PROFILE: MATT HACKETT
WHO IS MATT HACKET AND NOTES FROM RALPH THOMAS
Below is a re-print that originally appeared in the Houston Business Journal.
That didn't surprise Hackett. He had spent much of his adult life in Texas prisons, including a 10-year stint for aggravated robbery.
But Hackett was undaunted. He had sold hundreds of belt buckles and other silver and gold accessories throughout the state since his release in early 1995 and knew an untapped high-end market still existed for his products.
"I told them, `You may not give me a loan because of my past, but I'll get one somewhere,' " Hackett says.
In May, after being turned down for bank financing and loans backed by the Small Business Administration, Hackett landed the financial backing of Frost Bank.
"I knew initially he had a wonderful product, but financial strength was the issue," says Gloria Kopycinski, Hackett's loan officer at Frost Bank. "We had to look at the whole picture and strategize."
The funding is allowing Hackett to add a second silversmith and manufacturing shop behind his house in Richmond. And its giving him a chance to step up production of his handiwork, which is already for sale at five retail outlets in Texas.
Designs by Matt markets a wide collection of handmade sterling silver and gold products -- from cufflinks and key rings to money clips and pendants. But his most sought-after designs are the intricate silver belt buckles he has produced during the five years since his release from the Texas penal system.
"When I got out, I didn't know much about the market, what people on the outside were interested in," he says. "It's been an education."
"I was a drug addict," he says plainly, "and had fallen into the whole routine. I've really put all that behind me."
Hackett was already familiar with jewelry-making materials when he got to prison, so he soon set out to teach himself the trade.
He began making belt buckles, rings and other jewelry out of a low-cost nickel and copper alloy and selling his work product to prison employees and to members of outside police agencies.
"The average customer in that market can't afford silver and gold," Hackett says. "Instead, you make something that costs $3 or $4, and it looks like it costs $3 or $4."
He learned to set stones, got his high school diploma and earned a degree in diamonds and diamond grading. He also quickly found there was interest for higher-class product.
"There was a market for something different, something personalized or with special logos," he says. "That really got my attention."
He made his first belt buckle for a member of the Texas Rangers in 1987. The buckle bore the star symbolic of the legendary Texas law enforcement agency. Over time, Hackett was able to acquire more precious metals, and his reputation as a belt buckle craftsman grew among various law enforcement agencies.
In fact in February of 1994, about a year before his release, a member of the Texas Rangers was featured on the cover of Texas Monthly magazine wearing two of Hackett's handmade buckles. The magazine cover has proved so popular, it's now sold as a large-sized poster, and it only heightened the interest in his products inside and outside the Ranger community.
ON THE OUTSIDE
"I was really networking the best you can in that closed environment," he says.
He received orders from various trailriding associations and regularly visited the Texas Ranger Houston headquarters to take orders from the officers there.
And he found some retail interest in his work. Hackett visited western wear store Maida's on Westheimer just to get a feel for what was available in the high-end market. And he was surprised to find co-owner Jason Maida was already familiar with his work from the cover of Texas Monthly in 1994.
Now, Hackett's buckles are for sale at Maida's and Stelzig's in Houston as well as Rewards, a western wear store in Austin.
Last spring he visited a reunion of Texas Rangers and their families in Austin and sold a number of his buckles to attendees. He also saw dozens of buckles being worn by attendees that he had made throughout the years before and after his release.
Hackett says he's been encouraged by family and faith to turn his life around and focus on building up his business. His wife Irma encouraged him to seek expansion financing in the first place.
He says the hardest part of the silversmith operation is balancing the time spent on his twin goals of creating a market and filling it.
"It's a lot of hard work, but it's rewarding," he says. "I haven't got a lot of horror stories, believe it or not. There have been fewer obstacles than I anticipated."
Hackett has gained a broad base of support in the five years since he's been out of prison and working to establish himself, even from some unlikely places. Not long ago he sold a belt buckle to Sugar Land Police Chief Ernie Taylor, who knew Hackett before his incarceration and rebirth as an entrepreneur.
"He used to chase me from the time when I was a teenager," Hackett says with a chuckle. "It was nice to meet on more pleasant terms."
Kenneth R. Pybus, Houston Business Journal managing editor, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.