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June 2004
Irwin Industrial Tool Sets Up Shop
By Susanne Deitzel

      It is undeniable that the Queen city has heralded many new additions to her court. Johnson & Wales University, a new NBA franchise, the relocations of several high profile corporations and mega-mergers in its banking industry have made the city a force to be reckoned with in terms of attracting new businesses to its center.

      Yet, while Charlotte celebrates these new additions, a quiet growth has been happening on its borders. The success of its activities in attracting businesses has produced the booming areas north of the city, in the Birkdale and Lake Norman area. One of these businesses, IRWIN Industrial Tool Company, can be found in Huntersville’s North-cross Executive Park.

      While North Charlotte has experienced considerable growth, it is particularly surprising that IRWIN could make such a discreet entrance just seconds away from city limits. A powerful start-up division of the global conglomerate, Newell Rubbermaid, IRWIN North America represents approximately $400 million of the company’s global $8 billion dollar operation. The ubiquitous Newell Rubbermaid owns household names like Rubbermaid®, Sharpie Pens®, Levolor® Blinds, Calphalon®, Little Tikes®, and Graco®. With IRWIN, this Fortune 500 player set up shop, brought 200 jobs to the area, and has continued to nurture and grow important relationships with several retail and industrial partners.

 

Retooling for Success

    IRWIN Industrial Tools manufactures and distributes professional hand tools and power tool accessories for trade professionals. Formulated to unite 32 brands under one umbrella, IRWIN now encompasses seven sub brands including Vise-Grip®, Marathon®, Quick-Grip®, Speedbor®, Unibit®, Hanson®. Irwin also offers a popular brand of consumer products including Rubbermaid Tough Tools® and the increasingly popular group of Strait-Line® products.

     Says Jon Chamberlain, president,“The focus and mission of IRWIN is to answer the needs of the guy who makes his living with tools every day of his life. Professionals must adhere to a higher grade of quality standards and need hardware that will help them accomplish tasks in a superior fashion.”

     The current iteration of IRWIN came into being after a series of acquisitions that concluded with American Tool Companies, Inc. in April of 2003. Prior to the acquisition, Newell Rubbermaid held a 49.5 percent stake in the company.

     Says Chamberlain, “The formulation of IRWIN was a strategic coup. We were able to enter a market we thought very highly of, with an incredible cache of products and brands. Both professional and consumer brand identification were very high, and we considered hardware a very practical platform for us to extend our reach.”

     IRWIN allowed Newell Rubbermaid to make its foray into the estimated $10 billion dollar market for industrial tools, increasing its product-customer base and market presence. In 2003, IRWIN was recognized as the outstanding division of the year among all Newell-Rubbermaid subsidiaries, and has rapidly seized significant market share from some very high-profile competitors, enjoying a rate of growth considerably faster than the industry itself.

     Chamberlain attributes the extraordinary success to several key components.“First and foremost, we have superior products that undergo stringent engineering processes. We are the industry leader in innovation, and we invest heavily in gleaning the information and obtaining the resources to make the best product available.”

      IRWIN benefits from the implementation of Newell Rubbermaid’s “Phoenix Rising” program. Called the ‘Job Site Phoenix Group’, college students are initiated into sales roles and perform promotional and product demonstrations at job sites to expose product and convert users to the IRWIN brand. While they create and reinforce the IRWIN brand identity and product offerings, these groups also create a conduit for engineers to view what Chamberlain calls “the frustrations and inhibitions” that professionals encounter in using the tools they own.

    “We work under the assumption that there is never ‘the perfect tool’; that there is always room for improvement. As well,” Chamberlain adds,“we never undertake innovation for innovation’s sake.”

      Product development is a powerful driver of IRWIN’s niche. From concept to commercial launch, there exist several rigorous identification processes that utilize the intimate knowledge of the end user. Recent products that have demonstrated this penchant for innovation include the Strait-Line Laser Level, which uses lasers to create a visible line for leveling; a self adjusting pipe wrench, for one-handed operation; and Blue Blade Utility Knives, which feature quickly and easily changeable blades, blade storage inside the knife, and increased cutting capability via the first bi-metal,unbreakable blade that lasts three times longer than competitive brands.

      Explains Chamberlain, “For people who have been working with tools for a number of years, well-researched and well-executed improvements can dramatically change the work experience, which is a big deal.” He adds,“We know we have done something great when we hand a tool to a professional, they look at it and say, “I GET it, I know why they made this this way!”

