Leatherman Tool Group creates a new version of the popular device

Posted: Wednesday, January 17, 2001

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- Tim Leatherman's new tool sports such shocking shades as Flame and Thunder.

It can pack a corkscrew or scissors.

It rides in pockets and purses.

Its name is Juice.

This ain't your father's Leatherman. But it might be your mother's, Tim the tool man hopes -- or the Leatherman that your wine-loving uncle or snowboarding cousin have secretly lusted for.

That thought gave birth to Juice, the first new line of tools from Portland's Leatherman Tool Group since 1983, when the company sold its first, prototypical Leatherman. That Pocket Survival Tool -- twin steel handles that unfold to reveal pliers -- pioneered the market for portable ''multitools.'' Along with eight variations, it powered Tim Leatherman's two-man operation to 450 workers and estimated annual sales of $100 million.

But the first line of Leathermans have tapped most of their U.S. markets, executives think. To keep growing quickly, they need to reach consumers the hard steel Leatherman normally leaves cold: the young, the upscale and the fashion conscious. That's why Tim Leatherman is betting his company's time, money and even its utilitarian image on a colorful tool he didn't design -- and didn't much fancy, at first.

''I don't think I'm the target market,'' Leatherman said last week, as he chatted with company executives. ''But my wife liked it, and it's supposed to appeal to her. My son liked it. I forget the word they use today...''

''The bomb?'' Leatherman executive Mark Baker offered.

''Something like that,'' Leatherman said. ''It wasn't 'cool,' which is what we used a few years ago.''

Leatherman now begins discovering whether people besides co-workers and relatives think Juice is cool. Retailers recently got their first glimpse of the Juice at the 2001 Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show and Conference in New Orleans. Most consumers won't get a glimpse of the product line until this fall, when five models debut in stores at suggested prices of $56 to $80.

A test of loyalty? Three Portland knife merchants who have heard about the project think it will be successful. Colors are becoming more and more popular, they said. And Leatherman fans are so loyal, they buy masses of nearly every update to the traditional Leatherman line.

But the Juice could sour that devotion. All Leatherman tools to date have sported designs so utility-focused and unadorned that the tools have become an Oregon institution and a symbol for practical Joes everywhere. For true believers, gussying up a Leatherman could be a heresy akin to carving a husky head into Mount Hood or designing Dickies with a pocket for a Palm Pilot.

''That crossed our minds,'' Leatherman said. ''But we think the rewards outweigh the risks.''

The reward is a market that executives estimate to be as big as the market for Leatherman's current line of tools, said Roger Bjorklund, vice president of marketing and international sales. That would mean sales of several million tools a year.

The target market includes people who carry Swiss Army Knives or pocket knives, Bjorklund said, as well as folks who don't carry any multipurpose tool. Compared with Leatherman's generally male, blue-collar customer base, the Juice's target market includes women, white-collar workers and weekend warriors.

Executives thought these folks might be avoiding Leatherman's original line because it only comes in stainless steel. Moreover, many models are longer and boxier than the average pocket knife and are most often carried in belt holsters, which some people find unfashionable.

So executives decided to market a tool small enough to fit in a pocket, with a more streamlined, less industrial look.

''Beyond functional, for people who put value on aesthetics,'' Bjorklund said. People ''who care about how they look.''

In February, the executives turned to designer Ben Rivera, a West Linn native who joined Leatherman straight out of Oregon State University.

''I came here and thought, 'I'd never wear that on my belt,''' he recalled, discussing the original tool line. Rivera now carries a Leatherman, but he called the Juice ''the product I wanted when I started working here.''

The executives wanted a smaller, hipper tool. Within three months, Rivera had a model the size and shape of the Juice today.

He packed the Juice with features relatively new to Leatherman. Working through the fall, he refined and polished his design to five versions of the tool, each one with its own color, geared to niche markets.

Models with corkscrews appeal to older consumers, for example. The compact model with scissors appeals more to female buyers.

Experts at the Pantone Color Institute moved Leatherman into a world of tints and trends, helping Leatherman select shades that appeal to the target markets, such as orange -- or Flame -- for the model focused on women.

There's also Inferno (red), Glacier (blue) and Solar (yellow). There's even a purple Juice that Leatherman calls ''Thunder.''

A purple Thunder Leatherman with a corkscrew? Sure, Tim Leatherman said -- though he carries the yellow one, with a saw and awl instead of a corkscrew. And he's warmed up to its fashionable charms, especially when he considers the competition.

''You get the features of the Swiss Army Knife,'' he said. ''Except when you open it up, you get a pair of pliers. Much more utilitarian.''


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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