World-class maker of hand tools maintains success by sticking to what it does best
By Lynn Ascrizzi
As any skilled handcrafter knows — you’re as good as your tools. After all, there’s nothing better than working with, say, a precisely sharp skiving knife whose well-formed handle doesn’t argue with the palm of your hand.
So, it follows, that any enterprise making top-of-the-line hand tools since the horse-drawn carriage days, deserves our admiration. But, if that company has also been owned and operated by the same family for eight generations, it is truly legendary.
This is the history of C.S. Osborne & Co., founded in 1826, in Newark, New Jersey. In 1906, the company moved across the Passaic River to nearby Harrison and has been based in that town ever since.
Company president Jake Angell, 46,has been heading up the long-lived, tool-making business for 15 years.“I’m an Osborne,” he said, alineage that stems from his mother, LeaOsborne Angell. “My father, Jack Angell, never worked in the business, but my mother’s brother — my uncle, Ralph Osborne III — was president before me. My grandfather was Ralph Osborne Jr. He was a fascinating guy. He was blind from macular degeneration from age 30, but he ran the business. My great-grandfather was Ralph Osborne Sr.”
“We’re almost 200 years old,” he added. “There are not a lot of U.S. companies that are privately owned and being run by the same family. We have a wonderful story and community. It’s quite a precedent.”
Indeed, the tool company that bears the name of its early-19th-century founder — Charles Samuel Osborne — has defied the odds. Roughly, only 100 U.S. businesses have remained owned and operated by the same family since 1865, and only a handful date back to the early 17th century, according to an online article, America’s Oldest Family Companies.
In fact, the average length of time a family controls its core business is 60.2 years, the article stated. And, less than 30 percent of family businesses are owned and operated by the same family into the second generation.
“The joke about family businesses is that the first generation are hard workers; the second generation grows the business; the third generation gets everything handed to them,” Angell said, implying that the third generation often fails to respect the hard work involved in running a company.
He grew up in Mendham, New Jersey, a township west of Harrison.While in high school, he worked at the tool company under the aegis of his Uncle Ralph. “I worked in the shipping room, and on occasion, accompanied my uncle on international sales trips,” he said.
In 1994, he graduated from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and spent four years working in New York politics and government. He received an MBA degree at Fordham University in New York City. Then, for four years, he was employed by JPMorgan Chase & Co., also based in that city, where he worked in different management divisions of the bank.
But, in 2004, he returned to work in the family business. His uncle formally retired in 2010. That gave Angell time to make the transition from one generation to the next. His uncle, who never married or had children, decided to give him the company keys. “I own the company. My uncle owns a minority share and is on the board,” he said.
He thought it was important to develop skills and experience, so when he came to C.S. Osborne, he had something to contribute. In fact, he and his uncle had, for a number of years, openly talked about his future role with the company. “It was in the back of our minds. We planned to have a few years of overlap, to do the transition. The stars aligned when I had eight years of outside experience under my belt.”
Taking up the mantle of ownership turned out to be a fortuitous decision. “I was excited about the opportunity. I loved the unique story of the company and the family heritage. And, that we are actually producing a physical product.It’s nice to come to work each day. I’m very proud and honored to work here.”
Angell quickly learned that having a long view of history can help a business get through the rough spots. “When the Great Recession hit in 2008, my Uncle Ralph was the first to remind me that C.S. Osborne had lived through the Civil War, the Great Depression and two World Wars,” he recalled.
Angell and his wife,Katie, have three children, one boy and two girls between the ages of 8 and 14.“They love to come in to the factory and help out with things like filing papers and opening mail,” he said.
STICKING TO WHAT THEY DO
Today, C.S. Osborne manufacturers about 4,500 different kinds of high-quality, U.S.-made hand tools geared for the leather and upholstery trades and for general industrial work.
“We’re best known for our leather tools,” Angell said, of the company’s prolific, highly-diverse line,which includes edgers, splicers, punches, knives, hammers, mauls, scrapers, nippers, pincers, awls, cutters and skivers,handy itemsused to create equine tack and saddles or other leather goods, such as handbags, totes, boots, belts, wallets, hats and clothing.
Besides the Harrison facility, the business also owns two satellite manufacturing plants — one in St. Louis, Missouri, and the other inChicopee, Massachusetts.Altogether, 100 employees operate out of the three locations, but most work out of the Harrison plant.“The St. Louis facility makes a lot of tools and punches. Chicopee makes products for the upholstery business. Each facility is about 20,000 square feet,” Angell said.
