On the Cutting Edge
Marianne Halpern says the company used to be called Custom Knife Supply because … well, that’s what it did — that’s all it did.
It supplied custom parts — blades, handles, hinges, and other components — to knife makers across the country, she said of the venture that she and her husband, Les, started out of their home in Monson, more as a money-making hobby than anything else.
When it became much more than that — the two eventually left their day jobs to pursue this full-time — and did much more than supply knife parts, a name change was certainly in order, Halpern told BusinessWest.
The search for something new and more accurate wasn’t exactly involved or scientific in nature, Halpern went on, adding that credit for what’s now in block letters on the business cards goes to the woman who handled that printing job.
“She asked what we did and what materials we worked with,” Halpern noted, adding that, when given a quick primer, the printer, desiring to make the principals’ name part of the equation, said, ‘how about Halpern Titanium?’
This question soon became the answer, said Halpern, because ‘Titanum,’ all by itself, says a quite a bit. “It has a definite ring to it.”
Indeed, this silver-colored, low-density, high-strength metal is practically synonymous with ‘cutting edge’ when it comes to its use in everything from artificial joints and dental implants to golf clubs; from eyeglass frames to Corvette engine parts.
Meanwhile, the metal itself is not exactly easy to fabricate into any of the above, Halpern went on, adding that, in many ways, this name connotes precision and expertise to those who read it.
Exactly how much the new name has helped the company is a matter of debate, but what isn’t is the fact that Halpern Titanium, now located in the Palmer Technology Center (the old Tambrands complex in Three Rivers) continues to grow and diversify itself into a major player within this industry.
The company, which also specializes in other materials, including carbon fiber, fiberglass, and stainless steel, now makes parts for a number of knife makers, many based in Oregon due to very liberal knife laws there (quite of the opposite of what are on the books in the Bay State), but manufacturers of other projects as well. And within the past 18 months or so, it has taken its expertise to a new and different label by introducing its own brand of knives, produced by a subsidiary named Three Rivers Manufacturing (TRM).
That venture has already produced several models, including the Nomad, the Class Action, the BT 1000, and the Thunderbird, which earned an enthusiast review from a trade publication called Knife News.
“Designed by company founder Les Halpern, the Thunderbird’s distinctive geometry injects some new life into familiar tactical knife attributes like a wharncliffe blade, titanium framelock, and sculpted pocket clip,” the magazine wrote. “The narrowing frame is embellished with deep milled-out grooves to create a look that harkens back to the tail fins found on the classic 1950s American-made automobiles.”
TRM, currently selling direct to consumers from its website, hopes to roll out several new models in the years to come, said Halpern, adding quickly that the parent company’s main purpose in life is to help a host of major knife makers earn similar platitudes for their products.
For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at a company with a sharp — as in sharp — focus on controlled growth and further expansion of each of the many components within the business plan.
Cutting to the Chase
The printer who handled the Halperns’ business cards had more to do than help come up with a new name. Her eventual assignment was to pack a ton of information on that small space, while putting it all in something approximating titanium’s color on a black background.
In short, there’s a lot to read there.
Beyond the typical name, address, phone, and e-mail, the card provides a quick education into the services provided and materials used — at least to those versed in this field and the language associated with it.
Indeed, there are phrases like ‘dynamic waterjet cutting’ and ‘swiss turning,’ and listed materials including ‘titanium sheet bar and plate’ and the related ‘6AL/4V, CP Grades 1-4’ (an alloy of that metal), as well G-10 (fiberglass) and carbon fiber sheet. One could also note that free quotes are available and that this is a certified women-owned business.
Like we said, there’s a lot to read. And it all translates into the fact that this company has come a long way from the Halperns’ basement in Monson.
That’s where things started almost 20 years ago, said Marianne, noting that she was a teacher at Tantasqua Regional Senior High School and Les was a designer in the adaptive equipment department at the Monson Developmental Center when they started to fashion parts for knife makers on the side — and got really good at it.
So good, as noted, that they started thinking about this as a career move.
“I took a leave of absence from my job in 2000, and never went back — and I never looked back, either,” she told BusinessWest. “Les retired, and he never looked back.”
Instead, they’ve been looking both outward and inward with an eye on finding new ways to do what the company has essentially done from the very beginning — serve as a solution finder for many of the nation’s most prominent knife makers.
“Companies come to us with a specific need they need to address,” she said, adding that solutions include everything from parts to whole-knife manufacturing and assembly (although not much of that) to assistance with designing new products for the market.
When asked to list some of these customers for which solutions are provided, Halpern said those names are among the many things are kept confidential within this large, tight, and highly competitive business.
To effectively convey what the company does, Halpern had to repeatedly stop in mid-sentence, get up from her chair, and find a knife with which she could show the company’s contribution rather than explain it.
She picked up an elaborate multi-tool product assembled by one of those companies she couldn’t name to explain how it makes one small carbon-fiber piece that holds the tool bit in place. She picked up another knife to show off one of the many types of handles (a good number of them produced from G-10), and on it went.
“For many customers, we’ll make one part, like the handle, and they’ll make the rest,” she explained. “We’re a team with that company, and we have many, many relationships like that. They don’t have to worry about that part of the knife.”
Getting to the Point
There are many visible signs of growth at Halpern Titanium, starting with its facility in Palmer.
The company started with roughly 3,000 square feet, a few machines, and the Halperns handling almost all the assigned duties. The footprint has expanded to 20,000 square feet, there are now 12 employees and 25 machines, and the Halperns, while they still work long hours, don’t have to do it all.
A growing client list is another measure of success, she said, adding that the company has staked out a position as one of the clear leaders in this field.
“There’s not a lot of competition out there — it’s not easy to do what we do,” she said, noting, again, the difficulty of working with titanium, G-10, and other materials.
The new subsidiary, TRM, is still another sign of growth and progress, she said, adding that she and Les decided roughly 18 months ago to take their acquired expertise and put the company’s name on its work instead of someone else’s.
“We had been making private-label knives for other companies for 18 years, and we often thought that it would be a good idea to do some of our own,” she explained. “And we recognized that making something for someone else that they sell is very different from making something yourself that you have to market, but we wanted to give it a try.”
Working in tandem with some noted custom knife designers, TRM brought a few products to the marketplace last year, she went on, including the Nomad, complete with an array of handle colors, such as ‘blaze orange,’ ‘cranberry,’ ‘forest green,’ and ‘battleship gray.’ The Thunderbird will be available online shortly.
Results thus far have been generally positive, said Halpern, and the company is learning the new elements of business associated with this venture, especially the marketing side of the equation and its various social-media platforms.
“It’s a whole different experience trying to market a product,” she explained. “I’m very active on social media — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram … and I’m gradually building a following for our company.”
She and others will attempt to expand this following in June at the Blade Show in Atlanta, billed as the largest knife show in the country, sponsored by Blade magazine. Attendees will include custom knife makers, manufacturing operations, collectors, and many more constituencies.
This means those representing both TRM and Halpern Titanium can multi-task, which is essentially what those at this corporation are now doing on a daily basis.
Indeed, Halpern noted, with the many different kinds of operations, including production of its own brands, now taking place, the company must conduct what she called a “balancing act” to ensure that each has the ability to thrive and grow.
“On the private label, we want to continue with those companies that want to add new products and grow with them,” she explained. “Meanwhile, we’re adding new customers selectively, making sure it’s a good fit, and we want to continue with our own models, introducing maybe a few new ones each year. Let’s see where that all takes us.
“It’s definitely a balancing act; we keep evolving as we need to,” she went on. “You can’t just stand still — in any kind of business, but especially this one. You have to be ready to add things to your repertoire.”
Getting a Handle
Things like the Thunderbird, with its narrowing frame and deep milled-out grooves, and the Nomad, with its blaze-orange, cranberry, and battleship-gray handles.
This company that was started in a basement continues to build upon its repertoire and its track record of excellence within the knife industry.
As the name suggested by that printer a while back suggests, this company is on the cutting edge — in just about every aspect of that phrase.
George O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com