Buck Knives is wending its way back home, in spirit and in location. For more than 100 years, Buck knives have been the favored choice among outdoorsmen, fishermen and hunters. A Buck knife continues to be synonymous with long-lasting durability and high-quality craftsmanship, even after a century. “We consider ourselves the top manufacturer of hunting knives,” says fourth-generation C.J. Buck, president and CEO of San Diego-based Buck Knives, Inc. Buck Knives manufactures – for worldwide markets – pocket, folding and fixed-blade knives, and multi-use knives for sports, work, utility, hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, backpacking, climbing, survival and tactical, diving and boating activities. The company also produces custom and collector knives.
But the time-honored company is entering the new century with a new and daring business approach. And, to add to the serendipity of the Buck story, is its journey back to its roots in Idaho. Whatever one’s beliefs, Buck Knives appears to be on a guided mission as it heads back to Idaho from California to establish a new home for itself – or perhaps it should be written that the company will re-establish its home in Idaho.
Only the Best Survive
“We are becoming more closely associated with the business philosophy we began with when my great-grandfather, Hoyt (the company’s founder), and my grandfather, Al, ran the company,” says Buck. “Their business approach was to use only the best materials they could find, apply the best workmanship they could find – which happened to be themselves – and then guarantee those products for life with a lifetime warranty, no questions asked. This is really the business model that sky-rocketed us to the enormous level of growth we had for 20 years.”
Buck is referring to the 30 percent annual growth Buck Knives enjoyed from 1961 – the year of its incorporation – until the early 1980s. “Before 1961, the company had been a custom knife job shop, producing made-to-order products,” explains Buck. “In 1961 the company chose eight of the top and most successful products and hit the ground running with market-tested, high-quality products guaranteed for life.”
Then came the 1980s, when retail marketplaces were changing dramatically for all products, including knives. “Before this, most of our products were being sold in sporting goods shops and mom-and-pop retail specialty shops where the person behind the counter was extremely knowledgeable about each of the products,” Buck explains. “So, the retail marketplace was changing to include big-box sporting goods stores, where you lost the knowledge-based individuals behind the counter who could explain that the higher quality of Buck knives validated the higher cost.”
During the ’80s, Buck recognized that price was the most important thing to consumers – who had more choices, at less cost, from foreign imports. “We began to feel the heat in our shrinking margins as the quality of those imports began to improve,” says Buck. The company began to evaluate its product lines and noticed its top five products were over 30 years old. “At first, we were very proud that we could invent products that would survive so long and then we realized that we were not introducing products to the market to the level that we needed to continue to compete successfully.”
It takes a wise company to know it must adapt, adjust, and change to survive and that is exactly what Buck Knives did. “In 2001 we embarked on a journey to create a new business model,” Buck says. That included the company’s fundamental philosophy: excellent material, excellent craftsmanship, excellent business practices, and a lifetime guaranty. “We knew we had to bring new and innovative products to the marketplace on a regular basis,” Buck continues. “In the last few years, our innovative new products have re-established us in a leadership position in our industry worldwide, dramatically improving our margins and our ability to compete with imports.”
The second aspect of this new business model is to be more competitive – and this is where the company’s move to Idaho comes into the picture for the second time in the Buck Knives story.
Now, a bit of Buck history resonates the story. Hoyt Buck, with a background in knife sharpening, had been pastor of a church in Mountain Home, Idaho, when he began making knives for World War II servicemen in the basement of his church. Hoyt used a unique tempering process that produced sharp and long-lasting blades and by the end of the war, he had a waiting list of GIs who wanted to buy Buck knives. Excited by his immediate success, he left Idaho and traveled to San Diego to convince his son Al (content with his present job) to go into the knife-making business with him. He must have been a good convincer, because the rest is, well, history.
“They’ve already rolled out the red carpet to us in Idaho, and our move there is part of our new business model and establishing our company there will allow us to be more competitive,” says Al’s son, Chuck Buck, chairman of the company. “The cost of living in Idaho is about 30 percent less than the San Diego area so our savings will be tremendous, especially in workman’s compensation insurance, which is sky-high here in California.” This year, Buck Knives plans to spend $1.2 million on workman’s compensation insurance against what it will be spending – $150,000 annually – once it locates to Idaho in January of 2005. “That goes right to our bottom line,” says Chuck.
Buck Knives will call Post Falls, Idaho, its new home. In fact, Post Falls is just a few hundred miles due south of Mountain Home, where Hoyt called home and invented the first Buck knives for servicemen over a century ago. “We will be located just off I-90,” says Chuck. “Our new building will be 120,000 square feet and we’ve been able to reduce the amount of room we need because of our implementation of lean manufacturing practices over the last few years.” Currently, the company operates in a 180,000-square-foot facility in San Diego. “Our new building will have all state-of-the-art equipment for lean manufacturing practices and we will be able to make more knives in that building that we can in our current building,” Chuck says.
