A Simple Invention Sparked This Family Business and 100 Years of New Products

A Simple Invention Sparked This Family Business and 100 Years of New Products

By Justin Biel, trends editor at Grow Wire
7-minute read

In short:

  • Coast Products is a consumer products brand with a 100-year history of making lives easier and jobs safer. 

  • CEO David Brands follows his grandfather and father’s model of entering entirely new categories in order to grow the business.

  • Brands credits his company’s success to a constant focus on product development. His strong regard for legacy likely doesn’t hurt, either. 

 

Operating a company for over 100 years is no small feat. Family-run Coast Products has weathered two world wars, multiple family successions and countless industry changes during its century of business. 

David Brands is CEO of the Portland, Oregon-based company, which makes knives and personal lighting products for both everyday outdoorsmen and workers in sectors like oil rigging and law enforcement. His grandfather started the company in 1919 as a local operation, and now, its products are sold in over 25,000 outlets in every U.S. state, as well as in 34 other countries.

Since its inception, Coast Products’ inventory and job titles have changed drastically. However, success has been constant thanks to a focus on product innovation, Brands said. The brand’s mission of making lives easier and jobs safer remains a guiding principle and driver of growth. 

 

An old-school growth story

In 1915, Henry W. Brands (David’s grandfather) was a hardware salesman servicing the Pacific Northwest out of the back of his Ford Model T. While selling to fishing companies, he discovered that salmon canneries used filet knives designed for small lake fish. 

Henry recognized that the products he offered didn’t fully satisfy the fishermen’s needs. So he created a solution: a filet knife with a stiffer blade and a spoon built into the handle. With his tool, the workers who fileted the salmon could cut and clean it with the same tool, shortening the time required to clean the fish.

The modern Coast Products brand started with the invention of a salmon filet tool in 1919.

Henry developed the product with a local metalworker and sold it out of his car alongside his other goods. The tool was so successful that by 1919, Henry started to sell it full-time.  

The salmon-cutting tool was the foundation for Coast Cutlery Company, which Henry would pass down to his son Henry Jr., who’d then pass it to his son David under the name Coast Products. 

⭐️ The lesson: A close relationship with his customers allowed Henry to develop a better response to their needs. The strategy of finding a better way to solve a problem was effective a century ago, and it’s still the usual first step in founding a game-changing business today.


Weathering storms across three generations 

Henry founded his company on a much smaller scale than the one Coast Products operates on today. To get to this point, three generations of Brands men weathered many storms to keep the business above water. 

“Anytime you’re part of a hundred-year-old company, there are plenty of peaks and valleys,” said David. 

After gathering steam under Henry, the company stalled during World War I before facing the Great Depression. According to David, Coast Cutlery Company survived because it was small and nimble. 

Today, Coast Products makes knives, flashlights and other tools for workers and fans of the outdoors.


The company then enjoyed another phase of growth, adding more products to the collection. These included a knife specifically designed for loggers, another innovation that spurred substantial cash flow. 

World War II brought more challenges. Coast Cutlery Company was too small to gain any wartime contracts, and business started to dry up. Henry Jr., then a military officer in Washington, D.C, helped his father keep the business alive by buying scrap material from metal companies and sending it West.

Henry Jr. began working at the company around 1945 and subsequently turned it into a real business. He hired salespeople, added products and expanded the sales territory. He remained at the helm of the company until David joined in the early '80s.

David was working at an engineering firm when his father announced he was considering selling the business. It was performing well, but Henry Jr. was getting older and ready to let the it go. David, excited by the prospect of eventually being his own boss, joined on.

“In reality, there was no real planned succession,” said David. “I just decided to try it out, and six months later it was sink or swim."

David quickly realized the company was facing a significant hurdle: It had fallen behind on the mass retailer trend that was overtaking the consumer product industry.

He re-focused the company's distribution channels from small, mom-and-pop retailers towards the big-box stores that drive the majority of current business.

Coast Products sells its products at major retailers including Sam's Club.


⭐️ The lesson: To survive across multiple generations, a family business must be agile in its approach to strategy. World events, new technology and market changes can and will affect the course of every business over the long run. Build your business to be adaptable, and it too will weather the storms.


