You likely have one of Ben Rivera’s products in your pocket or on your keychain right now. If not, he’s hoping to put one there. This is where Leatherman came from and where it’s going with new, wearable tools like the Tread.
IndefinitelyWild: Who are you and what do you do at Leatherman?
Ben Rivera: When I got out of high school, I really wanted to be an architect or an artist. Something awesome. I ended up picking engineering because I thought I could make a living doing it.
I’ve been with Leatherman since 1991. So 24 years. When I joined the company we only made two products — the original Pocket Survival Tool (above) and a less known product called the Mini Pocket Tool. My job was a manufacturing engineer, so I came to work every day and tried to figure out how to improve the quality of the product, improve the yield, design machines to increase capacity, and design work instructions. I was the only manufacturing engineer at the time, so for the first two years that’s pretty much all I did.
Then in 1993, I went on a business trip with Tim Leatherman to look at our jaw supplier and, on the way home, I was looking at a blueprint of a restaurant and he said, “I don’t know how you can look at the blueprint of a restaurant and see what the building will look like.” About a week later he came by my desk and said, “If you can look at a blueprint of a restaurant and know what it’s going to look like, maybe you can design a new product for us.” And that product became the Supertool (above).
Really, between 1993 and 1996 I did a little bit of both manufacturing engineering and design engineering. I did the Supertool, I did the Micra (a great project I thought) and then after the Micra (above) I pretty much went full time design engineering and started hiring more people to do the manufacturing stuff. My next product was probably the Wave (below), then another one I’m really proud of is the Juice line. After that we started working less on big changes like new tools and locks and more on evolutionary changes based on customer feedback and the competitive environment.
In 2004, I started to take on a staff of people to help me with the design work, doing all the drawings and the articles and stuff, and I became the vice president in charge of product engineering starting in, geez, maybe 2005 I think.
After that I moved from product design to business development. I’ve had my hand in design since that original Supertool though.
Ben, at home on the Leatherman factory floor.
IW: How big is Leatherman?
BR: I don’t know if we’re big or small. Our revenue is a little over $US100 million a year, but we do everything here in Portland, Oregon from marketing to product design to engineering, packing, shipping, customer service and warranty service. All together we have about 500 full time employees and a hundred or so temporary associates, depending on the season. We pretty much bring in bars of steel to the east end of the building and ship out complete tools from the west end. We have about 100,000 square feet of manufacturing and about 60,000 square feet of packing, shipping and logistics.
IW: How did the Tread come about?
BR: We’ve gone through a few evolutions of design philosophy here. The first 10 years I was here it was about responding to customer feedback and competitive products. We had to make the handles more flexible, we had to have scissors, we had to make it larger and improve the wire cutters…it was a combination of what we saw in our warranty department, what we heard customers asking for and how we compared to competitive products. Admittedly, we were trying to stay ahead of the competition in a category that we created. Until 2004, that’s what we were focussing on — progressing an infant industry and becoming mature.
Then from 2004 until about 2011 or 2012, most of our product development was then focused around creating segment-specific tools. Who else would want a Leatherman tool than just everyday carry/DIY/outdoorsmen. We started to think about what would a hunter want to carry? What would a fisherman want to carry? What would a soldier want to carry? What would a hiker or backpacker want to carry? Or a gardener? So we started pursuing different themes of products targeting narrower segments of customers.
That worked pretty well, but then in 2011 or ’12, we embarked on a project called FreeRangePDX and challenged ourselves to become more innovative as a company. We spent two years studying innovation across US companies. We looked at small, medium and large companies and how they accomplished their innovation stories, and we designed our own innovation process and started on that.
I was in charge of all that, so with the Tread I wanted to show everyone how that process was designed to work.
In our research we found that there were companies we called “technology poachers,” “market leaders,” and “problem solvers.” Well, at Leatherman, we work with problem solvers, so we went out to observe them in their natural environment and try to find problems to solve with them that could be authentic to the Leatherman brand.
Tread was born out of me being part of a product consumer group. I’ve worked with Leatherman my whole life and, after September 11th, I got really tired of being told I couldn’t bring my tool with me. Like everyone else, when I go to a basketball game or I go to my kids’ school or I go to the courthouse, I don’t know if I’m supposed to be taking my Leatherman tool or not. Most of the time it’s not a problem and I’ve learned how to hide my tool so I don’t get in trouble.
But then, on this family vacation to Disneyland in 2013, I got to the gate and they’re like “we saw you put something in your pocket and we want to know what it is.”
The first thing that popped into my head was ,”How the heck did security see me put it in my pocket from the parking lot?” So I took out my Skeletool and explained it’s a pair of pliers, it’s a screw driver, it’s a bottle opener. But they said, “Well, it has a knife on it so we consider it a weapon.”
I told them, “I need this to be prepared!” They told me it was take it back to my hotel or give it up. They followed me all the way back to my hotel, like a mile long walk. I was a little frustrated by this and my family was worried about me, texting to see if I was alright.
