We at TTAK have been critical of Gerber and the decline of a once great knife brand. Nathan has even gone as far as to say “Gerber Sucks!” in a post last year. This is a defensible position, given their run of recalls and marketing machine that seems to place more importance on celebrity endorsements than on the product itself.
This is one of the storylines that I wanted to investigate while I was at the Blade Show. The show is a fantastic opportunity to talk face to face with industry legends, independent knifemakers, and representatives of the larger production houses. And there is no one larger than Gerber. One problem though, Gerber wasn’t at Blade. It turns out that they haven’t attended in years.
I was so overwhelmed by my first Blade Show last year, that I hadn’t noticed. However, when David and I began to inquire about this year about Gerber’s absence it became obvious that people have noticed. Including people whose level of respect in the knife world is unquestioned.
Questions abounded on the show floor.
Does Gerber still consider itself a knife company? After all, they are a subsidiary of Finnish manufacturing giant Fiskars. The new president of Gerber, Rob Kass has a background in tool and durable goods manufacturing, not knives. They have been hit with large civil penalties over their recalls including most recently a $2.6 million judgement in January related to a failure associated with the Gator Combo Axe handle in 2010. Is Gerber in financial difficulty? If Colt could go belly-up this month, no company is safe, even one who has been around since 1939 and has decades of tradition and history behind it. Just what is happening at Gerber anyway?
On a whim, I sent a tweet to Gerber simply asking why they were not at Blade. To my surprise, I actually received a tweet response, saying that they were disappointed to have missed it, and plan on returning next year. I hadn’t yet realized that this had been an ongoing situation, and I sensed an opportunity to do some real investigative reporting and try to get exclusive, original content for the blog. I pressed on.
I decided to compose the following email and sent it to both Gerber’s Sales and Info addresses. I also sent a follow-up message to whomever was handling their social media giving them a heads up and hoping that since I had someone’s attention that there would be follow through and a response.
To the Representatives of Gerber Legendary Blades,My name is Clay Aalders, Managing Editor of TheTruth About Knives.I have been in contact with Gerber via Twitter (@knifetruth), and did receive a response, but I am looking for more by way of explanation than a tweet. Ideally, I would like to do a short phone interview with a someone from your PR Department or other applicable representative.Primarily, I would like to discuss your absence from the Blade Show this past weekend. It was noticed by most, and discussed by many on the show floor. Our readers would like to know more about the situation, especially given the rough run that Gerber has had with regards to QC and recalls of certain tools of late.I would appreciate the courtesy of a response to my inquiry. I am not looking to bash Gerber by any means, but I am noticing a distinct negative perception of Gerber that is metastasizing among makers, our readers, and the more savvy knife consumers out there. I would be shocked if you are unaware of this, and as someone who has used Gerber tools for years (I carried a multi-tool in my fire gear when I was on a department in college among others), I would be very disappointed if Gerber did not have a plan in place to reverse the trend.I can be reached at xxx-xxx-xxxx, or would welcome an emailed response as well.Thank you for your time and consideration.
Two days later I received a response from Andrew Gritzbaugh, Marketing Communications Manager for the Gerber Company. He agreed to do a phone interview with me which occurred this past Wednesday. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I am a bit jaded towards the company, in fact David and my original idea was to do a question of the day piece titled “Is Gerber still a knife company?”. I didn’t want to default to a hit-piece though without at least reaching out to the company for official comment. I didn’t expect quite the level of openness or frankness that I received however.
First a little bit of background on Mr. Gritzbaugh. He is an 8-year Army veteran who has been with Gerber for the past 4 years, 3 on the Tactical Marketing team, and the past year as Marketing Communications Manager. He has been a lifelong outdoorsman who does seem to know knives. If I had to formulate a judgement based on our correspondence and 20 minute phone call, I would say that Andrew “gets it”. Whether or not he is surrounded by people both above and below him that share in this is something I cannot yet say. But as they say, the first step on the road to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. And I was shocked with how Andrew opened the interview.
“You are not wrong“, is how he started. He went on to explain that Gerber is well aware of the perception that I said “is metastasizing” in the knife world, and does have a grand plan to right the ship. In fact, he claims that a plan has been underway for a couple of years now and he has personally noticed a clear directional shift in the company.
