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Uber Tannery Bankrupt

Scott M

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Bankrupt Minnesota tannery owner tells hunters 'I'm sorry'

by Dave Orrick, St. Paul Pioneer Press

The owner of a storied Minnesota tannery that has gone out of business has apologized to hunters whose cherished animal hides have been caught up in bankruptcy proceedings.

Jared Rinerson, who filed for personal bankruptcy last month, agreed to face hunters who showed up at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis looking for answers Tuesday, Sept. 19.

"Yeah, I want to talk to people," he quietly told his attorney, Barbara May, after she briefed a crowd of 15 hunters on a plan to return their hides. "I'm heartbroken this happened."

The 15 who attended the event are among more than 700 people who own thousands of hides that fell into legal limbo when Rinerson walked away from Uber Tanning Co. this summer.

The plan to return the hides, or finish work on them, could start in 10 days, part of a larger business deal between lenders and other tannery operations to resurrect Uber. Details of the deal, which has not been finalized, haven't been released. A source connected to it told the Pioneer Press that he's optimistic, and May relayed similar sentiments, emphasizing that neither she nor her clients are in control of the deal and have little standing.

Jared and Shawna Rinerson were the sole owners of Uber. For more than a century, the company took in raw hides of big game such as deer, elk and moose and turned them into custom clothing, gloves, gun cases and other garments and accessories in its Owatonna tannery and sewing plant. The Rinersons, of Ham Lake,

bought the company in 2006 from the Uber family and in the past year had shifted some operations to Ham Lake.


"We ran out of money," Jared Rinerson told the Pioneer Press on Tuesday in his first public remarks since it became clear Uber was in trouble.

Rinerson said the company struggled since 2010, when flooding on the Straight River damaged equipment in the Owatonna tannery. Insurance didn't cover it all, he said.

Things snowballed this past winter and spring.

"We couldn't keep up, and we had to do something to get some money," he said, referring not only to his business, but his family finances. "So I went out to North Dakota."

Rinerson landed a sales job associated with the oil rush, and stationed a relative to run the business. An accident left the relative paralyzed, he said, further straining efforts to keep the business running smoothly.

Numerous customers, some who paid in advance, have said they were told in the spring that their hides were nearly completed, but they never received a finished product. By July, their inquiries were met with non-functioning phone numbers, full voice mailboxes and locked doors at Uber's facilities.

Why didn't Rinerson notify customers?

"It all came quick in the end," he said. "A mass letter costs $1,500. I didn't have $1,500. I didn't have $50. I had to borrow money to get gas to drive to North Dakota."

He said his "biggest mistake" was not taking his wife's advice to close down the company sooner.

He said he tried to arrange for other tanneries to take over unfinished work, but nothing could be finalized.

What is his message to the customers?

"I don't know what to say. My heart is broken by this. I never intended to do it. Everything is still there. I signed over all the assets to the bank, and I've given my commitment to go in there and walk through the inventory and identify all their belongings."

He relayed similar sentiments to the hunters when he spoke to them following the proceeding.

The source connected to the possible deal, who has spoken on condition of anonymity because nothing is finalized, has said all the hides are in good condition, and the inventory tracking system seems to be in order.

Rinerson said most raw hides sent in from last year's hunting season likely have been tanned but not yet dyed, but that none should have begun to rot.

Like many customers, Roland Wells of Minneapolis appeared to take Rinerson and May at their words, although several were frustrated by not being furnished with contact information for the people who might eventually distribute the hides. May said those involved have contact information for them, although Rinerson accepted names and phone numbers from several.

"Thank you," Wells said to Rinerson. "I'm sorry you're going through this. You do good work."

Rinerson nodded and looked down. "I'm sorry," he said.


Legally, the bankruptcy case has no jurisdiction over the hides, a point that court-appointed Trustee Timothy D. Moratzka emphasized at Tuesday's event, a meeting of creditors.

For a federal courthouse matter, the proceeding was attended by an unusually high number of men wearing camouflage hats.

There is little chance that any customers will receive money back, but several said they were hopeful their hides could be returned.

"I'm gonna give it 10 days," said Art Meadowcroft of Plymouth, who sent 22 tanned hides and two raw hides to Uber to be made into an assortment of vests, jackets and gloves.

"I'm gonna be optimistic. Satisfied? No. Not until I get my hides back."

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You would have to go out in the woods to get it but my guess is the yotes may have it by now. It was a nice short haired hide though.

I never keep any of my hides unless it is during the gun season and someone has a hide box to donate it. MDHA use to and may still have those boxes one can donate too.

Now, if it was from a trophy elk that may be a different story.

Guess I simply do not care about what happens to me hides. Heck, I did not even keep the rack.

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I've loved the product, but the business practices were bad BEFORE the flood. I've spent hours on the phone since they've taken over trying to explain that I'm not paying twice for my hide. How did I have receipts but they couldn't track them down? I've believed in the product and given them a lot of money over 20 years, but the problem lies somewhere in the business practice.

I hope they can figure it out because I've been saving hides to make jackets for my girls and will have to look elsewhere to get them done. It was nice having them close to home.

Also they don't just have hides. I feel bad for the situation, but they also over the past few years have made everyone pay 1/2 up front. So really they have customers hides, cash, and memories.

A courtesy letter or phone call would have went a long way, but I never got one.

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A last-of-its-kind Minnesota tannery with a century of history appears to have been saved from oblivion.

Members of the Uber family this week announced a deal to buy back and restart their namesake Uber Tanning Co. in Owatonna, which for more than a century took in hunters' rawhides and turned them into custom clothing and accessories.