He believes the company’s longevity comes from keeping a strong focus on manufacturing and maintaining a tradition of quality that is the hallmark of their brand.
“It would be easy for us to get into being a distributor of leathers, oils and conditioners. But we recognize who we are. It could take our attention and resources off our manufacturing. It could hurt us. We chose to stick to what we do,” he said.
By doing all the manufacturing themselves, the company gets to control all the aspects of their products, from forging the raw steel to hand sharpening the final cutting edge. “To be a toolmaker like us, we have to have our own forging operation. We forge in our Harrison location. Other companies are using subcontractors and outsourcing. This can work well in the short term, but in the long term, you’re giving up some control,” he said.
“Some of our tools are being done the same way they’ve always been done,” he continued. “But we also keep up with technology. Some tools are being manufactured on CNC (computer numeric control) machines, large, expensive metal cutters. It improves the quality and takes out any inconsistencies, from one tool to the next. There are tight tolerances in cutting metal.”
Edge tools, however, are a different story. “You can’t do them on a CNC, but our dividers, you can,” he said, of the caliper-like tools. “We haven’t changed anything, basically. We adhere to the same quality standard.”
IT’S WHAT’S INSIDE THAT COUNTS
The hand-tool company’s focused approach includes building their manufacturing capabilities, and when appropriate, buying small companies that have a complimentary product line, like a similar manufacturer or customer base, Angell said.
A case in point is C.S. Osborne’s recent purchase of Massasoit/Tackband Inc., a Massachusetts’s manufacturer of tackstrips and other upholstery hardware used to attach fabric, such as leather or vinyl, to furniture frames. The business fits in with the tool company’s growing line of upholstery tools, he explained.
C.S. Osborne’s growing upholstery-tool segment and its leather and industrial tools are what he termed, “mature industries. With all three manufacturing segments, we see single-digit growth, year after year. The upholstery line began when the company adapted its existing, leather-working tools to upholstery tools for horse-drawn carriages, which later morphed into auto upholstery, a tool sector that lends itself to home furnishings.”
A crucial part of maintaining that standard is the use of quality materials, like the high grade of U.S. steel used in the tool-making process, he pointed out. “A lot has to do with the carbon content, which corresponds to the strength of the steel. If you’re working on edging tools that have a fine edge or blade, you want them to take a nice edge. If you’re using a poor grade of steel, that sharp edge will wear out faster and need continual re-sharpening.
“Raw materials are so critical,” he added. “For example, a cheap handle will split and crack. It pays to use better wood handles — rock maple, hickory and birch — from reliable suppliers. We source some handles from England and Germany, and some from Maine and Tennessee. Some handles we bring in finished; some we lathe ourselves.”
New tools are introduced regularly. “For leather tools, we went back through our catalogs, which represent a repository of old leather-crafting tools and we reintroduced several leather-splitting machines — a bench-mounted blade. If you have very thick leather, you use a process called skiving, to get the required thickness,” he explained.
THE SALES FRONT
Dominic Amador, vice president of sales, has worked for C.S. Osborne for three generations. He started in 1976, when Jake Angell’s grandfather, Ralph Osborne, Jr., was at the helm.
Amador epitomizes the value of experienced employees who have a long working memory. “I started out in the shipping room. Because I knew all the tools, they brought me up to the office to sell. A lot of times history gets lost, so it’s good to know what happened in the past, to make better decisions.”
He shared a few more details about the products he represents:
“Apart from a few tools, like our pneumatic nail gun, most of the products we sell are hand tools,” Amador said. “Ninety percent of all tools we make are made in the Harrison factory.”
Keeping up with the demand of making thousands of different kinds of hands tools is a challenge. “It’s not an easy task,” he admitted, “but considering the amount of items we have, our shortage list is a very small percentage.”
Like Angell, he does a lot of traveling, making about five to ten trips a year, in the U.S. and abroad.
“In the last 20 years, I’ve traveled throughout Central and South America. About 20 percent of our sales are international, an area that is growing. We have been in Europe since around the early 1970s.We have three distribution centers in Europe — one in the UK, one in Germany and one in the Iberian Peninsula. We also sell in Australia and South Africa, a market that is realizing single-digit growth annually,” he said.
