It’s been 30 years since Tim Leatherman created and started selling the multi-tool, and 29 years since Australians first got their hands on it.
In that time, the market’s been flooded with no shortage of knock-offs.
But Leatherman, speaking to SmartCompany on a recent visit to Australia to celebrate the company’s three decades in business, isn’t as fazed by this as he once was.
“Early on, it turned out that the tool I introduced to the market was not covered by a patent everywhere. And quite quickly we got copied in China,” he says.
“For many years, we fought against the copiers by filing lawsuits against the importers who would import them into the United States. But I eventually came to realise – and I didn’t used to believe this, but now I do – that in the end, it’s the lawyers who win when you file lawsuits.”
Today, Leatherman competes on its reputation. Its tools are still made in Portland, Oregon. “Hopefully, it comes across that given we’re making our products in southern Oregon rather than China, we’re trying to do the job properly,” the founder says.
Tim Leatherman, a mechanical engineer by trade, first developed the multi-tool after he and his wife took a budget trip across Europe. As their car kept breaking down, Leatherman realised he needed an all-in-one tool-kit, “a pocketknife with pliers”.
When he got back to America, he spent eight years developing and commercialising the tool.
This article orginally appeared at SmartCompany.
“It took three years to develop and five years to find a customer,” he says. “But once it did hit the market, it was an overnight success.”
The tool thrived through mail-order catalogues. They exposed millions of Americans to the tool, and once a few bought it, Leatherman says, word-of-mouth referrals meant he quickly had to make more.
At that point, Steve Berliner joined Leatherman as a co-founder, and together, they began making the tools in Berliner’s father’s metalworking factory.
“We were quite lucky in that his father did have this metal-working business and was quite generous. He let us use his machines and his employees on a sub-contractor basis. And that was the start of our local factory,” Leatherman says.
The business kept growing and growing. Today it has a 10,000 metre factory employing 500 workers, who together make 8000 tools a day.
Australia was one of the earliest export markets for Leatherman and is its second-largest export market (after Germany). The American company started selling here when it was approached by distributors after an American trade show.
Leatherman says Australians have been keen adopters of the Leatherman and he has a few theories as to why.
“In America, if we get in trouble we might rely on somebody else to get us out of trouble,” he says. “But in Australia, it seems to me the mindset is that people have to get themselves out of trouble. So they go prepared. And if there’s a problem, they want to know they have the tools to deal with it.”
Looking to the future, Leatherman says the goal of his company is to remain the number one company in what has become as the ‘multi-tool category’.
How do they plan to do that? Leatherman says that if 30 years in business has taught him one thing, it’s to always “sweat the details”.
“You want to make sure that everything you’re doing is something that’s going to make the customer happy,” he says.
“Of course, the biggest thing is just that – keep the customer happy. And sweating the details is part of that.”
This article originally appeared at SmartCompany.
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