Uber closed this summer amid a bankruptcy that left hundreds of hunters with little recourse to reclaim their hides. Now, there's a plan to restart the tannery, accept hides from this fall's deer hunting season and finish the work on the existing inventory.

The backstory behind the Uber rescue is one of a family that is emerging from retirement to resurrect their namesake and a banker who spent his nights rummaging through deer hides in various stages of preservation, to save the company and his own financial hide.

"I want people to rest assured that those hides are here, but it's going to take some time to work through everything," said Lanny Uber, the sixth-generation Uber to run the tannery.

Uber was the president of the tannery and clothier in 2006, when the family and company board of directors were taking offers to sell.

Jared Rinerson, a Ham Lake software engineer with a vision for preserving the company's brand while bringing its merchandising into the digital age, impressed Lanny Uber.

"At the onset, everyone involved was extremely optimistic," Uber said. "He came from a technology background, and it seemed like a good fit. As time told, it wasn't."

By numerous accounts, trouble first took hold in the fall of 2010, when the Straight River in Owatonna topped its banks and flooded the tannery building. Insurance didn't cover the damage. But no one foresaw the collapse.

Mike Collins shot his first deer 40 years ago in Dodge City in southeastern Minnesota, and he still has a keepsake from it.

"I was 13 or 14, and I took the hide over to Uber and had a pair of gloves made," recalled Collins, now 54. "I think I've shot at least one deer every year since, and I became a pretty regular customer of Uber."

In 2011, Collins, who owns First State Bank of Red Wing, became more than just a customer when he purchased the Medford branch of Americana Community Bank. The Medford branch had helped finance Rinerson's purchase of Uber through at least two loans, according to Collins and public records.

"It was one of those great opportunities," Collins said. "At the time, it (the loan) was performing well, and Uber had a great name, a great product line and their unique quality. I thought the new owner stood a very good chance of making it -- I thought."

Collins said he also knew the risk. "When I took the loan over, I did realize that in the worst-case scenario, it would be very hard to ever sell the company," he said. "Because Uber glove is so unique, there really isn't anybody in the United States who understands the business or could walk in and operate it."

That scenario hit over the summer, when it became clear that Rinerson and his wife were out of money, and so was the company.

Lanny Uber said he and his relatives watched in disappointment as production slowed and then halted. Then Rinerson and his wife declared bankruptcy, leaving more than 700 customers who had prepaid for their hides without a product or much recourse. Rinerson has apologized for his failure to keep the company going or at least to inform customers that it was closing.

Collins had a problem, as well, in the form of at least $235,000 in debt Rinerson owed, according to bankruptcy filings. With $71 million in total assets, the First State Bank of Red Wing is a small bank, and Collins said the dollar figure wasn't insignificant. The bank had only dealt with one home foreclosure during the housing crisis, so nothing was routine about taking over property.

But there was more than money at stake.

"If I couldn't find somebody to restart the tannery, I only had one option: an auction," Collins said. In such an auction, it's unclear if customers from around the world would have been able to retrieve their actual hides.

"It would have been a huge mess. It would have been a public-relations nightmare for the Uber name, and the bank probably would have had a black eye and everybody would have had a sour taste in their mouths."

Before he could look for a buyer, Collins needed to figure out if it were even possible to trace hides to their owners. If the company couldn't mend relations with its core customer base, its future would be in doubt, he reasoned.

So he started stopping by the shuttered tannery and warehouse after work, sifting through piles of hides, attempting to correlate stamps on them with customer records. Some were tanned while others were packed in salt, bits of fat and blood still attached. None was rotting, he was pleased to discover.

"I smelled like leather every night, but growing up as a farmhand, I guess it didn't bother me that much," Collins said, adding that Rinerson cooperated in explaining company records.

Collins admits his evenings in the tannery weren't orthodox moves for a banker. "In my business, it probably wouldn't have been considered the most intelligent thing to do, but it needed to get done. I just didn't want to see it all go to waste."

Discussions with national tanning operations didn't pan out.

"I guess I was just thinking about who would be most likely to get this thing back up on their feet, and it kept coming back to me that the Ubers were probably the only ones," Collins said.

He approached Lanny Uber.

At 54, Uber figured he was still game -- and he expressed confidence that he could succeed where Rinerson failed.

"I kind of chuckle at those kind of comments," Uber said this week when asked if the business model could still succeed. "After six generations of successful business, this family has seen a lot and kept the company alive. I'm not worried we can't succeed."

Uber and Collins won't disclose the terms of the sale, but they did discuss the restart plan. The company will accept hides from this year's deer season at its Owatonna location, but it won't accept prepayments. Beginning in January, the small staff of five or so will work through its existing inventory. Customers will be notified as their hides are completed.

As of now, Lanny Uber said he hasn't set up a phone number for customers to call to check on their orders. "It would just overwhelm us and we wouldn't be able to get the work done," he said.

Uber said he expect some customers with a bitter taste from the bankruptcy to be cautious. "If you get taken advantage of like that, you're going to be angry and less trusting in the future," he said. "We're going to do our best."

As for Collins, he said the resolution isn't perfect, but it's better than the alternative.

"We're going to take a loss, but I think it's less of a loss than if we had an auction, and then there probably would have been no more Uber, and there wouldn't have been another organization like it again. It would have faded into American history."

Dave Orrick can be reached at 651-228-5512. Follow him at twitter.com/OutdoorsNow

To read the Uber family statement and information for customers, go to Blogs.TwinCities.com/Outdoors.

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I wish them the best of luck. Glad to see things will get started up again. The story to me tells the power of deer hunting traditions and what they mean to this state. The personal stories of the financier and the Uber family speak to that.

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