Of course, Andrew is a PR guy, and some of his answers were kind of flacky. None more so than his response to the recall situation. In fairness, several of the recalls are on sheaths with stitching and other minor issues, but several are on knives themselves including the Bear Grylls parang which has a tendency to snap off at the neck, or the failure of the locking mechanisms on the Cohort and Instant.
When asked, Andrew says that QC is important to Gerber, and when you have production runs the size that Gerber does, the small percentages get larger in absolute terms, so while a dozen failures might trigger action for Gerber, similar percentages of failure might go unnoticed in the normal course of warranty transactions in a smaller company.
To a degree this makes sense, but is still a little weak. When Andrew says that the recalls and settlements are derived from products that were released several years ago, and that since then there have been many changes within the company that should prevent similar situations in the future, he backs it up with some examples.
Apparently, the last several years have seen expansion of Gerber’s USA production. American made knives have represented an increasing percentage of overall production each of the last couple of years. While many of their knives are made from solid but pedestrian 420HC, they are branching out into higer-end steels. The Edict is made from 154CM, the same as my Benchmade Mini-Grip. Their new Gator Premium fixed blade is made from S30V, a premium steel in any league.
The knife that Andrew is most excited about is the new StrongArm fixed blade. This 420HC blade is designed and made in Portland, OR. It is a robust piece of steel that comes with a modular sheath system for multiple carry and deployment options.
One perception problem that Gerber has had to contend with relates to the market saturation of their Bear Grylls line. As Andrew sates, this is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the prominence of the line has provided an entry point to the knife world for countless consumers. The whole industry “benefits from the mass introduction of people to blades”. Unfortunately, the QC problems and the ubiquitousness of the advertising and the BG knives’ presence in so many big-box retail outlets has made this a bit of the “face of Gerber”, and their reputation among exhisting knife enthusiasts has suffered.
Andrew wishes that the Bear Grylls line did not overshadow their other work so much.
“It is my hope that we are doing the right thing (as a company), and that we find a way to inform the public of the exciting things that are happening at Gerber”
He says that while the new President does not have a knife background, Mr. Kass has put his trust in the designers and craftsman, and is instead putting his experience to work at improving QC and “Brand Differentiation”. As someone who has been with the company before the transition through to today, Andrew swears that there is a noticeable difference in both attitude and the production itself.
All of these words are meaningless unless the steel is up to par. Andrew has agreed to send us several of Gerber’s new offerings for testing and review. I am going to send Nathan the Gator Premium S30V, both because of his skepticism of Gerber and because he has a thing for the premium steel. If this knife manages to impress Nathan on its merits, it will really be saying something.
Andrew has said that he will be sending me 3 other knives as well. A Ghost Strike, a Propel auto (huzzah for Tennessee Knife Freedom), and Andrew’s favorite the StrongArm. I will be testing the latter 2 personally, and will be sending the GhostStrike to either David (if he can have something double edged in MD- I will have to look) otherwise I will likely pass it along to Jon Marshall who is a fellow resident of the free-State of Tennessee.
We will provide as thorough of a review of these knives as we can. Lots of testing and pictures. I won’t take a PR representative at his word necessarily, but as I said Mr. Gritzbaugh seems to get it. Trust but Verify. I am willing to give Gerber another chance, but will be frank and honest in my assessment. If these knives can stand up to what I put my Mora Bushcraft, Wood’s Kraken, or Wilmont Wharny through, I will recommend them enthusiastically. If they fail, I will be saddened to see that a company with the pedigree of Gerber still doesn’t get it.
One last thing that gives me hope is that Gerber still does produce some tools that are well made and have a devoted following. Their multi-tools have been on the Army’s list of issue kit (the RFI program). Andrew told me of how he receives handwritten testimonials from soldiers describing how they rely on their Gerber tools on a daily basis. He has even received pictures of soldiers who have gotten tattoos of the Gerber logo. While that is not a step I would consider taking for any company, it does show a level of devotion that is hard to match.
I myself carried a Gerber multitool in my fire gear back in the day, I particularly liked how the pliers were deployable without removing one’s gloves. It was a solidly built tool that served me well in a number of capacities. I still have the sheath floating around though the tool itself has long been lost.
I am reminded of Star Wars where Luke tells his father, “there is good in you yet, I can feel it”. That is how I feel about Gerber at this point. It takes years to build a reputation, and that can be brought down overnight. Gerber has a long road back, but they appear to be at least walking down that road.