’s groups as part of the staple day to day activities. The idea of sharing stories, identifying unknown commonalities and finding strength in storytelling is something that I see of real value. So many people bury their worries and internalise a lot of fear and pain, and I believe COVID has actually made this worse. Showing love and support in a trusted and open environment really breaks down those walls and allows teams to operate with less judgement of one another and a kinder outlook of themselves. I believe this would increase productivity and provide a safer space for people to undertake their regular workday.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can follow what we’re up to on Instagram at @buckarooleatherworks or check out our website www.buckaroobelts.com.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

Thank you! It was a pleasure.

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