I remember seeing copies of Crain’s Cleveland Business of the end-table in my Grandfather’s office reception area. It brings back memories of cigar-smoke and leather chairs, and would be the last place I would expect to see a profile of knifemaking legend Rick Hinderer.
Hinderer started out as a one-man shop, hired his first employee in 2009 and today employs 15 people in a 14,000-square-foot spot in Shreve, near Wooster, with 18 computer numeric control (CNC) machines, a water-jet cutting station and other equipment.
He’s made knives for Fortune 500 CEOs and celebrities. Hinderer even gets recognized in public himself.
“I was at the airport in San Francisco, and this guy comes up and says, ‘Rick Hinderer — I can’t believe it!’ “
Hinderer couldn’t believe it either.
Yep, the knife industry is enjoying a boom. It’s no wonder the History Channel has a show called “Forged in Fire” that pits blade makers against one another in a competition that resembles “Iron Chef.”
Hinderer and his company, Rick Hinderer Knives, has been not only a participant, but a driver of the trend.
Of course Crain’s is a business publication, and it does an excellent job describing the business model employed by Hinderer and other high-end designers.
Hinderer doesn’t make that many knives in his shop, a few thousand a year, he said. But hundreds of thousands of knives are made with his name and design each year, sold by brands like Kershaw, Zero Tolerance, Gerber, Benchmade and others. They are big production companies set up to make many more knives than Hinderer. They may not get the handwork that a knife from Hinderer’s shop gets, but they’re also much less expensive.
A Hinderer design from Kershaw and made in China might cost you $30 to $50. A Hinderer knife made in the U.S. by Zero Tolerance costs between $150 and $300. A knife from Hinderer’s shop costs $425 and up.
If you want one made by Hinderer himself, you can still get one — but that generally will cost you a couple grand.
Those arrangements do a few things for Hinderer. First, he makes money off every knife sold with his name on it. That’s hundreds of thousands of knives a year and represents more income than the knives he actually makes, he said.
But more importantly, it’s a tiered marketing strategy that allows Hinderer to sell knives to people who would not dream of spending $400 or more on one. And, sometimes, they eventually decide they do want, or can afford, a “real Hinderer.”
“You can buy my knives in Walmart,” Hinderer said.
The question is, can he keep it up? As the knife industry has become more popular, so has the number of new makers. That includes Chinese makers who also can get hundreds of dollars for their knives and compete for sales with guys like Hinderer.
Knife sales are tough to track. They’re usually lumped in with other hand tools. But the American Knife and Tool Institute, an industry advocate group, estimated in 2015 that U.S. knife sales were more than $950 million at the wholesale level, before retail markups were applied. That represents more than 4,700 jobs at 81 companies, it reported. Sales have since decreased a bit, however, and the industry publication Knife News reported in August that 2017 sales were down about 5%, year-to-date, following a similar decrease in 2016.
Korn, however, said he’s not seen a slowdown in sales, and he thinks people like Hinderer will do just fine because they have established followings and a reputation for making a quality product.
I am always happy to find favorable coverage of the knife world in outside publications. It doesn’t come much more divergent than Crain’s. I can think of no better ambassador to the “outside” world than Rick Hinderer.
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