Bear & Son: Honing a Knife-Making Tradition in Alabama
Ken Griffey has saved this Alabama knife factory from shutting down, not once, but twice. In the process he's proved that believing in people is as important as making a profit.
The first time he stepped in, it was 1991. The Pennsylvania-based cutlery company W.R. Case had decided to close down a factory it had built in Jacksonville, Alabama, just five years before.
The town's leaders came to Griffey with a proposal. Would he buy the business if they could get local banks to put the money together? Although he was vice president based at the company's Pennsylvania headquarters, Griffey had been involved in building the factory and he had spent time down there over the years.
Running the factory tempted Griffey. He believed in the people and the work they did. And as a Southerner, born in Tennessee, Griffey was ready to head home. Plus, his wife Sandy still had family in the town where her grandmother had attended teacher's college.
The Griffeys accepted the challenge, along with two other partners, and for the better part of a decade, the business flourished.
In the late 1990s, another corporation came calling. Bear had created a multipurpose tool it called the BearJaw that combined knives, corkscrew, pliers and scissors into one tool. Swiss Army, one of the biggest brands in the knife business, also had brought out a similar tool.
Griffey knew he couldn't win a patent infringement case against a company with lots of lawyers and millions of dollars in sales. So he sold the Bear brand and factory to Victorinox, the owner of the Swiss Army brand, in 1999. He stayed on to run the company.
"The Swiss executives came down to see the factory exactly once," Griffey says. "They never came back."
Five years later, word came again that a corporate parent based thousands of miles away wanted to shut down the factory. Swiss Army had been hit hard by 9-11. People got tired of having the TSA take their knives at security. Sales of knives dropped precipitously.
"We were almost ready to retire. We'd bought our house on the lake," Griffey says when the call came from corporate. "But I looked around at the employees, and I knew I couldn't shut the doors on them."
Griffey went to his son Matt, who was considering job offers after graduating from Jacksonville State University with a degree in computer science. Griffey wanted to know if he bought the factory a second time, would Matt help him run it?
The first thing they would do was change the name from Bear -- which Griffey had chosen earlier because as he says, "everyone respects a bear" -- to Bear & Son.
Family, Community, Business
Matt Griffey grew up on Bear's factory floor. "I had lot of mothers and fathers," he says of the employees who watched out for him as he took on odd jobs at the factory. Instead of being the "owner's son," employees treated him more like their own child. They reprimanded him, teased him and taught him virtually every skill it takes to make a knife.
Choosing to stay and work with them instead of going off to a big-city job wasn't an easy decision. But it felt like the right one for his family and the community he calls home.
For the Griffeys, their belief in Bear runs deep. Griffey wouldn't have bought the company twice if he didn't believe in the people who work for him. At the core of Bear is a local community the company supports through the jobs it provides. But Bear also is about how that community, in turn, supports the company. This type of symbiotic relationship should make for a thriving business.
That philosophy, however, was hard learned. It took two decades to realize that corporations far away from Alabama weren't the answer to creating a successful business here.
When Case built the factory in a soybean field on the outskirts of Jacksonville, it was on the surface a plan to help pull a community out of the decline.
For decades, the town flourished because of the textile trade with Fruit of the Loom employing hundreds of people. But by the 1980s, cotton grown in southern Alabama was shipped overseas. Mills were shutting down. Unemployment in Jacksonville hit the double digits by the late 1980s.
With poverty increasing throughout Alabama, the state and local governments were willing to give tax incentives to almost any company that would create jobs.
The incentives wooed Case, but it had little connection to Jacksonville and its people. When the corporate parent ran into trouble, it was all too easy to shut down a factory hundreds of miles away. The same scene would play out again with Swiss Army a decade later.
In the end, Bear was only going to survive-and thrive-if the owners cared about and shared the work of the people in the factory.
As the owner, Ken is in the factory every day he isn't out trying to sell more knives. He knows whose children are sick, who's expecting a new child, who is getting married. He understands that his business won't succeed if his community doesn't.
That focus on community is helping to build success in the business. In 2006, Bear started making a knife for Remington Outdoor Co., a gun manufacturer, based in Huntsville, Alabama.
Bear's focus on quality and American-made craftsmanship drew Remington to Bear. Now after almost a decade working together, the two companies have signed a licensing deal for Bear to manufacture a new line of knives under the Remington name.
Eight years in the making, the partnership will likely double the company's production.
"It's a big, big deal," Ken says, especially because it will mean hiring more people from the community to join the 88 people who already work at Bear.
Every Knife Has a Story
For Ken, the clearest, deepest memories he has of his grandfather involve him whittling pieces of fragrant cedar with a small pocket knife. Or peeling an apple, the red skin curling off in one long strip. "He could always do that; I was never very good at it," he says. Ten years ago, despite a steep decline in carrying pocket knives, Ken decided to replicate the pocket knife like the one his grandfather always carried. The knife fits comfortably in the hand. Two knife blades of different sizes tuck inside the polished casing finished with wood or bone.
As with most manufacturing, while the idea was simple, the process was anything but. The 1095 carbon steel comes from Pennsylvania; the wood from Vermont. Designs and tooling, though, all happen at Bear, where drawings from Matt's computer become wooden and metal dies in the factory.
Two giant presses cut through long ribbons of steel as if the metal was paper. The biggest press, with 125 tons of pressure, sounds out with a deep tone followed by a hiss as the hydraulics release and knife blades drop below the giant machines blanketed in steel dust.
This process makes Bear different from other knife manufacturers that often buy their "blanks," or knife-shaped pieces of metal, from overseas and then finish them here in the U.S., oftentimes with the help of robots.
Instead, a Bear knife will start with coiled steel and get handled by a human more than 80 times as it turns from dull steel to a sharpened blade.
The blades go through more than a dozen grinding processes from stone to sand belts to soft leather straps that continue to take off dullness until the blades meet their intended sharpness-from hunting and fishing knives to military grade blades that can cut through metal. The blades are constantly touched and tested by the finishers who, through years of practice, can also detect tolerances better than any machine. As Ken says: "A robot can't check quality."
Walk and Talk
At Bear, quality control resides in the hands of Stan Nibblett.
Place a knife in his hands-which feels like warm sandpaper from working with honing and sanding equipment for more than 40 years-and he begins working the knife.
Called "walking and talking," Nibblett puts the knife through its paces to make sure the blades come out of their resting places and slip back in with precision.
Depending on the knife, he may flip the blades in and out several times, checking that they stay in, so you can "walk" with the knife. But just as important is the "talk": the blade has to slide out smooth, right when you need it. If a knife sticks, it goes back to the sanders where it's reworked until the blade glides like intended.
If the blades are too loose, Nibblett takes it to his cluttered work station filled with small tools, rags and sandpaper to see if he can fix it without sending it back through the line, or worse having to discard it.
Nibblett can see down to the presses and over to the sanding lines. He's the center of Bear. While his job title is finishing supervisor, Stan is the man who taught almost everyone at Bear the beauty of "walking and talking" a knife. Hand anyone a knife in factory and they mimic his movements.
As Ken tests a set of military knives. He tries to flip a blade out with touch of a metal button on one of them. Nothing happens. He tests another. Nothing. It's time for the finisher to call Stan over to figure out what's wrong. Return an hour later, and the sharp blades slide without a problem on every knife.
For Stan, teaching others how a knife works and how to fix a knife is his legacy. "After 40 years of making knives, I want to pass this knowledge onto somebody," he says. "I want to keep that spark alive."
Every Knife Has a Story
For Ken, the clearest, deepest memories he has of his grandfather involve him whittling pieces of fragrant cedar with a small pocket knife. Or peeling an apple, the red skin curling off in one long strip. "He could always do that; I was never very good at it," he says.
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