Monday January 7, 2013
Leatherman - A tool for all seasons
Story and photos by CHIN MUI YOON
From dramatic rescues to emergency surgery, the Leatherman has carved a niche for itself around the world.
FOUNDED as a frontier town, Portland has a rugged beauty and fiercely independent spirit which define this populous city in Oregon, the United States. Renowned for its great outdoors, hiking, hunting, camping, fishing, mountain climbing, boating and skiing are as natural to the locals as breathing in fresh air.
It is apt that a tool which has created a new market segment in 100 countries should have its origins in Portland.
Today, at 64, Tim Leatherman is enjoying semi-retirement. He spends his time visiting international dealers who sell the tools that carry his name.
Back in 1975, Leatherman was on an overland trail across Europe and Asia with his Vietnamese wife, Chau. In Amsterdam, they bought an old Fiat for US$300. The car broke down often. A mechanical engineering graduate, Leatherman spent much time by the roadside trying to fix the problem with his Boy Scout knife which had limited functionality, aside from slicing bread.
“I desperately wished I had a pair of pliers,” recalls Leatherman, during an interview at his office and factory in Portland.
“We were staying in budget hotels and our rooms needed fixing, too. When we reached Tehran, I started sketching a pocket knife with pliers.”
After their nine-month journey was over, Leatherman returned to Portland and sat down to create his dream knife. He set up a basic workshop in their rented home garage. His brother-in-law, a machinist, taught him the basics. Leatherman picked up the rest of metalworking through trial and error.
“I learned each step of the way by making mistakes. I had the basic idea but it took me months to visualise each part of the tool.”
The one month that Leatherman initially set aside for his project extended to three years. Finally, he had two prototypes which he filed patents for. He tried selling his invention to outdoor knife companies like Gerber but was turned away. The prospect that no company wanted to buy his invention loomed. Leatherman knew he might have to go into business himself.
“Like every inventor, I dreamt of selling a patent for a million dollars!” he says.
Many people told him to give up his crazy idea and build a proper career instead. Leatherman’s youthful enthusiasm began to wilt.
“I remember on my 30th birthday, I started crying as I went to bed,” he recalls quietly. “I’d spent years on this, and I asked myself, what have I accomplished? The next morning when I woke up, I found the strength to go on.”
An old college friend, Steve Berliner, came along and formed a partnership with Leatherman. They contacted AT&T, and suggested that the tool be used by its repairmen. Then they wrote to 23 government agencies, hoping to supply their product to the American military. Only three replied, all in the negative.
Finally, they wrote to 250 mail order catalogues. One company, Early Winters, liked the prototype but wanted the price of US$40 to be lowered.
Leatherman returned to Portland to create a new prototype, and removed the clamping feature, scissors and other minor gadgets. The tool began to look like the iconic butterfly-shaped product of today. It is built around a pair of pliers, with straight and serrated blades, screwdrivers, saws and wire cutters.
They quoted a new price of US$24, but Early Winters would not commit to any orders.
In May 1983, nearly nine years after Leatherman came up with his idea of a multi-tool, a Nebraska hunting and fishing outfitter catalogue company, Cabela’s, sent them a US$12,000 purchase order for 500 tools.
“I was ecstatic!” recalls Leatherman. “Then we realised we were so naïve that we had no idea our costs would be so high. We had more expenses than income and our first 500 tools sold at a loss.”
Berliner’s father allowed the young men to use his metal shop, equipment and even some of his employees. As Cabela’s order came in May for their Christmas catalogue, Leatherman thought he had ample time. But then, Early Winters placed an order for 250 tools as well.
“In December, Early Winters called to ask if their order was ready. They weren’t,” says Leatherman.
“They said, ‘We need them badly because they’ve all been sold already. And put us down for another 500.’ Three days later, they ordered 750 more, followed by 1,000!
“All the catalogues were watching each other for hot products. They sensed Leatherman was going to be it, as many men were ordering, and women were buying it for their husbands. We sold 30,000 tools in the first year, exceeding our hopes of 4,000 tools.”
The following year in 1984, Leatherman sold 70,000 pieces. By 1993, over one million tools were sold, and demand soared every year.
Although it was a partnership, Berliner had insisted that the product be named Leatherman.
“My name is on every tool, so there’s pride and responsibility in ensuring that every single piece is defined by quality, functionality, strength and reliability,” explains Leatherman.
Every man’s tool
Today, Leatherman has become the leader of a new market of multi-tools that it had pioneered.
There is no better promotion than through word of mouth by DIY fans, outdoor enthusiasts and legions of military servicemen and law enforcers who use it for home, work and leisure.
The tool is tested to its limits on trekking trails, campsites and remote mountainous outposts; along bike trails on the road; and in numerous homes for fixing everyday problems.
The Leatherman has even appeared in Hollywood films without any need to pay for product placement. Ben Stiller had requested the use of it for his role in A Night At The Museum. The tool was featured in the Academy Award winning film, The Hurt Locker, and it has been nicknamed MacGyver’s tool for its ability to function under duress in every situation.
A wall in the Leatherman headquarters is dedicated to framed plagues sent by grateful organisations, and numerous awards for inventions and entrepreneurial efforts. But to Leatherman, nothing is more satisfying than the scores of feedback from fans, such as the following:
“My pony ran into a fence and impaled herself on a sharp stake which broke off inside her. The vet found a 12-inch piece of wood from the fence lodged in her shoulder against the joint and would not budge. I got my Leatherman tool and removed it with the pliers. A true miracle the horse is OK.”
“My wife said she is going to bury me with my trusty Leatherman. I do pool service and repair. I use this thing at least 20 times a day.”
“I’m a former British Special Forces operator and have always carried a Leatherman Wave on my person. Some years back, I was mountaineering alone in the Transylvania alps of Romania when I was caught in an avalanche and thrown off a cliff. When I regained consciousness, I was unable to walk as I had broken my leg and shattered my pelvis. The fine line between life and death, and the narrow margin by which I survived was my Leatherman tool. The breaks to my leg had caused one foot to swell dangerously, causing a very real danger of gangrene unless I could relieve the pressure caused by my frozen boots... I used my Leatherman to cut a slit in the back of the boot heel and was able to remove them, relieve the pressure of blood flow and encourage some heat back into my feet. By the fourth day of crawling, my shattered hip had frozen sufficiently to bear some weight. I used my Leatherman to saw off a tree branch and cut back the offshoots to make a suitable walking aid…”
The brand was introduced to Malaysia 25 years ago and remains exclusively distributed by Universal Fitness and Leisure Sdn Bhd (UFL). Over 2,500 units are sold every year.
Made in America
A unique feature of Leatherman is that it remains proudly Oregon-made although many American brands have been outsourced to China to lower production costs.
Tours are given at the Oregon factory where every component of a Leatherman tool is meticulously made. The painstaking process combines sophisticated machiney, robots and human effort. It takes over 30 days before a tool leaves the plant.
All Leatherman products are manufactured from 100% high-grade stainless steel. A Leatherman is distinguished by its unrivalled durability and usefulness as well as the quiet elegance of a precisely made tool.
Leatherman proudly demonstrates with his own titanium-handled Charge TTI tool, how the pliers can delicately snip paper and break off solid nails.
“I am proud that I have built a tool and created a new market segment,” he says thoughtfully. “We didn’t substitute any market but created new jobs. It is my fervent wish to keep these jobs in Portland for as long as I can.”
Copycat versions popped up in the market years ago.
“A Leatherman tool sits inside a locked case that shows it’s valuable, whereas a copycat costs a fraction of it. It helps us in a way, as buyers find that it’s useful as their first tool. But they will see that it’s not dependable and tend to return to get a Leatherman,” he says.
From the original Crunch, the range has expanded with new launches; some models have over 20 tools.
In 1994, Leatherman created the Super Tool which sold over one million units. In 1998, the perennial bestseller Wave was invented and remains the most popular model. As mobile phones began taking up space on waist belts, the need arose for a Leatherman that could fit pockets.
The compact Micra came along in 1996, and it hangs comfortably on keychains. Women liked it. The uniquely shaped lightweight Skeletool was introduced in 2008. It promptly won awards, including the year’s National Geographic Adventure Gear of the Year.
Part of what makes a Leatherman so endearing is its 25-year international warranty.
“The guarantee is against defects, materials and workmanship, but we ask no question. Tools have been returned to us because they were used over their capability, but we still exchange the tool. It keeps customers happy and they become our biggest promoter,” explains Leatherman.
It is hard to picture Leatherman as the guy who invented the phenomenal tools with sales of three million units a year and a turnover of more than US$100mil (RM310mil) annually.
Leatherman remains mild-mannered and modest, with an awkward air about him. He pauses to think before speaking, and prefers to listen rather than talk.
His choice of attire suggests practicality instead of being driven by a need to show that he has made it. He drives a beat-up 1998 Nissan that “works fine” and wears an old pair of sturdy Nike that he likes.
“I’d like to say success hasn’t changed me,” he says. “I haven’t changed my car for 22 years. I live in a nice house overlooking the city. If there’s something I want to buy, I buy it but I don’t have a lot of wants.
“Probably the one thing I indulge in is travel. But for the most part, I hope my values are still the same. I hope my personality hasn’t changed much.
“I am not a brilliant businessman. I am methodical and persistent, and I try to understand a problem and come up with solutions. The best thing I learned in engineering was to create several solutions for every problem,” he says.
Leatherman’s mother was a homemaker while his father was a carpenter who loved the outdoors. During summer, he would take his two sons fishing and camping.
Being around tools, Leatherman was comfortable with working with his hands from young. He took up mechanical engineering at the University of Oregon. It was in college that Leatherman met his future wife which eventually led to the life-defining road trip across Europe and Asia.
To locate an authorised dealer for Leatherman tools in Malaysia, visit ufl.com.my or call 03-6275 9544.