Which tools are their fastest movers?
“Our revolving punches, round and head knives and our edge tools are the most popular. And, we do well, of course, with our awls. These are our bestsellers,”Amador said.
HEADWINDS AND TAILWINDS
The U.S. economic climate has been rather strong for the past nine years, as of this writing. But a boom economy can be a double-edged sword, Angell said.
“By and large, the strong economy has helped us. It’s nice to be filling orders, serving customers and growing a little bit. But, it makes it difficult to attract and retain employees. And, steel prices have jumped at least 75 percent. The steel producers in foreign companies are cut out of the U.S. market.
“Since we source all our steel in the U.S., we see our raw materials costing us more. There are headwinds and tailwinds. Hand tool manufacturing is not like Apple iPhones. Everything here is slow and steady. We’re very happy. We will take slow and steady, any day.”
He pointed to companies outsourcing manufacturing to Asia. “All of a sudden, they’re potentially facing a 25 percent tariff,” he said, this past November. “It costs more to bring items into the U.S. But, we have seen more interest in our tools from customers, here, who may be sourcing abroad.”
The looming tariffs threaten to deeply affect the cost of goods imported from China. “It’s already at 10 percent. We can’t compete with China on price. But, our quality is better. Historically, quality has always won out for C.S. Osborne, and I presume it will go that way, for the future.
“If these tariffs kick in, maybe people should take a second look at our company, or other domestic manufacturers who will have shorter lead times and permit smaller orders. Buying domestically is convenient, too. Accessible customer service and no foreign currency exchange are good reasons to patronize domestic companies.”
Angell also has reason to believe that more leather craftspeople-entrepreneurs are tapping into a growing, handcrafting ethos to attract customers locally and worldwide.
“For the last 10 years, the DIY (do-it-yourself) people are more pervasive. They want to express themselves and sell, on Etsy and Amazon, the products they are passionate about. I see my role as a custodian, to keep the company in as good a shape as it already is, or to make it even better for the next generation,” he said.
ON CATALOGS, RETURNS AND TOOL REFURBISHING
C.S. Osborne & Co., of Harrison, New Jersey, offers three separate catalogs, published in-house for each hand-tool category — leather, upholstery and industrial.Catalogs come out about every five years, on average, when new items have been introduced.
People can call or email the company for catalog requests. Their product line is also posted on their website www.csosborne.com.
“We handle online sales. But, we have high regard for, and still believe in, selling through our distributors,” said Dominic Amador, vice president of sales. “We don’t promote selling online. But if someone calls to order directly from the online catalog, we try to find them a local distributor. If we don’t have a distributor near them, we take the order through our website.
“We also realize that there are less and less distributors. It’s a tough business. We do see growth over the Internet, which for the past three years has been significant. We don’t want to compete with our distributors. We would prefer to do 100 percent of sales through them. We set up the online sales as a customer service function, to serve single individuals,” Amador said.
“We virtually make everything in the catalog,” added company president, Jake Angell. “But some small items, like shears and thread, are made by other factories. We also sell snaps, but we don’t make them. We were making and selling so many tools for setting snaps that we thought we might as well offer snaps, and make sure our dies and tools conformed to them. Also, we have a joint venture with a factory in Germany where we access needles and awls.”
All C.S. Osborne products are guaranteed, he noted. “We replace items free of charge if they are unsatisfactory. We don’t get a lot of returns. We will get tools back, but they’re often from people asking us to refurbish them, which we do on a case by case basis.”
He shared the following anecdote, which testifies to how their company’s tools can last beyond a lifetime:
“We received a tool from a customer who wanted it refurbished. It was stamped C.S. Osborne, Newark, New Jersey, which was amazing because we had moved out of Newark in 1901. It was his great grandfather’s rotary punch. We were happy to refurbish it — a tool over 100 years old!”
“That happens more frequently than you would think. We have inquiries on a monthly basis about old tools stamped Newark. This iswhy we make quality products.”
But wait! If a company manufactures long-lasting tools, won’t that cut into its new tool market? “We sell enough new ones to take back and refurbish the old ones,” Angell replied.
FOR MORE INFO
C.S. Osborne & Co.
125 Jersey Street
Harrison, N.J. 07029 – USA
Fax: (973) 484-3621
Jake Angell, president
Dominic Amador, vice president sales