A short time after Brian Sponsler joined the ranks of Emerson Tool Company as the vice president of sales and marketing, the company’s primary client, Sears, decided that it didn’t want to renew its contract for benchtop and stationary tools with his new employer. So, all of a sudden, Emerson went from its status as “captive” supplier to the huge department store chain to its new status as a free agent in the world of tool manufacturing. This, says Brian, “certainly created a sense of urgency on our behalf.”
That bit of news might have sent your average tool guy running for the safety of his shop, but Brian isn’t your average tool guy. He is a second generation tool maker who cut his eyeteeth on the tool business. So this was the kind of challenge that got him fired up. “Bringing a product from scratch to success in the marketplace was always what I found most fascinating and interesting and ultimately fulfilling.”
When Brian graduated from college in 1982, his father was right in the middle of buying a tool company called Millers Falls Tool Company. A 27-year veteran of Ingersoll-Rand, Brian’s father was leveraging a buy-out of Millers Falls because his employer had decided to divest it. So Brian became immersed in the tool business right out of college and worked his way from the warehouse to purchasing and finally into sales.
He took that seat-of-his-pants education to Ryobi in 1986. As a territory salesman, he eventually moved into marketing, was promoted to director of marketing and finally into strategic planning. He then moved over to Emerson Electric Co., the company that owns Ridgid, to help it expand its markets.
Starting from Scratch, Again
Helping his father build Millers Falls Tool Company practically from the ground up prepared Brian well for his career at Emerson. After he was hired and Sears pulled out of the relationship, he faced the prospect of developing the Ridgid brand of woodworking products, building a new product development operation from scratch, and finding a whole new distribution channel for his company’s tools.
His brand development program resulted in a deal with Home Depot, and that put Ridgid tools in the hands of woodworkers and DIYers all over the nation. In 1998, the company launched the all new line of Ridgid bench and stationary power tools, wet/dry vacs and air filtration products and accessories. The last two years, Brian says, “have been highly successful. We’ve covered a lot of ground, and we’ve got a lot more to cover.”
Hands-on Customer Research
Listening to and, more important, watching customers has been key to Brian’s understanding of which tools will grab woodworker’s attention. “Particularly in the development of tools,” he says, “it’s not so much what [customers] say they want in a tool, it’s how they use it. What are they doing now to get around the devices that are on the tool or what are they doing now to compensate for what they really need in the product?”
“In the old days, it might have been okay to develop stuff and then shove it into the marketplace and hope people would buy it,” Brian says. “Today, competition is so fierce and the cost of failure is so great, you can’t afford to miss.” And, he says, the tool industry is going to be even more competitive in the future.
With our recent reporting of Tool Crib of the North being acquired by Amazon.com and the JET Tools buyout of Powermatic, we wondered whether the industry shakeup would continue into the future. “I think we’re going to see the strong get stronger. There will be some continued consolidation as everybody looks to expand market share. The ability to constantly develop the as-yet-unthought-of, innovative, groundbreaking new product that fits within an existing category is somewhat limited,” says Brian, so the mergers and acquisitions are a way for existing companies to expand their markets.
As part of this shakeup, his parent company, Emerson, recently sold it’s share of Vermont America to Bosch, giving Bosch full ownership of the tool maker. Vermont America was a key supplier to Ridgid, says Brian, but the relationship has only changed for the better since the sale. “We don’t anticipate any change in that relationship. In fact, this may even help to foster it,” he says.