So I think back to that trip and think that the problem I need to solve is that Leatherman tools are not as accepted as they once were. And by “accepted” I’m not just referring to regulatory compliance or getting through security, I mean accepted in a social sense, even if it’s just at your house some people might still perceive it a a weapon or, if you’re wearing it on your belt, people might think you’re a farmer.
Tread was designed to be accepted. Not only in a regulatory sense, but also in a social sense. How could I design a Leatherman tool that would help you be prepared that would be worthy of the brand and would be accepted?
For whatever reason, a bike chain was the first thing to come to mind. It’s both flexible and rigid; you can use it as a handle or to pry with, and at the same time can wrap around my wrist or work as a belt. So I started modifying bike chains from being just flat links to something with tool bits. I modified bike chains and my kids, who were 12 and 13 at the time, they kind of liked my bike chains, but thought they were a little too punk. Then the ones I made with bits would poke or snag your arm. So I pretty quickly threw out the idea of modifying a bike chain and decided to design it the way I would design it if I was figuring out how to manufacture it.
We have this really great 3D printer at the office that will print directly to stainless steel, so I kind of almost made one that was tongue-in-cheek, as a signature piece that I could just wear around trade shows and stuff thinking it’d just be cool. I made that first sample, wore it around the office and people kind of liked it. So we decided to make a small run of them and sell them and just see if there’s a market for people that are weird like me.
We introduced it at SHOT Show earlier this year and the feedback has been overwhelming. It’s been awesome.
IW: Are we going to see more products like Tread?
BR: Yes. For Leatherman to grow and become relevant to a broader group of ages and women and people who live in the city, we have to be more innovative in how we approach design.
Leatherman is largely associated with the product itself: a pair of pliers that folds up so you can put it in your pocket. The mission of our company is to improve people’s lives by producing products that can prepare them for the unexpected. Pliers do not have to be the answer to every product that we do.
During my presidency — I’m only 48, so I’ve got a ways to go — I really want to move away from being known solely as a pair of pliers to a problem solving company that can prepare you for the unexpected.
It’s easy to make a tool to prepare you for the expected — if you know you’re having a barbecue you know you need a spatula and a fork and a thermometer — but to create something that you can have with you when you need it, that’s overbuilt in a way and designed in such a way that it facilitates creativity in its use, that’s difficult. We want to make a tool that is designed in a way that represents your values and your hobbies, but can be with you all these times that you need to push a little further. You should feel more secure carrying it.
IW: What do you do when you’re not designing tools?
BR: This summer on vacation I drove the Rubicon Trail. One of my key things from that trip is that a) there weren’t that many people on the trail, it was really just me and my friend and b) when you do cross paths with people, the interaction is really special. We were all from different demographics and ages for sure, but we were all there for the same reason — the great outdoors and fixing our trucks and solving problems. And everyone there had a camaraderie where they wanted to help you. I was blown away by how nice people were.
I’m a Land Cruiser guy. I have an FJ40, an FJ60 and an FJ100. Mostly I just like to drive out to make camp where there’s no camgprounds. That’s how my Landcruisers are all built.
IW: When did the multi tool take over the world?
BR: Our peak year for multitools was 2000, just before September 11th, at the height of Y2K/zombie apocalypse stuff. We had a pretty significant setback with September 11th and all of a sudden our keychain business — which is probably 20 or 30 per cent of our sales — dropped by 80 per cent. Not being able to take a Leatherman on a plane was a big setback.
We’ve been gradually growing back up and we’re nearly at our peak again, but not through mass quantities of the same products, it’s through a more diverse range of niche products targeted at certain segments.
From ’94 to 2000 we had a dozen competitors crop up, but now it’s really just Leatherman, SOG and Victorinox. The rest mostly aren’t in business at all anymore, let alone in the multitool business.
Ben showing US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker around the factory. Note the tool on his belt and knife clipped in his pocket.
IW: Can you lobby for greater acceptance of tool carry?
BR: We actually invested quite a bit in that a few years ago — you might remember a couple years ago the TSA decided to allow knives of below 6cm back on aeroplanes. It never actually happened. We helped to get that approved, us and some other companies. But it was met with so much opposition by the flight attendant and pilot unions that they reversed their decision.
I’m pretty resigned right now that we can’t change the world, so we have to change ourselves. We have to adapt to the reality of a world where there’s increasingly laws against carrying edged tools.
Countries keep passing all these laws against folding knives due to stabbings, but you look at the crimes and most of them are with kitchen knives! It’s very unfortunate.
IW: What’s next for Leatherman?
BR: There’s more people in the world who would find value in having a pair of pliers in there pocket — that’s for sure — and we’re going to do some work trying to find those people. But, the big growth potential is for products beyond pliers.
We’ll be keeping everything right here in the USA and remain dedicated, hardcore fans of adventure and preparedness tools. We wake up every day trying to figure out how to make better tools.