       In addition to product innovation, IRWIN is backed solidly with the considerable resources made available by parent Newell Rubbermaid. Marketing and branding support are particularly notable and have included a significant investment in a new blue and yellow identity campaign, a portion of the $75 million TV ad campaign, very visible event campaigns, and most notably, a sponsorship of NASCAR’s number 97 car, driven by Kurt Busch of Rousch Racing.

      Busch has become increasingly visible on the racing circuit and Newell Rubbermaid made it possible for Irwin’s striking blue and yellow logo to ride along with him in several races. Says Chamberlain, Newell Rubbermaid has taken a significant amount from its coffers to invest in IRWIN and have equipped us to work with uncompromising execution. They have invested in us disproportionately relative to other brands.”

      Yet IRWIN has worked to earn that investment. The company has grown in double digits since its creation; a figure that Chamberlain says is unheard of in the industry. “We have also worked to build an infrastructure that will sustain this growth indefinitely. We have the processes, culture and talent that will keep us moving forward.”

 

Constructing A Legacy

     Chamberlain says that IRWIN’s innovations and marketing efforts would be impossible without the human resources that define its fast-paced and competitive climate. “When we moved to Charlotte, we were very discriminating when it came to hiring the right people. We weren’t looking to simply fill up a building. We challenged ourselves to put individuals in place that would last a decade.”

     He elaborates, “When we look to fill a position, we have three requirements: leadership capability, cultural fit and intellectual horsepower. Two out of three of these doesn’t cut it – they are all very vital to our culture.”

     Newell Rubbermaid’s mantra is “Raising the Bar,” a concept that motivates IRWIN employees. Says one employee, “If you aren’t the best at what you do, and aren’t giving it all you’ve got, the company doesn’t stop to wait. You’ve got to be driven and believe in what you do.”

     According to Chamberlain, IRWIN rewards initiative and strongly encourages empowerment at every level. “We firmly believe that every employee should be given the trust and capability to make the decisions necessary at their core competencies. We move at a very quick pace, and our people know that we believe in them and their talent.”

     Says Chamberlain, “The nature of innovation is improving on past mistakes. To make a mistake, there first has to be a decision. Since we are at the forefront of innovation, we have to make reliable decisions quickly, not wait around for ideas to make it to the executive level to be debated. This is why it is so essential for us to find the perfect fit for IRWIN and its employees.”

    He adds, “We have tried to remove administrative and political inhibitors for a more free-flowing style of communication. Of course, we have guardrails to keep the process in check, but this style facilitates the energy we need to stay at the top of our game.”

     Chamberlain says momentum is everything. “I would rather make one hundred decisions, seventy of which are good ones, than make ten decisions and have nine of them be correct. We aren’t afraid to risk a mistake, but don’t get me wrong – when we make a mistake, we only make it once.”

 

Building from the Ground Up

      According to Chamberlain, moving IRWIN from Chicago to Charlotte has been one of the good decisions. “After the benchmark acquisition of American Tool, and rebranding our products under the IRWIN name, we determined that Charlotte offered many positive attributes for our company. Everything from the business environment, to the climate, the ease of transportation, and the proximity to our major clients has been extremely beneficial. Plus, we are growing rapidly, and all these characteristics make Charlotte a very attractive place when we are looking to recruit new talent.”

      IRWIN is a few short minutes away from Lowe’s new corporate headquarters, has easy access to Wal-Mart headquarters in Arkansas, and is within driving distance of Home Depot’s headquarters in Atlanta. As of April, Newell Rubbermaid relocated its headquarters to Atlanta as well, making communication and processes more convenient and practical.

      Chamberlain says the move has worked well for him personally, “My career has taken me a number of places, but none of them has felt like home to my family like Charlotte does.”

     The company is working on extending its roots deeper into the community. In addition to making a strong local presence and getting to know Charlotte’s NASCAR® minions intimately via the number 97 car, it has also become the primary sponsor for the “Rebuilding Together” initiative which is a national, non-profit organization dedicated to home maintenance and remodeling projects for underprivileged families. IRWIN provides all tools, volunteers from within the company, and access to its vast network of professionals. These efforts make it possible for low income and elderly people to live more comfortably. In April, IRWIN and Rebuilding Together rebuilt 18 homes in the Belmont community in Charlotte.

      “We are excited to be involved with such a positive organization. The craftspeople and the homeowners we have come in contact with have been an exceptional group of people, and it has been a rewarding experience. We hope that it will offer us more opportunities to become a fixture in the Charlotte community,” says Chamberlain.

      In the meantime, IRWIN is focused on increasing its steadily growing visibility with local retailers and on local job sites, and fostering growth opportunities for its employees.“IRWIN, with its tremendously talented people, is well on its way to our ultimate goal: becoming the premier hand tool and power accessory company in

the world.”
Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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