There are those who fret over an investment gone bad before moving on, others who consider money lost a lesson learned. Then there’s James Hill, whose investment in an upstart custom boot company took this racehorse owner and retired equine veterinarian from Florida to El Paso, Texas, to rescue an investment that was quickly going south.
“I guess my due diligence was insufficient: They spent the money but didn’t make any boots,” Hill says of the team he invested in. After he flew to Texas and got a first-hand look at the business, Hill gave the management team the boot, so to speak, and set about getting the company in order and getting a new team in so he could get back to the business of retirement and of managing the racehorses he owns. That was 1996. Today, Hill still runs the now-eponymous custom boot company from El Paso, where he leads a team of craftsmen who meticulously design and produce J.B. Hill custom boots each day for clients around the country, around the world even.
The J.B. Hill team operates from a nondescript brick building not far from El Paso’s airport and, like much of El Paso, just a stone’s throw from the border of Mexico. The front office houses the showroom, where “walk-ins” — more likely those clients who prefer to fly to El Paso to get fitted and make their selections than to do it long distance — can browse and be fitted. In back is where the real business of making boots takes place, amid old Singer sewing machines and stacks of hides of every color and type, and where the smell of leather and glue permeates the air even before the team comes in to get to work.
At 7 o’clock sharp, the craftsmen — and all but one are men — come in to turn some of the finest hides available (elk, bison, kangaroo, stingray, and eel, just to name a few) into some of the highest quality boots a cowboy or city slicker will ever set foot in. Some of the workers are lifelong bootmakers and have been with J.B. Hill for as long, or nearly as long, as Hill himself. Most have learned the craft of bootmaking from other family members; this is a trade that’s passed down from generation to generation.
Before the day is over, the team will have made between just eight and 10 pairs of boots, and nearly everyone on the floor will have touched the boots in some capacity as they made their way through the production process. Not surprisingly, J.B. Hill boots command a premium price: Boots start at $825 but easily move into the thousands, depending on materials and design.