Shift schedules: Meet the 24-hour firefighter, 72-hour leatherworker and family man
N.J. Firefighter Rob Meyer has turned his leatherworking hobby into successful second career
Rob Meyer, a firefighter for the Monroe Township Fire Department in Middlesex County, New Jersey, wasn’t really looking for a hobby when he stumbled into leatherworking.
Back in 2014, Rob was working multiple jobs, raising twin 5-year-old girls, and dealing with a rambunctious 6-month-old puppy. He had very little spare time and no prior leatherworking experience.
Yet, while shopping online for a durable collar for his Doberman Jager’s first birthday, Rob remembers seeing several expensive leather collars and thinking, “I bet I can make something like that.”
He didn’t know then that this would prove to be a pivotal moment.
After Rob researched leatherworking online and learned enough to get started, he purchased his first piece of leather and got to work. Before long, he’d completed his first project – a new collar for Jager.
Given his trade background, Rob found working with his hands to be a natural transition. He readily admits, however, that “the artistic side … proved to be a bit more difficult. I was the kid [who] could never color inside the lines at school.”
Rob’s next project was a much simpler locker nameplate. It’s a piece he still keeps at the shop as a reminder of how far he’s come.
“The paint job is atrocious, but it is a testament to how time spent, learning, trying, failing and building fine motor skills makes a craftsman,” he said.
When Rob’s fire service colleagues heard about his leatherworking pastime, the requests began to roll in, and word of mouth slowly transformed his new hobby into a viable business venture.
Making it official
By 2015, Ridgeway Leatherworks was officially open for business. Rob was operating out of his one-car garage, making only two or three orders at a time. He was learning how to be both a leatherworker and a business owner – and handle everything that comes with it.
Rob credits his wife, Tina, as being an invaluable resource in those early days. Seeing that he couldn’t handle everything himself, she stepped in to handle quality control checks and package and ship the merchandise.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Rob said. “On one hand, we were able to incorporate my family into the business. On the other hand, my wife gets to tell me when I’ve made a mistake and it’s officially her job to do so.”
As for his artistic challenges, Rob says repetition and trial and error were key to mastering the basics: “The more I had the opportunity to work on leather, the more natural the movements became and the faster I could correctly finish the task. What was once a mess of shaky hands and jagged lines gave way to smooth, fluid motions.”
Putting down new roots
As Ridgeway’s orders increased, Rob found it increasingly difficult to operate out of his existing shop. He was continually moving personal items out of the garage to make space for equipment and there was barely room to move. When the time came to bring other people onboard, he knew he needed to expand.
In late 2019, after considering various options, Rob and Tina purchased a new home with a 1,500-square-foot basement specifically designed and built to serve as a leather workshop.
With room to grow, Rob brought on three friends and coworkers – Chris, Brian and Kevin – to help him out. He prefers the help of other emergency services personnel because he wants everyone to understand what they are making and why they are making it.
Much like at the fire station, “If you have a good crew, you end up having a good time at work,” Rob said. And that’s what he aims for in the workshop
Juggling multiple priorities
Having a home-based shop allows Rob to be only a flight of stairs away from his family at all times. “Less time in a commute means more time at home,” Rob said, “which is a precious commodity when you are trying to balance two full-time jobs and make sure [you] don’t miss a minute at home.”
Ridgeway’s hours of operation have always reflected his family-first philosophy: “The shop opens up when my kids get on the bus, and we’re done for the day just in time for their homework to be completed.”
Rob spends about 30 to 40 hours a week in the shop. Fortunately, his schedule at the fire department makes this possible. He works 24 hours on and 72 hours off. This equates to a long day away from home but frees up enough time each week for Rob to focus on both his family and the business.
When not involved in production, Rob answers emails, provides quotes, and helps Tina with packaging and shipping, which often occur late at night since Tina also has a full-time job.
Similar to most businesses, Ridgeway’s busiest time of year is the holiday season. Rob’s team usually puts in more work at this time of year than they do the rest of the year. The weeks leading up to a trade show are also hectic. The team has to make extra products to sell at the show while maintaining promised lead times for the company’s custom orders, all before being away from the shop for up to a week at a time.
An array of product offerings
Ridgeway Leatherworks receives upward of 2,500 orders a year, not including prep work for the trade shows. Orders range in size from one item to more than 100 items at a time. Rob’s existing product line keeps the shop busy enough that he doesn’t anticipate expanding the product offerings much unless the order volume wanes.
As expected, some of the orders have very touching backstories. “I try to go above and beyond to make sure I can accommodate those types of requests to help honor the reason for the sentimental addition,” Rob said.
The company’s bestselling radio strap accounts for a large percentage of its business. Other emergency services products include radio holsters, chin straps, suspenders, belts, helmet bands, glove straps, and inverted flashlight holders, to name a few. Each item is made to order and can be customized with a variety of options.
While Rob has a fair share of local customers, the lion’s share of his customers are from across the United States. Locally, however, “the desire to support a fellow New Jerseyan doesn’t go without notice,” and he often hears the common thread of “wanting to support a local Brother.”
Rob’s products have even sold worldwide. “Some of the more humbling moments are sending products to new countries,” he says. “We have our designs serving in 10 other countries across the globe.”
The mission to serve
In 2001, while attending school for criminal justice, Rob jumpstarted his public service career by signing on as a volunteer firefighter with South Old Bridge (N.J.) Fire Department.
Although he always knew he wanted to help others, he hadn’t planned to do so as a firefighter. Yet, much to Rob’s surprise, his job with the fire service was everything he wanted for his future. “I instantly felt at home,” he said.
Four years later, Rob jumped at the chance to apply when he learned Monroe Township was expanding its fire service personnel. He took the test, placed well and was picked up in the first round of hirings.
Rob is well aware that his life would’ve taken a completely different course had he not decided to pursue a career in the fire service. And, by his own admission, he couldn’t be happier with his choice.
Beyond the firehouse
For Ridgeway to become Rob’s “second career” after he retires from Monroe Township is a logical progression. He admits he’s given this idea some thought and, as of now, that’s his plan.
But it seems like, for now at least, Rob is exactly where he’s meant to be.