We recently caught up with Leatherman CEO Ben Rivera to discuss what makes the legendary company a "benchmark of performance, quality and design." (Spoiler alert: it's a "maniacal dedication" to multi-tools.)

While joyfully describing the intricacies and challenges involved in making – and evolving – iconic products, Rivera spoke in depth about Leatherman Garage, the company's new innovation incubator dedicated to small-batch prototype tools. Most significantly, Rivera meditated candidly on the critical role customer feedback plays in Leatherman's design process and future success.

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Somewhat counterintuitively, a great deal of Leatherman's innovation is sparked by its generous 25-year warranty. Rivera explains the warantee informs "manufacturing processes and the way we run our business, even in the way we sell our products." The information, complaints and insights collected via the warranty returns process "is really almost irreplaceable," Rivera says. "[For 39 years, we have been] incorporating that knowledge into the product relentlessly. We want to make the product better, and we want to empower users to feel confident. They don't have to be afraid to break their $100 Leatherman tool because they know Leatherman'll fix it."

Launched earlier this year (and in homage to founder Tim Leatherman's original workspace), the Leatherman Garage is charged with trying new, bold ideas – and retrying others. In fact, the Garage is led by Lee Leatherman, the company's Director of Special Projects. Each year, the Garage will launch a few moonshot products. Then, as the team collects customer feedback they'll be able to "see if people like it – and if we like it," Rivera says.

person using leatherman tool to cut

Ultimately, only a few greenlit designs will be produced in limited runs. Though the concept connotes a mad scientist's machine shop, Rivera modestly quips that "it's actually an office with a Post-it Note on the door that says, 'Garage.'" It's a funny visual, but make-do-with-what-you-have authenticity is perfectly in line with the brand's DIY ethos.

Rivera lights up as he nerds out further. "We're also trying out new materials," he says, and "coatings is another thing we've been experimenting with." The Garage's second product, the Darkside, utilizes a diamond-like carbon (DLC) coating. "I just love making these products. I think [the Garage is] really what the heart of the brand is. It's creative problem-solving."

Just as the Garage is a newly crucial part of Leatherman's future, any feedback from Garage customers is invaluable. The rare Garage tools are created in response to original learnings from Leatherman's core customers, so ownership insights gathered from the relatively small cohort of Garage superfans will help the brand determine whether or not a limited-run prototype is a true success. Regardless, the main purpose of the Garage is to get incredible tools into die-hard Leatherman devotees' hands. It's pretty clear that if Rivera weren't heading the company, he'd be first in line for the next Garage drop.

leatherman tool

When asked whether Garage innovations might replace the iconic Leatherman 'folding pliers' form factor, Rivera didn't mince words: "The short answer is no." However, non-pliers products aren't off the table. "I want to be able to develop and offer additive products that would broaden the appeal of Leatherman," Rivera says. He excitedly riffs on what might appeal to the next generation of "problem solvers" – not necessarily younger people, but anyone who isn't yet a Leatherman user. "I think it might take a higher level of design or a different level of design. We have to very carefully balance weight and size. The aesthetic appearance needs to evolve as we launch new things. What I'm looking for is innovation that's really relevant to the consumers."

There's plenty of that already on the table, in fact. Leatherman's wildly extensive Custom Shop enables customers to engrave everything from their initials to entire images onto a product. It's a truly expansive offering and provides a massive landscape of open-ended possibilities, particularly for gifting (and self-gifting). If customers want to share the world of Leatherman with the uninitiated, an indispensable tool engraved with a meaningful message is a solid first step.

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Rivera's Leatherman of choice is a FREE P2, and he tells anecdotes about putting it to use during fishing trips, off-roading and home improvement. ("I usually start every project with a Leatherman and test its limits before I go get a regular tool to save some time.") He even reads me a play-by-play list tracking every time he used his Leatherman during a recent workday (highlights: using one Leatherman to repair another and jimmying open the locked Engineering Department door after hours). As a finale, Rivera holds up his FREE P2 – the piece he'd been fidgeting with off-camera since our call began.

man holding leatherman tool in workshop

Leatherman's catalog evokes strong kid-in-a-candy-store vibes – though Wonka Bars don't cost upwards of $180 before customization. On its website, there are 67 non-Garage multi-tools, eight knives and 78 accessories on offer. Rivera is fully conscious that shoppers are spoiled for choice, perhaps to a fault. "I'd love it if you bought four tools for camping and four tools for automotive. But the truth is, one tool could do so many things."

To that end, Rivera's innovation efforts partially center around focusing the Leatherman product range while remaining true to the brand's core ideals. Four "Leatherman Guiding Principles" steer decision-making and culture and include "Dominating the multi-purpose tool" segment, "Being a great place to work," and "Make what we sell in Portland, Oregon." (He emphasizes the importance of Leatherman being wholly located in Portland, OR, from corporate to design to manufacturing: "We bring in the coils of steel on the east end of the building and ship out Leatherman tools on the west end of the building.")

The fourth Principle is a commitment to "Always being privately held," Rivera says. "We don't want to be told by investors or anybody else how to run our business."

Rivera runs the business, and he clearly cherishes the work. But there are, in fact, many other people influencing the company's direction: its customers. Like its first 39 years, the future of Leatherman will be guided by feedback from the folks who love the brand as much as Rivera. Regardless of what innovations transpire and regardless of the task at hand, Leatherman products will always empower customers to try – pliers or not.

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