For someone who loves tools, there is satisfaction in holding a well-made one.
First, there is the heft. It feels substantial. Then there is balance. It doesn’t put extra strain on the muscles. Finally, there is appearance. It looks well-made with a beauty all its own.
There are tools. And then there are Klein Tools.
Klein Tools are primarily made in the United States, including in two buildings in Mansfield. One in Mansfield is a 235,000-square-foot facility on a 100-acre parcel that manufactures such items as screwdrivers, nut drivers and plastic injection molding operations, which produce handles used on various products as well as wire-pulling tools called fishtapes. This facility also includes a 60,000-square-foot heat-treating operation.
The company’s flagship line of pliers is primarily made at an advanced manufacturing technology center in a second building, a 125,000-square-foot facility located a short drive away.
The company also has facilities in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, New York and Pennsylvania. International facilities are located in Mexico, Australia, Brazil and the United Kingdom.
Thomas R. Klein, the chairman of the company, is the fifth generation to make tools primarily for the electrical trade in a company started by happenstance by his great-great-grandfather.
Mathias Klein emigrated from Germany and earned his passage to the United States working on a whaling ship. He eventually settled in Chicago, where he worked as a blacksmith.
The modern Klein Tools started in 1857 when a telegraph lineman brought Klein a broken side-cutting pliers and asked if he could repair the broken half. In those days, the communications industry amounted to a few bare wires strung on telegraph poles.
“He forged a new half and put it together,” Klein said. “Shortly, the guy came back because the other half had broken. And so he forged that half, and that was the first Klein pair of pliers ever made.”
Soon other workers were showing up and asking for a pair of pliers.
“That’s how he got into making hand tools,” Klein said. “It was before there was an electrical industry. Our roots are with the professional user, and quality has always been our trademark. It’s why we have a 70-to-80-percent market share with professional end-user electricians. A guy comes to your house, an electrician, nine times out of 10 they have our stuff.”
Over the years, various members of the family would sell off to other members of the family, and that’s how in the 1980s the company came to be owned by his father and an uncle.
“They were fourth generation, both passed away now,” Klein said. His mother, the last of the fourth-generation shareholders, died at the end of May. There are more than 50 shareholders now, with a few involved in running the company.
“But now we have fifth-, sixth- and seventh-generation shareholders. We try to gift it down to the kids,” he said, making them aware of the legacy of the company and what it was all about. “It was all about quality and giving the end users the durability and reliability that they expect on the job.”
Klein and his wife, Sara, have two sons and a daughter. Son David is director of product management at the plants in Mansfield. Their elder son is Tom Jr., who is co-president of the company in the Chicago office in charge of new products, all the manufacturing and the distribution and supply chain. Daughter Leah, a financial analyst, works in acquisitions and financial analysis in an office just across the hall from her father.
Klein’s nephew and Tom Jr.’s cousin, Mark, is also co-president, responsible for marketing and sales, also in the Chicago office. And Michael Klein, a descendant of that side of the family as well, works in Mansfield.
You can buy the tools yourself even if you are not a professional electrician or communications system worker. A search on the company’s webpage shows 100 dealers within a 25-mile radius of Fort Worth.
You can also find them at Home Depot, but you won’t find them on the tool aisle. They’ll be in the area dealing with electrical supplies. The Klein catalogue for the wholesale trade for 2017 is 340 pages.
Some industries are based on planned obsolescence – the product breaks at some point and the company gets to sell you a new one. Not Klein pliers.
“If they break under normal use, we replace them for free because they shouldn’t break, unless they’re abused, obviously. People put cheater bars on them, and that’s going to break them, right?”
A cheater bar – or sometimes just a piece of pipe – is an implement used on the handle of a wrench or the handles of pliers to apply greater pressure at the fulcrum point.
The Greek mathematician Archimedes (about 287-211 BCE) is quoted as saying: “Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.” Or break a stubborn nut loose. Or break a pair of Klein pliers.
“Obviously, we’re not just pliers,” Klein said. “Throughout the years, we were expanding our line. Lots of times, we would design products and have them manufactured for us because the volume really wasn’t there” to justify the company itself making them.
An example is electrician scissors, made for Klein by a New York-based company called Heritage Cutlery. Klein bought the company in 2007 and renamed it Klein Cutlery. That was when 46 percent of Heritage’s volume was made under the Klein name. Klein Cutlery also makes scissors used in the poultry industry, beauty industry and pet industries.
“We were the natural fit with them,” he said.
In the 1970s, Klein was selling lineman belts – the tool belt you see linemen using – designed by Klein but made by a company in Fort Smith, Arkansas. “Eventually, we became like 80 percent of their business and so the family just sold out to us.” Klein still has that facility.
“We try to be U.S.A.-based,” Klein said. “But in some cases, you can’t.” An example is meters to measure voltage and the like.
“We have electrical engineers that design these,” he said, “but you really can’t get them in the U.S. All the components and things are made in Asia. It was just too expensive to make [them] here. We tried that. Didn’t work. And so most of our meters are imported now. But that’s been a big product line for us.”
You couldn’t do this today, but he started in the business when he was 12 years old, working in the warehouse and shipping operation in Illinois where the company was headquartered. He was born in Evanston Hospital and grew up in Winnetka along Lake Michigan’s North Shore.
“Being in the warehouse, you start learning all the products and you start learning about shipping and receiving,” he said. “They put me at the end of the line checking the boxes. You check for weight and accuracy.”
In today’s work, computers will alert the shipper that a customer has more than one order pending so they can be combined to save on shipping costs. But back then, that was done manually – by a 12-year-old boy.
Klein’s mother, Donna, and his father, Richard, did not believe in free rides. There was no allowance, but there were chores around the house.
“Once I turned 12, I could go to work, and then you get consistent paychecks. I mean, I didn’t go there saying, ‘Oh, I want to learn about the business.’ I went there, ‘I wanna get a paycheck. I want some spending money,’” he said.
Backorders were golden for him. “That meant I could work six and seven days a week, and I always took the overtime. You know, it was time-and-a-half. They tried not to work people on Sundays because that was double-time, but if they offered it to me, I was there,” Klein said.
It was a different motivator, he says now, a different way to get children interested in the family business to carry it on.
Figures vary slightly according to the source, but Inc. says that fewer than one-third of family-owned businesses survive the transition from the first generation to the second and only 13 percent remain in the family for more than 60 years. Klein is celebrating 160 years in business this year.
“I was just interested in the paycheck back then,” Klein admits. “You start learning about the company, and as you learn more, you get to know the people, you just begin to think, ‘Oh, yeah. I want to be around those guys.’ And you learn a lot that your parents can’t teach you, because your parents, as you know, when you’re about that age, they know nothing.”
From there he moved into engineering, where the staff taught him the basics of drafting.
“The first day, they came in and they gave me a part, and they said, ‘Draw this.’ No one helped me. They wanted to see what the capabilities were and where they’d have to start,” Klein said. “You kind of learn from the ground up. I was learning from engineers. And they would joke around because, obviously, you make mistakes and they laugh at you.”
And then he moved to the tool room. He was 15. Kids his age couldn’t go in there now.
“My mom was worried about it because it’s dangerous. Machines don’t stop, as you know, if you get in the way,” Klein said. The supervisor, who still works for the company and Klein says “was a great mentor for me,” wanted to see if the owner’s kid was willing to get dirty.
“So they put me in what was called a tunnel broach,” Klein said. A broaching machine shaves two sides of a pliers forging as one step of the manufacturing process.
“But it needed to get cleaned out because it was filled with chips, and it’s oil, and it’s black, and it’s pretty nasty. He had me go through that and clean it.” At the end of the first day, he told Klein: “You’re gonna work out after all, aren’t you?”
Today, that work is automated and done by computers.
After college, Klein started working in accounting and with taxes and financial analysis at the company. It was done primarily by hand and it was tedious. Then it was supply chain management and purchasing, where he spent a number of years, and later added customer service.
“I was vice president in title back then. Then I became executive vice president about 2001. And then I became president in 2006. And then chairman in 2014,” Klein said. “That’s my progression.”
Klein Tools chose Mansfield as its manufacturing hub in part because of incentives from the Texas Enterprise Fund, which was created by Gov. Rick Perry to entice businesses to relocate to Texas. Klein said his family looked at numerous factors and other states to consolidate operations before settling on Texas. The Mansfield plant opened in 2010.
“We had to narrow down to which state is the best,” he told the Fort Worth Business Press in 2014. “We wanted to be close to a major airport and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport satisfied that. We wanted to be in a right-to-work state and one with low taxation. We also looked for business friendliness. We’re very happy with our decision to move here. The city of Mansfield has been great to work with.”
The company received a $2.8 million Texas Enterprise Fund grant and an economic incentive package approved by the Mansfield City Council that includes $500,000 each year for 12 years. Both the state and city grants depend on performance-based benchmarks that Klein Tools is required to meet.
That he had followed his sister to Texas Christian University probably didn’t hurt either.
The Mansfield plants are highly automated, but they still require many technicians and non-robotic workers for final finishing and other tasks.
“I’ve always been into automation because my thought was that to remain a U.S. manufacturer, we had to stay ahead of the game,” he said in a recent interview. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re employing fewer people that way.’
“At least I’m employing people, because otherwise we won’t be here at all, you know?” he said. “We have roughly 1,200 employees in the United States now and about, I’ll say, 1,400 worldwide. So you can see that the base of our employment levels is all here.”
The company trains its own work force.
“You have to nowadays,” he said. “We have an in-house guy who’s in charge of setting up all training.” Programs are set up depending on the aspect of the business.
“We have leadership development. We have skill development. We’re working with Mansfield [Independent School District] with their skill development in the manufacturing area. We do projects with TCU students. We work with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. We gave them $2 million, a sponsorship to develop more people out in the trades.
“So, yeah, we’re pretty heavy in developing and encouraging people to learn. And we pay for it all,” he said.
Let the Robot Do It
The level of automation is fascinating to see. Forged tools have to be machined down to their final dimensions, for example. A robot arm picks up a tool and scans it.
“Some of our machines now will look at a pair of pliers and it’ll say, ‘OK, these are the dimensions this thing has. This is how I’m holding it,’ and then it’ll grind it based on what it just measured, instantaneously,” Klein said.
The tools Klein makes are expensive and there are plenty of cheaper tools on the market. But the advantage and the lure to workers is in the detail.
Competitors will literally send Klein tools overseas and ask manufactures to duplicate them.
“If you look at them, they look exactly the same,” he said. “They can make them look really good. But the difference is that our material is different and then it is highly engineered. We heat-treat with three different manners, for instance, so that the blade has a different hardness than the head, which has a different hardness than the handle.”
Why is that important?
“It’s because the blade is going to be used for continuous cutting, so you’ve got to harden it so that it’s not going to be brittle, but it’s going to also cut. The head has a different hardness. And then the handle is a little bit softer,” Klein said.
He explains that when someone hits, for example, a baseball or a golf ball, sometimes he or she will feel the impact in their bones. “Well, we make [the handles] softer so you don’t get that when you cut the wires. These guys use them all day long.”
Klein tries to educate consumers to the differences, but he admits that it doesn’t hit what he calls “that middle market very much. We do some. Some people are knowledgeable.”
But he’s not after the middle market, although that would be nice. He’s after the professionals – electricians, cable installers, iron workers and the like. “They know our name. They know that they can rely on it,” he said.
TESTING FOR QUALITY
Quality control picks a tool at random at certain points in the production process depending on the sample size.
“We’ll actually cut them up, do cross sections and make sure that we stay with the correct process and within our tolerances,” says Mike Pebworth, manufacturing engineer.
But there is one line of tools that is 100 percent tested and at far beyond the level at which it is rated.
Klein makes a line of wire cutters designed for people who work with high-voltage electricity. Normal household voltage – 120 volts – isn’t likely to kill you although it will get your attention.
But high voltage will.
These tools have bright orange handles that are designed to keep hands from slipping into contact with the metal, similar to the flange on a hunting knife. The handles are two-part – what is called a high-dielectric insulating material and a flame-retardant, impact-resistant outer coating. They are rated safe to 1,000 volts, but every single one is tested to 10,000 volts before it leaves the factory in Mansfield.
A note to do-it-yourselfers here from the Klein catalogue: “Not all tools with plastic coating or handles provide protection against electric shock.” Those that do cost more, but most people would agree that their lives are worth it.
In June, Klein announced the acquisition of General Machine Products Co. in Trevose, Pennsylvania. GMP is recognized as a premier worldwide supplier of specialty cable placement tools and equipment. Among the items it makes are cable blowers, which are devices used for laying cable.
When Klein was in high school, the belief was that all cables above ground would be going underground and devices to pull it wouldn’t be needed.
“My dad was all worried about it. He goes, you know, ‘We’re gonna have to come up with some new products to kind of replace that volume over the next decade.’ Well, here we are, literally 40 years later, we sell the hell out of those things.”
Klein notes that it is more expensive to put cable underground than above ground, but there’s enough volume to justify the company’s purchase of GMP to be in that market.
“By the way, that’s a third-generation family [business],” Klein said. “You said third generation is usually the last. I don’t think he had any of his kids coming in.”
Klein tells a story about the early days for Klein Tools, a story his father and his Uncle Matt liked to tell. Another tool manufacturer in the Chicago area was introducing them to his son, who asked what they did. “They make money,” the father told his son.
Or so the story goes. “But if you make quality products, then everything else kind of works for you,” Klein said. “We’re reliable and durable, and that’s our secret. Make good stuff that people want.”