Seattle's Blade Runner

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

If you spot SOG’s main offices on a quiet suburban street in Lynnwood, clues about what the company makes are in the design of the building itself. Constructed for the business in 1996, the sleek industrial space and its wedged entranceway suggest the clean, finely honed edges of a precision blade.

That appearance was deliberate, says founder Spencer Frazer, to symbolically celebrate the high-tech styling of the knives he has designed for sporting, military and law enforcement use during the past 26 years. From its austere beginnings in Frazer’s apartment in Santa Monica, California, SOG Specialty Knives & Tools has become a leading brand in outdoors tools, a market that SOG not only helped expand, but also redefine.

Shoppers at retail outfitters such as REI or Cabela’s may be well acquainted with SOG’s field and folding knives of hardened stainless steel, and frequently seek them out for their rugged inclusion of modern composite materials. The broad range of styles can vary in price from $14.95 to $2,500.

Like the adventurers its products speak to, SOG has remained fiercely independent for most of its life, with Frazer as the trailblazer. Over the past three years, however, the company has accepted outside investment and leadership as it seeks to expand. A partnership with an investment group consisting of Gladstone Investment Corporation, The Mustang Group and Montlake Capital brought $28.1 million to the firm last August, replacing a brief, two-year partnership with private equity firm MCC Capital Partners.

Privately held SOG discloses few details, only that its revenues exceed $20 million a year through accounts in more than 60 countries, and that it has experienced double-digit growth in each of the past five years. It has 68 employees, with its manufacturing work contracted to plants in Japan, Taiwan and China. Some assembly and finish work is done in Washington.

SOG cultivates a muscular, flinty image suited to the adventurous and self-reliant customer in need of innovative gear. The company’s celebrity endorser since 2009 is R. Lee Ermey, a former U.S. Marine staff sergeant turned actor, best known for his award-winning role as the chillingly brutal drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. At the company’s offices, Ermey’s craggy mug stares challengingly from the wall, over advertisements for the limited edition “Gunny” series of folding and fixed blades.

After that introduction, meeting Spencer Frazer is a bit of a surprise. The force behind SOG and still its chief designer is a slender and softspoken gray eminence, an aesthete who enjoys painting, jazz guitar and Japanese gardening. At first, this gentle father of three seems an odd fit for products of such lethality.

“They’re beautiful, elegant, sculptural art,” Frazer says of the knives he has admired ever since he was a Boy Scout. “Still today, when I look at a knife, carry it or use it, it still affects me. It’s such a cool little machine.”

SOG is named for the first knife Frazer made, a reproduction of a Bowie-style blade that had been issued to the highly classified Studies and Operations Group, a special operations unit of the Vietnam era. Collectors have found the knives as intriguing as the elite special warfare unit that used them. Frazer, a former tool/die and model maker for a division of aerospace company Northrop, found the instrument “beautiful, soulful. I was struck by it.”

He began crafting his own reproductions of the SOG knife and was soon marketing them from his Santa Monica apartment through advertisements in magazines like Soldier of Fortune. To meet the strong response, Frazer engaged a manufacturer in Japan’s Seki City, where cutlery has been made since the mid-13th century and where the SOG knife was originally produced.

As the business and his product line grew, Frazer found that the market for specialty knives in the mid-1980s was a hidebound one.

“The business was a very old-fashioned industry,” he says. “It was dominated by buck and case knives, using horn and wood,” and hadn’t yet discovered the high-technology aesthetic that Frazer’s own designs drew on from his years in aerospace.

Distribution was also limited to small mail-order outlets and disparate “Mom and Pop” gun stores and cutlery shops. Channels for larger sales, such as gun distributors or even sporting goods stores, didn’t really exist, he recalls.

That situation began to shift around 1990, when Frazer designed his first multi-tool, the folding pliers that combine more than a dozen functions in a single unit. He was competing with firms like Portland-based Leatherman. Seeking a lifestyle change, Frazer was similarly attracted to the Pacific Northwest and soon afterward relocated to Edmonds.

Along with meeting the demand for multi-tools, SOG rode the crest of the wave in sports retailing that brought outfitters like REI to prominence. Lacking the capacity to deliver, Frazer had to painfully turn down his first large order from Eddie Bauer—an act of integrity that led to bigger sales later. SOG also won military supply contracts through the U.S. General Services Administration, and now supplies other nations’ military organizations.

SOG’s ruminative founder considers himself an artist, with knives as his craft. But he also reflects that knives serve a unique place in the narrow world of men’s goods. “We have our glasses, a wedding ring, a watch, maybe a wallet,” Frazer observes. “There are very few things besides clothes that can describe who we are to the world. Our products are one of those things. A pocket knife or multi-tool, a little piece of gear is a whole psychological identifier of who you are and aspire to be.”

Frazer no longer runs SOG, having recently handed the reins of daily operations to CEO Fred Keller, but he remains the firm’s chief designer and guide. With new investors on board, SOG plans to its expand the footprint of its brand to other outdoors products; it has already added shovels, axes and durable flashlights to its line.

The challenge ahead, Frazer believes, is “to keep the cool in the company as we grow, to keep that essence.”