Serving with an Attitude of Genuine Gratitude

saddle up

by Jeri Mae Rowley

Ray Holes tooling circa 1992

Ray Holes tooling circa 1992


Other kids had treehouses and forts. My favorite childhood hangout was my grandfather’s saddle shop: Ray Holes Saddle Company in Grangeville, Idaho. Surrounded by the pungent aroma of leather and the rhythmic “tap, tap-tap, tap” of Grandpa’s leather carving tools, I got my first lessons in business and the genuine power of serving with an attitude of gratitude.

“Bad luck” got my grandfather into the saddle making business. As a child, polio partially paralyzed his legs. His disability prevented him from being a farmer or rancher like the other men in his family. So, after school, he worked for the local shoemaker learning to stitch leather by hand. One day, a customer brought him a saddle to fix. It required taking the old saddle apart and laying out the pieces on new leather. Essentially, he built his first saddle. After high school, he apprenticed with saddle makers in the western United States and Canada before starting his own saddle making company in 1934.

More bad luck: 1934 was the middle of The Great Depression and a truly tough time to start a business and a young family. My grandfather’s business survived The Great Depression— he did better than survive. From his startup in the hard times of 1934, Ray Holes went on to become a world-famous saddle maker and pass his craftsmanship on to his son, my dad, second-generation saddle maker Gerald Ray Holes. Together, they created custom saddles cherished by generations of customers all over the globe.

By the time I was hanging out at my grandfather’s workbench— generation three— my grandfather had become world-famous as a saddlemaker. He was featured in books and magazines and won awards for his leather artistry.

Our customers liked to hang out at Grandpa’s workbench, too. These ranch families and cowboys were always welcome in the saddle shop.  Poised at my grandfather’s shoulder, I soaked up conversations about the pressure and uncertainty of the cattle business. Farmers and ranchers are used to hard times. Unpredictable weather, high feed costs, and low cattle prices are the cowboys’ three constant companions.

As my grandfather’s customers walked out the door, my grandfather would always say to me, “Jeri Mae, we’re so lucky. Aren’t we lucky? Those people work so hard. And, they work for so little.  And, they choose to do business with us. We’re so lucky.”  

He was teaching me to serve our customers with a genuine attitude of gratitude.  

One day, when I was about seven-years-old, my grandmother gave me a Windex bottle, paper towels, and the job to “keep that front door clean.” (Age seven, and I’m already manager of “first impressions” at Ray Holes Saddle Company!).

It turns out that the front door is a great place to overhear what your customers are saying on their way out of the store: what were their impressions? What were their experiences? What are they going to do next? I could also hear what customers are saying as they arrived (because nobody changes their conversation when they see a little girl with a Windex bottle. They keep talking.)  

You can learn a lot by listening to our customers. One day, two cowboys were walking towards the front door as I was cleaning away— an old cowboy and a young cowboy. Old cowboy asks, “you’ve never been into the Holes saddle shop before, have you?” The young guy replies, “no, I’ve always wanted to.” The old cowboy declared: “well, wait until you get in there, kid, they’re going to treat you like a king.”

Our customers had very high expectations, didn’t they? When they get into the saddle shop, they aren’t expecting “good customer service.” They were expecting us to treat them like “royalty!” 

That day at the saddle shop, I learned our brand is not what we say about ourselves. Your brand is what other people say about you and your business.  And I learned that our customers do know— and will tell others— when we serve with a genuine attitude of gratitude.

Jeri Mae Rowley is an inspirational speaker, master trainer, and saddle maker’s daughter who delights audiences with her unique brand of “Western Wit and Wisdom for the Workplace™.” Please visit her website: