Advertisement
News

Name game comes in handy as Leatherman tools hit 20

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to be a consumer product?

You know, where your name and a product are one and the same.

Advertisement

Like:

"Who's got the keys to the Ford ... " or,

Advertisement

"I pulled out my Buck knife ... " or,

"He caught it on a Clouser minnow."

It must be pretty cool. Except, of course, if the name on your birth certificate is Thomas Crapper and you go on to make the flush toilet.

In 1983, Tim Leatherman took that risk when, at the urging of his college friend, Steve Berliner, he put his name on a multipurpose tool: a cross between a set of pliers and a knife.

The Leatherman pocket tool has spawned as many imitators as there are variations on the original, but Leatherman still retains about half of the domestic market.

The 20th anniversary this month of Leatherman Tool Group seemed like a good excuse to get the 55-year-old inventor of one of the best outdoors gizmos on the phone to chat. (Is this a neat job, or what?) Plus, I wanted to put in a plug for my idea for a new Leatherman tool.

The spark for the tool came in 1975, when Leatherman and his wife were on a nine-month budget vacation in Europe. "It was one of those what-are-we-going-to-do-with-the-rest-of-our-lives trips," he says.

Tooling around in a beat-up little Fiat 600, Leatherman discovered that when it came time to coax some more miles out of the car, his mechanical engineering degree came in handy, but his scout knife was overmatched.

Advertisement

"Self-employed" upon his return to the states, Leatherman had the time to devote to his invention. Working in Berliner's father's machine shop in Portland, Ore., it took Leatherman three years "to get something I liked," (that would be patent No. 4,238,862) and then another five years of tinkering "to get something the market would like."

At first, Leatherman was hoping to get a patent and sell the rights to manufacturers. But Berliner persuaded him to see if a mail-order company might be interested in selling the tool.

Outdoor retailer Cabela's placed an order for 500 of the "Pocket Survival Tools," and Early Winters, a Northwest company devoted to no-nonsense gear, said it would devote two-thirds of the back page of a catalog to tout it.

But what would the name of the multi-tool and the two-man company be?

"We were brainstorming and Steve said, 'It's a Leatherman Tool.' I said, 'No, no ego.' But he insisted that it was a good name," says Leatherman, chuckling.

The buddies had hoped to make and sell 4,000 tools in the first year, but on the strength of the mail-order business, they sold 30,000.

Advertisement

"It only took eight years," Leatherman says dryly. "At the high point of the process, I put a price tag on the patent ... it was exactly $1 million. At the low point, I was hoping I would be able to have a job for me."

Leatherman products range from the "Super Tool," which can cut, bend, crimp or saw almost anything, to the "Flair," which includes a corkscrew, spreader knife and cocktail fork for those "pinkies out" high-society occasions. In addition to good old American silver sheet metal, several versions come in colors. And this year, there's a black-finish 20th anniversary edition.

The company estimates there are 30 million multi-tools in 80 countries bearing the Leatherman name. If my own sorry history is any indicator, there are countless others at the bottom of lakes, oceans and bays, victims of a bad case of the "oops."

Those numbers make Leatherman, the company, worth $100 million and Leatherman, the guy, very wealthy indeed.

But not so rich that he doesn't come to work each day and tie on a red machine-shop apron to run the show.

Each year, Leatherman spends a boatload of money on lawyers to chase manufacturers that would like to sponge off his good name with products like the "Leatherworker." Remnants of one legal battle went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he lost.

Advertisement

"I say they come in two types: copiers and competitors," he says. "I don't mind the competitors; they make us better.

But isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

"I would prefer to be flattered in other ways," he replies in a tone that lets you know he means it.

One of the high points of any month is when Leatherman sits down with his "skunk works" creative team to go over suggestions for new multi-tools.

"We keep lists of everything submitted. Everything gets 15 minutes. Some of them aren't too hard to reject, but others become the next product," he says. "I'm always afraid that someone is going to present something to me that I'm going to turn down and that's the project that's going to obsolete me."

Any recent doozies? He goes to get the most recent list and returns to the phone. "You choose," he says.

Advertisement

Well, it's between making the smallest Leatherman in pink and trying to fit a disc brake repair kit into a pocket tool.

Sensing an opening, I mention my perfect Leatherman addition.

"Umm, Tim, what about a margarita maker?"

He laughs. "That's one of the craziest, I mean, most interesting suggestions I've heard."

"And?"

"We'll put it on the list," he says.

Advertisement

I can hardly wait to see it in stores.

Happy trails

I always looked up to Howard Stinefelt, a Department of Natural Resources Fisheries biologist.

He's 6-foot-beyond and I'm 5-foot-nothing.

But Stinefelt, who retired June 26 after 31 years, cast a big shadow for other reasons as well.

He answered questions with patience and aplomb, and provided colleagues and people like me with a great deal of institutional knowledge.

Advertisement

Nobody could tell you more about trout stocking. That's because he coordinated the movement of fish from hatchery to stream with the dexterity of an air traffic controller at O'Hare International Airport.

Someone will fill Stinefelt's job, but they'll never replace him.

Tight lines, Howard.


Advertisement