Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

Out West, rodeo gets 'em young. Often it's the ranch kids, who start as early as age 4 riding sheep and tying goats. By 8 or 9, they're dragging calves and branding. The junior rodeo-ers wear pintsize chaps and vests and swing ropes sized down to fit their hands. Likely as not, those ropes are Gators, woven in bright colors and packaged with diminutive alligator key chains.

"They're great ropes, but what sells them is that key chain," says Cole Vernon, a saddlemaker at Oliver's Saddle Shop, in Amarillo, Texas. "That's pretty neat when you're a kid."

Adult ropers buy Gators too, in standard sizes. Others prefer Rocky Mountains, Magnums, Open Ranges, or RoperVisions. In fact, many of the rope brands used in rings and on ranches are manufactured by a single company: Cowboy Cordage, in Idaho Falls, Idaho. The 17-employee family business traffics in the most utilitarian product imaginable--but also in American myth. "Europeans are pretty into the romance of the American cowboy," says founder Steve Geisler, who has customers as far afield as Africa and Australia. "The idea of the Western horseman is very big overseas."

In the horse-and-cattle culture of southeastern Idaho, rope is practically another appendage, indispensable for work and play. About half of Cowboy's Cordages ropes are sold to ranchers, who use them for everyday chores like doctoring cattle. The rest go to rodeo riders. "For them, the rope is the tool, like the bat to the baseball player or the club to the golfer," says Geisler. "People want something very specific. Guys come into our shop and swing 20 or 30 ropes and buy two."

Cowboy Cordage even custom-makes ropes, working with rodeo athletes to achieve the perfect weight, stiffness, color, and feel. (Rodeo ropes generally come in 30- and 35-foot lengths and are 3/8-inch in diameter.) "I can take a single piece of rope and make 40 or 50 variations on it," says Geisler. "Right now, we make 360 [models of rope], and we could probably make 800."

Rodeo rider Stephen Lee requires custom ropes because he lives in central California, where temperatures rise to well over 100 degrees in the summer. "They put more poly[propylene] into it, so it stands up to the heat," says Lee. (Rodeo ropes are generally a nylon-polyester blend.) He also likes that Cowboy Cordage's ropes are more durable than others. "On average, I get five or six more steers using them," he says. "Over a year of roping every weekend, that's a lot of savings."

Grabbing opportunity by the horns

Allison Geisler, who runs Cowboy Cordage with her husband, jokes that the business is a "hobby gone bad." But for Steve Geisler, roping is a way of life. Growing up in Idaho, Geisler worked in his father's farm and ranch store. But when he wasn't there or at school, he was out with the family's horses. "We always roped and rodeo-ed and cowboy-ed," says Geisler. "The same way guys play baseball or basketball together, my friends and I would rope."

One day at a college rodeo he met a man who told him about a Japanese company that made polypropylene rope with lead inside. It sold the rope for fishing nets, which could be weighted to sink to different water levels. The product was stiffer than regular rope, so that a loop formed with it would stay open. Geisler saw how useful that could be to someone trying to toss a loop around the horns of a galloping steer. (In team roping, one rider lassos the head while the other encircles the hind legs.)

In 1981, Geisler started importing the rope, which arrived wrapped around big spools. Working in his garage, he would cut it to different lengths, tie knots that could be tightened once the loop encircled its target, and add burners--pieces of rawhide that help the lasso keep its shape. Then he hit the road, stopping at Western stores whose addresses he found in the yellow pages at town libraries. He also mailed catalogs and fliers, and advertised in trade magazines. "It was some advertising, some word of mouth," Geisler says. "People just liked what we were doing. And it's a pretty small industry."

In 1988, Cowboy Cordage began manufacturing its own rope out of Geisler's warehouse: buying and modifying some machines and building others from scratch. The process begins with filaments of nylon and polypropylene tied to rings and twisted into thread; the thread is then spun into rope by machine. The ropes are dipped in hot wax--which shrinks them slightly--stretched, and set aside to cool and relax. Knots are tied and burners are installed by hand.

Then comes the testing. "The only way you can test a rope is to rope live animals," says Geisler, who has indoor and outdoor roping arenas and 10 "practice" steers at his house, 20 miles south of the plant. His roping buddies have similar setups and are happy to help. "Sometimes we see how many we can rope before it is absolutely trashed," says Geisler. "Did it break down? Did it get soft? Did it get hard? Did it fuzz up?" Employees also test every single rope for swing: how it feels in the hand, how consistent it is.

Vernon, of Oliver's Saddle Shop, says Cowboy Cordage ropes don't break, "which is a huge selling point, because the cowboys are dragging cattle into trailers and roping animals to doctor them." Says Vernon: "These are ropes that stand the test of time."

Buying up the little guys

Cowboy Cordage manufactures roughly 60,000 ropes a year for its own brands, which it markets through retailers and online. It sells another 40,000--uncut and without the knots, burners, and other finishing touches--to competitors, who market it under their labels. That maximizes profit, says Geisler. Plus this is not exactly a cutthroat industry. The seven to 10 players know one another and get along pretty well. (Cowboy Cordage is among the larger U.S. manufacturers, but financial figures for the industry are not available.) 

That amity has smoothed the way for several acquisitions. Geisler says he likes to buy smaller, family-owned companies. "We buy them for the customer, who is loyal to that brand," he says. In 1999, Cowboy Cordage acquired Gator, a company Geisler had started 10 years earlier but then sold. In 2003, it bought Magnum Ropes, a small business formerly based in Utah.

Geisler's relaxed approach is most evident in his mid-'90s acquisition of Industrial Liaison, an importer of raw materials for rope. "This lady called me up out of the clear blue and said, 'I am going to sell you my business today,'" recalls Geisler. "She and her husband had decided that of all their customers we were the one that would carry on their tradition. She said to me, 'Young man, keep your mouth shut and I will make this deal happen.'"

Cowboy Cordage moves all its businesses to Idaho Falls and houses them in a cluster of buildings near the garage where it all started. Allison Geisler is vice president of the company; their daughter, Alana, is general manager. Their son Cole runs the family's 55-year-old feed and farm store, Geisler Ranch & Livestock Center. (Another son, Ben, is in the military.) About 20 percent of the store's inventory is Cowboy Cordage products. The company also sells saddle pads, cinches, and other equine accessories.

Geisler is happy to leave the business side of Cowboy Cordage to his relatives. "Until two years ago, my desk was a little four-foot plastic picnic table," he says. "I didn't care, because I was never in my office." When he's not out training horses and roping, Geisler is in the plant overseeing production and innovating. He enjoys developing new products, such as rope in neon hues that was inspired by the competitive shooting industry. The colors make it easier for ropers to see where their lassos land around horns or legs.

Despite the stream of new offerings, Geisler likes to point out that his is an ancient and, in most ways, unchanging craft. The knots he ties today were tied by sailors and fishermen a thousand years ago. "The basic way we make rope is really no different from the way it's been made forever," says Geisler. "It's the same as when people first twisted vines together."

Published on: Jul 6, 2015