Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Knife maker has sharp eye for business
LYNNWOOD — Tucked into a corner of town is a company where the cutting edge is part of everyday life.
SOG Specialty Knives and Tools Inc. grew from a niche business in 1986 in the apartment of owner Spencer Frazer in Santa Monica, Calif., to one that ships knives and other tools to thousands of customers across the world from its headquarters in Lynnwood. The company employs 70 people in Snohomish County.
“A knife is man's oldest tool,” Frazer said. “It is still essential for modern life, and it is part of the fabric of society. They play a part in survival, preparedness and convenience. Knives won't be outdated by technology; they will be better with it and will continue to evolve.”
Frazer, 56, has had a hand in designing every knife and tool produced by the company. And he continues to do so even though he sold the company in 2009 to a private equity firm, which in turn sold the business to venture capitalists last year. His role now is designer and chief technology officer.
His first knife was based on one used by a Vietnam War-era covert special warfare unit called the Studies and Observation Group. The unit served as inspiration for the company's name – SOG.
Since then, he's strived to incorporate technology in making his knives and tools more useful and stylish. The business also has embraced technology in selling its knives. It's grown from advertising on the back pages of Soldier of Fortune and Survival Guide magazines to connecting with customers on the Internet.
Customers who buy SOG knives are hunters, outdoor enthusiasts, law enforcement, collectors and gadget hounds – and mostly men.
“Our business is about offering personal things,” Frazer said. “Women have more items available to them for self-expression. There is fashion, scent, jewelry. Men have very few personal items of self-expression available to them outside of watches. Knives offer distinction.”
Beyond the blade
SOG's catalogs include palm-sized flashlights, light-weight hand axes, and machetes with a normal blade on one side and serrated one on the back for cutting.
“We try to create multifunctional features and think outside the box,” said Frazer, a tool and die-maker who has worked on classified projects for defense contractors.
Frazer's interest in tactical and survival tools was sparked at a military memorabilia show in the 1980s. The style, grace and aesthetics of the Vietnam War-era SOG knife fascinated him and he set out to design a commemorative version. He had never made a knife before.
“To this day, every time I am designing a product I think about the story behind it,” Frazer said.
Those first replica knives were produced in Japan. Ads were placed in the survivalist magazines for the $169 retail knives. Frazer called cutlery stores in Southern California for orders and set up a distribution system.
In 1989, SOG won the Overall Knife of the Year award at the industry's Blade Show.
“I realized we had something and it was no longer a hobby,” Frazer said.
Looking for a quality-of-life shift, Frazer moved to the Seattle area in 1993, eventually landing in Lynnwood.
SOG maintains a small retail store at the Lynnwood headquarters, at 6521 212th St. SW, for people to hold and feel its products. A few weeks ago, Jon Frantzen, of Arlington, and Kregg Jorgensen, of Seattle, stopped by. Frantzen is the director of the Tactical Tracking Operations School. Jorgenson is one of his instructors.
“When you are out in the woods, you need the right tools,” Jorgenson said. “In the city you don't think in those terms, but tomahawks and saws are handy when you are trying to get shelter in the rain.”
While the economy continues to lag, Frazer says SOG has seen a boon.
“We have grown by double digits every year,” Frazer said. “There is a survival mentality in hard times that bodes well for knives.”
Today the company imports specialty blades from all over Asia. Workers in Lynnwood assemble some of the knives and tools.
The company declined to say how much it generates in sales each year other than to say that it's in the double digit of millions.
An avid following
Keeping pace with technology, Frazer now also markets his knives on Facebook and Twitter. SOG asks fans what they are doing with their knives over the weekend and posts customer photos, such as jack o' lantern carving contest entries.
And then there are the company's Internet commercials.
One of the company's customers is R. Lee Ermey, better known as “The Gunny,” the Marine who first appeared as the boot camp sergeant in the movie “Full Metal Jacket.” Ermey also has done pitchman work for Glock handguns, Geico insurance and California pistachios.
He was perfect for SOG Knives.
“ ‘The Gunny' brings a sort of authenticity and a message that if it is good enough for ‘The Gunny,' it is good for the average Joe,” said Chris Cashbaugh, the head of the company's marketing department.
Ermey is expected to sign autographs on April 21, two days after Cabela's opens at Quil Ceda Village in Tulalip.
Frazer receives letters from all over the world about how his products have helped people's lives.
One came from a dentist who took his young son on a Canadian backcountry canoeing trip. Two days out, the boy developed a toothache and the father used a SOG multi-tool to extract the tooth. Father and son continued their trip.
“I wouldn't recommend that use for anybody,” Cashbaugh said. “But he is a dentist.”
Another man in Arkansas bought the knife to open feed bags on his farm because he could pop out the blade with one hand. Less than 24 hours later, the car he was riding in spun out of control and fell down an embankment into two large trees.
He was trapped with one leg pinned under the dash and pants on the other leg hung up on something. His seat belt wouldn't unlock. One arm was pinned. He pulled out his knife, opened it with one hand and used it to free himself.
And a soldier in Iraq wrote a letter about how his unit was traveling through a canyon when a bolt on a side-view mirror started clanking loudly. The soldiers tried to remove the bolt with the tools on hand, but their tools broke. One soldier pulled out his personal SOG multi-tool and successfully removed the bolt.
They completed their mission safely.
“Our products are in the hands of the good guys,” Frazer said.
SOG's top sellers
Here are the five best-selling products by Lynnwood's SOG Knives and Specialty Tools:
SEAL Pup: A 9-inch fixed blade knife designed with Navy SEALs in mind.
Tactical Tomahawk: A tool designed for excavation and extraction.
Flash II: A switchblade-type of knife where the blade opens with a single hand.
Twitch: A classic folding pocket knife with an aluminum handle.
PowerLock: SOG's version of the multi-tool with scissors, screwhead and a variety of blades.