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Tough as Leather

Building a business isn't easy, but how much can one entrepreneur take?

When Julia Duren arrived from Hamburg, Germany, at the San Francisco Airport in 1982, she was a 30-year-old mother with two children, ages 5 and 2. Her second husband, an American, was doing life at San Quentin. She had almost no money and no friends, family or contacts to speak of. But Duren knew something about leather, and she had a dream.

That put her on the road to success. Today, she's the largest shareholder of K.L. Manufacturing Inc., a Larkspur, California, firm that had revenues of $1.2 million last year. She has 24 employees, all of whom have profit sharing, 100 percent health benefits, paid vacation time and all the other benefits successful businesses can afford. But the ups and downs Duren endured are perhaps better-suited for the trampoline business.

"I was scared as hell," Duren says of her arrival in the United States. She had only a tourist visa that didn't allow her to work or live in the country, despite her recent wedding, and had to immediately apply for her green card. It's easy to speculate why she would marry a man serving a life sentence, but it was a real marriage, maintains Duren, who was married for seven years before she sought a divorce.

With two little girls to feed, Duren knew she couldn't have achieved her career goals in her homeland. "I had specialized in leather and was doing some innovative stuff," says Duren, who was designing clothing for European musicians. "It was very difficult back then to be an entrepreneur in Germany because there were strict regulations as to what kind of degrees you had to have to train other people. I knew I couldn't hire and train workers if I needed them."

In fact, hiring workers would be a long way off. When Duren arrived in America, she had $2,000, which was quickly eaten up by her first and last month's rent in San Rafael, California, and the purchase of "a very beat-up car." When she ran out of money, Duren pawned two family heirlooms, a diamond bracelet and a gold watch, for $600, and bought a sewing machine and some leather.

The car died its final death after a month, and Duren and her daughters had to sleep in one bed, but the family was going somewhere: Keky and Leila were going to day care, while their mother searched for clients for her handmade jackets. "I went from store to store and pretended I was a rep, and got some orders. Then I'd hop on the bus, pick up my kids from the public day care and make the things," says Duren. "There was a long period when I slept three and a half hours a night."

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Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the April 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Tough as Leather.

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