Like Coke is to soda and Kleenex is to tissue, “Leatherman” has virtually become synonymous with “multitool.” The Portland, Oregon-based company makes just over $100 million a year selling its suite of tools, and part of its success might be that the president is still deeply rooted in designing, building, and perfecting the product. President Ben Rivera is the rare C-level executive, who manages to juggle the budgets, set the vision, and manage 600 employees, while still getting down and dirty in the R&D lab.
SNEWS: Are you a knife geek?
BR: Not really. I have become a bit of an expert and gained an appreciation for a great knife and all the ways a knife can be great but I would not describe myself as a knife geek at all.
SNEWS: Do you have a tool/knife on your person right now?
BR: I always do. Skeletool, Tread, Brewzer are always there. Sometimes others and more. WAVE and Signal are the others I often carry. Micra or Squirt are on some of my keys as well as some LEDLENSER lights.
SNEWS: OK, then you may not be a knife geek, but you are most definitely a tool geek! Pocket or belt sheath?
BR: I use both, but I am more of a pocket carry than a sheath. The sheath offers more function because of the larger tools and accessories it carries, but I prefer pocket carry.
SNEWS: You’ve been with the company for almost 25 years and climbed the proverbial ladder. How did you reach the president’s chair?
BR: I started here in 1991 as a manufacturing engineer, straight out of college. We only had the one product at the time: the Pocket Survival Tool. My whole job was figure out how to improve the quality and performance of the product and increase our factory output because we had serious backorders.
Then in 1993 I was sitting on a plane with founder Tim Leatherman. We were looking in a magazine at a blueprint of a Shari’s restaurant, which is octagon-shaped. Tim said “I don’t know how a person can look at a blueprint and know what a building would actually look like.” I told him that I could do that, and a week later he came to my desk and asked me to design a new product, which eventually became the Super Tool.
I continued designing tools, including the Micra, WAVE, and Juice. Eventually I became Engineering Manager, then VP of Product Design, then VP of Business Development, and then president in 2013.
SNEWS: What’s Leatherman’s best seller?
BR: WAVE has been our best seller for a long time. In fact, it’s part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
SNEWS: The Tread is a super cool idea (it’s a travel-friendly, wearable, bladeless multitool), but it’s hard to wear, especially for a woman. What’s the reception of that been and what gave you the idea for this radical product?
BR: TREAD has been very well received, and has actually won a whole slew of awards for design and innovation (from Fast Company, Popular Science,Wired, and ISPO to name a few). People who don’t typically know Leatherman or carry a tool or knife are interested.
I was inspired by the repeated observation and feedback that LEATHERMAN can’t go to places where security is tight. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was when I was kicked out of Disneyland for having a Skeletool in my pocket. I had heard so many stories of people being reluctant to carry their tools because of security concerns. I knew there had to be a way to create a truly useful tool that you could take past security. I came home from that trip, I started working on TREAD right away using a bike chain.
SNEWS: Do you miss being a designer, now that you’re the boss?
BR: I also love providing the vision for the company and helping them get the tools that they need to do their jobs and pursue the growth objectives of the company. I sit 5 feet from the design department and I’m still involved. My whole life is a kind of an experiment. I’m always carrying 2 or 3 tools that are specially modified so I can learn from them. Every project in my house-- hanging pictures, putting together a bed, fixing a car--I start out trying to accomplish it with a Leatherman tool. At some point I have to cave in and hit the tool box, but almost everything I do is a Leatherman test.
SNEWS:What new products are you working on now?
BR: I can’t tell you yet, but I can tell you that Leatherman tools are all about solving problems in the real world, actually opening a package, tightening a screw, fixing a car, opening a bottle. Not with information, but with the ability to do something. And we’re looking closely at the outdoors and travel markets. We’re also thinking about a new version of the Tread, where you could use it as a watchband or build your own tool by picking the components.
The C-Spot is a series of stimulating interviews with outdoor industry power players. If there’s a C-level personality you’d like to hear from, or if you inhabit the corner office yourself and have some stories to tell, email us at email@example.com.