About 40 of Buck Knives’ current 280 employees will make the move with the company – and Buck will hire about another 240 Idahoans. “It’s going to take about 160 18-wheelers to get all the Buck equipment and personnel up to Idaho right on up Highway 5,” says Chuck.
A New Look for Time-Tested Products
Another major change is in the way Buck organizes its products into consumer-use categories including knives for hunting and fishing, everyday, outdoor and tactical uses. It also produces limited edition and custom knives. “We are now offering new products with well-defined uses, and this is another aspect of our new business model for Buck’s success going forward,” Buck says.
Buck Knives is truly committed to helping fulfill the needs of its end-users. “Our new products group works closely with experts in various fields such as hunting and fishing, and we collaborate with them in the development of designs that would be most beneficial to their needs,” Buck says.
One of the most recent collaborations is with Pete Whittaker of the world-renowned mountain-climbing family. In fact, it was Pete’s uncle, Jim Whittaker, who was the first American ever to summit Mt. Everest. “Pete runs Rainier Mountaineering Inc. and operates guided trips up and down Mt. Rainier all summer,” explains Buck. “His guides take our products out and use them and give us feedback. Because mountain climbing is not our forte, we provide the manufacturing expertise and business integrity and Pete’s expert users provide the design credibility and the marriage of these have resulted in products that this unique marketplace finds very relevant.”
Buck’s new products group also works with law enforcement experts, custom-knife designers for everyday carry knives. “We plan to continue working like this to develop very high-integrity relationships with solid experts in their fields so we can continue to introduce products that consumers will react to immediately as knives to fit their exact requirements,” says Buck.
Buck Knives provides knives and bayonets to the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy Seals and to the military of other countries like Australia and Israel. It supplied the U.S. Army with 316,000 M-9 bayonets that snapped onto the M-16 rifle used during Desert Storm. In the mid-1980s, the Buckmaster was designed in collaboration with the Navy Seals who purchased a few hundred. Sales of this knife remained stagnant until Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” burst onto screens worldwide. “The knife Stallone used looked a lot like the one we made and we sold triple our forecast during that year because of the movie,” Buck says.
More than meets the Eye
There are knives – and then there are Buck knives. “There are so many aspects involved in knife manufacturing that are not evident to consumers so a cheaper foreign product can look good, but if the heat treating was not done right or if the material choices were not made properly or if the materials were not handled properly throughout the production process, you have a knife that will fail when you need it to perform,” explains Buck. The real “pedigree” of a knife is in the heat-treating process, he says. “The essence of the knife is its blade and its edge, which should be designed for cutting, for withstanding impact and slight abuse. So performance is one of the top characteristics Buck brings to users and how that knife is handled throughout the manufacturing process.”
Buck Knives considers the implementation of lean manufacturing practices its primary strategy. It used to take six weeks from manufacturing a product to shipping it. The manufacturing process was then cut down to three days about six years ago. “Since implementing lean manufacturing processes in our facility, we’ve cut that time down to 20 minutes, and this allows us to be extremely responsive to our customers,” Buck says.
But this implementation was not handed down from on high. Input and suggestions from Buck employees were an integral part of designing the system and then implementing it. “In an older company such as ours, it’s difficult to re-invent yourself without involving your employees,” Buck says. Buck and its employees went off-line for a few days, and with the help of an outside facilitator, they brainstormed all the steps involved in making a knife, streamlining the redundant steps and creating a tightly efficient system. “They designed work cells and figured out where the machines should be and who should be where in order to be efficient. Then they laid the plans out on the floor in cardboard drawings and when they arrived for work the next Monday all the manufacturing cells were ready because the maintenance staff had been busy preparing the cells.” Using Kaizen events in tandem with lean practices, the improvements are continual, quality keeps improving and there is virtually no waste.
There is no denying, however, the presence in the marketplace of offshore products. Although Buck Knives produces the majority of its products here in America, about 15 percent of the company’s products are made offshore. “This is for the purpose of being able to hit some more comfortable price points for some of our knives – like fillet knives, for example,” Chuck says. These knives had been retailing for over $20 and, although Buck worked diligently to lower the cost, it finally chose a company in Taiwan to produce the knives to Buck’s high standards, including the lifetime guaranty. “We can now sell these same knives for about 65 percent less than what we had to charge in order to remain profitable,” says Chuck. “We have to use this model because people here in America are voting by buying products made offshore.”
The future looks bright for Buck Knives, and although it will continue to grow organically over the next few years while it settles into its new Idaho location, acquisitions could be on the horizon. “Our focus is our relocation and new product development,” Buck says. Buck Knives might consider acquisitions in 2006 or 2007, which would be industry-specific and might include vendors, competitors or manufacturers of products that are defined by their edges like scissors or kitchen cutlery, Buck says.
“What Buck Knives is striving for is to produce very high-quality products very much worth the price,” continues Buck. “We want to be the very best perceived value and we want to be the easiest company in the knife industry to work with so there would be no reason for anyone to go anywhere else to do business.”