SOG Specialty Knives and Tools grew from a niche business in the apartment of owner Spencer Frazer in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1986 to one that ships knives and other tools to thousands of customers around the world. It 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 Knives won't be outdated by technology; they will be better with it and will continue to evolve."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 has also embraced technology in selling knives. It's grown from advertising on the back pages of Soldier of Fortune and Survival Guide magazines to connecting with customers through online commercials, Facebook and now Twitter.
Customers who buy SOG knives are hunters, outdoor enthusiasts, police officers, 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."
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Palm-sized flashlights, light-weight hand axes, machetes with a normal blade on one side and serrated one on the back highlight the company's catalogs.
SOG takes an age-old tool and adds, innovates and revolutionizes.
"We try to create multi-functional features and think outside the box," said Frazer, a tool and die maker who has worked on classified projects for defense contractors.
Its most serious competitor is Leatherman Tool Group in Portland, Ore., which was one step ahead of SOG by developing a multi-tool in the early 1990s.
Frazer's interest in tactical and survival tools was sparked when he attended a military memorabilia show in the 1980s. The style, grace and aesthetics of the Vietnam War-era SOG knife fascinated him. He set out to design a commemorative knife. 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. "It helps me define the purpose in what I am doing."
The first replica knives SOG offered were produced in Japan. As the initial order was being shipped across the Pacific, Frazer realized their imminent arrival meant he had to figure out how to sell them.
Ads were placed in the survivalist magazines for the $169 retail knives. The first month SOG made $10,000, the second $5,000. With the third month's net in question, Frazer began calling cutlery stores in Southern California to 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, settling himself and the company in Edmonds and eventually moving the business to Lynnwood.
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In the early years, Frazer made tactical knives. Retailers wanted classic designs for outdoorsmen.
"At that time, the industry was unsophisticated," he said. "It was not high-tech."
The breakthrough came when outdoor gear giant Cabela's, one of his major customers, told him that his SEAL Pup, a serrated fixed blade with a distinctive handle, was their top-selling knife. He took that information to other retailers.
"The SEAL Pup was a modern style," Frazer said. "Tactical was what everyone was thinking about. Tactical had become synonymous with technical."
Keeping pace with technology, Frazer marketed his knives through email, a website and, in the past couple of years, on Facebook and Twitter. SOG asks fans what they are doing with their knives and posts customer photos from a jack o' lantern carving contest.
And then there are the company's Internet commercials.
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He's the marine everyone knows.
R. Lee Ermey, a retired marine, first appeared as a boot camp sergeant in the movie "Full Metal Jacket" and parlayed that into other roles, including the voice of Sarge for the "Toy Story" movies and endorsement deals with Glock handguns, GEICO insurance and California pistachios.
He was the perfect pitchman for SOG.
When they wanted someone to endorse their products, they went to the man best known by the nickname "The Gunny." And it turns out that Ermey already had a connection with the company -- he owned a multi-tool.
"'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's appeared in online commercials for the company, landed in their catalogs and appears for the company at knife shows. He's expected to sign autographs at the new Tulalip Cabela's on April 21, two days after the store opens at Quil Ceda Village.
And SOG knives also make cameo appearances in movies and television, according to Cashbaugh. "Terminator II," "Kill Bill," "The Hurt Locker" and television's "Lost" series are just a few.
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SOG maintains a small retail store at their Lynnwood headquarters at 6521 212st SW for people to hold and feel their 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 in Arlington. 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 Japan, Taiwan and China. 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 millions.
• • •
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 canoe 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 a 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.
The man was trapped with one leg pinned under the dash and pants on the other leg was hung up on something. His seatbelt wouldn't unlock. One arm was pinned.
He pulled out his knife, opened it with one hand and freed 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.
Top-selling knives and tools
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 SEAL's 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.
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