Leatherman Tools celebrates 25 years

See why this outer East Portland company has developed a worldwide reputation for making a great product – as well as repute for being a great local employer …

Tim Leatherman, the acknowledged inventor of the “Multi-tool” and founder of Leatherman Tool Group, proudly shows one of his latest tools, the CHARGE®.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Even though there’s plenty of space still available in outer East Portland along the Airport Way corridor, there are few manufacturers in this part of town.

But, thriving Leatherman Tool Group – with a worldwide reputation for making great products – observed a milestone on July 11th.

“We’re celebrating 25 years of being born, bred, and thriving, here in outer East Portland,” said the firm’s marketing communications manager, Juli Warner.

Arising from the simple desire for a multipurpose easy-to-carry tool, an international company with more than 400 employees was born.

Starts with a bad knife spoiling a holiday
At the company’s anniversary party, Warner told us the business started in the early 1970s, when Tim Leatherman on a honeymoon trip Europe. “The car he was driving kept breaking down, and he was frustrated with his pocket knife. It wasn’t useful to fix things on the road. He started dreaming up and sketching out ideas for what he called a ‘multi-tool’.”

When Leatherman got back to this country, it took him about ten years to develop his idea into a product, Warner went on. “In 1983, he incorporated Leatherman Tool Group with his first sale to Cabelas, the largest outfitter of hunting, fishing, and outdoor gear in the world.”

Tim Leatherman custom-engraves tools for guests.

Proud of loyal employees and customers
Instead of “working” the birthday event by schmoozing visiting dignitaries and guests, Leatherman quietly sat at a table outside his 90,000 sq. ft. facility, where he graciously engraved tools – old or new, made by his company – for guests who came up to greet him.

“25 years is a long time to be in business,” Leatherman looked up and commented. “I’m really proud we’re still in business. I’m proud of the great employees we have, that enable us to stay in business. And, I’m really thankful for all the loyal customers we have.”

The company’s founder mentioned that these tools are available in 85 countries. “This now includes Mongolia.”

Speaking quietly, Leatherman continued, “We started a company just a few blocks away from here. My partner’s father’s business originally housed us. When we outgrew that space, we moved here to NE Ainsworth Circle, and we plan to stay here. The business started out small; we now have a little over 400 employees.”

Asked about the company’s future, Leatherman said simply, “I look for continued growth during the next 25 years. I look forward to seeing us continue to make good high quality products here in Portland, Oregon.”

Portland Mayor Tom Potter congratulates Tim Leatherman on the success of his company.

Mayor commends company
One of the dignitaries present at the firm’s celebration was Portland Mayor Tom Potter.

“I’m happy to be here; it’s a real honor that they have their headquarters and manufacturing facilities here in East Portland,” Potter said. “It’s the kind of manufacturing company we like to have here in Portland. They’re very conscious of the environment, and contribute to the community.”

In addition to providing family-wage jobs, Potter added, “they make a quality tool that is used all over the world. It says a lot about them, and their firm reflects positively on Portland.”

Constantly upgrading procedures
Warner confirmed the company does provide good family-wage jobs. “Leatherman Tool Group has one of the best compensation packages you’ll find. We’re constantly refining our manufacturing methods and procedures. For example, we use ‘lean manufacturing’ practices that allow us to keep jobs here, instead of sending work overseas.”

Guests at the anniversary celebration were treated to a full barbeque luncheon.

Leatherman’s “10 Rules for Success”
After those attending the celebration enjoyed a catered barbecue luncheon, Leatherman stepped up and retold a couple of “tool tales” – stories related to him about how his tools were used in unusual circumstances.

Then, the company founder gave his “10 Rules for Success”:

  1. Set goals.
  2. Persevere.
  3. Learn what you need to know as you go along.
  4. Pay attention to details.
  5. Delight your customers.
  6. Hire good people.
  7. Treat your employees well.
  8. Have fun.
  9. Make money.

At this point, Leatherman admitted he only listed nine rules and added, “I’m still looking for that 10th one to make us REALLY successful!”

These fans of Leatherman Tools, Hjalmar and Ninne Nielsen, say they planned their vacation in the USA so they could visit the factory, and are delighted to be part of the celebration.

Leatherman fans travel from Denmark
If a prize were given for celebrants who traveled the greatest distance to attend the company’s 25th Anniversary, it would be presented to Hjalmar and Ninne Nielsen.

“Yes, we are visiting here from Denmark,” Hjalmar told us. “A friend gave me a Leatherman tool five or six years ago. Today, I say ‘how is it possible to live 50 years without a Leatherman multi-tool?’  I have it in my pocket every day.”

We congratulate this fine outer East Portland company on their success – and, yes – we carry one of their tools in our camera bag every day!

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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