Learning the basics

David’s early days at Coast taught him fundamental lessons that he continues to lean on as CEO.

Shortly after joining, David met with a major customer who wanted to drop Cost Products’ line. He asked the customer how he could change in order to keep the account, then instituted the customer’s desired reforms over a few months. Ultimately, David was able to keep the account.

"Always listen to your customer," David said. "That's who pays the bills."

Confidence in decision-making and gut instinct have also served David and his family well over the years, he said. Developing new products and shifting your business model rarely come with mental clarity and comfort. 

But still, "When challenges occur, you need to have faith in your ability to make the right decision," he said.

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A legacy of product innovation

Finally, David credits the growth of his family’s company to the relationship between product and purpose, which started with his grandfather.

“We’ve never made products for products’ sake,” said David. “We always make products that make someone’s job easier and more enjoyable to do.”

Take for example Coast Products’ Polysteel 1000, an LED flashlight that is crushproof, drop-proof, waterproof and boasts a 351-meter beam length intended for the toughest working conditions. There’s also the TX395, a tactical knife designed for military and law enforcement that offers double-lock technology, a glass-breaker tip, a three-position knife clip and a thumb hole on the blade for one-handed opening. 

The Polysteel 1000 is designed for "rugged, high-impact environments."


In the broader knives category, Coast Products developed new locking mechanisms that made jobs safer and easier. It was also one of the first companies to enter the multi-purpose tool category and is one of a handful of brands that continue to dominate the multi-tool space today. 

⭐️ The lesson: Under David, product development has become a guiding principle that Coast Products relies on through good times and bad.

“What has taken us across the many peaks and valleys has always been a category improvement or product innovation,” he said. 

Find a similar guiding principle at your organization, one you can lean on through changing market climates. 


The LED revolution

Perhaps the most successful result of David’s search for innovation is the incorporation of LED lighting technology into Coast Products’ offerings. 

“It was more energy efficient, durable, and longer lasting,” said David of the time he first discovered LED. “I could see that LED technology was going to be a revolution.” 

Coast Products bet the farm on LED, dedicating many resources to develop the first LED flashlight in the U.S. The category has grown to comprise 65% of Coast Products’ total business. 

Coasts Products' LED flashlights and headlamps are a substantial part of its business.


⭐️ The lesson: The venture into LED lighting proved to David that investing in new technology creates a competitive edge. 

Being a new player in a category has additional advantages, he said.

"You're almost better off not being entrenched in the category," David said. "It's a rare moment in life where you have the opportunity to start everything new, rather than take an existing structure and shift it to new technology."


Power in patents

David also witnessed firsthand how product development has the potential to differentiate your company via patentable technologies. Coast Products has over 50 patents to its name. 

The team worked with optical designers to develop new lenses compatible with LED lights, then patented it and set a new standard for LED handheld lighting technology. Today, Coast Products in one of the largest portable lighting manufacturers in the world.  

The company’s patents also include a multi-tool called the Pocket Mechanic and a flashlight battery system that accommodates both rechargeable battery cartridges and alkaline batteries. 

Coast Products’ patents are used exclusively in its own products, thus serving as strong differentiators for the business. 


Keeping innovation constant

Coast Products uses a variety of techniques to stay ahead of the curve, even in industries where it is the market leader.  

The first requirement for any company looking to continuously innovate is a separate team focused on product development, said David. If it’s not possible to create one, he recommends setting aside mandatory time for employees to come together and work on generating new ideas. 

A funnel system helps manage the flow of new ideas, he added. Coast Products analyzes each idea to see how it aligns with its business model, distribution channels and customer base. 

The investment in R&D has been invaluable, according to David.

“I'm such a believer in innovation and development,” he said. “We devote an inordinate amount of resources to product development.”

The team at Coast Products prioritizes development of new products, like its high-beam flashlights.


🌱 The bottom line

Coast Products has enjoyed three generations of growth in the consumer products space by prioritizing product development and anticipating the needs of its customers.  

Whether your company is decades-old or just getting started, it’s almost guaranteed to benefit from pushing the limits of your category. This might look like investing in the latest technology, patenting your best product or another tactic entirely. As long as you chase innovation and respond to customer needs, results will likely follow.